The Middle East Channel

Iran hints at opening to broader inspections amid second day of nuclear talks

The second day of talks between Iran and six world powers have begun in Geneva. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif began the meeting Tuesday with a presentation setting out a proposal to end what he called an "unnecessary crisis" over Iran's nuclear development program. While the proposal remained confidential, western officials said it included three stages, with the first phase to outline the broad aspects of a deal, defining an "end state" for the nuclear program. The second step would involve Iran taking measures to contain facets of the nuclear program, and in return, the United States and EU would begin lifting sanctions. On Tuesday, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi suggested the last steps in the proposal include expanded monitoring and unannounced visits by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Western officials said the proposal was "very useful" and U.S. State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki said, "For the first time, we had very detailed discussions." Additionally, members of the U.S. and Iranian delegations met for an hour of direct negotiations, for the first time since 2009.

Syria

An explosion hit a minibus near Tal al-Jumua in the southern Syrian province of Daraa overnight Tuesday. The blast killed at least 21 people including four children and six women, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The cause of the explosion is unclear, though opposition activists said the vehicle struck a mine, which they claim was planted by government forces. There was no comment from the Syrian regime. The blast was in territory controlled by opposition forces, but it was close to an army base where Syrian troops are posted, and reportedly "under siege by rebel forces." Two days of fierce fighting in the northeastern Hassakeh province between Kurdish militias and two Islamist rebel factions, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has killed an estimated 41 people. Meanwhile, General Director of Doctors Without Borders Christopher Stokes on Tuesday called for greater humanitarian access in Syria, urging for the same efforts to address the humanitarian crisis as the international measures to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. He said the recent opening to chemical weapons inspectors has shown "it is possible, if the international political willingness is there, to grant access and free movement to aid agencies to go into these enclaves."

Headlines

  • Two Turkish pilots, abducted in August near Beirut's international airport, have appeared in a video broadcast on Lebanese television.
  • Al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Libi pleaded not guilty in a New York court Tuesday to charges of involvement in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
  • Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said Wednesday that Egyptian and U.S. relations are in turmoil after a suspension of U.S. military assistance.
  • The Israeli military reported it has found and blown up a second tunnel from Gaza to Israel.

Arguments and Analysis

'What to Make of Saudi Hand-Wringing' (Frederic Wehrey, Carnegie Endowment)

"If there is a real chasm opening between Saudi Arabia and the United States in light of regional developments, it may not be on the foreign policy front at all, but rather in disagreements over how the Gulf states are conducting their internal affairs in response to regional tumult. What is often overlooked is that Gulf rulers tend to conflate external ideological threats with internal political dissent. Put differently, Gulf reformists and dissidents are frequently seen to be the agents (or potential agents) of outside powers who are bent on destabilizing Gulf monarchies.

This dynamic has been manifested lately in a Gulf Cooperation Council agreement on internal security coordination: states will share blacklists; intensify roundups of reform activists, dissidents, and expatriates believed to be tied to Hezbollah, Iran, or the Brotherhood; and link censorship efforts. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are also attempting to depoliticize clerics by muzzling those who make public reference to events in Syria and Egypt. In the UAE, the ripple effects -- mostly from Egypt but also from Syria -- have been felt in dragnet arrests of Brotherhood activists. In Bahrain, the security backlash has been particularly corrosive. The regime of King Hamad Al Khalifa recently forbade political societies, most pointedly the Shia grouping Al Wefaq, from meeting with foreign diplomats or NGOs. In the state-controlled media, there have been repeated accusations that Shia activists in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are proxies for Iran."

'Syria As We Know It Is Gone' (Brian Michael Jenkins, U.S. News and World Report)

"The ability of external actors to understand developments, let alone influence them, is very limited. Fast moving events, complex cross currents, uncertain numbers and fluid loyalties complicate analysis. Perhaps not surprisingly, previous forecasts have proved wrong. Less than two years ago, the consensus was that Assad's days were numbered. He now seems to be gaining strength, but that too could change quickly. Even those directly involved do not know what will happen next.

It is much simpler for Assad's foreign supporters: Assad must be kept in power. If Assad fell, not only would Iran lose an important ally in the region, Iranian leaders fear that Assad's demise could inspire a domestic movement aimed at bringing down the Islamic Republic. Assad's fall also would deliver a strategic blow to Hezbollah. His survival would add to Hezbollah's influence. Assad is Russia's last remaining ally in the Middle East, a major consumer of Russian arms and host to Russia's only warm water naval base.

All this makes it highly unlikely that the Assad regime will ever reestablish control over Syria as it was known just a few years ago. With continued help from his friends, Assad might survive as the leader of a government that holds Damascus and parts of Western Syria, but the conflict will undoubtedly continue in other parts of the geographic expression of today's Syria."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iran resumes nuclear talks with world powers in Geneva

Iran has resumed talks with western powers Tuesday in Geneva, after a six-month hiatus, for the first time since the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif kicked off the two-day meeting, for the first time expected to be held primarily in English, with a presentation entitled "Closing an unnecessary crisis: Opening new horizons." This new round of negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear development program has been met with "cautious optimism," and the Iranian delegation said the proposals to scale back its efforts at uranium enrichment it presented to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- plus Germany received a "good" first reaction. On the eve of the talks, a U.S. official noted that there could be potential sanctions relief for Iran if Tehran takes swift measures to address concerns about its nuclear program. However, Western diplomats said it is unclear whether Iran's proposals will be sufficient. Officials cautioned that a breakthrough would not happen overnight. Zarif stated, "I am hopeful that by Wednesday we can reach agreement on a roadmap to find a path towards resolution."

Syria

Western officials increased pressure on Syrian opposition groups to allow a team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) access to chemical weapons sites in territory under their control. On Monday, Syria became a full member of the OPCW, formally consenting to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appointed Sigrid Kaag of The Netherlands to lead the joint U.N. and OPCW mission tasked with eliminating Syria's chemical weapons arsenal. Meanwhile, a car bombing in a rebel held town in the northern Idlib Province killed between 12 and 20 people on Monday. There have been several reports of fighting Tuesday, the first day of the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. Syrian warplanes have reportedly bombed rebel held regions in Hama province and the Damascus suburbs, and a bomb reportedly hit a mosque in the capital's al-Tadmon district. Additionally, opposition fighters have fired rockets and mortar rounds at three neighborhoods in Damascus, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Three workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are still being held in Syria after six staff members and a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer were abducted Sunday. The four who were released Monday are "safe and sound" according to the ICRC.

Headlines

  • Al Qaeda suspect Abu Anas al-Libi, captured by the United States earlier this month in Libya and detained on a Navy ship for a week of questioning, has been transferred to New York to face trial.
  • A bombing outside a Sunni mosque in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk hit a crowd of worshippers at the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday Tuesday killing up to 12 people and injuring 24 others.
  • Swiss scientists examining personal belongings of late Palestinian President Yasser Arafat have found traces of polonium-210 that "support the possibility of Arafat's poisoning."

Arguments & Analysis

Looking to diplomacy with Iran' (William Luers and Thomas Pickering, Reuters)

"If Iran proposes an ambitious plan at Geneva, the P5+1 must be ready to respond in kind. Yet the U.S. political system seems unprepared, psychologically or politically, for that step. Can Washington find a solution that will progressively begin to relieve the most crippling sanctions in tandem with Iran's movement toward a more transparent and limited nuclear program? Technically, the answer is yes. But politically, Congress may not be ready.

This will require patience and political space in Tehran and Washington -- as well as bold early action in Geneva from both sides, to demonstrate commitment to progress.

The United States has led the effort to use sanctions to pressure Iran's leaders to engage seriously and agree to specific controls on their nuclear program. If Iran is now willing to take concrete and verifiable steps to do so, the rest of the world will expect Washington to lead the process to sanctions relief.

If it does not do so, international support for the sanctions could unravel -- leaving the United States without a nuclear deal and without its strongest tool for leverage.

This meeting could be the most important moment in the U.S.-Iranian relationship since 1979. The opportunity must be seized and tested." 

Don't expect miracles in Iran nuclear talks' (Ali Vaez, CNN)

"Seldom has there been so much anticipation of a breakthrough in talks over Iran's nuclear crisis than is the case for the negotiations starting Tuesday in Geneva. But inflated hopes are dangerous, and the sobering reality of tough negotiations could quickly dash hopes and even derail diplomacy.

The reality is that despite the recent election of a new Iranian administration, one that has been keen to stress that a breakthrough could be just around the corner, it would be naïve to expect a decade-old impasse to be resolved in just two days. After all, Iran's nuclear crisis is one of the most complex issues in international politics today. And the last time President Hassan Rouhani and his current foreign minister, Javad Zarif, were Iran's nuclear negotiators -- back in 2003 to 2005 -- there were two years of talks over a crisis that was then barely a year old.

A deal today would be even harder to imagine. In 2003, Iran was struggling to assemble 164 centrifuges. Today, it has more than 18,000. Back then, Iran had one enrichment facility, one type of centrifuge, no fissile material stockpile and sought to enrich uranium to 5 percent. Now, it has two enrichment facilities, several types of advanced centrifuges, tons of fissile material and is enriching both to 5 and 20 percent levels. These advancements have come at a hefty price. Today, there are numerous sanctions backed by the United States and international community."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images