utgoing US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is likely to get tapped to become Counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, senior US officials tell the Back Channel.
The job, currently held by Heather Higginbottom, is expected to open up if she is nominated to become Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources. The Back Channel previously reported that Higginbottom, former deputy OMB chief and White House deputy domestic policy advisor, is being strongly considered for the second Deputy Secretary post, previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, and she appears to be the lead candidate.
Shannon declined to comment. The Back Channel previously reported that he was under consideration to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, but plans have since changed, officials said this week.
US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, Jr. is expected to stay on in Ankara for another year.
Secretary Kerry is expected to travel to Brazil this month
Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.
Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.
“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.
“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”
Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.
“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”
Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.
“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”
The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.
“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”
How did we get here?
“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.
“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.
President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’
“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”
The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–”the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “
The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.
The United States has presented Lebanon and Israel with a map proposing how they might bypass their border disputes in order to advance exploration for natural gas buried under their territorial waters, a senior State Department official publicly revealed for the first time last week.
“The ideas we have presented for boundaries were addressed by the highest standards of cartography and science–not politics,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Diplomacy Amos Hochstein told an Aspen Institute meeting on Eastern Mediterranean energy issues last week (November 29). “We believe they are the right boundaries.”
“This is not a matter of changing the borders. Let’s not confuse those,” Hochstein cautioned. However, he continued, “addressing these boundaries would remove at least one area of potential conflict between [Eastern Mediterranean] countries and give confidence to investors.”
Syria on Thursday was abruptly cut off from the Internet, two leading US Internet analysis firms said. Many mobile phone communications in Syria appeared to be cut off too, the BBC and several news organizations reported.
“Starting at 10:26 UTC (12:26pm in Damascus), Syria’s international Internet connectivity shut down,” an analyst with Internet monitoring firm Renesys wrote on the company’s blog Thursday. “In the global routing table, all 84 of Syria’s IP address blocks have become unreachable, effectively removing the country from the Internet.”
“We are investigating the dynamics of the outage and will post updates as they become available,” the post continued.
The Syrian regime appeared to have cut off the telecom services, in what may be an attempt to make coordination harder for Syrian opposition forces, an activist outside of the country told Al Monitor. Continue reading →
Exxon Mobil intends to pull out of southern Iraq, in favor of moving forward with its Kurdish oil contracts, an energy expert source told Al-Monitor Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The oil giant’s contracts with Iraq’s Kurdish entity have been a source of ongoing legal dispute with the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
Exxon Mobil informed the State Department this week of its intent to pull out of southern Iraq, Reuters subsequently confirmed Thursday, citing an unnamed American official.
Exxon had sought unsuccessfully to renegotiate the terms of its contract with Baghdad central government authorities, but Iraqi leaders had not been willing to set such a precedent, the western energy expert source said.
Baghdad will be even less inclined to do so if Exxon moves forward with its Kurdish Regional Government oil exploration contracts, Iraq expert Denise Natali said.
Exxon has signed contracts to start drilling in Kurdish Iraq by the end of the year, Ben Lando, of the Iraq Oil Report, reported Thursday. “The company ‘will start moving dirt in December,’” one official told Lando.
The oil giant may be gambling, however, that it can “leverage Baghdad through the KRG,” Natali told Al-Monitor Thursday. Unlike smaller oil companies, “it has lots of time.”
Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, a charismatic rabbi with a large and influential following in New York, has been questioned in Israel on allegations that he tried to bribe a senior Israeli police investigator, Israeli media report Friday. The deepening legal scrutiny of Rabbi Pinto in Israel comes as his former top aide appeared in federal court in New York Friday, amid an FBI campaign finance probe of a congressman accused of pressuring Rabbi Pinto’s followers for illegal campaign donations.
Pinto is alleged to have been caught in a sting offering a senior Israeli police investigator a $200,000 bribe for information concerning a money laundering investigation, Ma’ariv reported.
Rabbi Pinto was questioned Thursday by Israeli police “on suspicion of having tried to bribe chief of the Police Investigation Division Brig.-Gen. Ephraim Bracha,” Maariv’s Avi Ashkenazi reported.
“Escorted by detectives and wearing a wire, the officer, [Bracha], received $100,000 in cash from Pinto, in exchange for which he was to provide information about the investigation into Hazon Yeshaya, a charity organization,” Maariv wrote.
Pinto’s attorney told the paper the rabbi has cooperated in answering the police’s questions and has done nothing wrong.The rabbi and his wife have been released to house arrest in Ashdod, Israel to answer additional questions, reports said.
Ofer Biton, the former aide to Rabbi Pinto and fundraiser for Grimm, had a status hearing in his case before US District Court Judge Roslynn Mauskopf Friday, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in the Eastern District of New York told Al-Monitor Friday.
Biton also informed the court Friday that he has retained a second defense lawyer, Alan Vinegrad, who used to be the US attorney in the district.
Biton, arrested on an immigration fraud charge in August, was released to house arrest last week after a former business partner of Grimm’s put up his $1.5 million bail.
Ofer Biton, a former fundraiser to Rep. Michael Grimm (R-Staten Island, NY) and former aide to Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, was released to house arrest last week after a one-time business partner of Grimm’s paid his $1.5 million bail. Federal authorities are investigating Grimm over allegations that he accepted illegal campaign contributions from members of Pinto’s congregation.
Late Thursday, Israeli media reported that Rabbi Pinto himself had been remanded to house arrest in Israel after allegedly trying to bribe an Israeli police investigator. The reports allege that senior Israeli police investigators had taped Pinto offering a bribe of $200,000 for information on a money laundering investigation concerning him or his associates. Pinto’s attorney told Israel’s Maariv that the rabbi had done nothing wrong and had been cooperating in answering all of the police’s questions.
Biton is due to have a status hearing in his case on Friday, John Meringolo, Biton’s defense attorney, told Al Monitor in a phone conversation this week. Authorities have been seeking to get Biton’s cooperation in their federal campaign finance investigation of Grimm, a freshman Republican who is running for re-election next month. But to date, Biton has refused to cooperate, and Meringolo said he plans to bring the case before a jury.
US prosecutors, arguing against Biton’s release at his bail hearing last week, reportedly alleged that the man who paid Biton’s bail, New York restaurant developer Bennett Orfaly, maintains close ties to his former business partner Grimm, as well a convicted member of the Gambino crime family, the New York Post reported.
“Staten Island Rep. Michael Grimm investigated the Gambino crime family as an FBI agent — before opening a restaurant with a business partner so close to one of the mob clan’s capos, he considers him an ‘uncle,’ according to sources and court documents,” the New York Post wrote.
“America wants us to bend, but we have our pride,” a clothing merchant at one of the few open shops told the AFP.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asked about the protests Wednesday, said sanctions had likely not been a key factor in Iran’s recent currency woes. But she said, Iran could move swiftly to exit the situation by “working with the P5+1″ to ease international concerns over its nuclear program.
European foreign ministers would probably announce additional sanctions on Iran at a meeting mid October, a senior European diplomat, speaking on background Wednesday, said. The measures would likely focus on closing loopholes in a European ban on the import of Iranian oil that went into full effect in July, and on cutting off banks that deal with Iran’s banking sector.
The diplomat said that a meeting of the P5+1 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week had been very short and almost symbolic, deciding chiefly that the group’s public message would be to stress its “unity.”
But perhaps belying that message, the diplomat revealed that while Clinton and foreign ministers from France, the UK, Germany and China attended the ministerial meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, Russia had not sent its foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, but rather its lower level UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin. Continue reading →
The value of the rial continued to fall after Ahmadinejad gave a speech Tuesday in which he blamed international sanctions and a handful of Iranian speculators for the rial’s drop, and urged Iranians to stop selling their rials to buy foreign currency.
But external factors alone do not account for the rial’s latest dive, some economists said.
Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economist at Virginia Tech, attributed the precipitous fall of the rial over the past week to the government’s decision to put more funds into a central exchange for approved importers and exporters. ”Because they moved it suddenly,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Tuesday, there was a shortfall in the free market.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to reporters Wednesday, also said internal Iranian government decisions–”having nothing to do with the sanctions”–had played a role in the rial’s dive. “Of course the sanctions have had an impact as well,” she said, adding, “but those could be remedied in short order if the Iranian Government were willing to work” with the international community to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.
While ostensibly fueled by economic anxiety, rumors swirled that the rial protests Wednesday may also have been spurred in part by rival political factions hostile to Ahmadinejad, some Iran analysts said.
“I think we must be careful before jumping into any kind of conclusion about this particular protest,” Nazila Fathi, a journalist previously based in Iran for the New York Times and currently a fellow at the Harvard Belfer Center for International Security, told Al-Monitor by email.
“It might be part of the attack against Ahmadinejad to bring him down before his term is over,” Fathi said, noting the hostile tone of speeches this week by Ahmadinejad and one of his chief political rivals, Iran parliament speaker Ali Larijani.
Iranian media reports said over 100 people were arrested in the protests Wednesday. Meantime, journalists with the BBC and RFE/RL Persian services reported that their satellite broadcasts into Iran had been jammed Wednesday, to impede Iranians seeing news of the protests.
Iran watchers said the economy-fueled unrest was unlikely to be a one-off affair, given Iran’s economic predicament is likely to only get worse in the months ahead because of its dispute with the international community over its nuclear program.
“Iran’s economic outlook is more limited than at anytime in 50 years,” Suzanne Maloney, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, said at the Woodrow Wilson forum Wednesday.
“There are tremendous opportunity costs” to Iran for refusing to budge on its nuclear program and other policies, she said. “These are revenues and markets that will never be recaptured” and Iran’s ambitions for economic development and trade will be “clipped in the long term in a way that is degrading for the country.”
While Iran can weather sanctions, “the average citizen is very distressed,” and “in the short term, Iranian industry is suffering,” Bijan Khajehpour, another specialist on the Iranian economy, told the Wilson Center forum.
“The Iranian regime is going to face immense pressures in the months ahead,” agreed Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the Rand Corporation, in an email to Al-Monitor. “President Ahmadinejad, in particular, is in big trouble.”
“This is not just about the currency crisis,” Nader added, predicting greater instability in the country. “This is about everything that’s wrong with Iran today.”
–With Barbara Slavin (@barbaraslavin1), Al-Monitor’s Washington correspondent, and Eskander Sadeghi-Boroujerdi (@eborujerdi), of Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse news blog.
An influential Orthodox rabbi whose former aide has been arrested in a federal campaign finance probe has ties to one of the most powerful members of Congress: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, I reported on the front page Thursday.
Indeed, further examination of federal campaign filings by Al-Monitor Saturday indicate that the top seven donors to Cantor’s 2008 campaign are followers or associates of Rabbi Yoshiyahu Yosef Pinto, an Israeli-born mystic rabbi who has acquired a devoted States-side following since he moved to New York in 2005, including among real estate developers.
Together, the group of close Rabbi Pinto associates that made up Cantor’s seven top donors in 2008 gave about $330,000 to the Virginia Republican–almost 10% of the $3.9 million total Cantor raised for the 2008 race. None of them are from Virginia, and some had not previously given to US political campaigns.
Haim Milo Revah, of California, donated $48,100 to Cantor on April 21, 2008. “When Haim Revah, a real-estate magnate who once owned the Lipstick Building where Bernard Madoff was a tenant, brooded about purchasing the Bank One tower in Dallas two years ago, the rabbi [Pinto] suggested a maximum bid that proved to be the winning price: $216 million,” the Wall Street Journalreported in February 2011, citing Revah: “I don’t know how the rabbi did it, but at the end of the day, it was the best price possible.”
Haim Binstock, and his wife Gallya Binstock, together donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on October 31, 2008. (It was one of only two Haim Binstock campaign donations in US records, following a $300 contribution to the NRCC in 2004.) Binstock’s business partner Ilan Bracha, and his wife Mati Bracha, also donated $91,600 to Cantor’s campaign on the same date, campaign filings show.
In 2008, “Bracha, one of the city’s top-selling residential brokers, and his partner developer Haim Binstock paid $1.65 million” to buy a ground floor space in Manhattan’s the Heritage at Trump Place that “they plan to donate …for [a synagogue for Rabbi Pinto's] use,” the Wall Street Journalreported.
Bracha, “also from Israel, met Rabbi Pinto shortly after moving to New York and struck up a close relationship,” the Journal report said. “‘He’s like a mentor and a father to me,” Bracha told the Journal in 2008 about Rabbi Pinto. ‘He has a red phone to God.’”
Rep. Cantor, the second most powerful member of Congress, is also one of its most successful fundraisers. Since the 2009 party-switch of then Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Cantor is also the only elected Jewish Republican in Congress. Continue reading →