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Review: Iran-P5+1 talks in Vienna

February 21, 2014, 10:24 UTC+3 VIENNA

The three-day round in Vienna focused almost entirely on outlining topics and issues that stall progress on the way to the final agreement

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VIENNA, February 21. /ITAR-TASS/. Iran and the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) ended a round of talks in Vienna on Thursday, February 20. It was the first meeting at the level of political directors after the agreement reached in Geneva last November, which diplomats dubbed “the first steps” towards closing the Iranian nuclear file. These steps are first because the joint plan of action approved in Geneva covers only a six-month period that ends July 20, 2014. The results of the Vienna talks indicate that the sides recognize the complexity and scope of the tasks they are facing but do not expect the dialogue to be easy. And yet they are prepared to take the next step.


Coordination Round

The three-day round in Vienna focused almost entirely on outlining topics and issues that stall progress on the way to the final agreement. The sides also coordinated a timetable for further talks. “We have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” Catherine Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy said after the talks.

She did not disclose details and only read out a joint statement. She took no questions from the media. The same statement was then read in Farsi by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, after which both diplomats left.


Nine Building Blocks

At the same time, an informed diplomatic source told ITAR-TASS that the plan of action worked out in Vienna consisted of nine points or blocks that cover all topics for discussion. For example, the roadmap includes different aspects of the nuclear program, such as the work of reactors, enrichment and sanctions that have been a heavy burden on Iran’s economy for years.

Iranians did not make a secret out of the issues they considered to be key ones at the talks. Before flying to Vienna, they said that the discussion would focus on the enrichment parameters, including the number of centrifuges and levels of enrichment, and on the future of the research reactor at Arak, which the West and Israel fear can be used for manufacturing weapon-grade plutonium.


Questions from the IAEA

Another issue to be discussed in the coming months is how to make control over Iran’s nuclear program convincingly transparent for the international community. The P5+1 believe it important to obtain guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program is peaceful. A senior official in the American delegation said the main issue was to make sure that Iran would have no nuclear weapons. In his opinion, such guarantees should be based on the transparency and verification of Tehran’s nuclear research.

This is what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is doing both through the P5+1 and on a bilateral basis. The IAEA may have to be engaged with again this time as its expertise and instruments are necessary for exercising international control over Iran’s nuclear program.

It’s noteworthy that the verification of the Iranian nuclear program has one specific feature: not only do experts have to ensure that all research is peaceful in nature, but they also have to rule out the presence of a military component in it. Overall, the IAEA has over 50 questions, most of which are quite sensitive. So, these two blocks may be discussed separately.


No Progress without UN Security Council

The sanctions track can also be divided into two parts: unilateral economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, and sanctions authorized by the UN Security Council. According to the Geneva agreement, Washington and Brussels have agreed to ease them just a little bit, promising seven billion U.S. dollars to Tehran but giving no access to their markets for Iranian energy supplies or capital. Since Iranian assets worth $120 billion have been blocked in foreign accounts and Iran has the world’s largest oil and gas reserves, this is no more than a token concession. The issue of unilateral sanctions has to “fall off all by itself as soon as the international community understands that Iran is not going to make a nuclear bomb,” a source told ITAR-TASS. Another aspect to be factored in is economic interests pursued by Western companies that will hardly miss the chance to become the first to enter the market of a country with an 80-million population, which was off limits to them for so long.

As for the UN Security Council sanctions, they are a part of international law and legally binding. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who leads the Russian delegation to the talks, says it is impossible to draft a comprehensive agreement without taking into account the resolutions that imposed the sanctions. He stressed that at the upcoming talks the P5+1 and Iran would have to discuss how to organize work in the UN Security Council so as to close the “Iranian file” and synchronize work at the talks and the UN headquarters in New York. According to Ryabkov, the purpose of such synchronization is to “close the issue once and for all.”


A Good Start

The just-concluded round shows that the parties are willing to continue negotiations. Sometimes they themselves seemed to be surprised by how smoothly things were going. While upon arrival in Vienna, the heads of the delegations described the upcoming discussions as “difficult,” “challenging,” or “complex,” they used more positive words when they were leaving the city after the talks.

“We have made a good start,” Ashton noted. Javad Zarif admitted that “the talks were very serious and much more positive than we expected,” and a senior American diplomat said the discussions were “useful and constructive.”

In October 2012, when the P5+1 and Iranian negotiators had gathered in Geneva after a six-month break and for the first time since the election of Hassan Rouhani, the very fact that Ashton and Zarif would read a joint statement together was hot news. It no longer was now, and the bilateral meeting between Iran and the United States, which severed diplomatic relations in 1979, did not surprise anyone.

The next round of talks at the level of political directors is scheduled for March 17-20. It will be preceded by expert consultations at the beginning of the month. The sides still have time until the preliminary Geneva agreement expires. And although this period can be extended, Tehran believes that both sides can meet the established deadline. “We need more time to conclude this agreement. But we believe that with the political will and good intention we will be able to do it in the next five months,” Zarif said. At the same time, he noted that all discussions would take place only on the basis of the Geneva agreement and one should not even try to expand their agenda to include any other issue such as Iran’s missile program, as the US insisted.


Boycott of Geneva

The upcoming contacts between Iran and the P5+1 will take place in Vienna, not in Geneva, where a breakthrough was made last year in the more than ten-year-old talks. A source in the Iranian delegation told ITAR-TASS that the change of venue had been prompted by Tehran’s negative reaction to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s actions when he had invited Iran to the Geneva II international conference on Syria at first in January and then called off his invitation. But Vienna is not an ideal place either as it is too close to the IAEA, and Iran prefers to separate its talks with the nuclear watchdog and the P5+1. And yet, given the circumstances, Iran prefers Austria to Switzerland. “I think we will not see Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva for a long time,” the source said.

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