Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Burns to retire, led back channel to Iran

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Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the veteran U.S. diplomat who helped President Obama open a back channel to Iran last year, will retire from the Foreign Service in October, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

“It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy,” Kerry said in a press statement Friday.

“With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues,” Kerry said. “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Like so many others who worked with him, I have seen Bill Burns as a mentor– [and] have learned so much by watching how he does his job,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter.

Burns, in a letter informing Kerry of his decision to retire in October after 32 years serving 10 US Secretaries of State, wrote that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President….You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.”

Burns, in an interview with Al-Monitor in January, said while reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would be very challenging, it should be achievable.

“The truth is, at the end of the day … if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon … we’ve made clear…we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” Burns said.

“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” he added. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”

Burns is only the second career Foreign Service officer to be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State. He has previously served as US Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, among many other positions in his 32 year diplomatic career.

Sources told Al-Monitor that Burns considered retiring last year, but President Obama personally asked him to stay to pursue the Iran diplomatic channel at a critical moment, which he did.

Diplomatic sources previously considered State Department counselor Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken to be possible contenders to succeed Burns as Deputy Secretary.

(Bottom photo of President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

Iran nuclear diplomat known to U.S. as tough, professional

When lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi and their teams met on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna this week, US officials described the now commonplace encounter between the U.S. and Iranian delegations as “useful and professional.”

“It’s now normal,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, described the bilateral meeting with Araghchi to journalists at a briefing in Vienna on April 9. “We met for about an hour and a half. … We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.”

“Mr. Araghchi is a very professional negotiator and also a tough negotiator,” Sherman told Al-Monitor by email on April 11.

Araghchi, 53, the lone holdover from Saeed Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team, has previously served as Iran’s envoy to Japan, Asian affairs deputy and, briefly during Iran’s presidential campaign and transition last summer, as the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since Hassan Rouhani tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator last August, Araghchi has been a key player in the nuclear talks that produced an interim deal last November, and a principal interlocutor in bilateral discussions with the United States aimed at advancing a comprehensive nuclear accord.

While Zarif’s willingness to engage with US officials was perhaps not surprising — the affable Iranian diplomat spent almost 20 years in the United States, earning graduate degrees and serving as Iran’s UN envoy in New York during the moderate Mohammad Khatami administration — his deputy Araghchi is less well-known to Western audiences.

Though Araghchi earned a doctoral degree at Kent University in the United Kingdom and speaks fluent English, he is not one of Zarif’s so-called “New York gang” or “New Yorkers,” as the Iranian diplomats who studied in the United States and served with Zarif in New York have been dubbed at home. A career diplomat who ascended under then-Iran Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, Araghchi is “not political,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. But it turns out that Araghchi was not entirely unknown to US officials before he was tapped as Zarif’s deputy last August and became part of the Iranian delegation that secretly met with U.S. officials a half dozen times in Oman, New York and Geneva last fall to try to advance a nuclear deal.

Interviews with former officials by Al-Monitor and US diplomatic cables indicate that Araghchi had a previous engagement with the Americans, at a regional summit in Iraq in March 2007, in which he impressed one observer as “extremely professional,” and constructive in the proceedings, in a rare departure from what were otherwise frustrating and unproductive US-Iranian encounters on Iraq at the time.

Araghchi subsequently appeared on the Americans’ radar as a highly effective and press-savvy Iran ambassador to Japan in 2008, in a move some US diplomatic interlocutors read as an effort by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to “protect” Araghchi from Iran’s hard-line then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US diplomatic cables show. Other US cables suggest that Araghchi played a quietly helpful background role in urging for the release of an Iranian-American reporter acquaintance, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009.

“Araghchi is a young, personable, polished and accomplished diplomat who presents well, argues his case calmly and rationally and who is clearly at ease making public presentations and dealing with the press,” then-US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer wrote in a March 2008 diplomatic cable to Washington about his newly arrived Iranian diplomatic counterpart in Tokyo.

One Japanese diplomat “told Embassy Tokyo,” Schieffer’s cable continued, that then-former “Foreign Minister Taro Aso speculated after meeting him … that if the US and Iran were to resume diplomatic relations, Araghchi would be a likely candidate to become ambassador to Washington.”

Araghchi, then — as now — Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, led Iran’s delegation to a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad in March 2007, attended as well by then-US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and then-State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield. The meeting came amid growing US frustration at Iran’s support for Iraq “special groups” conducting attacks against US-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran denied providing such support, while at the time making repeated overtures to the Americans that it would be interested to engage on Iraq, US cables show. The United States pursued several trilateral meetings with the Iranians on Iraq during 2007, but ultimately determined they were fruitless and counterproductive. But not so at the first meeting attended by Araghchi in March 2007.

“That recollection stays with me … the wholly professional conduct of the Iranian delegation, but particularly the Deputy Foreign Minister [Araghchi], which was quite striking,” a firsthand observer of the meeting, who requested to speak anonymously, told Al-Monitor in an interview on April 10. Continue reading

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.)

Kaine: Israel stance ‘no, no, no’ on Iran enrichment

Israel’s stance on acceptable terms for a final Iran nuclear deal remains as uncompromising as that which divided Washington and Jerusalem on the merits of an interim nuclear deal last fall, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said Monday following a trip last week to the Middle East.

“Their position is no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program,” Kaine, referring to Israeli leaders, said in answer to a question on a conference call briefing with journalists Monday on his trip last week to Israel, Ramallah, Lebanon and Egypt.

Netanyahu, in a meeting with Senators Kaine and Angus King (Independent-Maine) in Israel last week, “said nothing about the pending legislation,” Kaine said, referring to stalled Iran sanctions legislation co-sponsored  by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Kirk (R-Illinois). “He expressed what he has [previously] expressed. He has not backed away one iota [from his position] that the interim deal is a bad idea in his view. But he acknowledged…that the deal is done.”

Now the Israeli leader is turning his focus to how to “structure the final deal …so that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished, and what would such a deal look like,” Kaine said, adding that Netanyahu did not refer to specific draft U.S. legislation on the matter. “He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions.”

When Netanyahu comes to Washington next week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to meet with President Obama, “I suspect that rather than a speech that three quarter deals with” the six month Join Plan of Action that went into effect last  month, he will spend “a lot of time on what should be the components of a final deal” and what “assurances will be needed.”

Asked if the Israeli leader had shown any signs of softening his maximalist positions from last fall that an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could allow no centrifuges or domestic Iranian enrichment, Kaine said no.

“I understand and they [the Israelis] understand that this is a negotiation,” Kaine said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution, [of Iran] without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Exactly how to define that question of what is acceptable in terms of nuclear research and what is unacceptable, that gets too close to a weapon, there are some gray areas.”

“The US and Israeli perspectives may be a little different,” Kaine continued. “That demands communication.”

“I would like there to be zero enrichment, I would like there to be no facilities, I would like there not to be an indigenous program,” lead US Iran negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy  Sherman told journalists in Israel over the weekend. “I think I would like many things in life. But that does not mean I will always get them, and that is not necessarily the only path to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that the international community can have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.”

Kaine also said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to advance a framework for an Israel-Palestine two state solution, but that both expressed doubts the other side was willing to make the necessary compromises and concessions for it to succeed.

In Lebanon, he said Lebanese leaders told him and King that they appreciated US financial support for humanitarian efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country, but that what was needed is to improve conditions inside Syria to slow the refugee exodus and move to end the conflict. He and King were preparing to leave a briefing at the US embassy in Beirut last week when a suicide blast went off some five miles south at an Iranian cultural center, killing several people–the latest sign of sectarian spillover violence from Syria’s civil war that threatens to destabilize its neighbors.

Kaine, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East and South Asia subcommittee, plans to hold a subcommittee hearing on Lebanon on Tuesday.

Photo: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), right, meets in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), via Washington Jewish Week.

World powers, Iran agree on roadmap for ‘marathon’ nuclear talks

Vienna_ The first round of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal negotiations concluded here Thursday with agreement on all the issues that need to be addressed and a timetable of meetings over the next four months to try to do so.

“We are at the beginning of a very difficult, complex process,” a senior U.S. official said Thursday. “It’s going to be both a marathon and a sprint….We have a long distance to cover in a short period of time.”

“We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced at a brief joint press conference with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Thursday morning.

“There is a lot to do,” Ashton said, in a statement that Zarif later gave in Persian. “It won’t be easy but we have made a good start.”

Political directors from six world powers as well as Zarif and Ashton and their teams will reconvene for the next meeting in Vienna on March 17th. That meeting will be preceded by technical experts consultations among the six powers and Iran, that seem like they will become almost ongoing throughout the next months as negotiators aim to advance a comprehensive accord.

“We all feel we made some progress,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a briefing here after the meeting concluded Thursday. “We can’t predict all ahead. But we do now have a path forward for how these negotiations will proceed.”

The US official described the meetings as “constructive and useful,” and said they discussed “both process and substance.” They had produced a “framework for going forward,” she said, although one that is apparently not yet officially on paper. “We are trying to do so in as open and transparent” a manner as possible, the U.S. official said, but “it’s critical to leave space for everyone’s points of view to be heard and taken into account.”

Regarding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s reported complaints about some recent US officials’ statements complicating his efforts to sell the negotiations at home, the U.S. official said the two sides had agreed to try to be thoughtful about what impact their statements to domestic audiences have in the other’s political space. Iranian hardliners have reacted negatively to Secretary of State John Kerry saying in a recent interview that “all options are on the table,” and to US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman telling a Senate committee this month that the comprehensive deal will address such issues as Iran’s ballistic missiles, which are mentioned in UN Security Council resolutions but are not strictly in the nuclear issue purview of the P5+1, according to the Iranians.

In turn, media coverage of Iran’s recent marking of the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, for example, has shown Iranian protesters proclaiming ‘death to America,’ some carrying posters denigrating President Obama and Sherman, among other frequent statements that antagonize Israel and the United States.

“Everybody in the negotiations have domestic audiences and partners with points of view; they say things the other side won’t like,” the US official said. “That is going to happen. What we agreed to try to do is be thoughtful [about the impact] those statements have on the negotiation. And to the extent that we can, try to be thoughtful.”

Indeed, the U.S. official seemed to show a greater degree of sensitivity to widespread Iranian frustration at remaining international sanctions after the recent interim nuclear deal, by talking up for the first time the legitimacy of some business activities now allowed under the six month deal, including auto and petrochemical sales. And she noted that it would be a positive thing if Iranians seeking fuller sanctions relief realized a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal could deliver that.

“If the message to Iran is, when Iran reaches a comprehensive agreement…there is a potential that sanctions would be removed, and therefore Iran would see a more normal business environment, so it’s important to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, that is a useful message,” the U.S. official said. “Sanctions are not an end in itself. We would like to lift them.”

“I think the Iranians see [the meeting] not too differently from what the Americans said publicly,” Reza Marashi, a former State Department official with the National Iranian American Council , told Al-Monitor Thursday in Vienna. “There are a lot of very difficult isues that need to be addressed, and which will require some creative thinking in order to address them.” But negotiators from both sides have gained confidence from their ability to get the interim nuclear deal last fall, despite moments of doubt.

“It is fair to say that this is a very difficult process and it’s fair for one to be skeptical, but it’s unfair to stop the sentence there,” Marashi cited what one senior Iranian negotiator told him Thursday. “To finish the sentence, one must say that everything that has happened up to this point has been unprecedented. We should use that momentum going forward to tackle the very difficult challenges ahead. We should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what’s the point.”

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a press conference at the conclusion of comprehensive nuclear deal talks in Vienna February 20, 2014, by Shargh.)

U.S. says willing to join Russia in Syria peace talks

As a new round of Syria peace talks got underway in Geneva Monday, the United States said it was open to a Russian proposal that American and Russian diplomats join the UN and Syrian parties in a joint meeting.

“We have always supported full implementation of the Geneva  communique, and if additional meetings under UN auspices will help the negotiations move forward, we are very ready to consider these,” a U.S. official in Geneva, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in an emailed statement Monday.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, speaking to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, proposed “that Russian, American and U.N. officials meet the Syrian government and opposition delegations at peace talks in Geneva,” Reuters reported.

“Russia diplomats are approaching the organization of the negotiating process as creatively as possible,” Bogdanov said.

US officials said the focus of this week’s meetings should be on “having the Syrian delegations start the detailed discussions” on establishing a transition governing body with full executive authority.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold a three-way meeting with UN/Arab League joint Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Geneva on Friday, the State Department confirmed.

“Moving forward, we will continue to do what we can to help JSR Brahimi’s efforts succeed, including through our regular engagement in Geneva with the UN, Russia, the London 11, and the opposition delegation,” the US official said, regarding the Russian proposal.

The proposal for bringing the major powers into the meeting with the Syrian parties came as the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent evacuated over 1000 people from the besieged old city of Homs over the weekend and managed to deliver emergency food and medical supplies in harrowing conditions, including sporadic shelling, mortar and rifle fire. At least eleven Syrians waiting to be rescued were killed in Homs over the weekend, a UN spokesman said Monday, and a Syrian Red Crescent driver was wounded when the group’s convoy came under attack trying to bring food aid into Homs on Saturday, the group said.

The Syrian Red Crescent and two affiliated Red Cross organizations expressed alarm about the targeting of the relief convoys to Homs and pleaded for a halt to the violence against humanitarian aid workers in Syria.

The groups “join in calling for immediate steps to be taken to protect healthcare and humanitarian personnel,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “Without respect for the emblems and protection of those bearing them, crossing front lines to save lives is all but impossible.”

The Syrian regime agreed to the Homs aid operation after weeks of negotiations under heavy pressure from Russia and Iran, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher reported from Homs Sunday.

But despite Russian efforts to facilitate the humanitarian operation in Homs, Russia has said it would likely oppose a UN Security Council resolution on Syria humanitarian aid access being circulated in New York by Jordan, Australia and Luxembourg, saying it is not the right time and the draft proposal is too far reaching. China and Russia did not show up for a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to discuss the measure, the New York Times reported. Itar-Tass cited Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin: “This text would not have any practical, positive impact on the situation.”

The UK and France have said they will try to push for such a measure this week.

“The Security Council should require full and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to those areas being besieged by the regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in an oped Tuesday. “It should demand an immediate end to the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. And it should call for the regime to stop using barrel bombs and other kinds of weaponry against innocent civilians.”

(Photo: Syrian families being evacuated from the besieged old city of Homs by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and UN on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  Photo by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Homs Media Committee.)

US negotiator hears, amid skepticism, Senate support for diplomacy with Iran

With support waning for Iran sanctions legislation, top US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified on the Iran nuclear deal to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday.

Despite sinking prospects for the Iran sanctions bill he co-sponsored, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed continued deep skepticism about the terms of the interim Iran nuclear deal which went into effect on Jan. 20, and to be looking for ways to constrain the administration’s hand for negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal.

But the nitpicking, somewhat sour tone of the hearing was broken by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who made an impassioned case for aggressive US diplomacy with Iran, while defending colleagues who supported the Iran sanctions legislation from charges of war-mongering.

“We have to be able to look allies and citizens & [US service members] in the eye and tell them we exhausted every diplomatic effort,” Kaine told the hearing. “We have got to give diplomacy a chance. …. We have to return to the tradition of aggressive diplomacy.”

“Everyone would prefer a diplomatic path to [a] non-nuclear Iran,” Kaine said. “We have good faith differences on tactics.”

Kaine’s comments, praised by several other Senators, prompted Sherman to reach out to lawmakers, some of whom had championed the sanctions legislation the Obama White House fiercely opposed and threatened to veto. “I don’t believe any of you are war mongers,” Sherman said. “I don’t believe anyone prefers war.”

If diplomacy is unable to succeed in getting Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon and the US ultimately decides it needs to use force, “I want to be able to say at the end of the day, we have exhausted every opportunity to negotiate a diplomatic” solution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said, noting he had not declared a position on the sanctions bill, and praising Kaine’s defense of colleagues on both sides of it.

Another member of the panel, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), noted that he had been on a panel with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Summit last weekend.

Earlier in the hearing, Menendez had pressed Sherman on the administration’s terms for a comprehensive nuclear deal. Sherman said she doesn’t want to negotiate with Iran in public, ahead of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks set to get underway in Vienna Feb. 18. But in response to his questions, she said the United States does not believe the underground Fordo site should be an enrichment facility in a final deal, or that Iran should have a heavy water reactor.

“Where Fordo is concerned, we see no reason for it to remain an enrichment facility,” Sherman said. Asked about Arak, she said, “We do not believe [there is] any reason for [a] heavy water reactor.”

Asked about how many centrifuges Iran could have in a final deal, Sherman responded, “I am not going to get into a specific number in this setting, but that needs to be addressed.” “Will there need to be a reduction?” Menendez asked. “Yes,” Sherman said.

She also clarified some misunderstandings about the centrifuge research and development Iran is permitted to do under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Iran, under the JPOA, cannot work on advanced centrifuges not listed in Nov 14 2013 IAEA report, she said. It can only replace centrifuges in enrichment sites of the same type, not with more advanced models, she said.

The Joint Plan of Action “required Iran to come clean on past actions as part of a comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said. She suggested there will be an additional step or steps between the Phase 1 deal and the final deal, to bring Iran into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, that would require Iran to address questions such as possible military dimensions to its nuclear program and alleged weaponization work carried out at the Parchin facility to which the IAEA has not gotten requested access.

“Iran has not rejected” addressing it, Sherman said. “It knows it has to be addressed.” Continue reading

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.)

EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal


Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

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

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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