Talks with Iran in Geneva

Some people actually expected a breakthrough.

One reason was the presence of the “number three” ranking U.S. State Department official, William Burns — which the State Department spokespersons explained as “underscoring the U.S. commitment to diplomacy”, showing that the U.S. “is commited to finding a diplomatic solution”. The State Department spokespersons also said, however, that it was a “one-time deal”, an “idea that we generated”. It was a “signal”, the American spokespersons said, “but it’s not a change of substance”. It “serves to clarify the choices that the Iranian regime faces” — although “they [already] understand very clearly the cost to them for their continued defiance of the international community”.

Because “the central pivotoal point at the heart of our [U.S.] policy is that the Iranians [must, or should] take the step of suspending their uranium enrichment program. That is at the heart of the two-track policy”.

So, it was hard to see how the diplomats could stretch to make a bridge between the positions of the Americans, who continue to say that they will not negotiate with Iran unless it freezes its nuclear program (which it already did once, in 2004, without any positive results), and Iran’s position that they have a right to a peaceful national nuclear program.

Iran has repeatedly denied that it would ever develop nuclear weapons.

UPDATE: The Washington Post and the Observer newspaper in Britain have both now called the talks “inconclusive”.

UPDATE: U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said to journalists on board her plane en route to Abu Dhabi on Monday that “I think the fact that we went may have been a bit surprising to the Iranians, and they didn’t react in a way that gave anyone any confidence in them. And so what it did was to serve to reinforce the unity of the P-5+1. And I’m not in the least surprised that the Iranians weren’t serious. They haven’t been serious to this point, and I’m not in the least surprised. But we gave them an opportunity, and they have thus far demonstrated again why there are three Security Council resolutions that are isolating Iran and making their isolation deeper and deeper … We expected to hear an answer from the Iranians, but as has been the case so many times with the Iranians, what came through was not serious. And so Javier Solana decided to say to them two weeks. I think they had a little conversation about it among themselves at the P-5+1. Seems fine to me. But I thought that Solana was absolutely firm and clear that it’s time for the Iranians to give a serious answer. And from all reporting, the unity of the P-5+1 has never been greater than it was in that meeting or at this moment. And I do believe that it is, in part, because the United States showed its seriousness in backing this proposal with Bill’s physical presence. But it was also a very strong message to the Iranians that they can’t go and stall and make small talk and talk about culture, that they have to make a decision. And I think it’s also very clear that there are going to be consequences if they don’t”.

Rice was asked by a journalist: “Is that what they did? They talked about Iran’s wonder – culture? Is that what you heard back?” She replied: “I understand that it was, at times, meandering”. Was that a charitable expression, or an euphemism, she was asked, and she replied “I’ll just leave it at meandering”.

In comments that may satisfy our colleague from Iranian TV who was at the talks in Geneva on Saturday, Rice said, in answer to a question asking for “a bit of background on how you came to send Bill Burns to Geneva? Did you approach the President? And what did Dick Cheney say about this?”, that
SECRETARY RICE: “Well, again, I’m not going to talk about internal deliberations. But this was something that everybody understood the need for and thought that, as a tactic, it was fine. And this is a tactic. We – the strategy is to get Iran to accept the package or to have great enough unity in the P-5+1 to bring consequences if they don’t. That’s the strategy. And accepting the package means suspending enrichment and reprocessing and negotiating with us. So that’s the strategy. Now, the tactic of sending Bill Burns was the bookend tactic to my signing the letter, so that the Iranians who sometimes sit and tell our European colleagues we don’t really believe that the Americans are behind this offer — they actually say that — now, they can’t say that. And so, we talked it through among the Security Council – among the national security council principals and people were comfortable with it. And yes, of course, it was the President who made the decision”.

In a further exchange, Rice was asked: “When you signed the letter and when it was transmitted, was this being considered — sending Burns to go?” And she replied: “It came up at the time among the allies. But I thought that signing the letter was enough. And again, we always want to be vigorous on the diplomacy, but both parts of it. And by being vigorous on the part of it that demonstrates American commitment, you can also be vigorous on the side of consequences. And so that was the point. But it came up during that period of time. We decided not to do it. It came up with the Europeans, not so much in our counsels. I made the determination in London that the signature was enough … I think we’ve done enough to demonstrate that the United States is serious, and to assure our partners that we’re serious, and to show the Iranians that we’re serious. I think we’ve done enough”.

UPDATE: Israel’s Debkafile website is reporting on 21 July that “DEBKAfile’s military sources report that Operational Brimstone, starting Monday, July 21, aimed at giving military teeth to the two-week ultimatum the six world powers gave Iran in Geneva Saturday to accept the suspension of uranium enrichment or face harsh sanctions and isolation. After warning of punitive measures against Iran, Condoleezza Rice met the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq in Abu Dhabi. First she was briefed by Under Secretary of State William Burns. The penalty of withholding refined oil products from Iran would be exercised by means of a partial international naval blockade of its Gulf ports. Taking part in the 10-day exercise in the Atlantic Ocean are more than a dozen ships, including the US carrier strike group Theodore Roosevelt and expeditionary strike group Iwo Jima; the French submarine Amethyste, and the British HMS Illustrious Carrier Strike Group, as well as a Brazilian frigate … The exercise is scheduled to end July 31, two days before the US-European ultimatum to Iran expires. Immediately after the Geneva talks ended in failure, the US State Department issued a statement giving Tehran the option of ‘cooperation or confrontation’. A partial blockade of Iran’s shores, a key element of the new sanctions, would be limited to withholding from Iran supplies of benzene and other refined oil products – not foodstuffs or other commodities. Short of refining capacity, Iran has to import 40 percent of its benzene consumption and will be forced to react to the stoppage. … Addressing the Knesset in Jerusalem Monday, July 21, British prime minister George Brown said: Iran must ”suspend its nuclear program and accept our offer of negotiations or face growing isolation and the collective response not of one nation but of many nations’.’ Brown’s spokesman said the premier did not rule out ‘extended sanctions in some form on the oil and gas sector’ in Iran. Sources said that could involve sanctions on spare parts for Tehran’s fairly limited domestic oil refining capacity.”

Yes, the idea now appears to be to blockade refined oil from reaching Iran, one of the world’s major oil producers, which has not restored its own refining capacity since it was badly damaged by Iraq in the early days of the Iran-Iraq war.

Why Iran has not restored its own petroleum oil refining capacity is not clear — when it is risking nearly everything to insist on its right to have its own indigenous uranium enrichment capacity to run at least one and maybe eventually up to twenty nuclear reactors to provide power for civilian consumption….

In any case, the day before the talks that the Swiss government hosted in Geneva on Saturday (19 July) — at the request of both the EU and Iran, the Swiss said — Iranian officials said they wanted to discuss whatever common points could be found in the proposals submitted from the EU in mid-June, and in their counter-proposal.

Iranian officials also expressed the hope that the Americans would not repeat “past mistakes”.

A Western diplomat wearing a badge saying EU 3+3 talks (and NOT P5 plus 1) said before the meeting that there could be various degrees of “positive” that could emerge in the talks. Who would judge? It would be done by consensus, he said, among the six.

He explained that the wording on the badge reflected a preference to recall the original format of the talks, which involved three European countries — Britain, France and Germany — before the addition of the U.S., Russia and China, which made the group a representation of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.

Then, just after the arrivals (when there was a detectable whiff of hope) and the opening photo-op handshake between the EU High Representative Javier Solana and Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, (where Jalili seemed stiff and uncomfortable), followed by a subsequent rush of camerapersons through a single door to take pictures of the delegations seated in the Hotel de Ville’s famous Alabama Room – where post U.S. Civil War negotiations between the U.S. and Britain resulted in payment of millions of dollars in British reparations (for building and outfitting Confederate warships), considered the birth of international arbitration and international law — then, just then, the Iranian Ambassador to the Swiss capital Berne told the Associated Press that Iran would never give up its right — or its program — to enrich uranium.

That news story rattled around the world.

During a mid-day break, the EU High Representative Javier Solana, and the Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili went to lunch together, while the other delegations dined separately.

Solana and Jalili came back from lunch separately. The police radios said that the Iranians were going to pray in the Salle des Pas Perdus …

As another journalist said, nobody looked very happy

Not too many press were present, but most of those who were there had followed the issue for years.

A journalist from Iranian TV who came with his delegation kept asking if the Americans were serious about the talks. “Are the American people behind these talks?”, he asked. “But what did the Administration mean when it said that the talks were just a ‘tactic’?”

At the end of the day, at a closing press conference, only Solana and Jalili were present, along with a Swiss representative. At once, Solana set the tone: “We did not get a clear answer. There was no ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.,, no straight ”

Sonala repeated this several times — and each time, Jalili looked very pained. Even, crucified…

Solana said that the meeting had been “substantive” with a “constructive atmosphere”.

A Western diplomat who was present at the talks in Geneva’s historic town hall (Hotel de Ville) said after the meeting that things were not as bad in the meeting as they seemed in the post-meeting press conference.

The Western diplomat said later that Jalili definitely did not state in the meeting that “No, we will not freeze our uranium enrichment program” …

Solana reminded journalists that the EU proposal offered to refrain “from any new UN Security Council sanctions” (while the three sets already in place would apparently remain) in exchange for Iran refraining from any nuclear activity “including the installation of new centrifuges”.

The acoustics in the press conference were terrible — the AP’s expert correspondent George Jahn, who came from Vienna where he covers the IAEA to the Geneva talks heard Solana say that Iran should agree to refrain from any NEW nuclear activity, but I did not hear that qualifier — what I heard was say “any nuclear activity”.

Both Solana and Jalili used a similar vocabulary in one respect — they mentioned “cooperation” and “commitments” — but they apparently meant different things.

Solana says that he hopes to get a clear answer from Iran very soon — in the next couple of weeks, or in about two weeks, he said alternatively — either telephonically or in person.

So, war will not break out tonight.

Still, some journalists hyped this up: “Iran has two weeks to agree to freeze its nuclear program” — or else, they wrote. Maybe they are right.

But it seems clear that Solana and Jalili want to keep on talking. And Iran appears to want to avert outright conflict.

Apparently the Iranians brought a new “non-paper”, in which, Solana’s spokeswoman indicated, Iran has “reorganized the phases”, but, she said, “they do not coincide with our phases”. She did not want to say more.

[The Israel project had earlier mentioned, mysteriously, that a revised EU proposal had been or was going to be presented to Iran. Then, my colleague and friend in Geneva Robert James Parsons sent a link to an article by Gareth Porter also suggesting that the EU proposal was modified due to objections by the U.S.: “According to an E.U. source with direct knowledge of Solana’s meetings with Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and nuclear negotiator Jalili, on Jun. 14, however, what Solana presented was different from the ‘freeze for freeze’ proposal that had been discussed among the six powers. The source was not authorized to explain the difference between the two proposals, but it now appears that Solana could not present the original freeze for freeze proposal on behalf of all six powers because the most important actor of all — the United States — had objected. When State Department spokesman McCormack was first asked about an EU ‘freeze for freeze’ proposal on Jul. 3 and whether it was acceptable to the United States, he twice avoided addressing it altogether. But
when a reporter asked in regard to the proposed informal talks, ‘You do it then via the EU-3 [Britain, France and Germany], right, not the P5+1?’ McCormack answered, ‘Via Mr. Solana’ …” The full Gareth Porter analysis, apparently written for IPS, is published here . However, the evidence is not yet totally clear.]

In the post-meeting press conference, Jalili twice mentioned his hopes that there can be a “discussion of our shared worries and concerns” — but based on what he called a “collective obligation” [another Iranian diplomat called it a “collective commitment”, but noted that he was not sure what Jalili meant. His interpretation, he said, was that the each of the parties in the region — and he mentioned Iraq — should make commitments, not just Iran alone…]

In any case, the Western diplomat said after the meeting and the press conference that Solana made a presentation in the meeting, after which the “political directors” of all 6 of the EU 3 + 3 (as they were called on their badges) spoke in support of Solana’s remarks — including Burns.

(The U.S. representative was not, as predicted in advance, totally silent.)

The Western diplomat said that of course, each of the six used his own words.

This diplomat said that he felt it was important and useful that Burns spoke in the meeting, and that the Iranians would now have to think about it …

Both Jalili and Solana mentioned the EU proposal presented in Tehran in mid-June — which was apparently signed by all six of the foreign ministers who have been consulting on what they want to do about Iran’s nuclear program — including Condoleeza Rice, which was regarded as a very big deal, as Leonard Doyle wrote brilliantly in a piece in the Independent last week.

But, after the Saturday talks, the American line tightened up again:

Iran has to make a clear decision to cooperate — it will face greater and greater international isolation, they are now saying, again.