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Hopeful signs of international unity on Iran amid France-US dustup
France's Foreign Minister said he did not think fallout over Australia sub deal would impact negotiations on Iran, Russia calls on Iran to pick up negotiations where they left off
If the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, getting underway in New York this week, is sometimes described as the diplomatic equivalent of speed dating, the Biden administration, which constantly talks about how it prizes working with US allies and partners, unexpectedly finds itself kind of the awkward, unwanted +1 at some events this week.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, still aggrieved over France being left in the dark on the Australia submarine deal Pres. Biden announced last week, said he does not plan to meet with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the UNGA this week.
“I do not intend to meet Sec. of State Blinken,” Le Drian told journalists at a press conference in New York today (Sept. 20), though it’s possible, he added, “I might see him here or there,” in the hallway.
While France had hoped that the days of “unilateralism, unpredictability, absence of consultations between allies, particularly with the United States,” were over, Le Drian continued, without naming former President Trump, those behaviors that “we hoped were gone,” remain, he said.
Meantime, since Trump in 2018 quit the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has not agreed that the United States can participate in meetings of the Joint Commission overseeing implementation of the pact, though the Biden administration has been trying since February to negotiate a mutual return of the United States and Iran to full implementation of the accord. Six rounds of indirect talks in Vienna broke off in June after Iranian elections and have yet to resume.
Iran’s new Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in New York today, but he’s not expected to play a major role in the nuclear negotiations, and the new Ebrahim Raisi administration has yet to name its new negotiating team.
Le Drian said today he expected a Joint Commission meeting to be held this week in New York. But another European official said such a meeting has not been finalized.
“Nothing finally decided yet,” the European official, speaking not for attribution, said. “The problem is that not all of the foreign ministers will be traveling to UNGA this year.”
“I haven’t heard that Iran has agreed,” a U.S. official said.
Blinken is due to attend a meeting of the foreign ministers of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (UK, France, Russia, China, US) with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres Wednesday evening, hosted by Britain. But it’s not clear if Iran will agree to attend.
“Based on what we are hearing, we do not anticipate Iran will be prepared to meet with us, so we will continue Vienna format – of course pending any change in Iran’s position,” the U.S. official said.
Amid the old and new diplomatic strains and logistical challenges, there were some positive signs, however, behind the scenes.
For one, Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron are expected to hold a phone call in the coming days to try to repair relations, the White House and Le Drian said. The Biden administration removed another irritant when it said today it would in November permit vaccinated travelers from Europe, the UK, Brazil, South Africa, and other nations who had previously been limited from travel to the US over covid concerns.
Le Drian also made clear that he did not think the French-US and French-Australian dust-up over the Australia/UK/US [AUKUS] submarine deal would negatively impact the negotiations on Iran.
“I see no reason why this pact will have an impact on the discussions with Iran,” Le Drian said. “At the moment, I see no contradiction.”
“The issue is that the negotiations shall resume at the moment, they were interrupted before the elections in Iran,” Le Drian continued.
“At the moment, time is playing against the potential agreement, because as time goes by, the Iranian authorities are speeding up their nuclear activities,” he said, citing Iran’s higher level enrichment of uranium to 20% and 60%, and its not complying with all its commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “And when all of this is happening, negotiations are not resuming. So we need to make the best of this week, and to try to make sure these negotiations can resume.”
Meantime, Russia’s lead negotiator, ambassador to the IAEA Mikhail Ulyanov, pressed Iran, when it returns to the table, to pick up the negotiations where they left off after six rounds of talks in Vienna in June, versus asking to start from scratch.
“The most important thing for success of the #ViennaTalks is to ensure continuity of the process,” Ulyanov tweeted yesterday (Sept. 19). “The negotiations should resume not from scratch but from the point reached by June 20.”
Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group, said it was his understanding that may be becoming a joint position of the P5+1.
"It seems that the P5+1 is united on the necessity of resuming the seventh round from where they left off,” Vaez told me. “Everyone knows they are not going to end up in a fundamentally different place if they were to start from scratch.”
All the P5+1 agree on that, a western official said.
Ulyanov said he was expressing the Russian view, but he hoped it would be the common position of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, as well as Iran.
“I think it must be the common position of all the other negotiators, including hopefully Iran,” Ulyanov told me. “The previous achievements cannot be dropped.”
That doesn’t mean there is no negotiating space or the draft to date is an ultimatum, he continued. “The talks are based on the principle: nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he said. “That means that any party retains the right to reconsider its position on any preliminary agreed provision.”
Update (9/20, 11:58pm): An Iranian official told me tonight there will not be any plenary meeting in New York on the JCPOA.