US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

The bilateral meetings come as negotiators intensify efforts to see if they can reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or if they will need to extend the talks for another six months.

“We believe we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as we can to test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program,” a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday, noting that the US-Iran consultations “come at an important juncture” of the negotiations, as the “talks are intensifying.”

The meetings are taking place “in the context of the intensified E3/EU+3 negotiating process,” and are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her spokesman Michael Mann said Saturday. Ashton’s deputy, EU political director Helga Schmid will join the US Iran consultations in Geneva, he said, and other bilaterals will follow in the next days.

The US delegation will include, in addition to Burns and Sherman, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, deputy US negotiator Amb. Brooke Amderson, senior arms control advisor Jim Timbie, and NSC senior Middle East advisor Rob Malley, among others, a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

Iran will hold separate meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

20140607-102130.jpgIranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday announced that Iran would hold bilateral meetings at the deputy foreign minister level ahead of the next P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, due to be held in Vienna June 16-20.

Burns led a secret US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year that culminated in the signing of the interim nuclear deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, in Geneva last November. Burns’ secret team included Sullivan as well as then NSC Persian Gulf advisor Puneet Talwar, now assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, who has been succeeded by Malley. Burns has announced he will retire in October. The EU’s Ashton, the lead international negotiator for the six world powers, is also due to finish her term in October, adding impetus to complete the negotiations by then.

20140607-104205.jpgUntil now, the US and Iran have not pursued the bilateral channel to advance final deal talks this year, outside of meetings on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran negotiations in Vienna, US and Iranian officials have said. Notably, unlike the secret US-Iran meetings held in Oman, Geneva and New York last year, the US-Iran meeting in Geneva Monday was announced by both sides.

US officials said Saturday it made sense to bring the bilateral channel negotiators involved in advancing the interim deal last fall into the discussions at this critical time.

“It’s natural for Bill and Jake to join the delegation for this meeting given their history of negotiating with Iran during the Joint Plan of Action talks,” the US official said, referring to Burns and Sullivan. “The elements now under discussion in our negotiations over a comprehensive solution were part of the JPOA. So it just makes sense.”

“If a deal is going to be possible by July 20, the Americans and Iranians have to get down to real, no-kidding bottom lines now, and then go back to the P5+1 with the broad outlines of the deal,” former top Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Saturday. “These bilateral talks will probably determine whether a July 20 agreement is possible or whether we need to work out an extension.”

“The Iranians, in particular, need to come back with much more flexibility on enrichment, and the U.S. team will also need some creative ideas to address Iran’s ‘practical needs’ argument,” Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said, referring to the amount of enrichment capacity Iran will need to fuel power reactors and produce medical isotopes.

Iran, in turn, is concerned about the pace of sanctions relief in a final deal, and has balked at a P5+1 proposal that would unwind sanctions on a phased, step by step basis, over as long as a decade or two. Iran also wants to limit the amount of time it would be required to submit to highly intrusive inspections and transparency measures that it fears could be abused by adversaries to snoop on its defense capabilities.

“The addition of Burns and Sullivan, who were essential to the success of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, and the bilateral nature of the talks suggests something may be up,” a former senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Saturday.

“Together with recent news that [Iran Supreme Leader] Khameini is telling hardline critics to get in line behind Iran’s negotiating team, it seems to suggest that negotiations are entering a very serious phase,” the former American official said.

(Top photo of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in Wiesbadden in February, 2009 by Reuters. Second photo of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva in November, 2013. Third photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi at a P5+1 Iran meeting at the United Nations in New York September 24, 2013.)

Diplomat says P5+1 divided over draft Iran accord

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Geneva__ Iran and world powers were supposed to resume ministerial level talks here Saturday morning but the western powers in the P5+1 are divided and were meeting among themselves, a senior diplomat involved in the talks told al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.

“It is obvious, there are serious differences” among the P5+1, the senior diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said. “We were supposed to restart negotiations at 8:30am, but the western side is divided.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry was supposed to resume meetings with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Saturday morning after a five hour meeting Friday that diplomats described as productive. But instead, the State Department said Saturday that Kerry would first meet with Ashton and three European counterparts, UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. Ashton was then scheduled to meet with Fabius and Zarif.

“In fact, the French are the big upset in the way of an agreement,” the senior diplomat said, on condition his name or nationality not be named.

He said there is a joint P5+1 draft text of a framework agreement the parties have been working on. Good progress was being made, including in the five hour trilateral meeting between Kerry, Zarif and Ashton Friday.

But the French say it is not our text, the diplomat said, a point which Fabius himself subsequently confirmed.

“There is an initial text that we do not accept,” Fabius told France’s Inter radio Saturday morning, according to a translation provided by a French reporter here. “There are several points that we are not satisfied with,” concerning the Arak heavy water facility and Iran’s stockpiles of 20% uranium. “How can we go down to 5% enrichment that is less dangerous. If those questions will no be addressed it will not be possible [to reach agreement]. I wants a deal but we have to be careful not to be played for fools.”

“The question of the Iranian nuclear issue is very important for international security,” Fabius told journalists here Saturday after leaving a meeting with Ashton, Kerry and his European counterparts. “But there are still the important points on which we have to work. I still hope there will be an agreement, but there are still things we have to” resolve.

France’s concerns were reported to center on wanting Iran to halt work on the Arak heavy water facility during the negotiations, as well as on Iran’s stockpile of 20% uranium.

Another P5+1 diplomat told Al-Monitor Saturday that no one is telling the diplomats here what is going on, describing the situation as ‘outrageous.’

Asked about the complaints of a chaotic situation, a spokesperson for Ashton said all of the parties here are working very hard and are making progress.

“The E3+3 continues to work together intensively to make progress on the Iranian nuclear file,” Michael Mann said. “There are a number of meetings going on. And regular debriefings. ”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived here Saturday around 11am to join the talks. He decided to come only late Friday, concerned about an unspecified hitch that had developed in the talks in the afternoon, another diplomat said late Friday.

The Chinese foreign minister is also expected to arrive later Saturday afternoon, reports citing Chinese state radio said.

After talks with Kerry and the Europeans Saturday morning, Kerry, Zarif and Ashton were to resume trilateral talks. It’s still unclear if an agreement will be reached here at this meeting which has extended into a third day, or if talks to sign a possible framework deal will require a subsequent meeting or meetings.

(Photo of US Secretary of State John Kerry, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and his deputies Abbas Araghchi and Majid Takht-Ravanchi, by Fars News. Also pictured, US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and nonproliferation James Timbie; and Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid.)