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Negotiators Mull Future of Iran Talks

Kelsey Davenport

Top negotiators representing Iran and six world powers met Sept. 18 in Istanbul for what both sides described as a “constructive” discussion on the future of high-level negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program.

According to a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who represents the six powers in the talks, this meeting was not a “formal negotiating round,” but provided Ashton the “opportunity to stress” the urgent need for Iran to take a “meaningful confidence-building step.” The six countries, known as the P5+1, are China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Saeed Jalili, the lead Iranian negotiator, said that the two sides evaluated “common points” during the meeting. He said a decision to resume negotiations at the highest political level would be made after the P5+1 had a chance to confer during the UN General Assembly session, which opened on Sept. 18.

The Istanbul meeting was the first time that Ashton and Jalili had met since the last round of high-level diplomatic negotiations, which took place June 18-19 in Moscow. (See ACT, July/August 2012.) The Moscow meeting was the third round of talks in as many months since negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran resumed in April after a 15-month hiatus.

Although high-level diplomatic meetings stalled after the Moscow meeting due to what Ashton called “significant gaps” between the two sides’ proposals, communication continued through July and August in the form of an experts-level meeting and several phone calls between top and deputy negotiators. (See ACT, September 2012.)

In a Sept. 17 press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed that the P5+1 would meet with Ashton during the UN General Assembly session and “consult” on whether Iran is “prepared to bring anything new” to negotiations. She said there is no plan for the six countries to meet with Iran during the UN session.

Redlines

The meeting between Ashton and Jalili came amid Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s criticism of the lack of progress toward a diplomatic solution and a push for the United States to set “redlines” on the development of Iran’s nuclear program.

Netanyahu has accused President Barack Obama of failing to set a clear threshold for a military strike against Iran. In a Sept. 11 news conference, Netanyahu said that Iran will continue to move toward “obtaining nuclear weapons capability” if Tehran “knows that there is no redline.”

In a Sept. 12 press briefing, White House Spokesman Jay Carney defended the administration’s position and said that Obama had “made clear” to Netanyahu in a phone conversation the previous evening that there is “time and space” for diplomacy. Carney reiterated that the administration’s policy is to “use all tools of American power to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.” The administration has said repeatedly that the list of options includes the use of military force.

Many U.S. nonproliferation experts argue that Iran’s technical developments have already given it a nuclear weapons capability but that Tehran has not decided yet to build a nuclear weapon.

Tightening Sanctions

In the absence of diplomatic progress, policymakers in the United States and the European Union are considering tightening sanctions against Iran.

On Sept. 12, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urging the administration to require countries purchasing Iranian oil to reduce imports by at least 18 percent to be eligible for continued exemptions from U.S. sanctions. Under the current law, which went into effect June 28, the administration can waive sanctions against countries that buy oil from Iran if they demonstrate a “significant reduction” in the quantities purchased. (See ACT, June 2012.) In total, 20 countries were granted waivers, which must be renewed every 180 days.

The administration announced the first round of waiver renewals Sept. 14, extending sanctions exemptions for Japan and 10 EU countries for a second 180-day period. Despite that action, the European countries are unable to import oil from Iran because they are under a separate EU oil embargo, which began on July 1.

The EU is considering new sanctions directed at Iran. Speaking to reporters after a Sept. 7 meeting of EU foreign ministers in Cyprus, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said that “probably the next round [of sanctions] is necessary” if Iran does not “come back to the table.” Although specific details on the new sanctions were not mentioned, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said on Sept. 25 that measures targeting Iran’s finance and trade sectors would be included.