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Geneva (AFP) – Senior Iranian and U.S. officials were poised to hold direct talks in Geneva Monday aimed at bridging gaps on Tehran’s disputed nuclear program ahead of a July deadline for a deal.

For the Islamic republic, the goal is to make a leap towards ending the international sanctions that have battered its economy.

For Washington and its allies, the aim is to make certain that what Iran says is a peaceful atomic power program is not a covert attempt to build a nuclear bomb.

The talks were expected to last two days and begin at 2:00 pm in the Intercontinental, an upscale Geneva hotel.

It is a traditional venue for closed-door diplomatic negotiations, most recently hosting sessions on Syria and Ukraine.

Abbas Araqchi, Iran’s vice foreign minister and nuclear pointman, said Sunday that the tete-a-tete with U.S. officials was essential as the negotiations are delicately poised.

The Geneva meeting marks the first time since the 1980s that Tehran and Washington have held official, direct talks on the nuclear issue outside the wider P5+1 process.

The P5+1 group of permanent members of the Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States — plus Germany have long sought to reach a settlement over Iran’s nuclear program.

But with the last round of talks in Vienna in May yielding little, there has been concern that the process is stalling.

The announcement on Saturday of the Geneva meeting came as a surprise, but appeared to confirm the need for secondary steps to close big gaps between Tehran and Washington.

“We have always had bilateral discussions with the United States in the margin of the P5+1 group, but since the talks have entered a serious phase, we want to have separate consultations,” Araqchi said, quoted by official IRNA news agency.

“Most of the sanctions were imposed by the US, and other countries from the P5+1 group were not involved,” he added.

The U.S. team in Geneva was to be led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Jake Sullivan, a top White House adviser.

They were part of a small team who through months of secret talks in Oman managed to bring Iran back to the P5+1 negotiating table last year.

Araqchi welcomed Burns’s presence, saying he hoped it would be “as positive during these negotiations” as previously.

In addition to Burns and Sullivan, Washington has also sent its main nuclear negotiator Wendy Sherman.

The overall P5+1 talks are chaired by the European Union, and Brussels’ foreign policy spokesman Michael Mann said the U.S.-Iran bilateral meeting was part of an “intensified negotiating process.”

The EU’s political director, Helga Schmid, was set to join the meeting.

A senior U.S. administration official said Saturday that the Geneva talks would “give us a timely opportunity to exchange views in the context of the next P5+1 round in Vienna,” between June 16-20.

After decades of hostility, Iran and the US made the first tentative steps towards rapprochement after the election of self-declared moderate Hassan Rouhani as president last June.

Rouhani called his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama shortly after he took office, a move followed by a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

An interim deal struck last November led the U.S. and its partners to release $7 billion from frozen funds in return for a slowdown in Iran’s controversial uranium enrichment.

But a long-term accord, ahead of a July 20 deadline, remains a long way off, experts say.

Cyrus Nasseri, a member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team when it was led by Rouhani between 2003 and 2005, told AFP the US role as “the main interlocutor” explained the need for direct talks, and said Washington had to drop its “stubbornly recalcitrant” outlook.

“It’s all a matter of whether the US will be prepared to take the next step to accept a reasonable solution which will be win-win for both,” with Iran allowed to maintain a uranium enrichment program, he said. “The U.S. has to bite the bullet after 10 years of wrongful accusations. It has to accept Iran will at the end of day, no matter how the settlement is made, have peaceful nuclear fuel production.”

AFP Photo/Atta Kenare

President Trump and former Vice President Biden at first 2020 presidential debate

Screenshot from C-Span YouTube

Reprinted with permission from DailyKos

Donald Trump is claiming that he will still debate despite the rule change that will cut off the candidates' microphones while their opponent delivers his initial two-minute response to each of the debate's topics. But everything else Trump and his campaign are saying sounds like they're laying the groundwork to back out.

"I will participate," Trump told reporters Monday night. "But it's very unfair that they changed the topics and it's very unfair that again we have an anchor who's totally biased." At his Arizona rally Monday, Trump attacked moderator Kristen Welker as a "radical Democrat" and claimed she had "deleted her entire account," which is false. Trump's campaign manager, Bill Stepien, went further in his whining about the debate.

Stepien touted a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates as "Our letter to the BDC (Biden Debate Commission)." That letter came before the CPD announced that it would mute microphones for portions of the debate in response to Trump's constant interruptions at the first debate, though Stepien knew such a decision was likely coming, writing, "It is our understanding from media reports that you will soon be holding an internal meeting to discuss other possible rule changes, such as granting an unnamed person the ability to shut off a candidate's microphone. It is completely unacceptable for anyone to wield such power, and a decision to proceed with that change amounts to turning further editorial control of the debate over to the Commission which has already demonstrated its partiality to Biden."

Shooooot, here I thought it was generous to Trump that the microphones will only be cut to give each candidate two uninterrupted minutes, leaving Trump the remainder of each 15-minute debate segment to interrupt.

But what did Stepien mean by "other possible rule changes," you ask? What was the first rule change? Well, it wasn't one. Stepien wrote to strongly complain that "We write with great concern over the announced topics for what was always billed as the 'Foreign Policy Debate' in the series of events agreed to by both the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign many months ago." Welker's announced topics include "Fighting COVID-19, American families, Race in America, Climate Change, National Security, and Leadership," Stepien complained, using this as a launching pad to attack Biden on foreign policy.

Except this debate was never billed as a foreign policy debate. It's true that in past years, the third debate has sometimes focused on foreign policy, but here in 2020, the CPD's original announcement of debate formats and moderators said of the third debate, "The format for the debate will be identical to the first presidential debate," and the first debate "will be divided into six segments of approximately 15 minutes each on major topics to be selected by the moderator."

So even before the CPD finalized the decision to prevent Trump from interrupting for two minutes in each of six segments, so 12 minutes out of a 90-minute debate, Team Trump was falsely complaining that the debate was rigged. No wonder—as a Biden campaign spokesman noted, the Trump campaign is upset "because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response."

Trump has lost one debate and backed out of one debate. If he goes into this one with the attitude he's showing now—attacking the moderator, attacking the topics, enraged that he can't interrupt for two entire minutes at a time—he's going to lose this one, badly, once again hurting his already weak reelection prospects. So which will it be? Back out and have that be the story, or alienate one of the largest audiences of the entire presidential campaign by showing what kind of person he is?