Iranian media showcases Revolutionary Guard’s ballistic capabilities to “attack and destroy” Israel

In this November 2, 2006 file photo, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fire missiles during a war game in a desert near the holy city of Qom, southeast of Tehran. (Reuters/Fars News)
In this November 2, 2006 file photo, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fire missiles during a war game in a desert near the holy city of Qom, southeast of Tehran. (Reuters/Fars News)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian websites close to the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have run special feature reports and interviews relating to Iran’s capability to “attack and destroy” Israel using ballistic missiles, the semi-state-run Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported on Saturday.

A special feature report published by Fars on three missiles—named Israel-hitter—stated the missiles could be launched quickly from Iranian territory to reach targets in Israel, and explained the extensive infrastructure that has been built underground to house them.

A Tehran-based analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that publishing such “provocative” reports just two weeks before the November 24 deadline for reaching a comprehensive agreement with Western powers on Iran’s nuclear program was an intentional move by more conservative elements in the Iranian leadership, and designed to derail President’s Hassan Rouhani’s reconciliatory foreign policy approach to close the nuclear dossier.

More conservative elements within the Iranian political establishment are under immense pressure to accept the framework of extending the current nuclear interim deal, which would see some sanctions on Iran remaining and the Islamic Republic observing ongoing restrictions on its uranium enrichment program.

One of the main reasons for the current stalemate in negotiations between Iran, the US and the EU over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program relate to grave concerns the Western powers have regarding Iran’s posing an “existential threat” to Israel should it develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons.

The rhetoric coming out of Tehran in recent years—most notably, the controversial comments made by Iran’s former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, in which he reportedly said Israel “should be wiped from the face of the earth”—have caused concern in the international community and given the Israeli leadership grounds for pushing for an entire dismantling of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Both the West and Israel fear Iran’s ballistic and nuclear capabilities could be used in tandem to later produce such weapons. Iran’s new government has, however, distanced itself from Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric against Israel and reiterated many times that it is banned from producing nuclear bombs, not only due to its international obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also due to religiously binding fatwas issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prohibiting the production of such weapons.

Observers say the publication of the information regarding the missiles, and the anti-Israel rhetoric, are moves designed to divert attention from Iran’s nuclear program, which currently is and in future proposed to fall under the scrutiny of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

These observers believe the information is designed to carry a message that any conceivable threat from Iran against Israel will come via conventional and ballistic missiles, and not necessarily as a result of the nuclear program, which is under the stringent scrutiny of the IAEA.

In a recent interview, Ali Abkar Velayati, special adviser on foreign policy to Khamenei, reiterated comments from Khaled Mishal, the leader of the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, that “Iran has been providing the Palestinian fighters with [everything from] bullets to missiles to [aid in their] fight with Israel.”

Velayati, who is generally known as a moderate conservative politician, said Iran’s current support for Shi’ite communities across the Arab world would not have been possible without the ballistic détente Iran had managed to secure.

Moshen Reza’i, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guard and current secretary of the Expediency Council, said recently it was Iran’s ballistic capabilities that had caused the P5+1—the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany—“to retreat from their previous policies against Iran” and begin making conciliations.

In another example of the conservative rhetoric being stepped up from Tehran, Yahya Rahim Safavi, another former Revolutionary Guard commander—and a current military adviser to Khamenei—described Khamenei in comments on Saturday as the “commander of Islamic lands,” with the aim of resisting and fighting the US and Israel.

Iran nuclear negotiations set for extension under face-saving agreement: Iran sources

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C-R) sits next to the EU's Catherine Ashton (C-L), during their meeting in the framework of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file in Muscat, Oman, on November 11, 2014. (EPA/Hamid Al-Qasmi)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C-R) sits next to the EU’s Catherine Ashton (C-L), during their meeting in the framework of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file in Muscat, Oman, on November 11, 2014. (EPA/Hamid Al-Qasmi)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Negotiations on the Iranian nuclear file between Iran, the US and the EU have not achieved the desired outcome according to sources in Iran. The failure to come to a consensus has put all sides under further pressure to rescue talks before a November 24 deadline.

The Nuclear Iran website, which has close ties to Iran’s conservatives and security agencies, revealed on Friday that an overall agreement that does not stipulate the precise details of a deal is being seriously considered as the only option by President Hassan Rouhani’s government before the deadline elapses.

The talks, held in the Omani capital Muscat, were intended to reconcile crucial differences between Iran and Western powers over the permissible number of centrifuges Iran can operate, as well as the timing and extent of lifting sanctions.

No concrete agreement was achieved in Muscat and all sides are returning to their capitals before meeting again in Vienna this week for further consultations.

Iranian MP Alaeddin Boroujerdi and chairman for the Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security for Iran’s parliament said that “the Muscat talks were challenging, serious and bitter and the final comprehensive agreement has to be ratified by the majles [parliament],” according to the Daneshjoo news agency in Tehran.

The requirement for parliament’s ratification relates to Iran’s decision on signing up to the “Additional Protocol” for members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The additional protocol permits unrestricted inspections of nuclear sites of any signatory state by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Iranian negotiating team says the Islamic Republic has not crossed the “red lines” set out for them and is pressing hard for the removal of sanctions as the required result for any agreement, Boroujerdi added.

The US position of a gradual removal of sanctions in return for a substantial halt in Iran’s enrichment program as well as transparency guarantees over the course of the next 10–20 years has upset the Iranian leadership. The US stance has failed to appease the serious doubts of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khmamenei over whether the US is genuine in its efforts to resolve the nuclear issue.

Cyrus Nasseri, the former Iranian nuclear negotiator during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency has also revealed that reaching an overall agreement without finalizing the details is in interests of the Islamic Republic and said there would be “time for hammering down the details after the overall agreement.”

The conservative faction is under immense pressure to accept a half-baked agreement. They fear another drawn-out negotiating process that will put Iran at a disadvantaged position over enrichment capacity while the sanctions will by and large remain in place.

Iran’s conservatives turn up heat on nuclear deal as deadline approaches

US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) shake hands during a meeting in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2014. Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah (center R) and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton (center L) stand at background. (AP Photo/Nicholas Kamm, Pool)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (L) shake hands during a meeting in Muscat, Oman, on November 9, 2014. Omani Foreign Minister Yussef bin Alawi bin Abdullah (center R) and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton (center L) stand at background. (AP Photo/Nicholas Kamm, Pool)
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s influential Supreme National Security Council, confirmed on Wednesday that Iran has responded to US President Barack Obama’s letters to Iran’s supreme leader, though he gave no indication if the responses had been signed by Ayatollah Khamenei.

Sources in Tehran told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Shamkhani’s sharply worded comments can be viewed as an indirect reaction of the supreme leader to recent negotiations in Muscat and difficult decisions Iran has to make to finalize the deal.”

US, EU, and Iranian officials have been meeting this week in the Omani capital in an attempt to thrash out a deal on Iran’s nuclear program before a November 24 deadline. Although Iran insists that its nuclear activities are peaceful, the US and its allies are seeking rigorous safeguards to prevent any nuclear material being diverted to a possible atomic weapons program.

Shamkhani, who served as Iran’s defense minister under reformist President Mohammad Khatami between 1997 and 2005, is widely-regarded as a moderate and close to both President Hassan Rouhani and former President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

During a briefing for members of staff at Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Shamkhani reiterated the official Islamic Republic’s policy towards the nuclear issue and regional crises by referring to “disastrous US Middle Eastern foreign policy” as a root cause.

Shamkhani, who is one of two representatives of the supreme leader on Iran’s National Security Council, also lambasted “the paradoxical US foreign policy in the region, and in particular towards Iran, that only serves Israel’s interests.”

However, Shamkhani also acknowledged that Iran has cooperated with the P5+1 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by giving inspectors access to Iran’s nuclear and military facilities, in order to refute any doubts about Iran’s “peaceful nuclear intentions,” according to the website Iranian Diplomacy.

Shamkhani’s comments mark the first time an Iranian official has confirmed that international inspectors have been given access to Iranian military bases.

After three days of intensive negotiations between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the US Secretary of State John Kerry in Muscat this week, Iran’s top leadership is mulling over details of the American offer to close the nuclear dossier.

It is understood that the US is ready to accept Iran retaining the capacity to enrich uranium under stringent monitoring measures. Although the level of enrichment acceptable to the US is likely to be lower than that desired by Iran, it nevertheless represents a compromise on the part of the US and Washington’s eagerness to reach a deal.

On the Iranian side, the issue of Iran’s right to enrich uranium has lost some of its previous importance, given the US acceptance of a domestic Iranian enrichment capacity. However, the timing and extent of the removal of economic sanctions on Iran has now moved center stage, and is seen as the key factor to be resolved to seal a deal.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his team are mandated to conduct the negotiations with the P5+1, and in particular with the US government, for two clear goals: to preserve Iran’s existing nuclear program and ease the sanctions that have taken a serious toll on the Iranian economy.

The negotiations have now entered a critical stage in which any proposed agreement must be accepted by domestic hardliners in both Iran and the US.

Ironically, the Iranian government under President Rouhani is now acting as a broker between Western powers and Iran’s strong conservative faction, closely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with its political survival at stake.

Prior to arriving in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told reporters that a “one-sided deal will not last.”

A Tehran based political analyst told Asharq Al-Awsat that Rouhani’s comments indicate that Rouhani is committed to reaching a deal for both political and economic reasons.

“However, if the deal is not seen as favorable for Iran in terms of the lifting of economic sanctions, Rouhani’s conservative and radical opponents within Iran will again attempt to unseat [him] in the next election, and replace his government with another version of Ahmadinejad’s government, a similar scenario that triggered the fall of Khatami and reform movement in Iran in 2005,” he said.

In a sign of how sensitive the nuclear talks are within the Iranian political system, Iran’s conservative parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani mocked Obama’s most recent letter to Ali Khamenei by saying: “when one writes a love letter, he ought not to be bullying too.”

Larijani added: “On the nuclear issue, Iran has been acting very rationally throughout the negotiations, but the Western powers are sabotaging [them],” according to the ISNA news agency.

A deal between Iran and the US and its allies will also leave the issue of relations with neighboring states to be resolved.

“Now Iran is keen to strike a direct and clear deal with the US over the nuclear issue in return for the sensible removal of sanctions. However, Iran is keen to enter sub-regional negotiations with regional states and actors to address multilateral security concerns after the nuclear deal,” an Iranian official told Asharq Al-Awsat on condition of anonymity.

Iran contemplating nuclear compromise in return for US-backed regional role: sources

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry after a statement early on November 24, 2013 in Geneva. (AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry after a statement early on November 24, 2013 in Geneva. (AFP PHOTO/FABRICE COFFRINI)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shakes hands with US Secretary of State John Kerry after a statement early on November 24, 2013 in Geneva. (AFP Photo/Fabrice Coffrini)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As the November 24 deadline for nuclear negotiations approaches, the revelation that US President Barack Obama sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been cautiously welcomed in the highest political circles in Tehran, an Iranian official informed Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Iranian official, speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat on the condition of anonymity, said: “The paradigm of Iran’s nuclear program is shifting towards strategic necessities for both Iran and the US in the face of current regional crises.”

After nearly two years of indirect and direct negotiations between Tehran and Washington over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, both sides are now fighting to win credibility that they have done their utmost to reach an agreement.

Pre-deadline nuclear talks in Muscat, where the first official encounters between Iranian and US diplomats took place after several decades of a no-negotiations policy, has added momentum to the current negotiations with both sides expected to offer compromises.

Ali Khoram, an adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “Iran and the US have come to terms that despite more than three decades of mistrust, it is now in their national interest to constructively negotiate and reach an agreement.”

“Both sides seem to have recognized each other’s concerns and are ready for maximum flexibility,” Khoram added.

For Tehran, Obama’s steadfastness in pushing for negotiations despite immense pressure opposing this from US Republicans and Tel Aviv is seen as an opportunity that must not be squandered.

Referring to the fourth letter that President Obama has written to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Khoram said: “These diplomatic correspondences have had a positive impact on Iran’s top leadership and are essential in changing attitudes to reach an agreement, although the [latest] letter is solely concerned with mutual interests in combating the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS].”

Political observers in Tehran believe that Obama’s letter is another sign of potential broader Iranian-US cooperation in the aftermath of a nuclear agreement, particularly given the turmoil in the region. Iran’s leadership is also wary of the detrimental effect of long-term sanctions as seen in the fate of Libya and Iraq and is therefore seeking to build the required level of trust with the US to secure stable interactions on the regional and international stage.

“The idea that the United States of America remains forever as the ‘Great Satan’ is changing in Iran as there are signs of slight but noticeable change in US policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Iraq and Syria. All this makes it possible for Iran to enter into cooperation with the US,” Khoram told Asharq Al-Awsat.

While Hamidreza Asefi, a former Iranian foreign ministry’s spokesman during Ahmadinejad’s government, said he believes that Oman is a suitable host for direct US-Iran talks given the strong historical relations between Oman and Iran and Muscat’s previous track record of mediation.

Asefi however said that Muscat would not be able to play a “significant role” in convincing either side to offer further compromises in comments to Iran’s ISNA news agency. Despite this, Oman can play an essential role in boosting the confidence of both Iranian and US top leadership given its position as a friendly state to both Tehran and Washington.

It is still not known whether Omani officials will be actively present during the upcoming negotiations, but an Iranian source rejected Oman’s mediation role saying that the friendly Sultanate of Oman is merely hosting the negotiations likening this to negotiations held in Kazakhstan in 2012 and 2013.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and US Secretary of State John Kerry are scheduled to meet in Muscat on Nov 9 & 10 to discuss the final framework for the last nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations set to be held in Vienna on November 24.

Rouhani sends brother to join Iran nuclear negotiations

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leaves after conducting a press conference in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani leaves after conducting a press conference in Tehran, Iran, on Saturday, June 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has sent his younger brother, Hossein Fereydoun, to the latest round of international talks in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program as the deadline for a final settlement approaches.

Fereydoun, who is also one of Rouhani’s key aides, is attending the talks for the first time, leading analysts and journalists to conclude that Rouhani is determined to reach an agreement by the July 20 deadline agreed by both sides.

Fereydoun Majlesi, a former Iranian diplomat, told Asharq Al-Awsat that his presence was an indication of how seriously Rouhani was taking the deadline.

Majlesi noted that Fereydoun had recently acted as Rouhani’s envoy to Chinese leaders to convey his stance on the nuclear talks, and said that Fereydoun “is well informed and has a mandate on this matter.”

In the Iranian media, Fereydoun’s presence at the talks has also been portrayed as a sign of Rouhani’s desire to reach a deal as the talks enter a key phase.

On Monday, Iran’s Fars news agency quoted a member of the Iranian delegation, who said: “Due to [the] intense work schedule of [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif, he is not able to travel back to Tehran to consult with the president, therefore the president’s brother has been sent to Vienna to report the content of negotiations directly to the president in a secure way.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Vienna to join the talks on Sunday, and held two rounds of talks with Zarif on Monday, in a bid to move the process forwards.

Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) reportedly remain at odds over Iran’s desire to develop the capability to enrich uranium on a large scale, among other issues.

While uranium enrichment is necessary to produce reactor fuel, it can also be used to produce the core of a nuclear weapon.

Tehran insists that its program is entirely peaceful, and that it requires facilities to enrich fuel for a network of reactors it plans to construct.

However, despite the focus on the nuclear talks, a source in Tehran—speaking on condition of anonymity—told Asharq Al-Awsat that Fereydoun’s role in Vienna is to assist in talks with western officials on issues which Zarif has not been authorized to discuss, including the situation in Iraq, Syria, and Iran’s links with Hezbollah.

“Fereydoun’s presence allows a ‘Track 2’ channel of conversation over all important issues between Iran and the West to be discussed, and possibly middle-ground solutions can be worked out,” the source said.

“[He] was also the main broker in arranging the unprecedented phone conversation between [Rouhani] and [Obama] back in September 2013,” the source added.

Fereydoun was appointed Rouhani’s special aide for executive affairs on August 28, 2013, shortly after Rouhani assumed office. Although he is not unknown to the Iranian media, he has kept a low profile over the last three decades as his brother became an increasingly prominent public figure, assisted by the fact that he did not change his surname to Rouhani unlike his older sibling.

Fereydoun is said to have been a member of Ayatollah Khomeini’s cadre of bodyguards from the outset of the 1979 revolution, and then became governor of the counties of Nishapur and then Karaj, in northeastern and central Iran. He is also said to have been part of Iran’s covert attempts to evade an international arms embargo during the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s.

After the war, Fereydoun spent eight years as Iran’s ambassador to Malaysia, and then several years in Iran’s delegation to the UN. After returning to Iran, he was appointed to a post at the Center for Strategic Research, and worked as an advisor to his brother during his time as secretary of Iran’s influential Supreme Council for National Security.

Fereydoun’s first high-profile appearance occurred during Rouhani’s first trip to the UN while president. He was present at the first direct meeting between Foreign Minister Zarif and US secretary of State Kerry in September 2013.

Rouhani considering new UN envoy, say sources

In this Thursday, February 6, 2014 photo provided by the office of the Iranian President, Hamid Aboutalebi, an Iranian diplomat who was recently named as Iran's ambassador at the United Nations, speaks at his office in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)
In this Thursday, February 6, 2014 photo provided by the office of the Iranian President, Hamid Aboutalebi, an Iranian diplomat who was recently named as Iran’s ambassador at the United Nations, speaks at his office in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Iranian Presidency Office, Mohammad Berno)

London and Tehran, Asharq Al-Awsat—Sources from the office of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday that discussions were being held on nominating a new Iranian Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.

The decision comes following Washington’s refusal to grant a visa to the current nominee for the UN post, Hamid Aboutalebi. His visa application was rejected on the grounds of his alleged involvement in the US embassy hostage crisis a few months after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said on Friday: “Washington has told the UN and Iran that it will not be issuing a visa to Aboutalebi,” and dismissed the possibility of the decision affecting the progress of negotiations between Iran and world powers on the Iranian nuclear program.

Washington had previously described Aboutalebi’s nomination as “not viable” earlier last week.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said discussions were ongoing, despite assertions by the Iranian Foreign Ministry announcing that Tehran was not planning to nominate a new candidate for the UN representative role.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqhchi said on Saturday that Iran was not considering replacing Aboutalebi, despite news agency reports that a new candidate was being considered.

One of the sources added: “Rouhani does not want an escalation with the US administration on the issue of the nomination of the ambassador to the UN, and does not want to sacrifice the gains made in the talks . . . on the nuclear issue.”

The sources added that another candidate could be selected from within the nuclear negotiation team, indicating that Araqhchi may be the new candidate.

The refusal to grant the Iranian envoy a visa represents a challenge to President Barack Obama’s efforts to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough and a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program.

The White House has found itself under strong political pressure from the US Congress, which passed a bill banning Aboutalebi, who previously served as Iran’s ambassador to Belgium, Italy, the EU, and Australia, from entering into the United States, in addition to increasing doubts about Obama’s policy on the Iranian nuclear program.

According to the Congressional legislation, Washington can refuse visas to individuals who have “carried out terrorist activities against the United States.”

Aboutalebi is accused by some in the US of being involved in the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the detention of 52 US diplomats for over a year, which became a defining moment in US–Iranian relations.

However, Aboutalebi recently denied any role in the seizure of the embassy, and says his involvement was limited to acting as a translator after the diplomats were detained.

Iranian nuclear talks continue despite Ukraine crisis

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smile at the start of a conference in Vienna March 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)
European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smile at the start of a conference in Vienna March 18, 2014. (REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader)
London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iran and six world powers resumed their talks over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program in Vienna on Tuesday, just a week after the EU’s foreign policy chief completed a visit to Tehran, meeting with officials and female dissidents.

Talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) are expected to continue for two days on the details of Iran’s domestic uranium enrichment program, according to IRNA, the official Iranian news agency.

Aside from uranium enrichment, the other most contentious item on the agenda for this round of negotiations is said to be Iran’s heavy water reactor, under construction at Arak, which critics say represents a proliferation risk if brought online.

As a compromise, the idea of altering Arak to a Light Water Reactor (LWR), which experts say represents less of a proliferation risk, has been proposed, as has lowering its power level, which will reduce the amount of plutonium produced.

“There are different ways of making sure that the reactor can’t produce large quantities of plutonium,” said Gary Samore, an expert on nuclear proliferation and a former member of US President Barack Obama’s national security staff.

“I think it is much easier for the Iranians to compromise on a research reactor than it is for them to compromise on the enrichment program,” Samore told Reuters, referring to Iran’s existing, and much larger, operations to refine uranium.

The current round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 is being held amid the Crimean crisis, which some fear may lead to a breakdown on consensus between Russia and the western states.

However, early reports on Tuesday said that the Iranian delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, had described the first meeting as “constructive.”

This was echoed by Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who leads the P5+1 delegation.

“I haven’t seen any negative effect,” he told reporters. “We continue our work in a unified fashion.”

Hermidas Bavand, an Iranian commentator, told Asharq Al-Awsat that this round of negotiations is geared towards setting out a detailed road map to reach the final deal, although “no big breakthrough is . . . expected at this stage.”

It would not be in the interest of any of the various parties to bring up the issue of the current crisis between Russia and the West over Crimea, he added.

However, fears remain that Russia’s stated intention to annex Crimea, and Moscow’s approach to continued instability in Ukraine, may undermine talks on Iran’s nuclear program.

Russia has in the past taken a softer line on Iran’s nuclear program, in contrast with American insistence on tough sanctions and measures to ensure Iran cannot obtain any capability to divert its civil nuclear program towards a bomb.

While both Russia and China joined Western powers in adopting a number of UN Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran between 2006 and 2010 when then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was pushing hard to advance Iran’s nuclear capabilities, both countries have condemned sanctions imposed by the US and EU on Iran’s oil exports and central bank.

Within Iran, some sections of the media have reported demands in conservative circles that talks between Zarif and Ashton be canceled due to what they branded as “undiplomatic behavior” by Ashton, who met with a number of human right activists during her recent visit to Iran. Ashton’s meetings have caused uproar among some Iranian conservatives, leading to calls from a number of right-wing MPs for Zarif’s impeachment.

Iranian Foreign Minister: No need for rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a question and answer session at the 50th Security Conference in Munich, Germany on February 2, 2014. (EPA/Tobias Hase)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a question and answer session at the 50th Security Conference in Munich, Germany on February 2, 2014. (EPA/Tobias Hase)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a question and answer session at the 50th Security Conference in Munich, Germany on February 2, 2014. (EPA/Tobias Hase)

Munich, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said on Sunday that Iran was ready to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, based on what he said were the two states’ common interests in the region.

Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, Zarif also welcomed US President Barack Obama’s vow to veto any new sanctions legislation passed by the US Congress.

In response to questions by Asharq Al-Awsat Editor-in-Chief Adel Al Toraifi about Iran’s next step in light of the US president’s decision, Zarif said Iran was providing full access to inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor its compliance with the interim nuclear deal reached with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany).

Answering a second question on Iranian policy towards its neighbors, in particular Saudi Arabia and a possible trip by the Iranian foreign minister to the Kingdom, Zarif said Iran was pursuing positive ties with states across the region including Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

He went on to emphasize that relations with Saudi Arabia were “important” to Iran, and that he was willing to begin dialogue with Saudi officials in which the concerns of both sides could be addressed.

Zarif said he acknowledged the need of regional states to feel secure and said “we have to start from our commonalities.”

His comments followed an interview with Reuters on Saturday, in which he said: “I believe Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in a secure environment.”

“Neither one of us will benefit from sectarian divisions, neither one of us will benefit from extremism in this region . . . We can work together in order to have a safer neighborhood. There is no need for rivalry,” he added.

In other comments during the panel discussion on Iran, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano, and US Senator Christopher Murphy all expressed their hope that a long term deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries over the controversial Iranian nuclear program could be reached.

The next round of negotiations between the seven parties is due to take place on February 18 in Vienna, to work out the basis of a long term deal.

On Sunday morning, Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry held an unscheduled one-to-one meeting with no details of the conversation released as of yet.

The IAEA Director General also confirmed that Iran has been cooperating to implement its six practical measures from the Geneva deal and that both sides will meet on February 7 to iron out the next phase of IAEA inspections to verify Iran’s compliance with the deal over military instalments.

Iran delivers protest after diplomat assassinated in Yemen

Yemeni security forces stand guard in front of the Iranian ambassador's residence in Sanaa, on January 18, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/ MOHAMMED HUWAIS)
Yemeni security forces stand guard in front of the Iranian ambassador’s residence in Sanaa, on January 18, 2014. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Huwais)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Iran summoned Yemen’s Chargé d’affaires to the foreign ministry to receive an official protest on Saturday, following the killing of one of its diplomats in the Yemeni capital Sana’a.

The Iranian ISNA news agency said the Chargé d’affaires was “officially notified of Iran’s protest and discontent over lack of appropriate security measures to protect the Iranian diplomatic delegation in Yemen’s territory.”

This follows the killing on Saturday afternoon of Abulqasem Asadi, an attaché in the economics department of the Iranian embassy, in what is believed to have been an attempted kidnapping.

According to ISNA, gunmen shot Asadi three times after he resisted an attempt to snatch him from a car as he left the Iranian ambassador’s residence in the Yemeni capital.

The wounded diplomat was rushed to hospital, but was pronounced dead that evening.

Saturday’s attack marks the second attempt to kidnap an Iranian diplomat in Sana’a. In July 2013, Nour Ahmad Nikbakht, an Iranian embassy employee, was kidnapped and is still missing.

Soon after confirmation of the diplomat’s death, Yemeni Foreign Minister Dr. Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi called his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif to express his country’s regret over the incident, and declared the Yemeni government’s willingness to fully cooperate with an Iranian investigation team to find the perpetrators, according to the ISNA news agency.

Iran’s foreign ministry issued a statement strongly condemning the attack, urged Yemeni officials to properly investigate the killing and bring the perpetrators to justice.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, Iranian foreign ministry sources told Asharq Al-Awsat Tehran believes that if the Yemeni authorities had responded more forcefully to the July kidnapping, Saturday’s attack—which occurred in broad daylight in the middle of the capital—might not have taken place.

Iran: Khamenei says nuclear talks show US enmity

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the worshippers before he delivers his Friday prayers sermon, at the Tehran University campus, Iran on February 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader, File)
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the worshippers before he delivers his Friday prayer sermon at the Tehran University campus, Iran, on February 3, 2012. (AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader, File)

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned on Thursday that nuclear negotiations with world powers had revealed US “enmity” towards Iran, hours before the resumption of talks between Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araqchi, and the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief, Helga Schmid, in Geneva.

Ayatollah Khamenei said that Iran “had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with [the United States] to deter its evil,” according to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.

“The nuclear talks showed the enmity of America against Iran, Iranians, Islam and Muslims,” Khamenei added.

The timing and content of Ayatollah Khamenei’s speech suggests it is a carefully calibrated gesture aimed at reassuring Iran’s conservatives that it will not bow completely to Western—and particularly US—pressure, while at the same time not endangering the delicate diplomatic talks.

On Wednesday, reports surfaced that Araqchi will also meet with Wendy Sherman, the US State Department’s Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs and US envoy in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran.

Thursday’s talks are reportedly aimed at resolving issues that have arisen in expert-level talks between Iran and the six world powers of the P5+1—the five permanent UN Security Council members plus Germany—in implementing the interim deal reached last November in Geneva.

On Wednesday, it was reported that the two sides had fallen out over the issue of Iran’s development of new, more advanced centrifuges used to enrich uranium.

Under the terms of November’s deal, Iran agreed to suspend the installation of additional centrifuges at its nuclear facilities, as well as suspend some other aspects of its program, for a period of six months.

In return, the members of the P5+1 agreed not to impose additional economic sanctions on Iran and to relax some existing measures.

Removal of sanctions was one of the central pillars of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s election campaign in 2013, and remains a foreign policy priority. Rouhani has so far managed to convince Iran’s hardliners, many of whom fiercely oppose any concessions or signs of retreat from a fully fledged nuclear program, not to attempt to block the international negotiations.

Iran’s Supreme Leader has on numerous occasions expressed his scepticism about the “ill intentions” of the West, and the US in particular, stating that the concerns over Iran’s nuclear program are a pretext for further pressure aimed at paralyzing the Islamic Republic.

While Iran insists that it had not entered into negotiations as the result of the unprecedented economic sanctions imposed by the US and its allies, advocates of sanctions in the US and elsewhere argue that have been critical in bringing Iran to the table.

Despite public criticism from some conservatives that the Geneva deal represents an infringement of Iran’s “right” to a peaceful nuclear program under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Ayatollah Khamenei has so far backed Rouhani’s policy of pursuing negotiations, and seems ready to accept a final agreement.

In doing so, he has nonetheless sought to placate powerful domestic conservative forces with rhetorical attacks on the US and assertions of Iran’s determination to resist Western and American pressure.

“Our enemies do not know the great Iranian nation. They think that their imposed sanctions forced Iran to enter negotiations. [They are] wrong,” Ayatollah Khamenei said on Thursday.