Obama Pledges Push to Resume Iran Talks

Kelsey Davenport

President Barack Obama said last month that he would “try to make a push in the coming months” to resume talks with Iran over its controversial nuclear program, but did not specify when negotiations were likely to resume.

In comments during a Nov. 14 press conference, Obama added a note of caution, saying, “I can’t promise that Iran will walk through the door that they need to walk through.” But he also said, “[W]e want to get this resolved, and we’re not going to be constrained by diplomatic niceties or protocols.”

High-level meetings between Iran and six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) stalled in June when both sides said they felt that little progress was being made to close the gaps that existed between their differing positions. The June negotiations were the third round of talks in as many months.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Oct. 21 that talks could resume at the end of November. (See ACT, November 2012.) At the press conference, however, Obama dismissed the prospect of imminent talks as not true “as of today.”

The six countries, or P5+1, met in Brussels on Nov. 21 to discuss strategy for resuming negotiations with Iran. A spokesperson for Catherine Ashton, the lead negotiator for the P5+1, said Nov. 21 that the six countries agreed to hold a new round of talks “as soon as possible” and that Iran would be contacted “in the coming days.” The spokesperson did not say whether the P5+1 discussed modifications to its negotiating proposal.

Iranian Ambassador to Russia Reza Sajjadi said in a Nov. 19 press conference that he had conveyed to the Russian government that Iran is prepared for new negotiations. He said a priority for Iran when talks resume is to receive a “formal response” from the P5+1 to the negotiating proposal Tehran presented during the last rounds of high-level meetings. (See ACT, July/August 2012.)

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski said on Nov. 26 that the United States should consider supplementing the P5+1 talks by establishing a “parallel dialogue” with Iran. Speaking at an event sponsored by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association, Brzezinksi said one reason for pursuing that approach is that the long-range motives of P5+1 members China and Russia remain unclear. Although the official position of both countries is to pursue negotiations to resolve the Iranian nuclear controversy, there could be individual officials in China or Russia that may be ambivalent about pursuing an immediate settlement of this issue, he said.

Brzezinski also warned against pursing “strangling” sanctions that could increase the likelihood of conflict. He said there is a fine line between such sanctions and those that are “painful.” The latter kind creates openings for other options, he said.

Bilateral Talks

Although all parties in the talks, including Iran, have indicated that they remain committed to negotiating within the P5+1 framework, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told The Financial Times on Nov. 11 that Russia would “not have a word against” bilateral talks between Iran and the United States on the nuclear issue. He added that Russia would “hope to be informed on the content” of any talks.

The Obama administration has denied that there is any agreement for direct talks, saying that although it is open to bilateral meetings, Iran does not appear to be.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a Nov. 8 speech that Iran’s nuclear issues should be resolved bilaterally “through talks with the United States.” It is unclear how much power the president has in negotiations over the nuclear program, however, particularly given that Ahmadinejad is not eligible to run in Iran’s presidential elections in June. Western experts believe that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei will decide whether Iran enters into bilateral negotiations with the United States.

Waivers Up for Renewal

In December, the Obama administration will have to decide whether to renew waivers that allow nine countries to continue importing oil from Iran. Under a provision of the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2012, these countries were granted exemptions in June that allow them to continue purchasing Iranian oil without penalty after demonstrating that they “significantly reduced” the volume of such imports. However, the law stipulates that the waivers must be renewed every 180 days, during which the country must demonstrate again that it reduced its imports.

The waivers for four of Iran’s top oil importers—China, South Korea, India, and Turkey—all will expire before the end of the year if the administration does not grant renewals. The United States renewed the waivers for Japan and 10 European countries on Sept. 14.

As a result of the sanctions, Iranian oil exports are about half of what they were a year ago, and the country is being forced to cut its oil output due to a lack of storage space.