- Analysts: Iran talks "going nowhere fast," as worries deepen that West lacks sufficient leverage to extract concessions
- Treasury Dept. expresses "serious concerns" as Russia brushes off U.S. objections to $20 billion sanctions-busting Iran deal
- Confusion swirls around peace talks, as Palestinian treaty clock risks locking in damage to negotiations
- Fewer than three weeks left for Syria to hand over chemical weapons, amid declarations of victory by Assad and allies
The New York Times reported late Tuesday that Iran and the global P5+1 powers had concluded two days of talks with - per a statement issued by the parties - "a lot of intensive work" left to be done, a characterization the Times assessed as evidence that 'both sides were still struggling with extensive disagreements.' Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Michael Doran was more blunt, describing the wording as "diplo speak for, 'the talks are going nowhere fast.'" The negotiations have wound down amid a statement from Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - broadcast, for emphasis, across multiple digital platforms - forbidding Iranian negotiators from making concessions on any of Iran's "nuclear achievements." The stance echoed a red line against minimal uranium and plutonium concessions repeatedly underlined by top Iranian officials. Meanwhile Iranian media conveyed statements from the country's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, also ruling out any concessions on Iran's "defense program," a euphemism used by Iranian diplomats to describe Tehran's ballistic missile program. Iran is obligated by binding United Nations Security Council resolutions to roll back - and in the case of its atomic program, to dismantle - infrastructure across all of those programs. Continued Iranian intransigence is likely to fuel concerns that Western negotiators lack sufficient leverage to extract meaningful and robust concessions. Mark Dubowitz and Rachel Ziemba - respectively the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the director of emerging markets at Roubini Global Economics - on Thursday published analysis concluding that "a variety of key macroeconomic indicators" all converged on the conclusion that Iran is experiencing an economic recovery, in part due to American and Iranian officials having undervalued the sanctions relief provided by the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA). In light of the analysis, Dubowitz suggested that the White House should stop agreeing with Iran's lowball estimations of the relief.
Reuters on Thursday conveyed details of a conversation between Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov, in which Lew expressed what a Treasury Department statement characterized as "serious concerns" over a Russian-Iranian oil-for-goods deal that - after having been first revealed last January and then stalling - has recently reemerged as a potential agreement. Lew reportedly told his Russian counterpart that the $20 billion sanctions-busting scheme "could trigger sanctions against any entity or individual involved in any related transactions." Past concerns conveyed to the Russians have been very publicly, and somewhat heatedly, dismissed. Western analysts have in recent days outlined how the deal would enable Iran to create channels for the importation of nuclear technology and next-generation weapons. Reuters also described Lew as having told Siluanov that such a deal would 'run counter' to the interim Joint Plan of Action (JPA) between the P5+1 global powers, which include Russia, and Iran. The ongoing Ukraine crisis had already weeks ago generated concerns among observers that Moscow would respond to Russian-Western tensions by downgrading its cooperation in talks with Iran, or potentially even by undermining those talks. The worries had been brushed off by Obama administration officials, who instead insisted that the Russians would "compartmentalize" various geopolitical crises.
The status of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remained unclear through much of Thursday, amid the publication of conflicting reports describing not just ongoing meetings but also regarding proposals to extend negotiations beyond the original April 29 deadline of a U.S.-backed peace push. Substantive final status negotiations have been offline since last Tuesday, when Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas announced at a rushed press conference that the Palestinians would seek to join 15 international treaties. The move violated the specific terms of an agreement secured by Secretary of State John Kerry, under which the Palestinians would refrain from turning to the United Nations for the duration of a nine-month negotiation window, and very likely abrogated a core Oslo Accord commitment to avoid unilateral moves that would upgrade the status of disputed territories. Israel subsequently responded by cutting off high-level discussions, except those related to security issues and the peace process. Jerusalem also raised the possibility of cutting off aid to the Abbas-led Palestinian government, a possibility that sent the Palestinian leader scrambling for Arab League assistance. Some reports today had the Palestinians closer to agreeing to renewing talks, while others had them as far away as ever. One widely broadcast report - under which the Israelis had agreed to free 26 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for concessions from the U.S. and further talks with the Palestinians - was flatly denied as "premature" by the State Department. The Palestinian decision to accede to the various treaties, however, has established a timeline that may irreversibly - and perhaps terminally - undermine talks. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed today that Palestinian requests to join 10 U.N.-specific treaties will be granted on May 2nd, one month after they were officially submitted. It is not clear how such a move could be reversed once it's locked in, and it is difficult to see how Jerusalem could accept a Palestinian gambit that, first, pocketed decades of Israeli territorial and security concessions and, second, reversed central Palestinian commitments.
Syria now has only 17 days left to hand over the remainder of its chemical weapons stockpile or it will be in violation of a United Nations deadline that had originally been set as an alternative to a U.S.-led attack on Syrian military infrastructure - and it has since the very beginning of that deal only delivered 54 percent of its 1,200 tons of material - per comments made today by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and reported by the BBC. The outlet did the math on the arsenal, concluding that "552 tons of chemical stocks are still on the ground in Syria, waiting to be transported by armed convoy to the port of Latakia." From there the weapons and materials are to be loaded aboard the M/V Cape Ray, a former container vessel that Reuters reported Thursday has been "fitted out with at least $10 million of gear" to enable it to transport Syrian chemical agents into the Mediterranean. Reuters also reported on the process that the crew intends to use for neutralizing the agents, which mainly seems to involve "hot water." Assuming calm seas, the crew will need "about 60 days of round-the-clock processing to neutralise the chemical agents." It is unclear what consequences Damascus will face, if any, for breaching the deadline. Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah, chief of the Hezbollah terror group widely credited with having swung the momentum of the Syrian war back in the regime's direction, have in recent days bragged that the three-year-old conflict has been contained and that rebel elements will be functionally defeated by the end of the year.