Germany sees Iran as key to stabilizing Middle East


Germany wants to work with Iran to help calm regional conflicts now that the Islamic Republic is emerging from international isolation and also prevent tension escalating with regional rival Saudi Arabia, Germany's foreign minister said on Tuesday. 

Iran emerged from years of being considered a pariah state at the weekend after the United States, European Union and United Nations lifted sanctions linked to its nuclear program under an international deal which involved Germany.

Iran was the key to stabilizing the Middle East, referring to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, the minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said.

“We need Iran to calm the conflicts and re-establish stability in this crisis-hit region. And I hopeIran is ready for this,” Steinmeier told foreign journalists.

Steinmeier said calming the war in Syria was central to solving Europe's refugee crisis, which has prompted deep divisions within the EU on how to share the burden of accommodating the influx. 

Gulf Arab neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, accuse Iran of backing rebels in Yemen and pro-government militias in Syria. A mostly Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched a military offensive against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen in March.

Tensions rose further this month when Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shi'ite Muslim cleric, prompting an angry reaction from Shi-ite Iran.

Steinmeier said these tensions would not disappear soon but it was possible to build trust between the two regional rivals.

“Neighborly tensions, like those between Saudi Arabia and Iran, will not turn into friendship overnight,” he said.

“In a first step, a lot would be achieved if both sides brought the current situation under control, not let it escalate, and talked to each other,” he said.

“I am very confident that this new beginning of German-Iranian relations will be filled with substance,” Steinmeier told foreign journalists in Berlin.

Kerry extends Iran talks, French foreign minister returns


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his German and French counterparts extended marathon talks in Switzerland on Wednesday for a second day beyond a self-imposed deadline to reach a preliminary agreement with Iran on its nuclear program.

A diplomat close to the talks said late on Wednesday that a deal could be announced within hours but had not yet been reached, and the talks could still collapse.

Kerry and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced they would stay at least until Thursday. In a potentially hopeful sign, French Foreign Secretary Laurent Fabius returned for more talks after flying back to Paris the previous day because progress had been too slow.

Six world powers – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China – aim to stop Iran from gaining the capacity to develop a nuclear bomb. Tehran wants to lift international sanctions that have crippled its economy, while preserving what it says it its right to peaceful nuclear technology.

The sides were meant to reach a preliminary accord in the Swiss city of Lausanne which would provide an outline for a final deal to be reached by June 30. The preliminary deal was meant to be achieved by midnight on March 31, but the sides are under pressure not to go home empty handed.

The powers and Iran said they had moved closer, but both sides accused the other of refusing to offer proposals that would break the deadlock.

Washington said it was willing to walk away from the talks unless the sides could agree on a preliminary framework.

The talks represent the biggest chance of rapprochement between enemies Iran and the United States since the Iranian revolution in 1979, but face scepticism from conservatives in both Washington and Tehran.

Even if there is a preliminary deal, it will be fragile and incomplete and there is no guarantee that talks on a final deal would not collapse in the coming months.

CHAOS, DISUNITY

After missing the self-imposed March 31 deadline, the negotiators ended talks in the early morning hours of Wednesday with an air of chaos, disunity and cacophony as delegations scrambled to get contradictory viewpoints across.

Both Kerry and Germany's Steinmeier announced their intention to spend another night in Lausanne to build on the progress made.

“We continue to make progress but have not reached a political understanding. Therefore, Secretary Kerry will remain in Lausanne until at least Thursday morning to continue the negotiations,” Kerry's spokeswoman Marie Harf said.

A French official said late on Wednesday that Fabius had decided to return to rejoin the talks, adding that this was not necessarily a sign that a deal was close. ‎

All sides have described the talks as fragile. Asked by a reporter if collapse of the negotiations was a possibility, Germany's Steinmeier replied: “Naturally.”

“Whoever negotiates has to accept the risk of collapse,” he added. “But I say that in light of the convergence (of views) that we have achieved here in Switzerland, in Lausanne, it would be irresponsible to ignore possibility of reaching an agreement.”

He said he would consider further travel plans on Thursday morning depending on how the talks develop. New proposals and recommendations were expected later on Wednesday, he said, but the onus was on Tehran to make them.

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters it was the major powers who must budge, not Tehran.

“Progress and success of the talks depends on the political will of the other party … and this is an issue they have always had a problem with,” he told reporters.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters in Washington “the time has come for Iran to make some decisions”. He repeated a warning that the United States was prepared to walk away from the negotiations before a June 30 deadline if no political framework deal comes out of Lausanne.

But as negotiators from the powers met Zarif again on Wednesday, Iran expressed optimism that an initial agreement was within reach. So did Russia, which is Iran's main sympathizer among the powers.

Senior Iranian negotiator Abbas Araqchi told state television that Tehran hoped to wrap up the talks on Wednesday evening. He added that he expected the parties to issue a joint statement declaring that “progress has been made in the talks and that we have come to a solution on key issues. We will have the solutions in written form.”

Western officials questioned Araqchi's optimism.

“I think we have a broad framework of understanding, but there are still some key issues that have to be worked through,” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told the BBC.

The ultimate goal of the talks for Washington is to impose conditions on Iran that would increase the “breakout time” Tehran would need to develop a nuclear weapon if it should decide to pursue one.

That would mean limiting the number of centrifuges Iran can operate to make the enriched uranium that can be used to power a bomb, and reducing its stockpiles.

Washington's allies in the region, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia, are strongly skeptical of any deal.

Diplomats close to the talks said any preliminary deal would include a document with some key figures – such as permitted numbers for centrifuges and uranium stockpiles – though it would remain confidential for the foreseeable future.

A preliminary deal would be a major milestone toward a final accord, but it would only be a first step and reaching agreement on details by June 30 will be difficult.

The talks have stalled on the issues of Iran's nuclear centrifuge research, the lifting of U.N. sanctions and their restoration if Iran breaches the agreement.

Iran: nuclear talks might be extended if November deadline missed


Talks over Iran's nuclear program might be extended if disagreement over remaining issues cannot be resolved by a November deadline, Iran's top negotiator was quoted as saying on Friday, in the first hint an extension was being contemplated.

“Iran and the P5+1 (major world powers) are very serious on resolving the remaining disputes by November … but everything including an extension is possible if we cannot reach an agreement,” Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying by the semi-official Fars news agency.

Iran and the six – the United States, France, Germany, China, Russia and Britain – hope that resolving the more-than-decade-long nuclear standoff with Iran will reduce regional tensions and alleviate the risk of another war in the Middle East.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to use military force against Iranian atomic sites if diplomacy fails to defuse the standoff.

Iran rejects allegations from Western powers and their allies that it is seeking a nuclear weapons capability, but has refused to halt uranium enrichment, and been hit with U.S., European Union and U.N. Security Council sanctions as a result.

Top diplomats of the United States, Iran and the European Union will meet in Vienna next week to work on a comprehensive deal ahead of a Nov. 24 deadline, aimed at curbing Tehran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for gradually lifting sanctions against Iran.

“Iran and Western powers are very determined and serious to reach a result. Issues like enrichment and lifting of sanctions will be discussed in Vienna,” Araqchi said.

“We are still optimistic about meeting the deadline.”

Iranian and Western diplomats say significant differences remain over the future scope of Iran's uranium enrichment activity. Enrichment is a process of purifying uranium for use as fuel for power plants or, if enriched to a very high purity, for bombs.

A series of meetings have been held since early this year to try to narrow the gaps. A U.S. State Department spokeswoman said this week Washington still believed a deal was possible by the agreed target date.

In addition to enrichment, the speed of lifting sanctions is another sticking point, one on which Iranian and Western delegations have sharp differences.

ADEQUATE RESULTS NEEDED

The United States and Europeans are prepared to lift their unilateral sanctions very quickly in the event of an acceptable agreement, Western diplomats say, but U.N. measures would be ended gradually based on Iran's compliance with any future deal.

Araqchi hoped that substantial progress could be made in narrowing disagreements when Iran and the six powers meet next week.

“If we cannot reach adequate results this time (in Vienna) we will surely miss the (November) deadline,” Araqchi said. “Therefore, The West (P5+1) should use this opportunity and find proper solutions.”

Some analysts believe meeting the deadline is impossible.

“It’s become increasingly clear that a deal will not be struck by the 24 November deadline,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, director of the non-proliferation program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think-tank.

“But rather than a return to more sanctions and more centrifuges, another extension of the interim deal is the best fall-back alternative for both sides. Iranian officials are wise to start preparing their public for this outcome.”

Last year in Geneva, Iran and the six powers reached an interim agreement under which Tehran won some easing of sanctions in return for halting its most sensitive nuclear work.

But they failed to meet a July 20 target for a comprehensive agreement and they sat a new deadline of Nov. 24.

“Reaching a full-fledged agreement by 24 November no longer appears possible. What is possible is a breakthrough that could justify adding more time to the diplomatic clock,” said Iran analyst Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group think-tank.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Dominic Evans

Iran, six powers agree to four-month extension of nuclear talks


Iran and six world powers on Friday agreed to a four-month extension of negotiations on a long-term nuclear deal that would gradually end sanctions on Tehran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, diplomats close to the talks said.

Iran, the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China had set a July 20 deadline to complete a long-term agreement that would resolve the decade-old dispute over Tehran's nuclear ambitions. But diplomats said they were unable to overcome significant differences on major sticking points.

“We have reached an agreement to extend the talks,” a senior Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity. Several Western diplomats echoed his remarks.

The extension agreed to on Friday begins on July 21 and negotiations on a long-term deal are likely to resume in September, diplomats said. They added that the talks were set to conclude by late November.

It has been clear for days that Iran and the six powers would miss the Sunday deadline to reach an accord due to disagreements on a number of key issues in the discussions.

Among the issues dividing them are the permissible scope of Iran's nuclear fuel production capacity and how to address the country's suspected past atomic bomb research. The negotiations began in February in Vienna.

The talks are taking place because of a preliminary agreement reached in Geneva in November 2013 that gave Iran limited sanctions relief in exchange for halting some nuclear activities and created time and space for the negotiation of a comprehensive deal to end the decade-long dispute.

But it remains uncertain whether four more months of high-stakes talks will yield a final agreement, since the underlying differences remain significant after six rounds of meetings this year.

Western nations fear Iran's nuclear programme may be aimed at developing a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this.

The powers want Iran to significantly scale back its nuclear enrichment programme to make sure it cannot yield nuclear bombs. Iran wants sanctions that have severely damaged its oil-dependent economy to be lifted as soon as possible.

After years of rising tension between Iran and the West and fears of a new Middle East war, last year's election of a pragmatist, Hassan Rouhani, as Iran's president led to a thaw in ties that resulted in November's diplomatic breakthrough.

But Iran's new government still insists that the country has a right to develop a nuclear energy programme that includes the production of atomic fuel. The West fears that this fuel, if further processed, could also be used to make bombs.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told reporters earlier this week that Tehran would be willing to delay development of an industrial-scale uranium enrichment programme for up to seven years and to keep the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed so far for this purpose.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry joined the talks last weekend and held several face-to-face meetings with Zarif, but he said before leaving Vienna on Tuesday it was “crystal clear” that Iran keeping all of its existing centrifuges was out of the question.

The United States and its European allies also want Iran to accept restrictions on its nuclear programme for at least 10 years, which Tehran says is excessive.

Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Vienna and by Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow; Editing by Louise Ireland and Tom Brown

Iran a threat not just to Israel, says Germany’s Merkel


Germany views Iran as a potential threat not just to Israel, but also to European countries, Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday at a joint news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But she stopped short of endorsing her host's demand that Tehran give up all sensitive nuclear projects under any negotiated deal with world powers, and reiterated Berlin's opposition to Israeli settlements on occupied land where the Palestinians seek statehood.

Germany is Israel's most important ally in Europe, where the Netanyahu government frets it is losing support given troubled peace talks with the Palestinians. That makes Merkel's views a bellwether of European sentiment on Middle East issues.

The German chancellor visited Jerusalem with her cabinet to mark almost 50 years of bilateral ties with Israel, which was founded in part as a haven for survivors of the Holocaust.

“We see the threat not just as a threat for the state of Israel but as a general threat for Europe as well,” she said of a potential Iranian bomb, adding that Germany would pursue international talks with Tehran on its nuclear activities.

The diplomacy was kick-started with an interim deal in November, which Netanyahu blasted as an “historic mistake” for easing sanctions on Iran while leaving its infrastructure for enriching uranium and potentially producing plutonium.

Iran says its nuclear projects are for peaceful needs.

Netanyahu, whose country is widely believed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, acknowledged that world powers had “talked about the possibility of some enrichment” continuing in Iran as part of a final deal.

STATUS QUO

“I think it's a mistake,” he said. “Every single leader that I've talked to in the Middle East agrees with that position, whether they say so publicly or not. Why? Because if Iran really wants just civilian nuclear energy, then they don't need any enrichment. They don't need centrifuges.”

Asked if she agreed, Merkel was circumspect.

“It is clear that there is a difference of opinion here with regard to these negotiations and whether they ought to take place. We have set out on the path of low enrichment, but enrichment does take place and I believe that we can succeed,” she said.

“The question is whether we will be able to achieve a result that is better than the present state of affairs. We have decided it is better to participate in the negotiations because we believe that to be better than the status quo.”

Both Netanyahu and Merkel spoke out against calls in Europe for Israeli products to be boycotted in solidarity with the Palestinians, saying such measures hindered peacemaking.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry relaunched negotiations last July with the Palestinians seeking a state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Yet those efforts have snagged on long-running disputes, including Israel's demand to keep a presence in the West Bank, which it has peppered with Jewish settlements.

The United Nations and European Union deems the settlements illegal, a stand on which Merkel gave no ground in Jerusalem.

“For a two-state solution we need territorial integrity for the individual entities. In view of this, we regard the settlements question with concern and are not always of the same opinion” as Israel, she said.

Writing by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Noah Barkin and Madeline Chambers in Berlin, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alistair Lyon and Raissa Kasolowsky

After Geneva, Iran’s nuclear deal remains a conundrum


Last month’s nuclear deal with Iran has set off a cacophony of pro and con acrimony pitting public officials, academic experts and pundits against one another.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the interim accord a “historic mistake.” The Wall Street Journal headlined columnist Bret Stephens’ commentary that Geneva was “Worse Than Munich.”  Proponents took quite a different view.  Speaking to the country the evening of the deal, President Barack Obama declared “diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure — a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.” Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the accord “realistic” and “practical.”

The divide is no sanctimonious dust-up, but a genuine difference of opinion over the best strategy to halt Iran’s suspect nuclear program. The president’s stance — the hope that good-faith negotiation, however difficult, coupled with the continued application of the most onerous sanctions can resolve the issue — butts against the argument that negotiations and minimal sanctions relief simply oxygenates a regime on its last legs and riddled by economic and political dysfunction. In this latter view, now is not the time to sit with the Iranians. As famed human rights activist Natan Sharansky put it in the Wall Street Journal, now is the time to be firm and resolute. Both attributes, he argues, brought down the Soviet Union and can bring down Iran as well. 

However, history finds that both positions don’t quite compute. The fact remains, all courses of action mark a bet. Contrary to Sharansky’s portrait, Washington’s effort to bring down the Soviet Union marked a mixture of engagement and isolation. Even as Moscow’s union began to crack, the United States kept the lines of communication open. In the end, talking did not prevent collapse.    

But then there remains the other talk history. Here is where North Korea becomes the Iran-like poster child Netanyahu repeatedly reminds the international community about. And, indeed, the story is unsettling. In 1994, Washington and Pyongyang entered into an understanding known as the Agreed Framework. Under the accord, North Korea consented to freeze nuclear operations and eventually dismantle the suspect Yongbyong nuclear reactor. In return, the United States assisted in the provision of heating oil for North Korea, while assembling an international consortium to build two nuclear power plants. Then, in 2005, Pyongyang agreed to go further and abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons. A year later, it exploded its first nuclear device.    

This rather poor precedent for diplomatic success has multiple antecedents. Israel proved to be the first. During years of construction, the Israeli government represented to Washington that it intended the Dimona reactor to be a civil nuclear research enterprise. President John Kennedy didn’t buy it and committed himself to stop it. Correspondence between the young president and the wily David Ben-Gurion became testy, only to fall away with the assassination of the American leader.    

In South Asia, the United States went beyond talk to stop two nuclear programs by applying economic and military sanctions against both India and Pakistan, only to find that it had to shelve the effort against Islamabad as a greater priority — Pakistan’s importance in getting the Soviets out of Afghanistan — took precedence. For India, U.S. sanctions proved more a nuisance and were entirely lifted during the George W. Bush administration. 

Cases where diplomacy proved more effective — Taiwan and South Korea toyed with the nuclear weapons option — reflected the heavy reliance each placed on the American security blanket. Washington’s clear message: Alliances will be in jeopardy if allies proliferate.

Clearly, Iran is no South Korea or Taiwan, but neither is it North Korea. As Wendy Sherman, Washington’s lead Iran negotiator, put it, Iran is “a different time, different culture, a different system.” The result: Where North Korea sees isolation necessary for regime survival, Iran sees trouble. Evidently the goods of the good life attract many Iranians, and the leadership sees them as necessary for regime survival. But the good life is not sustainable if oil exports, accounting for three-quarters of the country’s total, shrink under the pressure of sanctions from 2.3 million barrels a day to 1 million barrels. Nor is there a good life for many with inflation running at 50 percent and unemployment at 25 percent.  While international sanctions are not the sole cause of Iran’s economic malaise, they evidently have been onerous enough to bring Iran to the bargaining table to sign on to the Geneva Accord.

It is worth noting what a change this is. Although the recent bargaining has drawn much attention, it was not a de novo but the culmination of a decade-long effort that commenced in earnest in 2003, when European negotiators attempted to talk Iran out of enrichment. While there remains debate about possible missed opportunities in these and later talks, the dragging of time the negotiations allowed permitted Iran — like North Korea — to expand its nuclear venture dramatically. The question today is whether the costs of this effort have now come home to roost to force Iran to curtail its nuclear activities.

Implementation of the interim agreement will be the first test. True, it does not eliminate Iran’s weapons breakout capacity, but it does curtail the known enterprise. Significant is the rollback of Tehran’s 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, something the international community has been striving to achieve for years. Iran also will cap its low-enrichment stocks and limit operation of its 19,000 centrifuges to the 10,000 operating today. While not ideal — ideal would be the cessation of all enrichment mandated by the Security Council — it is better than the alternative, continued unabated operations.

Arguably less impressive is Iran’s commitment not to commission the Arak reactor during the next six months, an objective it was not likely to fulfill in any event, although the agreement to halt production, testing or transfer of fuel or installation of reactor components will slow the plant’s completion.

Finally, the interim agreement expands the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) verification, allowing daily visits to enrichment sites. But here the news looks better on paper than it actually is. The IAEA already monitors Fordow and Natanz with cameras and periodic visits. However, “managed access” to centrifuge production and storage sites mark a first, giving international inspectors a far better overview of Iran’s future centrifuge capacity. Other concessions granted IAEA in separate negotiations — allowance to visit a uranium mine, heavy water production plant, access to information on all research reactors, plans for additional enrichment plants and laser enrichment — still do not get to the core of the nuclear watchdog’s effort to unravel what Iran is up to.

So what does Iran get out of this? The benefits seem rather modest — a waiver in trade of petro chemical, gold and precious metal, automobile and civil airline parts in addition to the repatriation of some $7 billion held abroad that Tehran may attempt to leverage, still a relatively small sum considering the country’s economic needs.  

As we look forward, Iran’s compliance with the spirit and letter of Geneva’s interim accord will be a test. If Tehran fails the test, the more ambitious permanent agreement will never advance to signature. But even fidelity offers no guarantee, as U.S. and allied demands in the next round of talks reportedly will be much tougher: Closure of the heavily bunkered Fordow enrichment plant and dramatic reductions of operations at Natanz, allowing it just to produce enough low-enriched uranium to meet the country’s minimal civil nuclear needs. Dismantlement or conversion of the Arak nuclear plant to a far less threatening light water reactor. Granting the IAEA unfettered access to the totality of Iran’s nuclear activities.

Should these talks fail, waiting in the wings will be the Sharansky template to isolate Iran further. But it, too, promises no certainties of anything. Still, it may force the mullahs to make a difficult choice: One, accept the costs of economic sanctions, believing the country will adapt if it believes that maintaining a nuclear weapons breakout capability best assures national survival. The other, bend as little as necessary to P5+1 demands, hoping that tension relaxation will be sufficient to support the regime’s tottering economic foundation without undermining the hostility to the West and Israel the regime needs to justify its rule.

In the interim, the next round of negotiations will have to play out.  

Stay tuned.


Bennett Ramberg served as a foreign policy analyst in the Department of State, Bureau of Politico-Military Affairs in the George H.W. Bush administration. His academic appointments included positions at Princeton and UCLA. The author of three books on international politics and editor of three others, Ramberg is best known for what many believe is the classic treatment of the consequences of military strikes on nuclear installations, “Nuclear Power Plants as Weapons for the Enemy” (University of California Press).

Tough road lies ahead after landmark Iran nuclear deal


President Barack Obama has pulled off a historic deal with Iran on curbing its nuclear program but he and other global leaders now have tough work ahead turning an interim accord into a comprehensive agreement.

In a sign of how difficult the coming talks will be, some differences emerged between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart in their public presentation of a key part of the deal – whether or not Iran preserved the right to enrich uranium.

Obama also has to persuade its ally Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced the deal as a “historic mistake,” that the accord will reduce and not increase the threat from its arch foe Iran. And he has to sell the accord to skeptics in Congress, including some in his own Democratic Party, who have been pressing for more sanctions on Iran.

The breakthrough accord was reached in the middle of the night at talks in Geneva between Iran, the United States, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany. It won the critical endorsement of Iranian clerical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini and marked a clear turn in a U.S. relationship with Iran that has been fraught since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and vexed for years over the Iranian nuclear program.

But nobody doubted that tough work lies ahead in moving on from the initial deal that allows a six-month period of limits to Iran's nuclear program in exchange for up to $7 billion worth of sanctions relief, while leaving both the program and the sanctions in place.

“Now the really hard part begins and that is the effort to get the comprehensive agreement, which will require enormous steps in terms of verification, transparency and accountability,” Kerry said as he began a meeting with British Foreign Minister William Hague in London.

The agreement, which halts Iran's most sensitive nuclear activity, its higher-grade enrichment of uranium, was tailored as a package of confidence-building steps towards reducing decades of tension and ultimately creating a more stable, secure Middle East.

SANCTIONS RELIEF

Iranian Foreign Minister and chief negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif flew home from Geneva to a welcoming crowd, a reflection of the relief felt by many Iranians exhausted by isolation and sanctions that have been particularly punishing in the last two years.

Zarif said in an interview broadcast on state television that Iran would move quickly to start implementing the agreement and it was ready to begin talks on a final accord.

“In the coming weeks – by the end of the Christian year – we will begin the program for the first phase. At the same time, we are prepared to begin negotiations for a final resolution as of tomorrow,” Zarif said.

Illustrating the delicate dance that looms, he and Kerry differed in their public descriptions of the part of the agreement regarding Iran's right to enrich uranium.

Sunday's agreement said Iran and the major powers aimed to reach a final deal that would “involve a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs, with agreed limits on scope and level of enrichment activities.”

Before heading to Geneva, Zarif had a crucial meeting with Khamenei in the presence of Rouhani, a senior member of the Iranian delegation said.

“The leader underlined the importance of respecting Iran's right to enrich uranium and that he was backing the delegation as long as they respected this red line,” said the delegate.

What emerged in the text on Sunday was wording that both sides could live with.

Speaking on Iran's Press TV, Zarif said the deal was an opportunity for the West to restore trust with Iran, adding Tehran would expand cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, to address what he called some concerns.

“In the final step, the (uranium) enrichment process will be accepted and at the same time all the sanctions will be lifted,” Zarif said.

However, on the ABC News program “This Week,” Kerry stressed that such a right would be limited and would come about as a result of future negotiations.

He said that under the terms of the agreement, “there will be a negotiation over whether or not they could have a very limited, completely verifiable, extraordinarily constrained program, where they might have some medical research or other things they can do, but there is no inherent right to enrich…”

CRITICS AT HOME AND ABROAD

The deal also leaves Washington with the task if patching strained ties with its staunch Middle East ally Israel.

Obama telephoned Netanyahu to reassure him that Washington would continue to stand by Israel and to suggest that the United States and Israel should quickly start consultations on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Obama – who raised the idea of a rapprochement with Iran when he was campaigning ahead of his first presidential election win in 2008 – will also have to deal with critics at home.

On Sunday, even some of his fellow Democrats were strongly critical of the pact. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate and a Banking Committee member said: “A fairer agreement would have coupled a reduction in sanctions with a proportionate reduction in Iranian nuclear capability.”

But it seemed likely that Congress will give him room to see if the agreement works.

Democrats such as Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is known as a hawk on Iran, made clear that any new sanctions would include a six-month window before they took effect. That would allow time to see if Iran is sticking by the pact.

Senators have been discussing for months imposing even tighter Iran sanctions, which could anger Tehran and put Sunday's interim deal reached in Geneva in jeopardy. And pro-Israel lobbying organizations – among the most effective interest groups in Washington – have failed so far to persuade lawmakers to tighten the sanctions screw on Iran.

The agreement does not need to be ratified by Congress and Obama is using his executive power to temporarily suspend some existing U.S. sanctions on Iran.

The deal halts Iran's progress on its nuclear program, including construction of the Arak research reactor. It will neutralize Iran's stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which is close to the level needed for weapons, allow increased U.N. nuclear inspections, and halt uranium enrichment over a fissile purity of 5 percent.

In return the accord grants about $7 billion in potential relief from sanctions. It will allow a potential access to $1.5 billion in trade in gold and precious metals and the suspension of some sanctions on Iran's auto sector and petrochemical exports, and also give Iran access to some $4.2 billion in sales from its reduced oil exports.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Fredrik Dahl, John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Justyna Pawlak in Geneva, Alexei Anischuk and Katya Golubkova in Moscow, Isabel Coles, Jon Hemming and Yara Bayoumy in Dubai, Caren Bohen, Patricia Zengerle and Will Dunham in Washington, Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Frances Kerry and Grant McCool)

Iran, six world powers clinch breakthrough nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers reached a breakthrough deal on Sunday to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief, in what could be the first sign of an emerging rapprochement between the Islamic state and the West.

Aimed at ending a dangerous standoff, the agreement between Iran and the United States, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia was nailed down after more than four days of negotiations in the Swiss city of Geneva.

The accord was designed as a package of confidence-building steps to ease decades of tensions and confrontation and banish the spectre of a Middle East war over Tehran's nuclear aspirations.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who has been coordinating talks with Iran on behalf of the major powers, said it created time and space for talks aimed at reaching a comprehensive solution to the dispute.

“This is only a first step,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a news conference. “We need to start moving in the direction of restoring confidence, a direction in which we have managed to move against in the past.”

In Washington, President Barack Obama said the deal was an important first step towards a comprehensive solution to Iran's nuclear programme.

The West fears that Iran has been seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. The Islamic Republic denies that, saying its nuclear programme is a peaceful energy project.

A senior U.S. official said the agreement halted progress on Iran's nuclear programme, including construction of the Arak research reactor, which is of special concern for the West as it can yield potential bomb material.

It would neutralise Iran's stockpile of uranium refined to a fissile concentration of 20 percent, which is a close step away from the level needed for weapons, and calls for intrusive U.N. nuclear inspections, the official said.

Iran has also committed to stop uranium enrichment above a fissile purity of 5 percent, a U.S. fact sheet said.

Refined uranium can be used to fuel nuclear power plants – Iran's stated goal – but also provide the fissile core of an atomic bomb if refined much further.

The deal has no recognition of an Iranian right to enrich uranium and sanctions would still be enforced, the U.S. official added.

Iran will get access to $4.2 billion in foreign exchange as part of the accord, and is also expected to receive limited sanctions relief on gold, petrochemicals and autos, a Western diplomat said.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a Twitter message that it was an “important and encouraging” first-stage agreement with Iran, whose nuclear programme “won't move forward for 6 months and parts rolled back.”

'CHRISTMAS PRESENT'

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said the deal only confirmed Iran's right to civil nuclear power.

“After years of blockages, the agreement in Geneva on Iran's nuclear programme is an important step to preserving security and peace,” Fabius said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers of the five other world powers joined the negotiations with Iran early on Saturday as the two sides appeared to be edging closer to a long-sought preliminary agreement.

The Western powers' goal was cap Iran's nuclear energy programme, which has a history of evading U.N. inspections and investigations, to remove any risk of Tehran covertly refining uranium to a level suitable for bombs.

Tehran, whose oil-dependent economy has been severely damaged by tightening Western sanctions over the past few years, denies it would ever “weaponise” enrichment.

Diplomacy was stepped up after the landslide election of Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate, as Iranian president in June, replacing bellicose nationalist Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani aims to mend fences with big powers and get sanctions lifted. He obtained crucial public backing from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, keeping powerful hardline critics at bay.

On a Twitter account widely recognised as representing Rouhani, a message said after the agreement was announced, “Iranian people's vote for moderation & constructive engagement + tireless efforts by negotiating teams are to open new horizons.”

The OPEC producer rejects suspicions it is trying covertly to develop the means to produce nuclear weapons, saying it is stockpiling nuclear material for future atomic power plants.

Before Sunday's agreement, Israel said the deal being offered would give Iran more time to master nuclear technology and amass potential bomb fuel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told local media in Moscow on Thursday that Iran was essentially given an “unbelievable Christmas present – the capacity to maintain this (nuclear) breakout capability for practically no concessions at all”.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Fredrik Dahl, John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Louis Charbonneau in Geneva, Katya Golubkova in Moscow, Isabel Coles in Dubai; Writing by Fredrik Dahl; Editing by Peter Cooney

Iran, world powers meet in Kazakhstan on Islamic Republic’s nuclear program


Iran and six world powers are meeting for talks on Iran's nuclear program.

The talks began Tuesday in Kazakhstan. It is the first negotiations to be held in nearly eight months. The world powers are made up of Germany and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: United States, France, Britain, Russia and China.

In advance of the meetings, the United States proposed an easing, but not lifting, of sanctions on Iran in exchange for greater transparency.

Since the last talks eight months ago, Iran reportedly has expanded its nuclear program and is believed to be closer than ever to building a nuclear bomb.

Also during those eight months, the Western powers have levied severe economic sanctions on Iran.

Iran denies Western claims that it has a nuclear weapons program and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.

Iran claims new uranium deposits


Iran claimed to have uncovered new deposits of uranium ahead of talks with world powers on its nuclear capacity.

Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of the country's Atomic Energy Organization, made the announcement at an annual conference on the nuclear industry, Reuters reported Sunday, quoting Iranian media.

Abbasi-Davani told the conference that Iran will put the raw uranium “to use in the near future.”

Iran was believed to be running out of sources for raw uranium because of tough sanctions aimed at forcing the country to make its nuclear program more transparent.

Representatives of Iran are scheduled to meet this week in Kazakhstan with representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany to advance talks that would ease the sanctions in exchange for greater transparency. Iran denies Western claims that it has a nuclear weapons program and says its nuclear plans are peaceful.

The report by Reuters citing Irna, the Iranian news agency, also said that Iran had identified 16 new sites for nuclear power plants.

Separately, The Associated Press reported over the weekend that Iran claimed to have forced down an unmanned drone in its airspace.

Iran has made several such claims; they have not been verified.

The claims are significant because the ability to guide down the aircraft — as opposed to shooting them down — would suggest that Iran has the capability to breach the codes of the Western militaries that have launched the drones.

Iran talks to resume soon, reports say


Iran and the six major world powers it deals with on nuclear issues are preparing for talks, according to multiple reports.

Meetings between Iran and representatives of the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany could come as soon as the week before the New Year, the Washington Post reported over the weekend.

The six countries will offer Iran assistance on its civilian nuclear program and a lifting on a ban of the sale of airplane parts in exchange for verifiable limits on activities that could relate to a suspected nuclear weapons program, the newspaper said.

Iran, too, appears ready for new talks.

“The two sides (Iran and the world powers) have reached a conclusion that they must exit the current stalemate,” Irani Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was quoted as telling the independent Iranian Students' News Agency, according to a report Monday by Reuters.

Israel wants an end to all uranium enrichment, while the major powers have suggested that they will settle for enrichment for civilian purposes.

The Obama administration this year persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government to step back from threats of military action at least until the spring to see if tightening economic sanctions and diplomatic outreach could achieve a breakthrough.

Both governments remain in close contact on the issue. Andrew Shapiro, the assistant secretary of state for military affairs, met with Israeli officials from Dec. 12 to 14, just as news of renewed talks with Iran was leaked.

On Dec. 13, the Obama administration announced new sanctions targeting individuals and entities affiliated with Iranian nuclear research and development.

Congress is considering new sanctions, over Obama administration objections, that would target entities that circumvent banking sanctions by trading oil for bullion with Iran.

Iran nuke talks stall over sanctions


Talks between world powers and Iran on its nuclear program have stalled over Iran’s reluctance to advance without sanctions concessions.

The talks Wednesday in Baghdad between Iran and Russia, the United States, China, Britain France and Germany ended inconclusively, multiple media reports said, because Iran wanted a hold on major European oil sanctions set to kick in July 1 in exchange for staying at the table.

Western powers have emphasized that sanctions would remain in place until Iran provably made its program more transparent and suspended some enrichment of uranium—a key demand of Israel, which has expressed concern that Iran is buying time with the talks.

It was not clear when talks would resume; they could be delayed until next month, according to various media.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. Western experts say evidence increasingly suggests that Iran is close to a capability to build a nuclear weapon.

Obama responds to Netanyahu’s Iran ‘freebie’ comment


President Obama responded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that world powers gave Iran a “freebie” by agreeing to hold more talks.

“We’re going to keep on seeing if we make progress. Now, the clocking is ticking and I’ve been very clear to Iran and to our negotiating partners that we’re not going to have these talks just drag out in a stalling process. But so far at least we haven’t given away anything,” Obama said late Sunday during a news conference in Cartagena, Colombia.

“The notion that somehow we’ve given something away or a ‘freebie’ would indicate Iran has gotten something. In fact, they’ve got some of the toughest sanctions that they’re going to be facing coming up in just a few months if they don’t take advantage of these talks,” Obama added.

Talks between Iran and the six world powers – the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany – on Iran’s nuclear program resumed on April 14 after more than a year’s hiatus. The sides agreed to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad.

“My initial impression is that Iran has been given a freebie. It’s got five weeks to continue enrichment without any limitation, any inhibition,” Netanyahu said Sunday in Israel.

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes; the Western world fears that Iran may be enriching uranium in order to produce a nuclear bomb. Netanyahu has called on the international community to halt Iran’s nuclear production by force if necessary, and has warned that the window in which to prevent Iran’s production of a nuclear bomb is rapidly closing.

Dump Iranian minister, German foundation told


Iran critics are calling on a German foundation to cut ties with a board of trustees member who has called for Israel’s destruction.

The Stop the Bomb campaign has called for the ouster of Mostafa Dolyata, Iran’s acting vice minister, from the board of the Schloss Neuhardenberg Foundation, a German banking group foundation.

According to the campaign, which pushes for stronger sanctions against Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions, Dolatya told an Iranian news agency in June 2010, “We hope that the prophecy of the Imam [Khomeini] regarding the downfall of this regime [Israel] will occur very soon and that we will be witnesses of it.”

Michael Spaney, a spokesman in Germany for Stop the Bomb, said in a news release that “An anti-Semite who welcomes the annihilation of Israel is simply out of place as a board member in a democratic foundation.

Spaney also said that no one who represents a regime that oppresses its own people should be acceptable for a German foundation whose founder was moved by “ethically grounded resistance against a dictatorial, unjust regime,” according to the foundation’s website.

A foundation spokesman told The Jerusalem Post that the foundation would examine whether its longstanding contacts with Iran would continue following the restructuring of the board. Jorg Kronsbein said Mostafa’s anti-Israel comment “was not known” to the foundation” and called it “entirely unacceptable.”

Obama, Merkel discuss new Iran sanctions


President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed imposing new sanctions on Iran. 

“We agreed that if the International Atomic Energy Agency this week determines again that Iran is continuing to ignore its international obligations, then we will have no choice but to consider additional steps, including potentially additional sanctions, to intensify the pressure on the Iranian regime,” Obama said in a joint news conference after his meeting Tuesday with Merkel.

The Obama administration joined European nations a year ago in pushing through the U.N. Security Council enhanced sanctions targeting Iran’s financial institutions.

Merkel suggested that she would join the United States in pushing back against a Palestinian attempt to secure U.N. recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

“Unilateral measures are not helping at all to bring about this cause, and we agree that we wish to cooperate very closely on this because as we both say, time is of the essence,” the German leader said. “And looking at the changes in the Arab area and the Arab region, it would be a very good signal indeed if it came out that talks between the parties are again possible.”

Shut down Iranian bank, Germany’s leaders say


A call by Germany’s top Jewish leader for the European Iranian Bank of Commerce in Hamburg to be shut down was echoed by the German government.

Shortly after Dieter Graumann, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, made his statement to the Handelsblatt online newspaper, the government of Angela Merkel announced that no further payments from India for Iranian crude oil may go through the German banking system.

“This bank should not be part of the world of German banking—it should be banned,” Graumann said Monday.

Graumann’s remarks followed revelations that India, under pressure from the United States to halt trade with Iran, planned to deposit billions of dollars in payments for Iranian crude oil in the Bundesbank, Germany’s Federal Bank. The intention was for the bank to transfer about $12 billion annually to Iran via the Bank of Commerce in Hamburg.

Now Merkel says no further Indian oil payments to Iran may be made through Germany, the Handelsblatt reported.

According to the German Ministry of Finance, the Bundesbank must be notified of transactions of more than 10,000 euro, or about $14,000, involving Iran, and must give explicit approval to any transaction worth more than 40,000 euro, or nearly $57,000, in keeping with EU sanctions imposed on Iranian business.

The Bundesbank had argued that it could not stop the deal because it had no relation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In a statement issued to JTA last week, a bank spokesperson said both the German government and Bundesbank “abide strictly and completely by the standards set by the United Nations … and the European Union with regard to Iran.”

“If an account holder instructs the Bundesbank to make a payment that is permissible under these regulations … the Bundesbank is obliged to carry out this transaction. In this respect, the Bundesbank is no different than other banks,” the statement said.

The Hamburg-based EIH bank has been the focus of several protest rallies organized by the Stop the Bomb campaign in Germany in recent months.

“The bank is vital for the German and global trade with Iran, and with the revenues for energy trade flowing through this bank, sanctioning the EIH would severely hurt the Iranian regime and also increase its internal conflicts,” Jonathan Weckerle, a spokesman for the organization,  told JTA.

The bank is not the only problem, Graumann told the Handelsblatt.

“Too many German companies are still carrying on unchecked with their vile business with the Iranian terror regime, the reigning world champion in Holocaust denial,” he said, “and I simply cannot fathom how the Bundesbank, of all institutions, one which for me personally remains practically sacrosanct, could stoop to covering up for or even promoting business with this evil regime.”

Briefs: Some West Bank settlers would agree to leave, Israel OKs Palestinian police stations


Some West Bank Settlers Would Leave If Offered Government Support, Poll Finds

Approximately one in five Israelis living east of the West Bank security fence would leave if offered government support, a poll found. According to an internal government study, whose results were leaked Tuesday to Yediot Achronot, approximately 15,000 of the 70,000 settlers whose communities are not taken in by the fence would accept voluntary relocation packages.

The poll was conducted at the behest of Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon and Minister Ami Ayalon, who want Israel to group settlers within the fence on the assumption that it will serve as the de facto border with a future Palestinian state. The newspaper did not provide details on how many people were polled or the margin of error.

Israel’s failure to satisfactorily rehabilitate many of the 8,000 Jews it removed from the Gaza Strip in 2005 has raised speculation that West Bank settlers would think twice about accepting government relocation offers.

Israel OKs Reopening of 20 Palestinian Police Stations in West Bank

Israel will allow the reopening of 20 West Bank police stations under Palestinian control. The stations will have a staff of approximately 500 and are located in a zone under Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control. This is the first time Israel has permitted such a move since 2001. It is part of commitments made last week by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to ease the lives of ordinary Palestinians.

“This aims to enhance security and impose law and order under the Abbas security plan,” Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs Ministry, told Reuters.

Al Qaeda Assails Hamas’ Purported Willingness to Support Peace Accord

Al Qaeda came out against Hamas’ purported willingness to support a future Israeli-Palestinian peace accord. Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a statement on the Internet Tuesday attacking the Palestinian Islamist group after its leaders told former U.S. President Jimmy Carter that they could support a future peace accord if it passes a Palestinian referendum.

“As for peace agreements with Israel, they spoke of putting it to a referendum, despite considering it a breach of shariah,” Zawahiri said, referring to Muslim law. “How can they put a matter that violates shariah to a referendum?”

Hamas has made clear, however, that it would continue in its refusal to recognize the Jewish state, no matter what peace terms Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reaches with the Israelis. The referendum demanded by Hamas also would have to include millions of “exiled” Palestinians, many of them radicalized refugees, making it a nonstarter in terms of logistics and of the possibility of endorsing a vision of two-state coexistence.

Rising Anti-Semitism in Muslim Countries Fueling Hostility to Israel, Study Finds

Official anti-Semitism is on the rise in Muslim countries of the Middle East, fueling long-term hostility to Israel, a study found. Israel’s Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center published a study this week arguing that in Iran and Arab states — even those that have recognized the Jewish state — officially sanctioned statements of anti-Semitism with a Muslim slant are increasing, often as a means of diverting internal dissent from the government.

One salient example is Holocaust denial twinned with allegations that Israel is practicing a “real” holocaust against the Palestinians. Anti-Semitism tends to rise in parallel to progress in diplomatic rapprochement between Arab regimes and Israel, calling into question the long-term efficacy of such accords.

The study singled out Iran as a country whose anti-Semitism poses a potential threat to Israel’s existence, given Tehran’s supposed nuclear program.

“Anti-Semitism supported by a state, which publicly adheres to a policy of genocide and is making efforts to arm itself with nonconventional weapons which will enable it to carry out that policy, is unprecedented since Nazi Germany,” the study said.

IDF Investigating Cameraman’s Death

Israel announced an investigation into the killing of a Reuters cameraman by its forces in the Gaza Strip. Following calls for a probe by Reuters and international watchdog groups, the Israeli military said Sunday it was gathering information to determine the circumstances behind the death of Fadel Shana.

Shana was killed while filming a central Gaza combat zone, and film from his camera showed an Israeli tank firing in his direction. An autopsy revealed that he had been hit by a kind of dart used in Israeli shells.

Some critics have suggested the tank crew targeted Shana, although it knew he was a journalist. The Israeli military rejected this.

“The IDF wishes to emphasize that unlike terrorist organizations, not only does it not deliberately target uninvolved civilians, it also uses means to avoid such incidents,” the IDF said in a statement. “Reports claiming the opposite are false and misleading.”

Israel Foils Two Hamas Border Attacks

Israeli forces foiled a massive Palestinian assault on a key Gaza Strip border crossing. Using an armored car and two explosives-laden jeeps painted to resemble Israeli military vehicles, Hamas terrorists rammed the Kerem Shalom border terminal before dawn last Saturday. Israeli soldiers at first responded with small-arms fire, but took cover as the jeeps were blown up by their drivers.

In parallel, another Hamas armored car tried to smash through the Gaza-Israel border fence north of Kerem Shalom but was destroyed by tank fire. Thirteen soldiers were wounded in the Kerem Shalom incident, and four Hamas gunmen were killed.

Israel’s top brass said Hamas had been denied its objective of killing a large number of troops and abducting others in a blow to the Jewish state’s morale on Passover eve. Six Hamas gunmen and another Palestinian were killed in later Israeli air strikes in Gaza.

Israel Upgrades Dress Code for Official Meetings

A more formal dress code is being adopted in the halls of Israel’s government. Cabinet Secretary Ovad Yehezkel sent ministers and other top Israeli officials an advisory that following the Passover vacation, they will be expected to dress formally at government-level meetings, Yediot Achronot reported Tuesday.