Regional war in Yemen challenges Iran talks

US said to be aiming for agreement by March 29.

Iranian military parade showcasing missiles (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iranian military parade showcasing missiles
(photo credit: REUTERS)
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – US diplomats in Switzerland kept their focus on Tehran’s nuclear program on Thursday, despite war breaking out along regional and sectarian lines in Yemen since the Iran negotiations recessed five days ago.
US President Barack Obama authorized assistance to Saudi Arabia and its Sunni regional allies in its surprise military campaign in Yemen against rebel Shi’ite Houthis, a group supported politically and financially by Iran.
The Tehran government condemned Riyadh’s air campaign as an act of “American- backed aggression” within hours of a meeting between its foreign minister, Javad Zarif, and US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry “briefly” broached the topic of Yemen in their meeting, which lasted more than three hours, the US Department of State said.
Asked by The Jerusalem Post to comment on the progress of the talks, Kerry simply responded, “We’re working, we’re working.”
One official reaffirmed to the Post that negotiations here on Lake Geneva have remained focused on the nuclear file. But Saudi Arabia opposes the nuclear framework under discussion in its current form, leading some to question the timing of the Sunni campaign in Yemen, officially titled Operation Decisive Storm.
Speaking in Farsi to Iranian press, Zarif said that developments in Yemen had not distracted negotiators from the issue at hand: Iran’s nuclear program and the international community’s efforts to contain it.
“Before we see the entire puzzle, we cannot say” whether a deal can be reached, Zarif then said in English.
“We are trying to be able to resolve all the issues within the next few days, and then get down to writing the exact details,” he continued. “But that is still too early to decide when that will take place.”
In a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, French President François Hollande said that Paris seeks a “lasting, robust and verifiable” deal; his government has been talking tough for days. In the last week, its UN ambassador as well as its foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, have said that progress in the negotiations has so far proven “insufficient.”
Fabius will arrive in Switzerland on Saturday demanding Iran openly acknowledge its past military nuclear work. Paris is also expressing concern over the length of a proposed deal – understood to sunset in a decade – and the swift pace with which the US is willing to lift sanctions.
Rouhani called the leaders of China, Russia and Britain, not only to discuss the nuclear talks but “regional developments” as well. Publicizing the phone conversations on Twitter, Rouhani’s office used the hashtag “#YemenAttack.”
Over two years of negotiations, a host of global crises have challenged negotiators with distraction. With Russia at the table with Germany and the US, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula; the Iraqi city of Mosul fell to Islamic State amid concern over US and Iranian political jockeying in Baghdad; and Washington backed Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, adamantly opposed by Tehran.
Negotiators have consistently said that talks over Iran’s nuclear program are too important to let other matters interfere.
One US official confirmed to the Post that Kerry would like to leave Lausanne for an event on in Boston on March 29, in his home state of Massachusetts, for the inauguration of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, named in honor of Kerry’s longtime colleague and friend.
But sticking points in the talks may be too difficult to overcome before March 31, the set goal for a political framework agreement, the official said.
Among them, disagreements remain over how to tie sanctions relief to specific, verifiable actions taken by Iran to roll back its program and open it to international inspectors. The extent that Iran will be allowed to retain its uranium enrichment program is also unresolved.
And France’s concerns over military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear work remain unresolved.
As negotiations were under way, the Associated Press reported that US officials suggested they were willing to allow Iran to keep operable centrifuges spinning uranium in its facility at Fordow, a once-covert plant burrowed inside a mountain. The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington is willing to forgo requiring Iran to answer questions from the United Nations on its past nuclear work immediately upon reaching a deal.
US officials declined to confirm or deny either report.
“There will be a lot of reports that claim to address some specifics in the negotiating room,” said Jeff Rathke, a spokesman for the State Department, briefing reporters in Washington on Thursday. “We’ve been clear all along that we’re not going to negotiate in public.”