Iran, P5+1 to resume talks Dec. 30; Khamenei aide endorses direct talks

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Experts from Iran and six world powers will resume talks in Geneva next week, December 30th, on implementing the interim Iran nuclear deal signed last month, western and Iranian diplomats said Friday, as a top advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei strongly endorsed one-on-one nuclear talks with the United States and members of the P5+1.

The resumed talks in Geneva Monday on implementing the Joint Plan of Action are currently expected to last for one day, and will involve nuclear and sanctions experts, not political directors, a spokeswoman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor.

The main issue to be resolved concerns different interpretations of certain aspects of the Joint Plan of Action, an official involved in the negotiations, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday. If there is a need, a higher level meeting involving political directors might be a possibility at a later date, he said.

Implementation of the JPA, signed by the foreign ministers of Iran and six world powers in Geneva November 24th, is now envisioned to start in the second half of January, Reuters reported.

The announcement of resumed implementation talks comes as Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, strongly backed the nuclear diplomacy and said Iran should pursue direct, one-on-one talks with each member of the P5+1.

“We aren’t on the right path if we don’t have one-on-one talks with the six countries,” Velayati said on Iranian television Friday, the Associated Press reported. “We have to talks with the countries separately. … It would be wrong if we bring the countries into unity against us, since there are rifts among them over various international issues.”

(Photo: Ali Akbar Velayati, top foreign policy advisor to Iran Supreme Leader Khamenei, wakling in the garden of his office August 18, 2013, by Ebrahim Noroozi, AP.)

Obama corresponds with Iran’s Rouhani, holds out hope for nuclear deal

President Obama, speaking to ABC in an interview taped Friday and broadcast Sunday, confirmed that he and Iran’s new President Hassan Rouhani have exchanged letters, and said he holds out hope that the US and Iran can reach a nuclear deal. But he said that negotiating with Iran would not be easy, and stressed that Iran should not doubt his resolve to prevent it getting nuclear weapons, despite the US agreeing to a last-minute Russian bid to remove Syria’s chemical weapons to avoid possible U.S.-led air strikes.

“I have. And he’s reached out to me,” Obama said, when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos if he’d reached out to the new Iranian president.

“I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue,” Obama said, citing the risks to US “core interests” that a nuclear armed Iran would pose to Israel, and of a nuclear arms race in the region.

“My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran,” Obama said. “On the other hand, what…they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.”

“Negotiations with the Iranians is always difficult,” Obama said. “I think this new president is not gonna suddenly make it easy. But you know, my view is that if you have both a credible threat of force, combined with a rigorous diplomatic effort, that, in fact you can you can strike a deal… and I hold out that hope.”

Obama–interviewed a day ahead of the announcement that the U.S. and Russia had reached a deal on removing Syria’s chemical weapons—also said that he would welcome efforts by Russia and even Iran to help end the civil war in Syria, despite considerable disagreements over the conflict and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“I think that if in fact not only Russia gets involved, but if potentially Iran gets involved as well in recognizing that what’s happening there is a train wreck that hurts not just Syrians but [is] destabilizing the entire region…we can do something [about] it,” he said.

The president’s confirmation of the correspondence with Rouhani comes as a former member of Rouhani’s nuclear negotiating team wrote that Iran’s Supreme Leader has given permission for US-Iran direct talks.

“Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued permission for President Hassan Rouhani’s new administration to enter into direct talks with the U.S.,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian wrote in an oped published by Japan Times Friday (Sept. 13). “No better opportunity to end decades of bilateral hostility is likely to come along. ”

Asked by Al-Monitor Sunday if Khamenei has given permission for direct talks on the nuclear issue or Syria, Mousavian replied: “both.”

Former State Department Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney described the letter exchange as part of a broader series of recent signs of a still fragile but potentially unprecedented shift in the Islamic Republic.

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US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks

The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

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Leaked US cables show Iran hardliners sending feelers to United States


In 2007, an Iranian doctor who claimed to treat members of the Supreme Leader’s family met with a U.S. diplomat in Dubai and suggested the US government help fund the prospective presidential candidacy of a top aide to Supreme Leader Khamenei, according to a US diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks.

The US diplomat dismissed the proposal, which she described in the cable as bewildering, and in the end, Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran’s former foreign minister and the long-time foreign affairs advisor to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, did not run in Iran’s contentious 2009 presidential race, though he is expected to run in Iran’s June polls this year.

But the cable offers an intriguing glimpse into how some in Iran’s stridently anti-US hardline political camps privately demonstrate more complex dealings with the United States than their public reputations would suggest.

The unidentified Iranian doctor, described as a “pro-Velayati conservative” who had spent 15 years in the United States and consulted the Supreme Leader’s family on various health ailments, met with the US diplomat in Dubai in March 2007. In the meeting, he extolled “the positive influence of former Foreign Minister Velayati, who he maintained wanted to build bridges with the West,” the US diplomat, Jillian Burns, then director of the US’s Iran Regional Presence Office in Dubai, reported in the March 2007 cable, which cautioned several times that such political assessments by Iranian interlocutors were highly subjective and should not be considered definitive.

“While he did not in any way seek a ‘channel’ between Velayati and the US, at one point he solicited [US government] USG financial backing for Velayati’s next campaign run, a subject [the US’s Iran regional presence office] IRPO did not pursue,” Burns continued.

“In what was otherwise a normal conversation with a new contact, at one point the doctor changed tacks and said the US should help pave the way for better relations by playing a role in deciding who wins the 2009 elections,” the cable continued.

“He said that it will take money to win the elections, and Velayati needs some,” Burns wrote. “He gave IRPO Director the business card of a company he said was a trading company he set up to raise funds for Velayati’s campaign. He suggested that the US allow this trading company to import goods normally blocked by sanctions to allow Velayati to start compiling funds. IRPO Director did not pursue the matter.”

Burns, currently the United States’ Senior Civilian Representative in Herat, Afghanistan, did not respond to email queries from Al-Monitor about the cable. US officials have generally declined to comment on information in the cables released by Wikileaks, and have warned that information in them could damage US sources and relationships.

Examination of the cable, dated March 27, 2007 and released by Wikileaks in 2011 to no apparent media attention ‘til now, comes as Iran’s June 14 presidential campaign is getting underway. Former Iran nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, a member of Iran’s Expediency Council and the Supreme Leader’s liaison to the Supreme National Security Council, announced his candidacy March 11, casting himself as a moderate who can better manage Iran’s foreign affairs and economy, under strain due to mismanagement as well as tough economic sanctions meant to pressure Iran to accept a nuclear compromise.

Velayati, the foreign affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei and 1980s-era Iran foreign minister, is also expected to run in the June 14th polls. A trained pediatrician, Velayati did post-graduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins University before Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

Supporters of Velayati’s candidacy, including some from Iran’s diplomatic ranks, have also in recent months suggested to foreign contacts he would as president be a moderating influence, an establishment figure with impeccable hardliner credentials and the trust of the Supreme Leader who can help calm roiling tensions between the West and Iran over its nuclear program and other matters.

A former US official who has worked on Iran wondered if Iranian interlocutors think Americans would be so easily convinced that established Iranian hardliners would morph into moderates in office–(much less that the US would be so foolish as to try to influence Iran’s elections, given that false accusations of foreign meddling are routinely used to discredit Iranian dissidents.)

“How simple do they think we are, trotting out [these candidates] as ‘moderates,’” one former US diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday, comparing the recent pitches to the feelers the US received from Iran in the 1980s during Iran-Contra.

Iranian contacts, asked about the 2007 Dubai cable, said they could not definitively identify the Iranian doctor.

Another US diplomatic cable, written in 2009 by a US political officer at the US embassy in Beijing, relays a conversation with a Chinese foreign ministry-linked scholar, who described alleged Velayati communications with the US ahead of Iran’s 2009 polls.

“Li said he had learned that former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati had discreetly contacted USG [US government] officials prior to the June 12 presidential election in Iran, agreeing to resume bilateral contacts after the election concluded, but that the turmoil and the lingering instability in Iran had prevented movement on that initiative,” the US political officer wrote.

(Photo: Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign affairs advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, at the Iranian Embassy in Damascus on August 9, 2010. Getty.)

US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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Iran intensifies debate on US talks


Iranian leaders have intensified debate on the pros and cons of direct talks with the United States in recent days, suggesting Tehran may be mulling whether to take President Obama up on the offer and under what conditions. The flurry of debate comes as arms control officials from Iran, Washington and five world powers are due to meet in Istanbul next week, to discuss a revised international nuclear proposal that Iranian negotiators greeted favorably in Kazakhstan last month.

Iranian Supreme Leader's longtime foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossan Rowhani, and two Iranian diplomats involved in 2007 talks with the United States on the issue of Iraq, have all weighed in on the merits of possible US-Iranian talks in recent days, in interviews with Iranian media and, notably, in photos of US and Iranian officials meeting in Iraq six years ago, newly published on the Supreme Leader's website.

“It is not the Supreme Leader’s view that Iran and the United States should not have negotiations and relations until the Day of Judgment,” Rowhani, former Iranian nuclear negotiator and a candidate in June’s presidential elections, was cited by Iranian media Thursday.

“If there is a situation where the country’s dignity and interests are..served, he will give permission for dialogue…as…negotiations have been held between the two countries on issues related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear (issue),” Rowhani continued.

“Our red line, according to the Leader, was to negotiate only for the issue of Iraq and nothing else,” Hussein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African affairs who was involved in the Iraq talks with the Americans, said in an interview published on the Supreme Leader’s website this week, Iran news site Iran’s View reported Thursday.

“If you ask me about the US’ willingness to negotiate, as a person who has had the experience, I would say they are willing, but they are not intending to solve the problem,” Amir Abdollahian continued.

Then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, pictured above right, told the Back Channel Friday that the publication of the photos by the Iranian leadership was “interesting,” and said they were from meetings that occurred in Iraq in 2007.

Crocker and Iran's envoy to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi held two meetings in Iraq in the summer of 2007, on May 28 and July 24, 2007, according to media reports at the time. “Their May 28 meeting marked the first public and formal talks between U.S. and Iranian representatives since the United States cut off diplomatic relations 27 years ago,” CNN reported at the time.

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Obama urged to step up diplomacy on Iran


A growing chorus of national security experts from across the political spectrum is urging President Obama to pursue bolder diplomacy with Iran, including offering Iran a nuclear deal that would include sanctions relief.

“We know Iran is prepared to make a deal on 20% enrichment,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran advisor, said at a Brookings Institution foreign policy panel Thursday. “It’s low-hanging fruit. … Now is the time to get that deal.”

But getting it, she adds, will require President Obama to “elevate and intensify the diplomatic dialogue,” as well as offer some sanctions relief.

“The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date, and at least as inventive as the sanctions themselves have proven,“ Maloney wrote in a “memo to the president” published Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

The calls on President Obama to boost his Iran diplomatic game come at a paradoxical moment: Iran diplomacy is stuck, but a deal is in sight. There's increasingly broad consensus on the terms of an interim nuclear deal that many observers believe could be had. And the recently reelected US president, enjoying higher approval numbers going into his second term than throughout much of his first, is widely perceived to have the political space to offer more carrots if it would clinch a deal.

The uncertainty is Iran. Western negotiators are discouraged by the recent difficulty in getting Iran to even agree on the date and venue for resumed nuclear talks with the P5+1. Though consultations continue, no agreement on a new meeting date had been firmed up as of Thursday, American and European diplomats said.

“Tehran was asking [the] P5+1 about their new package prior to meeting,” former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian told the Back Channel Thursday. The “P5+1 was not ready to reveal [it] before the meeting. Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail and as always Tehran would be blamed.”

Perhaps defensive about their perceived stalling on new talks, Iranian officials signaled they were trying to set the agenda for the new meeting. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Barbara Slavin reported for Al-Monitor Jan. 14th.

“I think we sometimes read too much into Iranian foot dragging,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Back Channel. “Anyone who’s spent time in Tehran traffic or dealt with Iranian government agencies knows that efficiency and promptness are in short supply, especially on such a sensitive issue in which there may not exist an internal consensus.”

Reflecting the discouragement of American officials at the delay, he added: “When interested parties can’t agree on a date or location for a negotiation, it doesn’t portend well for the negotiation itself.”

That familiar and frustrating dynamic is in part what is driving a growing number of diplomats and policy analysts to urge Obama to take a less politically cautious approach, by signaling Iran that the United States is prepared to sweeten the deal, in return for greater Iranian transparency and inspections.

Two dozen former diplomats and experts, including former ambassadors Tom Pickering and James Dobbins, urged Obama “to direct your team vigorously to pursue serious, sustained negotiations with the Iranian government on an arrangement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran,” in a Dec. 20th letter, organized by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association.

“Iran has insisted on two benefits from a deal: sanctions relief and nuclear enrichment,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at The Atlantic this week. “An agreement is more likely if these issues are addressed with a generous offer.”

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Diplomats hoping for Iran nuclear talks in late January

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy participates at a meeting of the E3 + 3 on the Iranian nuclear issue.
The latest on long anticipated P5+1 Iran talks: They are not happening next week, as western negotiators had been hoping.

A Western diplomat told the Back Channel Friday that efforts are now underway to  arrange a meeting at the end of the month, but cautioned that no date or venue had yet been agreed.

“Nothing confirmed,” a second, European official said Saturday.

An unnamed Russian official reportedly said Friday that nuclear negotiations would resume at the end of January in Istanbul. That followed  Russia’s lead negotiator Sergei Ryabkov criticizing the long pause in talks. Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran held three rounds of talks last spring and summer. Expectation that talks would resume shortly after the US presidential elections in November have not materialized, however, as in recent weeks Iran has not responded to at least two dates proposed by the six parties. “This becomes unclear and sends a wrong signal,” Ryabkov was cited by Itar-Tass Jan. 9.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel. Continue reading

Iran seen stalling on date for nuclear talks

Western diplomats are not encouraged–if not much surprised–by signs Iran is playing games in scheduling a new date for nuclear talks.

Iran doesn't seem ready to negotiate, or else is “playing for time,” one US administration official told the Back Channel over the weekend.

International negotiators have been waiting for Iran to agree on a date for a new round of talks with six world powers–possibly as soon as next week.

“We’re actively working on getting agreement on a date and venue,” a senior western official told the Back Channel Wednesday. “Stay tuned.”

Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, speaking in India last week, said he expected talks between Iran and the P5+1 to be scheduled some time this month.

But as of Tuesday, Iran had not settled on a date.

Western diplomats fear if the Iranians don’t RSVP very soon, it will be logistically difficult to put together a meeting for next week.

American officials have interpreted the Iranian delay in scheduling talks to date as a potentially inauspicious sign of continued dysfunction or indecisiveness in Tehran, diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel.

American negotiators “are ready, if Iran says yes, to work through with them a step by step deal,” a Washington non-proliferation expert told the Back Channel Tuesday. “They want to be able to make a deal. And a major concern is whether Iran is capable of making a deal, whether the Supreme Leader is capable of even deciding that he wants to make a deal. That is where their concern is.” Continue reading

White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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