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

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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.

Continue reading

Sherman heads to Geneva for Iran nuclear talks

US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman will travel to Geneva later this week for talks on implementing the interim Iran nuclear accord, the State Department will announce Wednesday, Al-Monitor has learned.

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers hope to try to finalize agreement on implementing the Joint Plan of Action signed in Geneva November 24th.

Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi and European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid are due to meet bilaterally in Geneva, starting with a dinner Thursday night and continuing on Friday, an EU spokesperson told Al-Monitor. That suggests that Sherman’s meetings with Iran may be held bilaterally as well.

Political directors from the other members of the P5+1 were not expected to be in Geneva, sources said.

Western and Iranian officials have said there are one or two remaining issues to be finalized. Both sides have said they hope to begin implementation of the Joint Plan of Action by the end of the month.

Update: “In Geneva on January 9, Under Secretary Sherman will hold meetings with European External Action Service Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs Helga Schmid and with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi to discuss the implementation of the Joint Plan of Action agreed to by the P5+1 and Iran,” the State Department announced Wednesday.

Congress likely to hold off on Iran sanctions, Senator proposes defining final deal


After top US officials testified Thursday on the Iran nuclear deal signed in Geneva last month, the chair of the Senate Banking panel appeared to speak for the majority of the body when he cautiously endorsed the Obama administration’s call that Congress hold off on new Iran sanctions for now, but warned that lawmakers would act swiftly if Iran and six world powers are unable to reach a comprehensive nuclear agreement in negotiations over the next six months.

Even as the Obama administration got welcome signs Congress would likely hold off on new Iran sanctions legislation for the rest of the year, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said that he would consider drafting a resolution on what the final agreement with Iran should include–potentially adding another complication to the already difficult diplomatic task at hand.

“I’m beginning to think… that maybe what the Senate needs to do is define the end game and at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status,’ Menendez (D-New Jersey) told the US officials who testified on the Iran deal at the Senate Banking committee hearing Thursday.  “Because I’m getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the administration] as the final status versus what …the Congress might view as acceptable.”

While several Senators expressed skepticism about whether Iran could be trusted, they also expressed hope for a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear dispute, and appeared inclined to acquiesce for now to the administration’s case that the current moment of productive engagement warranted a pause in new pressure that could shift the Iranian political dynamic back in favor of hardliners.

“If no final deal is reached [or] Iran fails to comply with the first step agreement, this committee will act swiftly to impose a new round of sanctions,” Senate Banking Committee chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota) said at the conclusion of the hearing, which featured as witnesses top US Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Under Secretary of Treasury David Cohen. “In the meantime, I agree with today’s witnesses that a pause on new sanctions legislation is justified to see if such a deal is possible.”

“I think all of us want to see a diplomatic solution to Iran and have been encouraged by the fact that the administration has been dealing with them in this way,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) told the hearing.

But, Corker added, the text of the six month, Phase 1 “Joint Plan of Action,” signed by Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva on November 24, had elements of concern to him.  Among them, he said, why Iran is able to still pursue physical construction to the still-uncompleted Arak heavy water facility during the Phase 1 deal, though it cannot build any elements that would fuel it; and will now provide International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors regular access to, as well as long sought design information on the site. Corker also asked whether the US had tacitly agreed that Iran would have enrichment in an end state deal.

“Do the officials in Iran think that we’ve agreed to allow them to enrich?” Corker asked Under Secretary Sherman. “I mean, every press statement they’ve made says that, how could there be such a big understanding over such an important issue?”

“What we have said to Iran… is that yes, we will talk with them about the potential for a very limited enrichment program, matched to practical needs, with staggering constraints, monitoring, and verification, if, if, if they agree to everything else that we want agreed to,” Sherman responded, going on to note the UN Security Council resolutions demand that Iran suspend, but not permanently end, enrichment. Continue reading

Iran, P5+1 meet on implementing nuclear accord


Technical talks between Iran and six world powers on implementing a Nov. 24 Iran nuclear accord got underway in Vienna on Monday, as top US officials vigorously argued that the six month deal will strengthen international security by halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations towards a comprehensive deal take place.

“I am convinced beyond any doubt that Israel becomes safer the moment this first-step agreement is implemented,” Kerry told the Saban Forum in Washington DC on Saturday (Dec. 7).

“We hope that by the end of these talks, we can start implementing the first step of the Geneva agreement before the end of the year,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi told Al-Monitor by email Monday about the technical level talks.

The talks, which started at 3pm Monday, are “to discuss implementation of the 24 November agreement,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Al-Monitor.

The EU delegation to the Vienna talks includes EEAS nuclear experts Stephan Klement and Klemen Polak.

Iran’s delegation to the talks is led by Hamid Baeedinejad, the Director General of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Ravanchi said.

The US delegation to the Vienna technical talks includes James Timbie, the top nonproliferation advisor to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; Richard Nephew, the State Department’s deputy Iran sanctions expert; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Iraq Brett McGurk, and Adam Szubin, from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).

Parallel to the consultations with the Iranians, US officials are also traveling around the world to discuss how to implement the sanctions relief in the phase 1 deal, while maintaining the major architecture of oil and banking sanctions on Iran. Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Amos Hochstein and Peter Harrell are traveling to China, India, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for consultations on easing sanctions on Iranian trade in gold and precious metals, and permitting Iran to receive $4.2 billion in frozen assets from oil sales, but not unwinding sanctions further than that spelled out in the six month deal.

The technical talks on implementing the six month, Phase 1 deal come as President Obama and Secretary Kerry told a pro-Israel security forum in Washington over the weekend that the deal would increase Israel’s security by lengthening the time it would take Iran to have nuclear weapons breakout.

“For the first time in over a decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program,” Obama told the Saban Forum Saturday. “We are going to have daily inspectors in Fordow and Natanz. We’re going to have additional inspections in Arak. And as a consequence, during this six-month period, Iran cannot and will not advance its program or add additional stockpiles of…enriched uranium.”

Kerry is due to testify on the Iran deal to the House foreign affairs panel Tuesday. Lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman is also supposed to testify on the Hill later in the week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

Kerry will further discuss Iran when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his ninth visit to Jerusalem later this week, Psaki said.

Israel’s new national security advisor Yossi Cohen is also in Washington this week for consultations with US counterparts on the Iran deal. American officials have urged Israel to consult on terms for a comprehensive agreement, rather than litigate the terms of the Phase 1 deal, which Israel has opposed. “The real question is what’s going to happen with the final agreement,” Kerry told the Saban forum.

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to hold off on passing new Iran sanctions even if they would not take effect until after six months and only if a comprehensive deal is not reached. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned in an interview published by Time Monday that new US sanctions would sink the deal.

“If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif told Time’s Robin Wright.

(Photo by the EEAS of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 24.)

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

Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran


Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

Diplomats seek to narrow gaps to close Iran nuclear deal

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Geneva__ Diplomats from six world powers and Iran said today (Nov. 20) that they would try to narrow gaps to reach a nuclear agreement, but didn’t yet know if they would succeed by the end of this week.

“I sensed a real commitment…from both sides,” a senior western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “Will it happen? We will see. But as always the devil is in the details.”

“We know what the remaining gaps are, let’s go to work, let’s see if we can get there in a way that is balanced, where all parties feel like this is a good agreement that heads us in the direction of the comprehensive agreement,” a senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Wednesday, on the eve of the third round of high level talks here in under five weeks.

Amid unusually heavy diplomatic and police security, diplomats did not deny the possibility that if agreement is reached in the coming days, that P5+1 foreign ministers might come to Geneva for a signing ceremony, possibly as early as Friday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is “open to going if it would continue to help narrow the gaps,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told journalists at the Dtate Department press briefing Wednesday. “He has not made a decision at this point to go, but obviously, we’re in close touch with the negotiating team and will make a decision, clearly, in the next 36 hours here.”

The main Geneva hotel used by the diplomat delegations kicked out several people with confirmed reservations Wednesdsy in seeming anticipation of more diplomatic arrivals and their security and press entourages.

Events began Wednesday with internal meetings among the P5+1 political directors. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hosted European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and her team for a working lunch at the Iranian mission that western diplomats described as very positive.

“There is a sense of strong commitment on both sides but important differences need to be narrowed down,” the western diplomat described the lunch meeting with the Iranians.

The six western powers and Iran then held a very brief plenary session at the Palais des Nations -just ten minutes–before breaking for a series Iran bilateral meetings, including with the Russians and the Europeans. Those meetings ran long, and a brief bilateral meeting between Iranian negotiators, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, and the US team, led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, was held, a senior State Department official said, adding they expected to meet again on Thursday.

“We did have a very brief bilateral meeting at the Palais des Nations with the Iranians [Wednesday] evening,” the State Department official said Thuraday. “Because other meetings ran long, the Iranians had to leave to go see their Foreign Minister [Zarif] for consultations, so we will find more time during the day today to continue those discussions.”

Of the remaining gaps, the western diplomat indicated they mostly concerned technical details in the first phase of the agreement, involving issues such as timelines.

“The deal has to be sustainable, spelled out in detail,” the western diplomat said. “It is important to have clear understanding on technical elements in order to ensure a robust and viable agreement. This needs to be done in a proper way – we will take the time we need.”

But the official seemed taken aback by a query if such details could take til the end of the year to sort out, saying they wanted to finish it well before then.