Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

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Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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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 nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. [...]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. Continue reading

Nuclear negotiators still waiting for Iran RSVP

The government of Iran has still not gotten back to international negotiators about a prospective date and venue for a new round of nuclear talks with six world powers, a diplomat told the Back Channel Sunday.

“No news,” a spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel by email Sunday in response to a query.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid held a telephone call with deputy Iran nuclear negotiator Dr. Ali Bagheri on December 12th to propose possible dates and the venue of Istanbul for a new meeting. Although one date proposed was December 20, several western diplomats said their expectation was that a new meeting would not materialize until January.

Meantime, Iran is due to host a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran on January 16th.

Amid the uncertainty on when nuclear negotiations will resume, the Obama administration gave a somewhat upbeat assessment to the New York Times last week about Iran’s having held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer.

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US sees hopeful sign in Iran pausing 20% stockpile

The Obama administration sees a potentially encouraging sign in the fact that Iran held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer, the New York Times reports. However, analysts note that Iran subsequently resumed growing its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in the fall and suggested the Iranian leadership’s intentions remain unclear.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had diverted almost half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for medical use, thus keeping its stockpile of the higher enriched fuel steady at 91kg between May and August.

“One American official said the move amounted to trying to ‘put more time on the clock to solve this,’ characterizing it as a step ‘you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated,’” the New York Times’ David Sanger and James Risen reported Thursday (Dec. 27).

However, the latest IAEA Iran report from November shows that diversion of 20% fuel for medical purposes had not continued in the fall. Rather, Iran resumed adding to its 20% stockpile, which had grown to almost 135 KG by November 18th. (It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to weapons grade — 90% purity–to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.)

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel the explanation for the temporary diversion is simple: Iran has now produced enough 20% enriched uranium to build the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. Thus, “from now on and as a confidence building [measure], Tehran [can] try either to convert or to slow down the production amount,” Mousavian said by email Friday.

However, given that the pause in Iran’s growth in its 20% stockpile did not continue into the fall, some Iran and arms control analysts expressed puzzlement at the US official’s reported assessment of the development, noting it comes amid a lot of mixed signals.

“There’s a real effort to indicate that things are going swimmingly and that a resumption of talks is imminent,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel Friday, adding his own view is that is “overly optimistic.”

“With the latest evidence”— that Iran had resumed growing its 20% stockpile—“there is less of a reason” to be confident in what Iran intended to signal with its diversion of 20% uranium for medical purposes last summer, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told the Back Channel Friday. “Not that it removes it entirely. It still applies.” 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 nuclear technical talks get underway in Istanbul

Technical experts from the EU, United States, Russia, China and Iran are meeting in Istanbul today (July 3rd), to see if they can narrow differences on a proposed confidence building measure that would halt Iran's 20% enrichment activities.

State Department nonproliferation advisor Bob Einhorn and the White House WMD czar Gary Samore are representing the United States at the Istanbul talks.

Irani's top envoy in Istanbul is Hamid Reza Asgari, a legal adviser to Iran's atomic energy organization and non-proliferation advisor to Iran's national security council (pictured above, right, in 2009).

While expectations for the Istanbul talks have been quite low, some analysts said they may be able to make more progress outside of the spotlight and somewhat rigid format of the seven nation P5+1/Iran political-level talks.

“Short and haphazard sittings among senior representatives left too many gaps, which were filled with posturing and political brinksmanship in the interregnum between the talks,” Ali  Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, wrote at Al Monitor Monday. “In contrast, technical meetings can take place in a less charged atmosphere. As such, they could offer a suitable avenue for essential duologue between Iranian and American negotiators, without the fear of stirring up a political hornet's nest back home.”

“Make no mistake: the issue at the crux of Iran’s nuclear crisis is politics, not physics,” Vaez continued. “But while common ground between the two sides on political issues is extremely narrow, if not nonexistent, there is room for maneuver in the technical realm. For instance, both Iran and the P5+1 appear amenable to a compromise on curbing Tehran’s uranium enrichment activities at the 20 per cent level, which provides a shortcut to weapons-grade fissile material: Continue reading