Some urge U.S. to pursue bigger nuclear deal with Iran

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With Iran nuclear talks on hold until after the August inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, some U.S. national security experts are urging the Obama administration to pivot from trying to get a small nuclear deal with Iran, to going for a more comprehensive deal.

“Going ‘Big for Big’ now potentially gives Rouhani something substantial to use to claim he got the P5+1 to recognize Iran's ‘rights,’ something his predecessors didn't get, and thus perhaps help him build an elite consensus around a nuclear deal,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Thursday.

“We should move now to presenting an endgame proposal,” former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross wrote in the New York Times this week (June 25).  “One that focuses on the outcome that we, the United States, can accept on the nuclear issue.”

Negotiations over the past year between six world powers and Iran have focused on trying to get Iran to curb its 20% uranium enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. (See the most recent P5+1 offer to Iran here.)

But Iran, at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in April, has said that it wants assurances that it will receive recognition of its right to enrich and the lifting of major US and European banking sanctions in exchange for stopping its 20% enrichment work and continuing to convert its 20% stockpile for medical use.

Rouhani, speaking at his first press conference following his win in Iran's June 14th presidential polls, said that Iran would not agree to suspend its lower level 3.5% uranium enrichment, as it did when he led negotiations with three European powers from 2003-2005. But he did not rule out a halt to Iran’s 20% enrichment, and signaled that Iran may be willing to offer greater transparency of its nuclear program to assure the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it wasn’t diverting material for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for having its “rights” recognized.

While one U.S. official indicated the argument for pivoting to a comprehensive proposal was getting a new hearing in the Obama administration, U.S. officials wouldn't comment if they thought that position would prevail.

“The P5+1 is consulting on what the next steps should be in this process,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Staff, told Al-Monitor Thursday.  “I would note, however, that Iranian officials have indicated they will not be ready to resume talks until the new President is sworn in in early August.”

Some US partners in the so-called P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—however, have expressed wariness at the idea of putting forward any kind of end-game ultimatum to Iran. “After a ‘last chance’ offer, [then] what?” one western official, speaking not for attribution, said earlier this month. Continue reading

Iran FM says new nuclear talks Feb. 25

Iran’s Foreign Minister said Sunday that nuclear talks with six world powers will resume in Kazakhstan on February 25th. Western diplomats welcomed the remarks, but said they were still waiting for official confirmation from Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

Ali Akbar Salehi, addressing the Munich Security Conference, said he’d heard the “good news” that agreement on the new P5+1 meeting date and location had been reached the day before.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they hoped Salehi’s encouraging comments are soon officially confirmed by her formal counterpart on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Dr. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

“Our latest proposal had indeed been Kazakhstan in the week of February 25 after other proposals had not worked,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said by email Sunday. “So it is good to hear that the Foreign Minister finally confirmed now. We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

“We aren’t fully there yet,” another western official cautioned Sunday, saying negotiators hope to lock in confirmation over the next day.

Iran’s foreign ministry does not take the lead in Iran nuclear negotiations, and Salehi has often presented a more conciliatory Iranian stance on the international stage.

Salehi also offered mild support for US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments asserting US willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but was not committal about whether Iran would take up the offer.

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Diplomats press Iran to stop stalling on nuclear talks

After weeks of Iranian foot-dragging, western negotiators are pressing Iran to commit to a firm date for resumed nuclear talks.

“We have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton responded to a question from the Back Channel Wednesday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was cited in media reports Wednesday proposing Cairo host the next round of talks with the P5+1.

But western diplomats say such reports are “total spin,” and that in fact, Iran has not yet agreed to a new meeting, in Cairo or anywhere else.

“Several venues have been proposed. We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time,” a European official said. “Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions.”

Russia on Wednesday pointedly pressed Iran to stop giving nuclear negotiators the run-around.

“We think that our Iranian colleagues could be doing this a little faster,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, the AFP reported. Continue reading

Good cop, bad cop: Iran nuclear chief defiant on key demand

Iran’s hardline nuclear chief vowed Tuesday that Iran would continue to produce 20% enriched uranium as long as it needs, in defiance of a key international demand in negotiations expected to resume in the coming weeks.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment because of the demands of others,” Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI), was cited Tuesday by Iranian news agencies, Reuters reported.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will produce 20 percent enriched uranium to meet its needs and for however long it is required,” he said.

Iran has said it needs to domestically enrich the 20% fuel to provide isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients.

Abbasi’s comments came a day after Iran’s foreign minister struck a conciliatory tone, expressing optimism about prospects for progress at upcoming nuclear talks. “Both sides … have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said Monday (Dec 17). “Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more.”

Diplomats are still uncertain when a new round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will be held, though the working assumption is that it will come together next month. A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Tuesday they had still not heard back from Iran on dates they had proposed last week.

“We did make an offer with regard to venue and timing for another round, but we have yet to hear from the Iranians on this,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at a press conference Monday. “So really, the ball is in the Iranians’ court.”

Amid the uncertainty on the P5+1 track,  Iran expressed interest in moving forward with talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A senior IAEA team visited Iran this month, pronouncing it a useful visit, and is due to return January 16th. Continue reading

Iran FM: Iran, world powers seek ‘exit’ from nuclear stalemate

Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Monday he is optimistic about upcoming Iran nuclear talks and that both sides seek to move past the current diplomatic impasse.

“Both sides”—Iran and the P5+1—“have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said in an interview published Monday (Dec 17) by the Iran Student News Agency (ISNA), first reported in English by Reuters.

“Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more,” Salehi continued. “They know very well Iran will not give up its legitimate right.”

Iran’s top diplomat said he didn’t know when the next round of talks will be held.

A spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Monday they had no new word from Iran on when they would meet.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid spoke with her Iranian counterpart Dr. Ali Bagheri last week (Dec 12) to propose possible meeting dates as early as this week. But diplomats said they expected a meeting is more likely to materialize in January.

Salehi told ISNA he could not comment on the P5+1 package Iran had received.

Western diplomats have indicated that the proposal has been updated from the “stop, ship and shut” package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, but have provided no details on the changes.

“The package has the same bone structure, but with some slightly different tattoos,” a senior US official was cited by the Washington Post Friday.

“Our assessment is that it is possible that they are ready to make a deal,” the official said. Continue reading

Iran FM Salehi: Iran nuclear bomb would decrease Iran’s security

New York_ Iran’s foreign minister said Monday that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would threaten Iran’s security and be destabilizing for the region.

Ali Akbar Salehi, the MIT-educated PhD engineer who previously served as Iran’s longtime envoy to the UN atomic watchdog agency, said that Iran acquiring one or two nuclear bombs would dramatically increase the threats Iran faces, and not be a deterrent to nuclear powers with far larger nuclear stockpiles.

“Had Iran chosen to [go] nuclear in the sense of weaponization, it would not be a deterrent for Iran,” Salehi, speaking in English, told foreign policy experts at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York Monday. “It would attract more threats from the other side.”

“Because suppose we wanted to go nuclear and manufacture one or two bombs,” Salehi continued. “Who on the other side of Iran …can we ever be in equal footing with in this regard? Any country that challenges us with nuclear weapons …who would we use against?”

(In an interview with Al-Monitor in August, Salehi said he envisioned a ‘win-win’ way out of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.)

Salehi, with his many years in the United States and Vienna, cut a stylistically more erudite, polished figure than Iran’s outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who returned home to criticism over the dramatic plunge in the value of the Iranian currency the rial by almost 40% this week. But on core positions his message was not fundamentally different from that offered by the controversy-courting Ahmadinejad, who has spoken for the past few years about Iran’s willingness to strike a reasonable compromise on its nuclear program, but alienated many in the West by his questioning of the Holocaust and antagonistic comments about Israel, which Ahmadinejad refers to as “the Zionist” entity.

By contrast, Salehi referred to “Israel” by name in his remarks. But he referred to it to criticize Israel for its recent threats of military action against Iran’s nuclear program, and the double standards by which he says it does so while possessing some 200 nuclear weapons and not being a party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to which Iran is a signatory.

On Syria, Salehi said that Iran has been meeting with the Syrian opposition for over a year, and supports UN and regional initiatives to try to broker mediation talks between the Syrian government and the opposition.

“We have been in contact with the Syrian opposition for over a year,” Salehi said. “We have declared and announced that we are ready to host the opposition and government in Iran, to sit down with each other and find a solution.”

(Salehi did not specify which Syrian opposition groups Iran has met with. But Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, in an interview with Al-Monitor Saturday, said that Iran had been holding talks with members of the Syrian National Council and the Muslim Brotherhood.)

Salehi said that he has held meetings in New York in recent days with new United Nations/Arab League Syria envoy Lahhdar Brahimi and the Arab League chief, as well as with the UN’s longtime Lebanon envoy Terje Rød-Larsen.

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Diplomats confer ahead of Ashton-Jalili call

Diplomats from the 5+1 conferred Tuesday ahead of an expected conversation next week between the top international and Iran negotiators, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Political directors from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China held a conference call Tuesday with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, to determine exactly what she should say when she speaks with Iran’s Saeed Jalili. An exact date for the Ashton-Jalili call has not been finalized. US negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is in Washington this week, the State Department said, after traveling earlier this month to China, Russia and London for consultations with her P5+1 counterparts on Iran and Syria.

Iran’s hosting of the non-aligned movement summit in Tehran this week has consumed its diplomatic attention for the moment and pushed back the Ashton-Jalili conversation a few days. The extra time is just as well given the P5+1 Iran diplomacy having to contend with the potential wrench thrown into the negotiating calendar presented by recent Israeli saber-rattling on Iran. House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Tuesday he thinks any Israel strike on Iran will come after the US presidential election, November 6.  Israeli official sources have offered the same suggestion to Al-Monitor in interviews this month. Israeli officials indicated that a decision has not yet been taken. Continue reading