U.S. Plans Direct Talks With Iran on Nuclear Program

The U.S. will hold direct talks with Iran this week at a critical juncture in the international effort to ensure the Islamic Republic doesn’t develop nuclear weapons.

Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Undersecretary for Political Affairs Wendy R. Sherman will lead a U.S. delegation that will meet with Iranian officials tomorrow and the next day in Geneva, according to the State Department.

Iran’s foreign ministry confirmed the talks and announced separate meetings with Russian officials to be held June 11-12 in Rome, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The U.S.-Iran talks take place a week before six world powers including the U.S. and Russia are scheduled to convene another round of international negotiations with Iran on June 16 in Vienna, seeking an agreement to constrain Iran’s disputed nuclear program and lift economic sanctions against the country.

U.S.-Iran “direct talks led to a breakthrough” last year that made possible a temporary accord freezing parts of Iran’s nuclear program, and “direct, in-depth, substantive talks are the only way to know if a final deal will be possible,” Nicholas Burns, a former deputy secretary of state now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said in an interview yesterday.

The interim accord reached Nov. 24, which traded limited relief from international sanctions for some nuclear concessions by Iran, expires July 20. The U.S. and its negotiating partners -- the U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia -- are seeking a comprehensive agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities before that deadline.

Diplomatic Testing

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is engaging in as much diplomacy as possible to test if a solution with Iran can be reached, and this week’s negotiations are part of that push, according to an administration official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks.

The U.S. team in Geneva will include Jake Sullivan, a deputy assistant to Obama and national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. Burns and Sullivan engaged in previously secret direct talks with Iranian officials last year. Initially conducted without the knowledge of the other five nations negotiating with Iran, the talks resulted in a draft version of the interim deal announced in November.

Assessing Khamenei

Burns and Sullivan are being dispatched again -- this time publicly -- to help try to assess if Iranian officials, particularly Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, are serious about ending any pursuit of nuclear weapons or if they are stalling for time and seeking to weaken economic sanctions, said one official involved in the deliberations.

When talks between Iran and the six nations faltered last month, the official said, that raised questions about Iran’s top leader’s intentions and how much leeway the country’s negotiators or President Hassan Rouhani had been given.

The renewed involvement of Burns “reflects both the difficulty of the negotiations and Obama’s strong desire to get an agreement,” said Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Burns is a unique asset for Obama in that he’s respected by both allies and adversaries abroad as well as Democrats and Republicans at home.”

European Union Political Director Helga Schmid will join at least one of the direct U.S.-Iran sessions in Geneva, which are being held in the context of the larger six-nation talks coordinated by the EU, Michael Mann, an EU foreign policy spokesman, said yesterday.

July Deadline

Both the U.S. and Iran have said they are open to extending the first-stage accord to allow more time for obtaining a final agreement, though it would require intense negotiations to agree on new terms, U.S. officials say. Congress has threatened new sanctions on Iran if a final deal isn’t completed by July 20.

The U.S. and other world powers accuse Iran of using its nuclear-energy program as a cover for clandestine weapons development and want to impose verifiable limits on Iran’s ability to make and store nuclear fuel. Iran says its nuclear work is only for civilian energy and medical research.

The last round of group talks in May laid bare significant differences on the terms of a permanent deal, making it critical for the U.S. to intensify efforts to test Iran’s willingness to make serious concessions, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on condition they not be named.

Counting Centrifuges

The main gap between the two sides, according to two Americans close to the talks, is over how many and what type of centrifuges Iran would be permitted - which translates into how much enriched uranium Iran could produce. Enriched uranium is used to power energy and medical reactors, and can be further enriched into bomb-grade fuel.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners say Iran doesn’t need large stockpiles of low-enriched uranium, because Russia supplies fuel for the main energy reactor at Bushehr. Ways to keep uranium stockpiles low might include staging the number of centrifuges in operation and assuring Iran of a multinational enrichment effort if it were to need more fuel in future.

Another challenge is persuading Iran to come clean about its clandestine weapons work.

Demands that Iran modify the Arak heavy-water reactor that’s still under development to prevent plutonium reprocessing - an alternate route to bomb-grade fuel - may be easier to resolve, said Thomas Pickering, a former undersecretary for political affairs who has been involved in Iran-U.S. relations for years.

‘Good News’

The return to direct U.S.-Iran talks is “very good news,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian-American Council and author of “A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama’s Diplomacy with Iran.”

“At later stages of negotiations you need to elevate the level of political authority,” Parsi said. “Some compromises, only the top people have authority to agree to.”

Michael Singh, a former director for Iran issues on the U.S. National Security Council, called the U.S.-Iran meeting “an effort to reinvigorate the talks in light of the seriousness of the gaps that remain” and “the limited time left to bridge them.”

Moving to direct talks reflects the hope that “it will be easier to get the Iranians to engage intensively and to hammer out difficult compromises in this format than in the larger group,” said Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

‘Realistic Deal’

Burns and the rest of the U.S. team “will be looking for clear signs that Iran is prepared to accept a realistic deal, so they can reassure Congress and allies that these talks are going somewhere,” he said. “If these talks fail, the process will be at a crossroads.”

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based research group, said the dispute is over how to restrict Iran’s capacity to produce nuclear fuel while ensuring the country can power civilian reactors.

The U.S. wants to ensure Iran doesn’t have a large number of centrifuges hooked up and operable or a significant stockpile of low-enriched uranium, either of which might allow its leaders to attempt a “fast-paced breakout,” or a rush to make bomb-grade fuel, explained Pickering, who also served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Abbas Sha’ri, Iran’s deputy oil minister and president of the National Petrochemical Company, said in an interview at the Iran Petrochemical Forum in Tehran that the upcoming direct talks raised his hopes that a deal can be achieved to lift sanctions on Iran’s oil industry.

“God willing, they’ll make friends,” Sha’ri said, smiling broadly. “We’ll make friends; eventually we have to put the brawling behind us.”

U.S. officials say Iran has suffered as much as $5 billion a month in lost oil sales - the country’s main source of revenue - since international sanctions were imposed in mid-2012.

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