High-level negotiations between Iran and six world powers over Tehran’s controversial nuclear program will resume in November after the U.S. presidential election, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at an Oct. 21 press conference. An exact date and venue for the negotiations have not yet been determined, he said.
A spokesman for Catherine Ashton, lead negotiator for the six countries, said they hoped to “pick up discussions soon,” but he did not give a time frame.
In interviews, experts said that although little has changed in the official negotiation positions that Iran and the countries, known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), discussed during prior negotiating rounds (see ACT, June 2012), there are still diplomatic paths to resolving international concerns over the nuclear program, which Iran maintains is entirely peaceful.
Negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 stalled after a June 18-19 meeting in Moscow, the third top-level round of negotiations in as many months. (See ACT, July/August 2012.) Although the lead negotiators for each side remained in contact and the two sides held a technical-level meeting in July, a fourth round of high-level talks was not scheduled due to a lack of progress in the first three rounds. (See ACT, September 2012.)
According to The New York Times, there also is a possibility of bilateral talks. An Oct. 20 Times story cited senior administration officials as saying that Tehran and Washington had agreed “in principle” to hold bilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program after the Nov. 6 U.S. presidential election.
Although it was unclear whether administration officials were referring to a separate track of meetings between the two countries or a bilateral meeting in the context of P5+1 negotiations, both the United States and Iran denied the report.
U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an Oct. 20 statement that although no “one-on-one talks” have been agreed to, the United States is “prepared to meet bilaterally” with Iran and has held this position since P5+1 talks resumed. During his Oct. 22 debate with his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama said the reports of bilateral talks “are not true.”
Salehi said Oct. 21 that there is “no talk of negotiations” with the United States and that Iran will hold talks “within the framework” of the P5+1.
Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told Arms Control Today on Oct. 16 said that rather than discussing the specific proposals from past negotiations, the two sides each should recognize a point that is important to the other. Specifically, he suggested that Iran recognize that the “concerns held by Western countries” over its nuclear program must be addressed and the P5+1 recognize Iran’s “legitimate rights” to uranium enrichment.
After this reciprocal recognition, the parties could move to practical steps, taking actions that would address P5+1 concerns on Iranian transparency and “breakout capabilities,” Mousavian said. This would include actions such as increased inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and resolution of questions about possible past activities related to developing nuclear weapons. In return, the P5+1 should be prepared to take proportionate steps in return for “each positive step” that Iran takes, namely in the form of sanctions relief, he said.
In the ideal “end state,” the P5+1 would be convinced that all “technical ambiguities are removed” and that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, Mousavian said. In return, Iran’s enrichment rights would be recognized, and all sanctions removed.
Former U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan James Dobbins also identified the importance of considering some form of a suspension-for-suspension arrangement in future talks. He told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 18 e-mail that a proposal under which Iran would halt some enrichment activities in return for the suspension of some sanctions should be considered for future negotiations.
Dobbins identified two key questions that must be examined to move talks forward. First, he said it must be determined whether Iran is willing to make “further positive moves to meet international demands.” Second, Dobbins said that Obama’s ability to respond positively to an Iranian concession is key, such as by supporting international recognition of Iran’s enrichment rights in return for an Iranian pledge not enrich uranium to a level higher than 5 percent uranium-235.
Mousavian said that Tehran has been willing to voluntarily cap enrichment at 5 percent and that point is now being “accurately reported by Western media.” He said Iran “never wanted high-level enrichment.”
Future U.S. Sanctions
In the absence of progress in the negotiations, several U.S. senators are considering further U.S. unilateral sanctions, which could be introduced when Congress reconvenes in November.
In an Oct. 16 e-mail to Arms Control Today, an aide to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said the senator is working on legislation that would build on the previous round of Iran sanctions, which were co-authored by Kirk and signed into law last Dec. 31. The new sanctions legislation could be offered as an amendment to the fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill.
The aide said that the legislation could include provisions that prohibit all international financial institutions from conducting transactions with Iranian financial institutions that are “in any way affiliated with the Central Bank of Iran” and all transactions with “any Iranian entity related to energy.” Exceptions would be made for humanitarian purposes and oil exports from Iran authorized under current laws.
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the co-author of previous sanctions legislation, told Arms Control Today in an Oct. 17 e-mail that he also intends to pursue further sanctions, identifying a “robust multilateral sanctions regime” and a “credible military threat” as the main tools for dealing with Iranian nuclear program. He also said it is “simultaneously crucial” to pursue negotiations by passing additional U.S. and multilateral sanctions to “force Iran to enter real negotiations” over the “termination of its nuclear weapons program.”
Mousavian, however, warned that the imposition of further sanctions and new restrictions would have adverse effects on Iran’s ability to negotiate in any further talks by making it more difficult for Tehran to show “flexibility and cooperation” because the regime would be forced to take a tougher stance so as not to appear to be capitulating to Western demands.
He said that as further restrictive measures are implemented, it becomes more difficult for the United States and the European Union to offer sanctions relief as incentives for Iranian compliance and concessions, as the sanctions become more difficult to dismantle.
New EU Sanctions
During an Oct. 15 meeting, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose further sanctions on Iran for failing to implement resolutions passed by the UN Security Council and the IAEA Board of Governors.
According to an Oct. 15 EU press release, the new restrictions will target the energy, financial, trade, and transport sectors, including “all transactions between European and Iranian banks” that are not authorized in advance for humanitarian purposes.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in an Oct. 15 interview with Radio Free Europe that these new sanctions are “exclusively about the nuclear program” and not regime change.
In a press briefing the same day, White House spokesman Jay Carney described the EU sanctions package as “significant,” saying that the United States “welcomes” the adoption of these measures.
China, however, opposed the new measures. During an Oct. 16 press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the imposition of unilateral sanctions makes the situation “more complex” and “cannot fundamentally resolve the Iran nuclear issue.” He called on all of the parties to “push” for a new round of talks as soon as possible.