US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

Share

20140607-102453.jpg
US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran, P5+1 to meet June 16-20, EU says

Top European Union and Iranian negotiators on Tuesday called for a new round of Iran nuclear deal talks to be held June 16-20 in Vienna, after two days of “very long and useful discussions” in Istanbul, the EU said Tuesday.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton held more than eight hours of meetings with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif over the past two days in Istanbul, “in order to inform the negotiations” on Iran’s nuclear program, European Union foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next formal round of comprehensive deal talks between the P5+1 and Iran will be held from 16-20 June in Vienna, the EU said.

An experts level meeting should take place before that, June 5-6 in Vienna, the EU later announced.

“Other political discussions will continue as and when needed,” Mann said.

As yet this year, the US and Iran have not pursued bilateral talks outside of meetings on the sidelines of the Vienna talks, US and Iranian officials have told Al-Monitor. But Washington appears to be considering doing so as the parties try to conclude a final accord by the July 20th expiration of a six-month interim deal.

“New options should be looked into and brought forward,” Zarif told journalists upon arrival in Vienna Monday.

Zarif was accompanied to Istanbul by Iran Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Marzyieh Afkham, Deputy Foreign Ministers Majid Takht Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi, and the head of Iran’s expert team Hamid Baeidinejad, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said.

Ashton was thought to be accompanied by Deputy Helga Schmid, chief of staff James Morrison, and nonproliferation advisor Stephan Kllement.

Iran, EU negotiators expected to meet (Updated)


Top Iran and European Union nuclear negotiators are expected to meet in Istanbul on Monday, Al-Monitor has learned, though representatives of neither side would confirm the meeting date or venue.

“They will meet in Istanbul on Monday and perhaps Tuesday,” a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, told Al- Monitor Sunday., referring to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Zarif Ashton meeting is expected to start Monday afternoon in Istanbul, the diplomatic source said.

After Al-Monitor’s report on the unannounced meeting Sunday, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported that Zarif and Ashton were to meet in Istanbul this afternoon and continue the next day.

The meeting comes as negotiators from Iran and six world powers are regrouping after sobering final deal talks in Vienna this month at which both sides seemed taken aback by the others’ positions, and urged their counterparts to return to the talks with more “realism.”

It is unclear why there seemed to be unusual secrecy about the Zarif-Ashton meeting, or why, if it’s to take place, it hasn’t been announced. No American officials are expected to participate in the meeting, Al-Monitor understood.

“I can’t confirm anything. i have no comment,” a spokesperson for Ashton told Al-Monitor early Monday, after Iranian media reported Zarif’s plane had departed for Istanbul to meet Ashton there. Ashton was thought to be returning from South Korea on Sunday, an EU official earlier said.

Zarif met with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Shanghai, China, but no visit was announced. Zarif is expected to attend a conference of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algeria later in the week.

At the first real comprehensive nuclear deal negotiating round in Vienna earlier this month, the Iranians were said to be shaken by a P5+1 proposal for a ten-year (or by one account, 20-year) plan for phased sanctions relief in a final deal, that Iran found much too slow. The Iranians were also described as having felt the U.S. position in particular had hardened in the most recent Vienna meeting, sources said. (US officials deny the US position has hardened or changed). The US also reportedly raised the ballistic missile issue with the Iranians, which Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said they refuse to discuss as they consider the missile program a sovereign defense issue outside of the P5+1’s nuclear purview.

Meantime, former US officials close to the US negotiating team have repeatedly implored Iranian negotiators to recognize that Iran’s expectations for the size of its uranium enrichment program have got to be lowered to reach a final deal.

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks is expected to be held in Vienna starting on June 16th. But US, Iranian and EU officials have said there will be additional consultations in different forms and at different levels in advance of those, as the parties aim to try to close a deal by the July 20th expiration of a six month interim deal.

Separately, the US-Iran bilateral channel that helped advance an interim nuclear deal last fall has not yet restarted during the final deal talks this year, outside of bilateral meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks, US and Iranian sources told Al-Monitor.

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a dinner in Vienna May 14, 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Negotiators at halfway point, move to drafting phase of Iran deal talks


Iran and six world powers have advanced through the first phase of comprehensive nuclear talks and are preparing to shift into the next phase of drafting a final deal accord starting at the next meeting in May, negotiators said in Vienna Wednesday.

“We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Vienna Wednesday.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process,” Ashton said, in a statement subsequently delivered by Zarif in Persian.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.”

“I can say we agree on 50 to 60 percent of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse,” Iran’s Zarif said in a subsequent briefing to Iranian journalists Wednesday.

The next meeting, to be held in Vienna starting May 13th, will be open-ended, diplomats said. The U.S. delegation plans to be there at least a week, a senior U.S. official said, and Zarif suggested it could last up to ten days.

“For all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority,” the senior U.S. official said. “Everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.”

“I think…both Zarif and Ashton are trying to manage expectations, because in the past few days, there have been rumors about the parties starting the drafting of the final agreement as of May, and this created the illusion of agreement,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor from Vienna Wednesday.

The parties “wanted to make sure [to explain that there remain] central differences,” Vaez said. “Although progress has been made on some issues, there are still some sticky points.”

Until this round, the parties “have not got into the bargaining stage that much,” Vaez said. “Mostly they have been focused on providing justifications for each side’s positions and learning more about why each side takes their particular position.”

“From this point on, [they] get into the real bargaining part of this process,” Vaez said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday, described the final deal negotiations as at the “halfway” point, and said he remained “agnostic” about whether they would result in an agreement.

“I’m not expressing optimism, one side or the other,” Kerry said in response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “I remain agnostic and questioning, even as we are just about halfway through.”

“I talked with our team on the ground in Vienna yesterday,” Kerry said. “They are having serious, expert, in-depth, detailed conversations about what it takes to achieve our goal. I mean, of proving that this is a peaceful program.”

The recent rounds of negotiations “were substantive and useful,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “But needless to say, there is still a long way to go. We are working hard.”

(Photo: Final round of Iran comprehensive deal talks in Vienna Wednesday April 9, posted by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf to Twitter.)

In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

Iran chides criticism of Syria elections plan

The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, meeting with UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, criticized international objections to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad running in new elections, and suggested that the UN role in Syria is less than neutral.

Ali Shamkhani, in a two-hour meeting with Brahimi in Tehran Sunday, “expressed strong worry” that the UN was being influenced by the “will of certain countries that are opposed to the restoration of stability in Syria,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. “The SNSC secretary said he was surprised that some countries are worried lest democracy would prevail and the peopleˈs choice would be respected in Syria.”

Brahimi, speaking to reporters at the UN last week, warned if Assad ran in new elections, the Syrian opposition would likely refuse to return to reconciliation talks.

But Syria–and its Iranian patron–seen intent on pressing ahead. “Syria plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who served as Minister of Defense in the Khatami administration, was expected to play a key role in Iran’s handling of the Syria crisis, Ali Hashem reported at Al-Monitor in September.

Brahimi, on a two-day visit to Iran, also met with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Afffairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Monday.

“Illusions have cost 150k lives in Syria,” Zarif wrote on Twitter Monday after meeting Brahimi, before he traveled to Vienna for talks with the P5+1. “Reality check=progress.”

Amir-Abdollahian, according to IRNA, said that Iran has proposed a four-point plan for resolving the Syrian crisis. “The details of the plan have not been publicly announced but we are following up on it through negotiations and diplomatic consultations,” IRNA cited Amir-Abdollahian, who published an article on the plan at Al-Monitor (March 5).

Separately, the State Department on Monday announced that Daniel Rubenstein will succeed Robert Ford as the US Special Envoy for Syria, as Al-Monitor previously reported.

Continue reading

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.)

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

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.)

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.)