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Global Intelligence, Stratfor, May 29, 2010

Lebanonwire

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Iran, Bulgaria: Activity in Sofia a Prelude to Iranian-U.S. Talks?

Summary

Iranian FM Manouchehr Mottaki in Sofia, Bulgaria, on May 28.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki made his first visit to Bulgaria on May 28 for a meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation states (a group in which Iran does not have membership, though it became a partner state in 2009). His visit closely follows CIA Director Leon Panetta’s visit to Bulgaria and coincides with events commemorating the 15th anniversary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria. Mottaki’s already unusual visit is made more unusual by the presence of numerous U.S. intelligence and government officials — a sign that backchannel talks between Washington and Tehran could be forthcoming.

Analysis

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki paid his first visit to Bulgaria on May 28 to take part in the 22nd meeting of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) states held in Sofia. Iran is not a member of BSEC, since it is not a Black Sea littoral state, but became a partner state in 2009. Mottaki met with Bulgarian Foreign Minister Nikolai Mladenov. The visit took the Bulgarian media by surprise, although it was announced in Iranian news about five days ago.

On the surface, Mottaki’s trip to Bulgaria to attend a meeting of an organization that deals with a sea that Iran does not abut seems unimportant, if not a downright waste of Mottaki’s time. Although the meeting did include discussions on energy matters that could interest Iran, Mottaki easily could have sent a deputy, since deputy foreign ministers normally attend the BSEC summit. However, the timing and circumstances of the visit could signal backchannel talks between Washington and Tehran.

Mottaki’s visit closely follows CIA Director Leon Panetta’s visit to Bulgaria, which began the evening of May 26 at a dinner with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, Bulgaria’s interior minister and the directors of three Bulgarian intelligence agencies. Panetta also held a separate meeting with Borisov on May 27. Panetta’s visit was agreed upon in September, but was kept from the press until he arrived.

Mottaki’s trip to Sofia also coincided with the 15th anniversary of the American Chamber of Commerce in Bulgaria, which was commemorated with a dinner and conference May 27. This would seem largely irrelevant except that conference attendees included the U.S. ambassadors to Bulgaria and Russia, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and senior U.S. State Department officials Nancy McEldowney (principal deputy assistant secretary of state) and Alexander Karagiannis (the department’s Central Europe director).

This means that Mottaki’s already unusual visit coincides with the presence of an unusually large contingent of U.S. government officials in Sofia. While Panetta likely left Bulgaria the evening of May 27 — STRATFOR has not been able to confirm the details of Panetta’s schedule, for obvious reasons — there is no shortage of high-ranking U.S. officials still in Bulgaria who could meet with either Mottaki or, more likely, one of his deputies.

Mottaki’s visit to Bulgaria — when he likely has more important things to do and when U.S. intelligence and government officials are also in Bulgaria — comes as the United States and Iran are at a geopolitical impasse. The United States wants to disengage from Iraq but does not want Iran to fill the inevitable power vacuum left there. Meanwhile, Iran is pursuing the development of a nuclear program that the United States and other Western countries claim has military purposes. The Iranians are seeking security reassurances from the United States, without which the development of an Iranian nuclear deterrent is all but assured.

With the impasse comes a high probability that under-the-radar negotiations between Iran and the United States are forthcoming. The kinds of contacts that the presence of Mottaki and Panetta and other U.S. officials in Sofia suggests would be especially likely to precede such negotiations. Such a setting provides opportunities for key advisers and behind-the-scenes operators to meet while their bosses attend (irrelevant) conferences. It is in this context that we find Mottaki’s visit to Bulgaria too much of a coincidence to ignore.

This article is published at Lebanonwire by agreement with www.stratfor.com, the world's leading private intelligence provider.

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