Iran nuclear talks: not ‘all options on the table’ yet

Foreign ministers of world powers meet to hammer down a final nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria, on November 21, 2014. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
Foreign ministers of world powers meet to hammer down a final nuclear deal in Vienna, Austria, on November 21, 2014.
(AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—As the countdown to a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear file comes to an end with one day to go before the November 24 deadline, all sides expressed hope that an agreement was still within reach, although both parties argue that the onus to strike a deal is on the other.

A decade-long nuclear standoff between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the US, Britain, France, Russia and China—plus Germany (commonly known as the P5+1) has reached the decisive stage of difficult but practical compromises.

In a nail-biting few final hours before the deadline, US Secretary of State John Kerry cancelled plans to return to the US and continued talks with Iran on Saturday. Kerry claimed progress had been made but there were still “big gaps” to close.

World powers expect Iran to prove not just for now, but for the foreseeable future, that its nuclear program is verifiably and continuously limited to peaceful purposes with no room to break out toward militarization.

Iran on the other hand is determined to preserve a face-saving level of nuclear capabilities including a considerable number of operational centrifuges, but agrees to some limitation under the safeguards of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). For the West however, Iran’s position to comply with the NPT and its Additional Protocol, which permits unrestricted access to nuclear sites, is insufficient given suspicions over other possible clandestine sites and research programs.

Vienna has witnessed intense shuttle diplomacy by various foreign and deputy ministers who have been meeting with the Iranian delegation to thrash out differences. The gap between the parties is still wide on two central issues: First, Iran’s permissible level of uranium enrichment and second, the extent and pace of the lifting of international sanctions on Iran.

Ali Khoram, an adviser to Iran’s foreign minister told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the active presence of the US Secretary of State John Kerry in the last round of Vienna talks seems to indicate that the US has retreated a bit from the unworkable stand it took in Muscat and is discussing an alternative, more practical formula for Iran.”

High-level talks on Iran’s nuclear program took place last week in the Omani capital Muscat but ended with no immediate breakthrough on a deal.

“Failure of the negotiations will inevitably boost radicals on both sides and will create far more chaotic and dangerous results both regionally and internationally,” Khoram added.

Rouhani’s government is under immense pressure from conservative and radical factions within the Islamic Republic not to concede to “the West’s arrogant and excessive demands.” At the same time, Obama’s administration faces the cumbersome task of convincing Republicans that its policy of engagement with Iran addresses Israel’s grave concerns over the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

In March 2012 Obama addressed the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC’s policy conference saying, “when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table”—coining the now well-worn phrase. Although it is yet to been seen whether all options will really be explored before the deadline passes.

Mohammad Hosseini, a senior member of the Resistance Front, an ultra-conservative faction affiliated with Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi told Asharq Al-Awsat that “if negotiations fail, Rouhani has to be held accountable to the Supreme Leader [Ali Khamenei] and the nation.” However, he added that “in the event of no deal and an end to negotiations, Iran has not lost anything and will resume its nuclear activity to the level before the Geneva interim deal.”

The P5+1 group and Iran reached an interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear program a year ago, it expires on Monday.

From the British perspective, the position of the UK government has remained firm that “a deal will only be possible if Iran agrees to meaningful restrictions on its nuclear program,” a UK foreign office spokesperson, Farah Dakhlallah, told Asharq Al-Awsat. “Only then will the world have confidence that its program is exclusively peaceful, in return, the E3+3 is ready to agree significant, early sanctions relief,” Dakhlallah said, using an alternative acronym for the P5+1.

“Whilst there has been further progress in the most recent round of talks, positions remain far apart on key issues,” the foreign office spokesperson added.

Philip Hammond, the British foreign secretary was in Vienna to attend the negotiations.

Of the three European powers involved in the talks, Germany appears most determined to reach a rapid conclusion to the nuclear negotiations given its historically strong trade links with Iran. Nora Müller, the director of the International Affairs Department at the Körber Foundation in Berlin said that “Germany’s key interest is to resolve the nuclear conflict with Iran and to bring Tehran back into the fold of the international community. As a member of the E3+3, Berlin is bound by the provisions of the Geneva interim agreement.”

The other tricky issue, should talks collapse, will be the internal weakening of Rouhani’s government before two crucial elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts, a clerical body with power to appoint and supervise the Supreme Leader, before the end of next year.

Fayaz Zahed, a Tehran-based reformist lecturer told Asharq Al-Awsat that “it seems after one full year of intense negotiations, all sides will agree on a workable formula to extend negotiations to reach a full agreement. However, the failure of negotiations will be disastrous for Rouhani’s government and only aids radicals to regain the political initiative.”

Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif was harshly criticized inside Iran by conservatives for his comments in analyzing the consequences of a no deal during a Q&A in New York back in September. The gist of the analysis was that if Rouhani’s moderate government could not deliver a deal, the radicals would re-seize power in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Berlin-based Müller acknowledges that “the failure to return to Tehran with an acceptable deal would significantly weaken Foreign Minister Zarif’s—and by extension President Rouhani’s—position in Iran’s domestic balance of power. To deliver on his promise to improve the country’s dire economic situation, Rouhani is in urgent need of sanctions relief. Should he remain empty-handed, this would play into the hands of his conservative opponents.”

It is understood that Iran is also pushing hard for all UN Security Council sanctions to be lifted immediately as the result of any agreement. However, for Western powers, UN sanctions are at the core of international counter-proliferation efforts and their lifting is only possible when Iran has demonstrated the peaceful nature of its nuclear program, through implementation of its obligations including the NPT, Additional Protocol, and US and EU demands.

The official line of the Western powers is that “should the talks collapse, the limited sanctions relief Iran has benefited from thus far would cease, and Iran would face further international pressure. We could for example consider further sanctions,” UK foreign office spokesperson Dakhlallah told Asharq Al-Awsat.

What is evident is that all sides agree that the combination of Obama and Rouhani in power presents a rare opportunity to reach an agreement; a closing window to secure and resolve the most challenging political and nuclear standoff of the twenty-first century so far.

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.

Iran welcomes Western tourists on first private rail tour

Tourists look out the window of a luxury train at a station in Tehran after arriving in the Iranian capital from Budapest on October 27, 2014. (AFP/Atta Kenare)
Tourists look out the window of a luxury train at a station in Tehran after arriving in the Iranian capital from Budapest on October 27, 2014. (AFP/Atta Kenare)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—For the first time in history, a private train carrying European, Australian and American passengers entered Iranian territory through the Razi border station between Turkey and Iran’s West-Azerbaijan province on October 23.

Once it had crossed the border, the Golden Eagle Danube Express paused in Zanjan, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Soltaniyeh. The sleeper then traveled south to Yazd in central Iran, widely considered to be the second oldest city in the world and the cradle of Zoroastrianism, an ancient Iranian monotheistic religion.

Also on the itinerary is Esfahan—capital of the Persian Safavid Empire and now known for its magnificent Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Image of the World Square)—Shiraz and Persepolis, before the Express reaches its final destination of Tehran, the capital of the Islamic Republic.

Sixty-three passengers from Australia, the US and EU countries, plus two Kuwaiti nationals, were on-board for the outbound journey, a westbound leg is also possible from Tehran to Budapest.

Tim Littler, founder and owner of Golden Eagle Luxury Trains, accompanied the passengers on the tour’s maiden trip through Iran and told Asharq Al-Awsat that the tour went off smoothly and the passengers all enjoyed the trip.

Image of part of the Jews of Persia rail tour taken from the company's website. (Golden Eagle Danube Express)
Image of part of the Jewels of Persia rail tour taken from the company’s website. (Golden Eagle Danube Express)

Commenting on the inaugural journey, Littler said: “This new adventure honors our proud heritage of offering pioneering rail journeys across Europe, Asia, Africa and North America over the last 25 years. Places [on the tour] were snapped up by adventure travelers who were drawn to the excitement of visiting culturally fascinating but remote destinations in style, comfort and safety.”

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat from on-board the train near the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran, Littler said that the only difficulty the tour had faced was the warm welcome that local authorities had given passengers, causing something of a time drain on the passengers’ itineraries.

The Jewels of Persia tour is set to offer four eastbound and four westbound journeys throughout 2015. Also on offer in 2015 is a brand new Heart of Persia tour that takes in destinations in Iran that have been off the tourist map for many years and have rarely been experienced by western visitors. The journey starts and finishes in Tehran.

The Jewels of Persia attracted a lot of media attention inside and outside Iran as it was launched at a time of regional conflict as well as tension over a decade-long nuclear stand-off between the West and Iran. A day after the train entered Iran, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office issued a travel warning discouraging British nationals from traveling to Iran unless necessary. The advisory issued on October 24 read: “British travelers to Iran face greater risks than nationals of many other countries due to high levels of suspicion about the UK and the UK government’s limited ability to assist in any difficulty.”

Golden Eagle Luxury Trains confirmed that a number of British nationals took part in the subsequent Jewels of Persia tours and were not subject to any unwanted attention from Iranian authorities . A total of 26 US nationals have also taken part in the tours of Iran, the tour operator confirmed.

The preparation phase to launch the Jewels of Persia tour took more than 14 months with Golden Eagle Luxury Trains liaising extensively with various government agencies in Iran and the UK. Despite all this preparation, the company is facing a number of difficulties owing to international sanctions against Iran, including money transfers via Iranian banks.

The company also confirmed that a number of Iranian military marshals have joined the train to ensure the safety and security of passengers and staff throughout the journey.

Places on Golden Eagle Danube Express costs between £8,695 and £13,995 per person. Tickets sell out quickly due to high demand to experience this unique view of Iran.

Post-sanction business with Iran dominates first Europe-Iran forum in London

Official image advertising first Europe-Iran forum in London taken from official literature. (Europe-Iran forum)
Official image advertising first Europe-Iran forum in London taken from official literature. (Europe-Iran forum)

London, Asharq Al-Awsat—The future potential of the Iranian market after international sanctions are lifted dominated the first Europe-Iran Forum held at a central London hotel on October 15 and 16, just yards away from the US embassy.

The forum was organized by a number of Iranian businesses in conjunction with the European Voice newspaper, a leading source of news and analysis on key EU policies, laws and institutions based in Paris. The main purpose of the forum was to “properly prepare and evaluate the post-sanctions trade framework and investment opportunities.”

The forum was attended by former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine. Although no current EU or UK officials were present at the forum, Asharq Al-Awsat learnt that UK and US officials attended as observers.

In his keynote speech, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw outlined his views on differentiating UK-Iran relations from Iran’s nuclear dossier. Straw, who currently serves as Labour MP for Blackburn, had previously led British negotiations with Tehran between 2003 and 2005. He is known to have a positive attitude towards international rapprochement with the Iranian regime.

Straw expressed optimism that the P5+1 group of nations (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear file. He said that all sides must work together to reach a deal, particularly following the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which represents a dual threat to the international community and Iran.

Straw said that reaching a partial deal is far better than the status quo. As for what will happen if no deal can be reached, he said: “In this case, while Russia and China will only adhere to UN sanctions, some EU companies will gradually follow suit hence we will see the sanction regime’s decaying.”

According to Straw, UK trade with Iran between 2008 and 2012 decreased by 50 percent in the areas of foodstuff, agriculture and medicine. During the same period, US trade with Iran doubled hitting over 600 million US dollars, he said.

More than 200 business delegations attended the Europe-Iran forum in London, including Iranian businessmen and women, oil and gas companies, as well as representatives from Iran’s food, advertising, communication, retail, renewable energy, tourism, banking and IT sectors.

The event took place against the backdrop of the latest round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry as the two sides seek to narrow the gap between Tehran and Washington and reach a comprehensive agreement over Iran’s nuclear file.

The US and UK have taken a firm position prohibiting the agreement of any business deals while negotiations are ongoing. Some media outlets were reportedly not permitted to attend the first Europe-Iran forum while organizers sought to ensure that the event did not breach US/EU sanctions.

Radio Farda, which is the Persian branch of the US Congress-funded Radio Free Europe, claimed that a number of media outlets were not permitted to attend the Europe-Iran forum in London by organizers although at least two representatives of Iranian opposition media were present at the conference.

The most controversial figure to attend the business conference was Sir Martine Sorrell, chief executive of WPP, a multi-national advertising agency. In a speech at the forum, Sorrell said that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani—during a private conversation with him at last year’s Davos World Economic Forum—had supported Tehran normalizing relations with all countries in the region, not ruling out Israel from the equation. Sorrell said that there seem to be a gap between the Iranian president’s public and private remarks regarding Iran normalizing relations with foreign states.

The WPP chief also offered a comprehensive analysis of the Iranian market, saying that this remains the only remaining market that contains huge attractions for foreign investors. However he made it clear that so long as Iran does not recognize the state of Israel, investment with and in Iran will remain problematic.

The first Europe-Iran Forum brought together a diverse collection of influential and fast-growing Iranian private companies who were eagerly promoting the potential for foreign investments. But all remained wary of effective extra-territorial sanctions imposed by the US, which prohibit any trade or financial activities with Iran unless a license for that specific business activity is issued by the US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).

One of the forum’s organizers, Esfandiar Batmanghelidj, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We wanted to showcase and introduce to the world, in particular EU and US policy makers, that Iran has a thriving private sector with considerable growth potential and access inside Iran.”

He said that the aim of the forum was not necessary to secure immediate business deals but to “bridge the divide and open dialogue with Iran’s private sector.”

The organizers announced that the next forum will be held in February in Tehran where a diverse range of international companies are expected to travel to Tehran to meet with potential partners.

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.