As nuclear talks open, US says Obama-Rouhani meet is ‘up to Iran’

As nuclear talks open, US says Obama-Rouhani meet is ‘up to Iran’

Wide gaps between sides as negotiations resume in NY; Russians say regime’s reactor at Arak is one key sticking point

Rebecca Shimoni Stoil is the Times of Israel's Washington correspondent.

Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013. (screen capture: UN live stream)
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani speaks to the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013. (screen capture: UN live stream)

WASHINGTON — After preliminary meetings between top Iranian, American and Russian officials, a marathon session of nuclear negotiations between world powers and Tehran was set to begin in New York City on Friday.

Although US officials said that they were initially “not optimistic” regarding the potential for progress, a senior administration official said that the Iranians had come to New York ready “to work.”

The Obama administration also indicated that President Barack Obama would be willing to meet Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, with whom he spoke by phone this time last year, and that it was up to Iran to decide if it wanted such a meeting.

This round of nuclear talks between world powers and Iran is being held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and negotiators are working toward achieving a comprehensive agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities by a November 24 deadline.

But if there’s one thing that all sides of the talks agree upon, it’s the fact that wide gaps remain between the Iranian position and those of the P5+1 member states – the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany.

On Thursday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araqchi and Deputy Foreign Minister for Europe and the Americas Majid Takht-e Ravanchi met with their American counterparts, US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns.

The Iranian contingent also held two hours of what were described as “nuclear talks” with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Ryabkov later told Russian media agency RIA Novosti that the Arak heavy water plant is “among the main stumbling blocks” in the negotiations, but added that the fate of Iran’s uranium-enriching centrifuges also remains a concern.

Ryabkov noted, however, that during previous rounds of talks, Iran agreed to limit uranium enrichment to five percent. Other P5+1 negotiators and senior US officials have repeated that within the framework of talks, nothing is considered agreed-upon until everything is agreed upon – meaning that agreements are fluid until all of the details of a comprehensive deal have been worked out.

Senior officials last met in late July after weeks of marathon talks at more technical levels, and negotiators agreed to extended the Joint Plan of Action, the deal which provided the 12-month framework for talks starting last November.

Late Thursday, a senior US administration official acknowledged that in the weeks leading up to this round of talks, “many of us were not very optimistic.” Still, the official noted that “over meetings over the last two days both with Iran and with my P5+1 and EU colleagues, it is clear that everyone has come here to go to work. “

Friday’s plenary session at the United Nations will be chaired by European Union High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Meetings are expected to continue throughout the weekend and into the UN General Assembly sessions next week, including during the period in which heads of state arrive in New York for the UNGA open debate.

A senior US official said that the format for the P5+1 talks will be open-ended, and that talks will continue “in whatever format makes the most sense,” including plenaries, expert meetings, and bilaterals.

The official noted that “there may be a ministerial-level P5+1 meeting, and it’s very likely that [US Secretary of State John] Kerry and Foreign Minister Zarif will meet bilaterally, as they’ve done throughout these talks.”

During last year’s UNGA, Obama and Rouhani didn’t meet, but held a phone conversation that, officials said, helped pave the way for the framework for negotiations.

Although White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters that there is no meeting scheduled between the two heads of state this year, the senior administration official who briefed reporters Thursday said that “the president of the United States is well known for being open to such a meeting, but the choice is really Iran’s.”

The official warned that although “the Iranians have said over these many days and weeks how reasonable and flexible they are in these talks, and about how their current capacity should be acceptable,” the current “status quo is not doable for any of us.”

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