U.S. would find Iran UN candidate ‘extremely troubling’

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The State Department said Wednesday that it has notified Iran that it would have “serious concerns” about the choice of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Iran’s next UN envoy.

“We think this nomination would be extremely troubling,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Wednesday, Reuters reported.

“We are taking a close look at the case now and we have raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government of Iran,” Harf said.

Aboutalebi, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasion to serve as a translator during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis, but had otherwise not been involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote, alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from some former US hostages and members of Congress, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should pick someone else for the important, New York-based ambassadorial post.

Iranian officials suggested this week that the nomination of Aboutalebi for the UN post was not yet official, and that it would only formally nominate someone for diplomatic posts who could receive the necessary approval from the hosting government.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Mr. Hamid Babaei, Iran’s spokesman at the UN mission in New York, repeated a variation of that line when contacted by Al-Monitor Wednesday to ask about the State Department’s comments on Aboutalebi. He said it was up to one’s own interpretation if that means Iran will nominate someone else if US approval is not forthcoming for Dr. Aboutalebi.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said. His alleged, peripheral connection to the 1979 crisis apparently did not come up when vetted for a visa for the short visit back then, former US officials surmised.

Aboutalebi, a former Iranian envoy to Italy, Belgium and Australia who currently works as an advisor in Rouhani’s presidential office, “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

The State Department comments Wednesday “and the movements in the [Congress] yesterday seemed to finally press Iranians to leak that he was not officially nominated and hopefully end the whole saga,” an Iranian scholar told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif’s team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

US staffs up to pursue intensified Iran final deal talks


Diplomats and experts from six world powers and Iran have staffed up to pursue intensified, almost “constant” contacts to try to reach a final nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday, ahead of a second round of political directors-Iran nuclear talks in Vienna next week. The parties have already agreed that sanctions relief in a final deal would be phased in, step by step, in response to specific action that Iran takes, the official said.

“These comprehensive negotiations will not be done for three days a month by the political directors,” the senior US administration official said. “Our experts have been and will be in constant contact between these rounds.”

“For example, last week, our experts spent a full week in Vienna to talk through various issues at a detailed level and explore options for a comprehensive solution,” the US official said. “When not in Vienna, they are back in capitals communicating with one another and working through various technical issues that are part of the negotiations.”

Lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, spoke at length individually with every political director from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany—this past week, the US official said. Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine do not appear to have yet impacted P5+1 co-ordination in the Iran negotiations, the official suggested, saying it was a US hope and priority that it does not.

Former Deputy US UN ambassador Brooke Anderson has joined the US Iran nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor to Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry. Anderson, the former Obama National Security Council chief of staff, will be based out of Brussels full-time to coordinate with European Union negotiators and P5+1 partners and Washington, amid ongoing expert and political level consultations. The US has also added several more experts to its team, and several officials, particularly from the US Department of Energy, will be joining the negotiations in Vienna, the official said.

The US has not had bilateral talks with Iran since their meeting on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks in Vienna last month, the U.S. official said.

To date, Iran and the P5+1 have fulfilled their commitments in the Joint Plan of Action, the six month interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November, the US official said. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently verified that Iran has diluted half of its 20% stockpile, among other steps laid out in the interim deal, the official noted.

The parties’ ability to reach the interim deal has given then a bit more confidence that they may be able to reach a final deal, she said, adding, however, that there are no guarantees.

With no issue agreed until all the issues are agreed, the final deal talks are like a “Rubik’s cube,” the US official said,  “a puzzle that has to be put together….over the course of the negotiations, until one has narrowed [it] down to the few toughest parts.”

In terms of some of those toughest issues, such as past possible military dimensions (PMDs) to Iran’s nuclear program, and ballistic missiles, the JPOA says that all UN Security Council resolutions on Iran must be addressed before a comprehensive agreement is reached, the US official said. “There are a variety of things in the UN Security Council resolutions, including the issue of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. All of this will have to be addressed in some way.” But the US official did not elaborate on what would constitute satisfactorily addressing the issue. The more that Iran can demonstrate transparency to the IAEA, including on PMDs, the better the odds of reaching a final deal, the official said.

Regarding Iranian enrichment, the US official said while the US prefers that Iran supply its civil nuclear energy program without a domestic enrichment program, “we understand Iran feels strongly” that it should have one. “The JPOA envisions that a domestic enrichment program can be the subject of [comprehensive deal] discussions,” the official said. If all the parties to the comprehensive talks agree, “the program will be quite limited, under heavy monitoring and verification, for very specific purposes.”

Regarding sanctions relief for a possible final deal, the US official said, “we need to understand in great detail how to unwind sanctions, what by the executive branch, what by waivers, what by Congressional action. We are detailing all of that.”

The US, its P5+1 partners and Iran have agreed that “any sanctions relief [in a final deal] should… be phased in…in response to actions that Iran takes,” the US official said.  “It will happen over time, step by step.”

(Top Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman after the P5+1 reached a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 24, 2013. // State Department Photo. Second photo, former US Ambassador to the UN Brooke Anderson has joined the US nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor and will be based out of Brussels.)

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

US: Iran final deal talks ‘complicated, difficult’ but ‘best chance’

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VIENNA — On the eve of the opening round of negotiations to get a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, a US diplomat said the process would be “complicated, difficult and lengthy,” but that it represented “the best chance” the world has had in a decade to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“These next days will be the beginning of what will be a complicated, difficult and lengthy process,” the senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Monday night. “When the stakes are this high, the devil truly is in the details. It can’t be done in a day, a week, or a month.”

“The aim is to move in a…deliberate manner to get the job done,” the official said. “We need to build on the progress of [the] first step to get a comprehensive agreement that addresses all of our concerns.”

The US official anticipated that the coming months of negotiations would likely have “some ups…and many downs” along the way, but said negotiators were going into them “clear-eyed, focused and determined…to see what can get done.” She did not rule out that an agreement could be reached within six months. President Obama has put the odds of getting a final deal at fifty/ fifty, the U.S. official noted.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif kicked off this round of talks with a dinner of Iranian kebabs and rice at the Iranian mission in Vienna Monday night. The formal meeting is due to get underway at a plenary session Tuesday 11 AM at the United Nations in Vienna, to be attended by Zarif, Ashton, and the political directors from six world powers. An afternoon session will be led by Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi and EU deputy secretary general Helga Schmid. This round of talks is currently scheduled to go til Thursday.

Procedural issues–how to structure the agenda and schedule a roadmap for negotiating a comprehensive accord– will be discussed this round, as well as substantive issues, the U.S. official said.

“How the talks will progress, the timing, how much at the expert level and political director level and foreign minister level,” the official said. “Substantively, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. …It’s tempting to hone in on one or two issues….But all of the issues must be addressed for us to get a comprehensive deal” completed.

The U.S. official said that the US and Iran have not had unannounced bilateral meetings going into the final deal talks, as they did last fall to try to advance an interim deal that was reached in Geneva November 24th. But she acknowledged that US and Iranian officials have been in email contact as needed to iron out the details for various measures in the six month deal known as the Joint Plan of Action, under which Iran halted its 20% enrichment, among other measures, in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is now having daily access to Iran’s Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities, the U.S. official also said. The IAEA is providing monthly reports to the P5+1 on ts verification and monitoring of the steps Iran agreed to take in the Joint Plan of Action, and Iran to date has done what it committed to, she said. The P5+1 have likewise carried out the sanctions relief specifed in the six month deal, she said.

US, Russia consult on stalled Syria aid


Amid halting progress at Syrian peace talks in Geneva, the United States and Russia held several levels of consultations on Wednesday to try to advance stalled Syria humanitarian relief efforts.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday to push for progress in a UN plan to deliver humanitarian aid to the besieged Syrian city of Homs, the State Department said. The UN plan, presented by Russia to the Assad government last week, has still not received approval from the Assad government, US officials said.

“We expect there will be many paths, many parallel processes, as we all work to pursue an end to this conflict,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press conference Wednesday (January 29). “And that means yes, the regime and the opposition talking… That means engagement through the UN.  That means Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov continuing to engage. “

In the call with Lavrov, “Secretary Kerry pressed for Russia’s help in providing humanitarian assistance and making progress on that,” Psaki said.  “There are 12 trucks waiting outside of Homs with over a hundred tons of food.  These trucks are a hundred yards away from people that are in desperate need of assistance, and they must be granted permission by the regime into the old city of Homs.”

“He also talked about the importance of continuing to press the regime to move forward with the necessary steps on the chemical weapons process,” Psaki said.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, in Moscow to attend a meeting with G-8 political directors, met on Syria Wednesday with Russian Deputy Foreign Ministers Mikhail Bogdanov and Gennady Gatilov, the Russian Foreign Ministry reported.

The Voice of Russia cited a source on the Russian-US consultations in Moscow: “We have discussed in detail the current situation at the inter-Syrian talks and agreed that we need, first, to strengthen cooperation between ourselves and step up pressure on the negotiating parties to interact more actively in searching for a compromise.”

The US Syria diplomatic team in Geneva, led by US Syria envoy Robert Ford and including National Security Council counselor Salman Ahmed, also met with Russian counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, as it has done several times during the Geneva talks, the official said.

Talks between the two Syrian parties are expected to continue until Friday and then resume after a week or so, UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahim said Wednesday.

“I do not expect that we will achieve anything substantial” by the end of week, Brahimi told a press conference in Geneva Wednesday. The “ice is breaking slowly, but it is breaking.”

US sources on Wednesday denied Arabic media reports that the US was meeting with Russian and Iranian officials about Syria.  Iranian media reports on Wednesday also cited Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir Abdollahian denying an Arabic media report alleging a secret meeting between Iran and the Syrian sides in Bern, Switzerland.

(Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at a joint press conference in Moscow. Photograph: Sergei Ilnitsky/EPA.)

Centrifuge R&D seen as holdup in implementing Iran nuclear deal

Differing interpretations over whether Iran can conduct research on more advanced centrifuges under a nuclear deal signed last month is among the key issues to be resolved for the agreement to enter into force, nonproliferation experts suggested Sunday.

Technical experts from Iran and six world powers are scheduled to resume talks on implementing the Joint Plan of Action in Geneva on Monday, December 30th.

“What may be happening here is that Iran has notified the P5+1 that it plans to install additional IR-2M centrifuges at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Facility at Natanz where it has historically conducted centrifuge research and development,” Jofi Joseph, a former US official who worked on Iran nuclear issues, told Al-Monitor.

“Throughout the diplomatic talks that culminated in the Geneva agreement, Iran has insisted upon the right to continue unfettered research and development for its centrifuge program that should fall outside any limits on its centrifuges producing enriched uranium,” said Joseph, who recently wrote about potential pitfalls to the Nov. 24 interim Iran nuclear deal at the Atlantic Council website. “The P5+1 always pushed back, seeking to protect against a scenario where Iran could use this R&D loophole as a back door to expand its centrifuge capacity even as a [confidence building measure] CBM agreement took effect.”

The Joint Plan of Action, signed by Iran and the P5+1 November 24th, states that: “Iran will continue its safeguarded R&D practices, including its current enrichment R&D practices, which are not designed for accumulation of the enriched uranium.”

“The P5+1 likely interprets this language to mean that Iran will not expand the level, scope,or sophistication of its centrifuge R&D beyond existing practice,” Joseph suggested. “While Iran probably takes a more expansive view, arguing instead that, so long as it not expanding the numbers or types of centrifuges in the production-related areas of Natanz or Fordow, it remains in compliance with the Geneva agreement.”

Iranian negotiators did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday if that was the main issue holding up the JPA entering into force. But Iranian officials seemed to allude to the matter in comments to Iranian news media this week. “A new generation of centrifuges is being built, but they should undergo all tests before mass production,” Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) and MIT-educated former Iranian foreign minister, was cited by Iranian news media as saying Sunday.

“The negotiations are proceeding slowly as there are misunderstandings over interpretation of some elements of the accord,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister and deputy nuclear negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Mehr News Agency, the AFP reported Sunday, adding that “ff expert-level talks are fruitful, a date [for implementing the deal] will be decided, which I guess will be at the end of January.”

The parties should be able to resolve such ambiguities and differences to make way for the JPA entering into force, nonproliferation expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday.  “This is not a technical problem,” Hibbs said. “There’s a huge amount of documentation – reams and reams and reams of technical discussion between Iran and the US, [on] how to do this….[there are] lots of ways of skinning the cat.”

Negotiators in Geneva last fall, led by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, made the deal in a hurry. “Now what they need to do is nail down all the technical details,” Hibbs said. “What needs to happen [to] close on some of this stuff is just very complicated…for example, verification procedures…questions about what specific piping they have to inspect, who gets access, all these things.”

“The real problem is not that there cannot be a technical solution. Because there can,” Hibbs said. “The real problem is [that] the absence of closure on technical details [could] reignite all of the latent lack of trust.”

But he did not think the parties would let the agreement break down. The Obama administration sees the agreement as “confidence-building; there’s a premium on deal-making,” Hiibbs said. “And the Iranians, like anyone else, want to get the best deal they can.”

(Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the United Nations Palais in Geneva November 24, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool.)

P5+1 turns focus to implementing Iran nuclear deal

Western diplomats expressed confidence about Iran sticking to the terms of an interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva last month as they met to discuss implementing the agreement and the process going forward for negotiating an end state deal.

The diplomatic consultations come ahead of a technical meeting between diplomats from Iran and six world powers in Vienna next week that will focus on implementing the November 24th accord.

“I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the PBS News Hour Wednesday (Dec. 4). “Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.”

“We are discussing 6 or 7 parameters that have to be crystallized into the common position of the P5+1,” a senior western official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, of the diplomatic consultations among the six world powers. The current priority is “implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement and deciding on a process.”

In terms of implementing the Phase 1 deal, “there are obvious facts to be confirmed by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA – stopping 20 percent, converting half the stockpile… enhanced monitoring,” the senior western official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed that process for implementing the Iran deal when they met in Brussels earlier this week. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary Sherman were scheduled to meet with French political director Jacques Audibert  on Thursday, the State Department schedule indicated. The British non-resident charge to Iran Ajay Sharma, until recently the UK’s deputy political director, was also in Washington for consultations Thursday, after traveling to Iran earlier this week, diplomatic sources said.

Burns has been leading a bilateral channel with Iran that gained momentum after the August inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,  Al-Monitor first reported last month (November 24). Sherman leads the US negotiations between the P5+1 and  Iran. The bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue and fed back into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, US officials stressed, though the issue of Americans held in Iran has also been raised.

“All of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1,” Sherman told PBS. “And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.”

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on December 16 to discuss possibly suspending some EU sanctions against Iran for a period of six months as part of the first phase agreement reached in Geneva on November 24th.

The US administration has urged Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions on Iran–even if the sanctions would not come into effect until after six months if an end state deal is not reached. Continue reading

Iran nuclear deal close, US officials say

US negotiators say they feel they are close to finalizing a nuclear agreement with Iran for the first time in a decade.

“For the first time in nearly a decade we are getting close to [reaching agreement on] the first step towards a comprehensive agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and put time on the clock to reach a negotiated agreement that addresses all of our concerns,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists at a background briefing at the State Department Friday.

“I don’t know if we will get agreement,” in Geneva next week, the U.S. official said. “It’s quite possible we can. But there are tough issues to negotiate.” The reason the last meeting ended in Geneva at 1am last weekend was that Iran, after receiving the consensus P5+1 draft proposal only late in the evening of November 9th, “felt it needed to look at the document and come back to the negotiations.”

Under the P5+1 proposed deal that six world powers and Iran will meet again to discuss next week in Geneva (November 20-22), Iran would agree to halt the expansion of its nuclear program for six months. Among the measures the first phase would address: suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize the 20% stockpile, hold steady the stockpile of 3.5% enrichment by oxidizing any more accrued, not install more centrifuges and not operate ones already installed but not yet enriching, including the more advanced IR-2Ms; stop building fuel assemblies for the unfinished Arak heavy water facility, and allow increased inspections and monitoring at enrichment facilities, for a period of six months, according to press reports and what sources familiar with the deal under discussion told Al-Monitor. US officials briefing Friday would not confirm the details of the P5+1 proposal.

In exchange, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including about $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad that would be metered out each month depending on compliance, as well as the suspension of sanctions on auto sales, petrochemicals, gold and precious metals, as well as aircraft parts, sources said.

During the six month first phase, negotiators would then seek to reach a comprehensive agreement under which all of the outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program would be addressed, in exchange for the lifting of proliferation related samctions, including on oil exports and those restricting Iran’s access to the international banking system. Iran also seeks language in the accord that would permit it to pursue domestic enrichment for a verifiably peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program as part of an end state deal.

The agreement would provide “unprecedented monitoring and verification” of Iran’s nuclear program, the senior U.S. official said. “The voluntary steps [in the first phase proposal] are good things in and of themselves. But the objective is to reach a comprehensive agreement that puts time on the clock, extends breakout time, shortens the time it would take to detect [breakout], and make the world, the US and Israel more secure.”

The US official acknowledged that Israel strongly opposes a confidence building step that would provide Iran any sanctions relief, even one that would by some estimates double Iran’s nuclear breakout time in the first phase alone.

“When it comes to our Israeli friends, and Israel’s security is foremost for us, it is worth noting we share exactly the same objective,” that Iran should not produce a nuclear weapon, the US official said. “We both believe diplomacy should be given a chance, but we diverge on tactical [steps]. We believe there should be a first step. We completely share Israel’s desire for a comprehensive agreement. But we don’t think it’s possible” without a first-step agreement.

“We think keeping the pressure on Iran is critical, and we are not asking Congress to lift sanctions,” the US official said. “We are asking Congress to take a pause” in adding new ones. “We need to see if they [the Iranians] are serious. If it appears they are not, [or] if they don’t comply, Congress can put new sanctions on in a nanosecond.”

The official said she doesn’t know if the administration’s appeal to Congress to pause new sanctions through the end of the year will succeed, or if the Senate, pressed by Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups, would move new Iran sanctions legislation in the Banking committee or to attach to the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Where Israel is concerned, I have tremendous respect for the prime minister [Netanyahu] and…I understand he will say or do what he needs to do,” the US official said. “We may not see eye to eye tactically, but we stand shoulder to shoulder in ensuring Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. The President [Obama] has done more to ensure Israel’s security than any other president. We have a close bond. I expect we’ll get through this.”

Iran FM Zarif ‘Hopeful’ on Nuclear Agreement; Kerry to join talks

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Geneva__ Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said his team will draft the text of a framework agreement with representatives of six world powers, the P5+1, on Friday as negotiations seemed to gather such pace that there was talk that an agreement could even be signed on Friday or Saturday. Amid signs of rapid progress, US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Geneva Friday to join the talks, a US official said.

“Secretary Kerry will travel to Geneva, Switzerland on Friday at the invitation of EU High Representative Ashton in an effort to help narrow differences in negotiations,” a senior State Department official told Al-Monitor late Thursday.

“We are talking about a framework agreement that includes three steps: objectives, end game, and a first step,” Zarif told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, one of a series he gave in his Geneva hotel at the conclusion of the first day of a new round of nuclear talks that were stunning for their sense of momentum after years of no progress.

“If there is political will, it is not so difficult,” Zarif said. “We are hopeful we can do it. My preference is to be able to move forward quickly.”

“We have to see,” he said. “It’s too early to judge.”

Zarif said significant progress on the outlines of a framework deal had been made at meetings over the past month, including at technical talks in Vienna last week. “In the course of the past three weeks…the ingredients of each step have been more clearly defined,” Zarif said.

“Maybe we are sill at the recipe stage,” he said, regarding what reciprocal steps the six powers might offer Iran in exchange for Iranian steps to restrain its nuclear program in the first phase of an envisioned two-step deal. “We know the ingredients, and the right amount of each ingredient in the recipe.”

On Thursday, Zarif had breakfast with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, then headed the Iranian delegation at a brisk, 45-minute plenary meeting with diplomats from the P5+1. Then the Iranian team, headed by Zarif’s deputy Abbas Araghchi, proceeded to hold four, one-hour meetings, first with three European powers, then with the Russians, then with the U.S. team, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, and then with the Chinese.

“We had a good plenary,” in which all the delegations expressed the desire “to find common ground in order to move forward,” Zarif said. “Then we had rather long bilateral discussions.”

Next comes “starting serious draft writing,” Zarif said. “We know the challenge: just putting on paper all these discussions…We will already have made good progress. Whether it will be enough to sign a joint communique in the afternoon, it all depends on how much progress” is made Friday.

Asked if the sense of momentum towards a framework deal after years of little or no progress was an illusion, Zarif said he didn’t think so, but cautioned there were still many potential obstacles.

“I think we’re on the right track,” he said. “It’s a very difficult stage we are in–trying to put …that which was said [sometimes] informally [in meetings] on paper, to have consensus.”

“We should not prejudge the outcome,” Zarif said. “The general trend is positive.”

An hour or so after Zarif spoke Thursday, lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman, returning to the diplomats’ Geneva hotel, had an impromptu tete a tete with Iranian deputy foreign minister Araghchi, after encountering him in front of the elevator. The two diplomats spoke for a few minutes in a hallway off the lobby, before Sherrman went up.

Araghchi earlier told Al-Monitor in a brief interview that his team’s one hour meeting with Sherman and the US negotiating team Thursday was “very useful and productive.”

A U.S. official, speaking not for attribution Thursday, told Al-Monitor that from the U.S. perspective, the talks made real headway in the afternoon meetings.

(Top Photo: Lead US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, arrives for Iran nuclear talks at the United Nations in Geneva Thursday November 7, 2013, accompanied by her deputy and veteran State Department arms control advisor James Timbie. Credit: Derrick Bridiers, US Mission in Geneva Flickr account. Bottom photo: US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman talks with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi at the Geneva Intercontinental Hotel after an impromptu meeting in front of the elevators Thursday evening November 7, 2013, as negotiations towards a framework deal seemed to be making headway. By ISNA.)

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