WASHINGTON — Despite reports from Iran that talks over “technical” details of the P5+1 agreement with Tehran on a six-month nuclear slowdown would be launched this week, US State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday that the date and place for those talks were still “being worked through.”
Psaki said she hoped to have more details in the “coming days,” but would not offer any further information. Last week, the State Department admitted that additional negotiations were necessary in order to work out details missing from the interim agreement with Iran. The State Department has not said when the agreement, which stipulates a six-month period during which Iran slows down its nuclear development in exchange for limited sanctions relief, will take effect.
There is at least one sign, however, that the Iranian reports may not be altogether inaccurate. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, the chief American negotiator for the talks with Iran, does not have any major meetings publicly scheduled for this week. Instead, she is slated to attend “meetings and briefings” at the State Department, according to her published calendar, a highly unusual scheduling choice for the third most important official at the State Department.
There is recent precedent for such scheduling to indicate a desire to keep a slot open in the eventuality of important travel. Two weeks ago, Secretary of State John Kerry had a similar schedule for the days in which he was reported to have planned to travel to Israel, and then flew instead to Geneva to finalize the interim deal with Iran.
During a press briefing on Monday, Psaki confirmed that someone on Sherman’s “level” — but not necessarily Sherman — will attend a trilateral meeting on December 20 as part of the international talks on the Syrian civil war. But the State Department has been reluctant to offer details about the additional negotiations to scale down Iran’s nuclear program.
Discussing US-Iran relations, Psaki said that “broadly speaking, obviously we took a significant step forward with the first-step agreement on their nuclear program, but there are remaining concerns that we have, as you all are familiar with, whether it’s their involvement in support of the regime in Syria or humanitarian issues, and so that has not changed that.”
The State Department spokesperson was quizzed by reporters during the briefing over statements made by her predecessor, Victoria Nuland. In February, Nuland was asked if it was true or false that “that intermittently, and outside of the formal P5+1 mechanisms, the Obama administration, or members of it, have conducted direct secret bilateral talks with Iran.”
At the time, Nuland denied that any such talks were underway outside of the P5+1 framework when in fact, it has since been revealed that intermittent bilateral talks between the US and Iran may date back to as early as 2011. The earliest date that the State Department has belatedly confirmed that secret talks were held with Iran in Oman was March 2013.
“I think there are times where diplomacy needs privacy in order to progress,” Psaki responded Monday to questions about Nuland’s denial. “This is a good example of that.”
Psaki would not confirm or deny that the secret talks had begun in 2011, instead responding that “we’ve long had ways to speak with the Iranians through a range of channels.”
The spokesperson was also pushed on statements made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in which he proclaimed the failure of sanctions by noting that when sanctions were initiated, Iran had 200 working centrifuges, whereas it now has over 19,000.
Psaki argued instead that “President Rouhani and others have talked about how… bringing an end to the sanctions is something that was a priority for them in order to help the economy and the Iranian people.”
In response to data indicating that around 70 percent of the Iranian centrifuges were installed during the first and second Obama administrations, Psaki responded that “we’re working towards a comprehensive agreement to bring an end to it.”