Interview with Iranian foreign minister: ‘We will have differences with U.S. no matter what’

Der Spiegel reports: Mohammad Javad Zarif, 55, is relaxed and cheerful during an interview that takes place in his office in Tehran, telling jokes in perfect English. He studied political science in the United States before becoming Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Since 2013, he has served as foreign minister under President Hassan Rouhani. He recently negotiated the preliminary agreement in the country’s nuclear dispute with the international community. He is well-liked by his Western negotiating partners and a star in his home country, where his autobiography is a best-seller. Some see a future president in the making, but he smiles and shrugs off the suggestion. “Domestic policy is not for me,” he says.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, you literally had people dancing in the streets when you announced on April 2 that a solution to the nuclear conflict was in sight. At the same time, neither side was able to agree on a joint fact sheet. Did people party prematurely?

Zarif: It is the right of the people to be happy and it is the responsibility of the government to make people happy. What happened in Lausanne was an important milestone, but it wasn’t a deal. I believe that a deal is not only possible, but probable. We reached a conceptual understanding on a number of parameters for the resolution. We need to put that in writing in terms of an agreement, and that’s exactly what my colleagues are doing now in Vienna.

SPIEGEL: The United States released its fact sheet of the key points of the negotiations in order to show that it didn’t make major concessions. We assume you weren’t thrilled about this, right?

Zarif: I do not believe that the practice of producing fact sheets is a very useful one. The world has gone through a significant change. You cannot pick and choose your audience anymore. In the past, you could present your version of reality, your narrative to your audience, and the other side could have presented their narrative to their audience. But today in the age of the Internet and social media, narratives become global — and that’s where the problem comes. So you need to be able to present the final, complete package. [Continue reading…]

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The season for rapprochement with Iran

Robin Wright writes: In her title role on the CBS television drama “Madam Secretary,” Téa Leoni has achieved what Secretary of State John Kerry yearns for — a deal with Iran which eases the thirty-six years of tensions that have afflicted six Presidents. Leoni’s character, Elizabeth Faulkner McCord, goes to Tehran as part of the diplomatic process, and a fictional Iranian President visited Washington.

Neither is likely to occur offscreen anytime soon. But the United States and Iran, backed by five other world powers, are scheduled to begin nonstop negotiations this week for a prospective June 30th agreement that will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

“There’s no reason we shouldn’t get it,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me in New York last week. We spoke at the residence of Iran’s U.N. Ambassador, in the elegant second-floor parlor where Zarif had hosted Kerry two days earlier. That meeting had been a first; technically, Kerry was on Iranian soil.

Other officials involved in the talks have told me that diplomacy is further along than was indicated by the so-called blueprint for a deal, which was announced in Lausanne on April 2nd (and enumerated in a four-page U.S. fact sheet). What is more striking, after eighteen months of negotiations, is the changing climate, whether in popular culture, public opinion, or diplomacy. In the case of “Madam Secretary,” an American TV drama dared to build a whole season around rapprochement with Iran. It began with the Administration uncovering a rogue U.S. coup attempt, along the lines of what the C.I.A. and British intelligence carried out in Iran in 1953. The premise throughout the season was that Washington no longer supports regime change in Iran — which has been true of both the Bush and Obama Administrations but is still anathema to many in Congress. Rotten Tomatoes gives the “Madam Secretary” season an approval rating of eighty per cent among the public, a sign that its Iran plotline is considered realistic or acceptable. Several of the show’s episodes have drawn more than ten million viewers. The season ended last night, with Secretary McCord subpoenaed by a Senate investigation trying to discredit her and sabotage U.S. diplomacy for political gain. (Not in Washington!) But in the end she prevails, and wins a (fictional) poll showing that eighty-two per cent of the public supports her stand. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s foreign minister is bullish on a nuclear pact

Barbara Slavin reports: With the final deadline just two months away, negotiators from Iran and six world powers get back around the table in New York on Thursday to begin drafting a comprehensive nuclear agreement. And as the parameters of that deal come into clearer focus, Iran’s foreign minister sounds confident about getting a deal done — and implementing it within a couple of weeks of signing.

“We have general agreement on the concepts … the parameters of an agreement,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a large crowd at New York University on Wednesday. But he said the current text contains brackets on “almost everything,” and the sides still need to resolve differences — which he declined to specify — on wording.

Still, Zarif asserted that all of those differences are surmountable. “I believe it can be done, I believe it should be done and this is an opportunity that should not be missed,” he said. Drafting the final accord will begin on the sidelines of a U.N. nuclear treaty review conference, and will continue next week in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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Why Russia and China may fear the nuclear deal with Iran

Melik Kaylan writes: Today’s news that Iran’s navy impounded a Western ship illustrates the severe impediments to a nuke deal. With so much going against it, the most powerful argument for completing the agreement still hasn’t been uttered by anyone. Astonishing, you might think. Not really. The central figure on whose shoulders falls the task of selling it to Americans — President Obama — will not tell you. Arguably, he cannot. Meanwhile, his initiative has to survive incessant media barracking about centrifuge numbers, breakout thresholds, regional proliferation, threats to Israel, plausible monitoring and much else.

Even George W. Bush came out of obscurity this weekend to lend his threadbare authority to the naysaying chorus. He added, for good measure, that withdrawing from Iraq was a strategic mistake. It didn’t take long for the Twitterverse to respond that invading in the first place was the greater mistake. We won’t get into that here. Suffice to say that on George W.’s watch, Putin invaded Georgia, China became a global superpower, and Venezuela’s Chavez got a guarantee of security from the US in exchange for uninterrupted oil supplies. Obama’s soft approach to world affairs hasn’t righted things. But the proposed nuclear framework agreement with Iran may be his first big venture to do just that.

The clue — overwhelmingly conspicuous yet everyone ignores it — comes in the form of Russia and China’s reaction. I know something about this having published a book in September entitled “The Russia-China Axis.” When the preliminary stage of talks concluded positively, Moscow immediately announced an agreement to build 50 more nuclear power stations for Iran. This time around, they announced the sale of S-300 missiles.

As for China, here’s a statement by Iran’s official news agency about Beijing ramping up massive investments in Iranian oilfield development and the like. Subtract the propaganda and hyperbole and you still get a clear enough picture. China never abided by the sanctions, becoming Teheran’s main trading partner in recent years. In essence, the sanctions gave China exclusive access to cheap Iranian oil. Iran was among the first nations to join the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. And now as a possible lifting of sanctions looms, the Chinese are piling it on. [Continue reading…]

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Top U.S. negotiator warns of dangers of failing to lock down Iran deal

Foreign Policy reports: America’s top negotiator in the Iran nuclear talks offered a surprisingly detailed assessment of Tehran’s existing nuclear capabilities on Monday as she warned that failing to secure a final deal with the longtime adversary would seriously threaten American national security.

The remarks by Wendy Sherman, the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, come at a pivotal juncture in U.S. politics as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill wrangle over provisions in a new bill allowing Congress to review a final agreement.

Sherman, speaking at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, said that failing to reach an agreement would leave Tehran closer than ever to acquiring a bomb.

Without a deal, Sherman said, Iran would expand its nuclear enrichment program to 100,000 centrifuges in the next few years instead of shrinking that figure to 5,000 as agreed in the framework agreement brokered in Lausanne, Switzerland on April 2.

She also said Iran could produce enough weapons grade plutonium to produce two bombs each year. And in terms of uranium enrichment, the country could expand its already significant stockpile of 10 tons of enriched uranium.

In dealing with both of the emerging pathways to a bomb, she said an agreement would result in Iran having “zero weapons grade plutonium” and a stockpile of enriched uranium that is reduced by 98 percent. She added that if the U.S. backs out of a deal widely viewed as fair, international support for sanctions will whither away. [Continue reading…]

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Mohammad Javad Zarif: A message from Iran

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, writes: We made important progress in Switzerland earlier this month. With the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, we agreed on parameters to remove any doubt about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and to lift international sanctions against Iran.

But to seal the anticipated nuclear deal, more political will is required. The Iranian people have shown their resolve by choosing to engage with dignity. It is time for the United States and its Western allies to make the choice between cooperation and confrontation, between negotiations and grandstanding, and between agreement and coercion.

With courageous leadership and the audacity to make the right decisions, we can and should put this manufactured crisis to rest and move on to much more important work. The wider Persian Gulf region is in turmoil. It is not a question of governments rising and falling: the social, cultural and religious fabrics of entire countries are being torn to shreds. [Continue reading…]

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Nuclear deal may open door to detente with Iran

Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, writes: Powerful factions in the leadership remain deeply suspicious of the West and even of this agreement, believing that the international community is only interested in regime change, and that only through geopolitical adventurism and the projection of power can the regime be sustained. Failure of the negotiating process will only reinforce their hand.

Iranian reformists, on the other hand, support a nuclear deal because it would be a first step in the evolution they would like to see. But its successful enactment would just be the opening salvo in a struggle between these two visions of Iran. Much will depend on President Rouhani’s ability to continue satisfying the electorate’s demand for change. The next showdown will come when a group of elders charged with selecting the next Supreme Leader get elected next winter. The third showdown comes with Parliamentary balloting in the spring of 2016, with the final showdown being the Presidential election in 2017.

Which of these two visions wins out will become clear over the next several years and will have tremendous repercussions for the future of the Middle East. It might also have tremendous repercussions for American foreign policy, pushing open a door which has remained closed for more than 35 years. Exposure to the Iranian people, and their exposure to us, may yield new opportunities to discourage Iranian support for terrorist groups and other abusive regimes where they exercise influence. It would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Detente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide. [Continue reading…]

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Congress can’t stop Iran sanctions unraveling

Barbara Slavin writes: For months now, Russia has been a constructive member of the international consortium negotiating with Iran, often proposing creative fixes to technical hurdles.

But this week, just as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was taking up sensitive Iran-related legislation, Russia announced that it was going forward with an old contract to sell Iran an air defense missile system that could make it less vulnerable to foreign attack.

The deal to supply the S-300 is not illegal under UN sanctions, which prohibit selling offensive heavy weaponry to Iran. The message the Kremlin is sending is that Russia is not willing to wait for the conclusion of negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program to lock in the benefits of resumed trade with the Islamic Republic.

It is unfortunate that the government of Vladimir Putin didn’t wait a few months longer. Critics of the Iran deal have been quick to pounce on the announcement as proof that the Barack Obama administration was somehow duped by Moscow and that the Iran framework so laboriously negotiated over the past 13 months is a “sucker’s deal.”

A more insightful way to read Russia’s act is to see it as a recognition of reality that the elaborate web of multilateral sanctions imposed on Iran over the past five years is unraveling and only an egregious Iranian effort to break out and build a nuclear weapon could arrest that momentum. [Continue reading…]

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Iranian president: We are in talks with ‘the major powers,’ not the U.S. Congress

The Washington Post reports: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Wednesday that Tehran was negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers, not the U.S. Congress, and called a Senate committee’s vote to give Congress the power to review any potential deal a domestic U.S. matter.

The Iranian leader, speaking in a televised speech in the northern Iranian city of Rasht, also repeated earlier statements that his country will not accept any comprehensive nuclear deal with world powers unless all sanctions imposed against it are lifted.

“We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress,” Rouhani said, Iranian state television reported. Rouhani said the U.S. Congress’ power to review a nuclear deal with Iran was a domestic U.S. matter, the Reuters news agency reported.

He said Iran wanted to end its isolation from the world by constructing “constructive interaction with the world and not confrontation.”

Rouhani’s comments came one day after a Senate committee voted unanimously to give Congress the power to review a potential Iran nuclear deal after a June 30 negotiating deadline, in a compromise with the White House that allows President Obama to avoid possible legislative disapproval of the pact before it can be completed. [Continue reading…]

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Why has Russia lifted its ban on delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran?

The Wall Street Journal reports: The Kremlin lifted its self-imposed ban on the delivery of a powerful missile air-defense system to Iran on Monday, stoking sharp criticism from the White House and Israel and casting fresh doubt on the international effort to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

U.S. lawmakers seized on Moscow’s announcement Monday to warn Russia was among a host of foreign countries using the prospect of a nuclear deal to begin seeking out lucrative business deals that could bolster Iran’s military and economy.

Any delivery of an air-defense system would complicate airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities by Israel or the U.S. should the diplomatic track fail.

Iran thinks that Russia will deliver the missile system this year, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told the Interfax news agency in Moscow on Tuesday.

The U.S. Senate is set to vote this week on legislation that would provide Congress with the power to approve, amend or kill any agreement that seeks to curb Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for a lifting of international sanctions.

Supporters of the bill, Republican and Democrat, said Russia’s lifting of its ban on the S-300 surface-to-air missile system could be just the beginning of countries testing the sanctions regime and a United Nations arms embargo on Iran.

“Before a final nuclear deal is even reached, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has started to demolish international sanctions and ignore the U.N. arms embargo,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.), who sponsored legislation that seeks to impose new sanctions on Iran if a final deal isn’t reached by June 30.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the defensive systems didn’t come under the U.N. arms embargo, and that Russia implemented the S-300 ban voluntarily. “This was done in the spirit of good will to stimulate progress in the negotiations,” he said, adding that it was no longer necessary.

The State Department also said that the embargo imposed on Iran in 2010 didn’t prevent the delivery of S-300s. But the White House warned that the missile system, while defensive, could enhance Iran’s ability to challenge key U.S. allies in the Middle East, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

It said that Secretary of State John Kerry raised the issue with Mr. Lavrov on Monday.

Still, the Obama administration was measured in its criticism, noting that it didn’t believe the proposed missile sale would jeopardize the nuclear negotiations. [Continue reading…]

Some analysts may interpret Putin’s move as an effort to undermine the nuclear deal with Iran, but one can argue that on the contrary, the planned delivery of S-300 missiles may make the conclusion of the deal a fait accompli.

With an elastic clock, Benjamin Netanyahu has long favored a breathless time is running out narrative when it comes to closing the door on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

If no deal is signed and within a few months Iran’s newly-reinforced defense systems make its nuclear sites extremely difficult to attack, 2015 is probably the last year that Israel could launch or instigate air strikes on Iran. It has never been plausible that it could conduct such attacks on its own, but the timing for it to enlist the support of others has probably never been worse.

The U.S. and Iran are effectively on the same side in a war against ISIS. American forces currently in Iraq would definitely become very vulnerable if the U.S. soon started bombing Iran.

Moreover, as Yemen becomes a quagmire for Saudi Arabia, an attack on Iran would likely become the tipping point for the current matrix of regional conflicts to start hopelessly spinning out of control.

Putin’ intention in approving the delivery of S-300 missiles at this juncture might simply be to push Russia first out of the gate in the race to cash in on the rewards from the inevitable ending the economic embargo on Iran.

Those who currently argue that the framework agreement is not good enough are rapidly being confronted with the reality that either the deal gets struck by the end of June or within a fairly short period Iran will see dwindling incentives for making any deal. Time is on Iran’s side.

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Netanyahu told cabinet: Our biggest fear is that Iran will honor nuclear deal

Haaretz reports: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a recent meeting of the security cabinet that if a comprehensive nuclear agreement between Iran and the six world powers is indeed signed by the June 30 deadline, the greatest concern is that Tehran will fully implement it without violations, two senior Israeli officials said.

The meeting of the security cabinet was called on short notice on April 3, a few hours before the Passover seder. The evening before, Iran and the six powers had announced at Lausanne, Switzerland that they had reached a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and that negotiations over a comprehensive agreement would continue until June 30.

The security cabinet meeting was called after a harsh phone call between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama over the agreement with Tehran.

The two senior Israeli officials, who are familiar with the details of the meeting but asked to remain anonymous, said a good deal of the three-hour meeting was spent on ministers “letting off steam” over the nuclear deal and the way that the U.S. conducted itself in the negotiations with Iran.

According to the two senior officials, Netanyahu said during the meeting that he feared that the “Iranians will keep to every letter in the agreement if indeed one is signed at the end of June.”

One official said: “Netanyahu said at the meeting that it would be impossible to catch the Iranians cheating simply because they will not break the agreement.” [Continue reading…]

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Netanyahu’s phony claim that he wants ‘a better deal’ with Iran

Jessica T. Mathews writes: By definition, a negotiated agreement is imperfect. This one in particular entails risks, costs, extended vigilance, and a significant chance of future failure. Judging it begins and ends with clarity about what choices are truly before us. That has a simple answer: there are only two alternatives to a negotiated deal.

One is a return to the situation that prevailed for a decade before negotiations began and before an interim agreement was reached at the end of 2013. In the best case (in which Iran is seen to have been the cause of negotiating failure), punishing multilateral sanctions would continue. Iran’s leaders would respond as they have before, standing up to foreigners’ pressure by continuing their nuclear program—adding more advanced centrifuges, stockpiling enriched uranium, completing a reactor that produces plutonium, and taking Iran to the threshold of a nuclear weapon and perhaps beyond. There might continue to be some international inspectors on the ground, though with far less access than at present.

We know where this option leads, for it has been well tested. In 2003, the US rejected an Iranian proposal that would have capped its centrifuges at 3,000. By the time the current negotiations started a decade later, the standoff created by more sanctions and more centrifuges had resulted in costs of nearly $100 billion to Iran from sanctions and its production of 19,000 centrifuges. The lesson of sanctions — from Cuba to Russia and beyond — is that they can impose a cost on wrongdoing, but if the sanctioned country chooses to pay the price, sanctions cannot prevent it from continuing the sanctioned activities.

The second alternative is bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. Even supporters of this option do not believe that it would do more than delay Iran’s progress by more than two to four years. It would certainly unite all Iranians around the absolute necessity of having a nuclear deterrent. It would strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, radicalizing its politics and probably prolonging clerical rule. While the bombed facilities were being rebuilt, with more of them being put securely underground, there would be no inspectors or cameras. Outsiders would know far less than they do now about what is being built and where or how close Iran had come to producing a bomb. Soon another round of bombing would be necessary.

Is there a third alternative, namely a tougher deal that requires no enrichment in Iran and the destruction of its nuclear infrastructure? Prime Minister Netanyahu promised in his appearance before Congress that the US can get such a deal by “call[ing] their bluff.” Simply walk away from the table and “they’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.” If sanctions brought Iran to the table, this argument goes, more sanctions and more pressure will get us everything we want. It sounds reasonable, but it fails on closer inspection.

First, of course, the argument ignores the essence of negotiation — that neither side gets everything it wants. Also, although it is true that sanctions are imposing real pain on the Iranian economy, there are many in Iran’s power elite, especially in the Revolutionary Guard, who profit from the country’s isolation and would welcome continuing sanctions. Others oppose a deal for ideological reasons. The balance in Iranian politics that brought negotiators into serious talks for the first time was long in coming and remains precarious. If the US were to reverse course, abandoning negotiations in hopes of a winner-take-all outcome, Iran would follow suit.

Moreover, if other nations found America’s reasons for rejecting a deal unreasonable, support for multilateral sanctions would quickly erode. Soon we would be back to ineffective, unilateral sanctions.

The question, then, is whether proponents of this approach have diagnosed fundamental weaknesses in the deal that has been reached and genuinely believe that renewed negotiation could strengthen it, or whether they are counting on both sides walking away from the table and not returning. The fact that so many of them — emphatically including Netanyahu — trashed the deal before it existed and make demands they know to be nonnegotiable strongly suggests that the insistence that the US “negotiate a better deal” is phony. [Continue reading…]

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Is Netanyahu responsible for Iran deal?

Akiva Eldar writes: If the joint Lausanne statement becomes a permanent agreement between the superpowers and Iran, we will have to take off our hats to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. No one contributed more than he did to the removal, or at least the postponement, of the danger that power-hungry ayatollahs would have their fingers on a button of an atom bomb. Leaders have won the Nobel Prize for lesser achievements.

For years, Netanyahu forced the international community to put dealing with the Iranian nuclear program at the top of its agenda. If it weren’t for his threat (whether real or not) to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, it’s not certain that the powers would have united to ensure that Iran would have to make do with nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. If it weren’t for Netanyahu’s success in recruiting members of Congress to the initiative to intensify the sanctions on Iran, it’s quite doubtful that Tehran would have entered open negotiations with “the Great Satan.” Like the idea that only a conservative leader like Richard Nixon could have paved the way to US dialogue with Communist China, it can be said that only a conservative Israeli leader like Netanyahu could have paved the one to US dialogue with Shiite Iran.

Nevertheless, not only does Netanyahu not claim an iota of credit for the important achievement reached April 2 in Lausanne, but even before all the details of the agreement were known, the prime minister rushed to gather his Cabinet to disclaim it. He sent his ministers to radio and television studios with instructions to portray the agreement as a capitulation to a regime that strives to destroy Israel. And thus, Netanyahu admits to the failure of his life’s mission to save Israel from a second Holocaust. [Continue reading…]

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The Iran Project statement on the announcement of a framework for a comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran

Statement released by the Iran Project, April 6, 2015:

We welcome the announcement that the U.S. government and other major world powers have reached a framework accord to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

This achievement is the result of the sustained effort of the Foreign Ministers of seven governments spanning nearly 18 months, to put in place a set of constraints and inspections that would limit Iran’s nuclear program to peaceful purposes.

While technical details are still to be fully resolved, important U.S. objectives have been achieved:

  • uranium enrichment only at the Natanz plant and no enrichment at the underground facility at Fordow;
  • prohibition of the Arak heavy water research reactor from producing weapons grade plutonium or reprocessing to recover plutonium from spent fuel;
  • a reduction and then a limit on Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 KG for 15 years; broad and sweeping inspections and other constraints;
  • a two-thirds reduction in installed centrifuges for ten years; a range of limitations and inspections that will be in force over a 10-25 year period and some permanent inspections of the program.

We recognize that full evaluation must await a final comprehensive agreement. Important, difficult, and ambiguous issues still remain. Their resolution will be key to the solidity of the final agreement and its support in this country. They include:

  • what means will be used to limit the stockpile of Iran’s enriched uranium to 300 Kg of LEU for 15 years;
  • how the existing UNSC resolutions sanctioning Iran will be replaced by a resolution or resolutions that creates an approved procurement channel and places restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles;
  • what will be the set of measures that will address the IAEA’s concerns regarding the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s program;
  • what scale of uranium enrichment will be possible for Iran after ten years;
  • what will be the relationship between the lifting of sanctions and Iran’s performance;
  • what is the system for evaluating the severity of violations of the agreement and how would they trigger the snap-back of sanctions.

The framework will be examined and interpreted differently in the United States and Iran over the next three months. These negotiations have been among the most complex diplomatic efforts in recent history. Nevertheless, we believe the framework represents important progress toward our goal of blocking an Iranian nuclear weapon. [Read more…]

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Russia hails Iran nuclear deal, but is a mixed blessing for Moscow

The Wall Street Journal reports: Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee for Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote online that the deal was a “win-win” agreement that “proves international mechanisms are working.”

“This is very positive news that gives us hope not just on the Iranian issue, but on many others, including in the Middle East and in Europe (Ukraine),” he wrote.

Fainter praise from other politicians, however, underscored the diplomatic difficulties ahead for Russia, which may find its hand weakened as Iran and the West grow closer.

Alexei Pushkov, chairman for the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s lower house, suggested the achievement was overshadowed by the “significant dangers” posed by U.S. Republican lawmakers who have promised to reject the deal.

“It is the aggressive irresponsibility of the American Congress and its members, which is evident both in its attitude toward Russia and in its attitude toward Iran,” he said. “To what degree can we trust the American executive branch if part of Congress believes that it is possible to disavow an agreement with an American signature on it?”

Iran is one of Russia’s few remaining allies in the Middle East, along with the Shiite minority regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It has few friends among the predominantly Sunni nations in the region.

Under heavy pressure from the West, Russia was forced to scrap an $800 million contract to deliver the S-300 missile system to Iran in 2007. The military official told Interfax that a new contract could possibly include the S-300 system, as well as a range of other equipment. [Continue reading…]

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How a whiteboard served as intermediary between talks and text

The New York Times reports: Both sides made significant compromises. For the United States, that meant accepting that Iran would retain its nuclear infrastructure in some shrunken form. For Iran, it meant severe limits on its production facilities and submitting to what Mr. Obama has called the most intrusive inspections regime in history.

It is still far too early to tell if the compromises will survive the next and final negotiating round, or review in Washington and Tehran. The timing of sanctions relief remains unresolved, for example, and already the two sides are describing it in different terms.

But the events of the last two years, and particularly the past week, offer some fascinating insights into what happens when two countries that have barely spoken with each other for 35 years — and have a long and troubled history of mistrust, sabotage, lies and violence — all but move into the same hotel room to try to figure out how they are going to get along.

It is fairly certain there will be a lot more wrangling in the next three months as the negotiators seek to wrap up a final, comprehensive treaty. That is because the negotiators left the Beau Rivage Hotel with astoundingly high bills — suites run more than $1,500 a night — but not an agreed-upon document detailing Iran’s commitments and those of the United States and its negotiating partners.

Wherever Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, traveled in the ornate hotel here, she was trailed by a whiteboard, where the Iranians and the Americans marked down their understandings, sometimes in both English and Persian.

The board served a major diplomatic purpose, letting both sides consider proposals without putting anything on paper. That allowed the Iranians to talk without sending a document back to Tehran for review, where hard-liners could chip away at it, according to several American officials interviewed for this article, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

“It was a brilliantly low-tech solution,” one White House official said. (It also had its drawbacks. One American wrote on it with a regular marker, then had to scrub hard to wipe out some classified numbers.) [Continue reading…]

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Iranians celebrate nuclear deal: ‘This will bring hope to our life’

The Guardian reports: Jubilant Iranians took to the streets on Thursday night to celebrate news of a breakthrough in nuclear negotiations with the West, and to express their hopes that the deal will end years of international isolation and economic hardship – and avert the threat of war.

The news from Switzerland was especially sweet coming as Iranians celebrated the final day of their Nowruz new year holidays. Even though newspapers, bazaars and state institutions were closed, many welcomed the landmark agreement which they believe will have a dramatic effect on the lives of ordinary Iranians.

Drivers in the streets of Tehran honked their car horns as news of the deal started to break. At 1am in the morning, t the capital’s longest street, Val-e-Asr Avenue, was still lined with cars, with men and women waving flags and flashing V-for-victory signs from open windows.

“Whatever the final result of the negotiations, we are winners,” Behrang Alavi told AFP. “Now we will be able to live normally like the rest of the world.” [Continue reading…]

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Iran nuclear talks: the long and winding road to a landmark agreement

Julian Borger reports: When Kerry first met Zarif at the UN general assembly in September 2013, it was a historic rarity for two countries that had not had diplomatic relations for 33 years. By the time the framework deal was agreed, the two men had spent more time in each other’s company than with any other foreign official. The pressure from hardliners back home gave the negotiators common cause. And Kerry took Zarif’s recommendation on the best Persian restaurant in Switzerland. The US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, bonded with his opposite number, Ali Akbar Salehi, over physics and shared years teaching and studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When Salehi became a grandfather for the first time during the Lausanne talks, the New York Times reported, Moniz presented him with baby gifts embossed with the MIT logo.

They worked through weekends and holidays. As the talks approached and passed a deadline in July 2014 in Vienna, Zarif worked through Ramadan, but it was impossible to negotiate and fast at the same time. Shia Islam exempts you from fasting for ten days if you are away from home, but if you want to extend the exemption after that you have to travel just over 25 miles a day (equivalent to 8 farsang, an ancient measure of distance) to justify it. So Zarif would get in a car every day and be driven in and out of the Austrian capital until he had clocked up the requisite mileage.

The foreign ministers came and went, but the technical experts often stayed behind, renting apartments in the host cities. One European non-proliferation expert missed most of the early life of his first child, spending three-quarters of his time on the road. A few of the negotiators received lucrative job offers during the course of the talks but had to defer them until the deal was done. Kerry’s deputy and master-negotiator, Bill Burns, had to put off retirement because both the Obama administration and the Iranians insisted that he stay. At critical points along the way, the technical and legal specialists often had to negotiate through the night.

“A lot of time it is not a matter of who is the smartest person in the room. It is a question of who has the most stamina,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former state department official who worked on the Iran dossier. “And Kerry had an incredible amount of stamina.”

The desired end-state of the negotiation was clear enough: Iran’s programme had to be limited so that it would take the country’s leaders at least a year to make a bomb, if they decided to do so, giving the rest of the world time to react. In return, the stifling sanctions regime buildup over the past nine years would be dismantled.

However, getting to that end-state has been endlessly complex. Fixing Iran’s “breakout” time at a year is a function of numbers of centrifuges, their efficiency and the already low stockpile of enriched uranium. To verify their calculations, American scientists constructed mock-up cascades of Iran’s centrifuges, using machines of the same vintage taken from Libya. Working at a classified site, the centrifuges were spun in an effort to determine how long they would take to produce a bomb’s worth of weapons-grade uranium. The UK and Israel, and perhaps other western European states, also had smaller-scale centrifuge mock-ups, and made their own calculations of breakout times.

The complexities were not just scientific. The web of interlocking international sanctions posed dense legal challenges when it came to drawing up a timetable for their lifting that was acceptable to all sides. [Continue reading…]

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