Shaul Mofaz Puts Higher Priority on Palestinian Peace, Not Iran

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

Israel’s new deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, put a higher priority on achieving peace with the Palestinians than on confronting Iran, on Tuesday (June 19). He proposed an interim deal on borders and security to “break the ice” in negotiations.

Speaking to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on his first trip to Washington since joining the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Kadima leader, and former defense minister and armed forces chief of staff, said Israel has a “window of opportunity” of 18 months before new elections “to  make historic changes both in Israel and with our neighbors.”

Mofaz listed his priorities as requiring all Israeli citizens — including ultra-orthodox Jews and Arabs — to perform some sort of national service, changing the political system to weed out tiny parties, making it possible for governments to last longer, passing a new budget with a beefed-up social agenda and kick-starting negotiations with the Palestinians.

“If we don’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the coming years… it is more dangerous to the state of Israel than the Iranian threat,” he said, noting demographic trends that will soon equalize the number of Jews and non-Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.

“We cannot continue to rule another nation. We have to find a solution,” he said.

Mofaz said the Israelis and Palestinians should resume negotiations, which have been suspended for nearly two years, and seek an interim deal on borders and security arrangements. After that, he said, it would be easier to resolve other issues including the status of Jerusalem, refugees, water, holy sites and air space.

He also said that Israel should hold on to Jerusalem and major Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. The Palestinians have refused to return to talks unless Israel suspends settlement construction. Mofaz said there should be no preconditions for negotiations.

While he described Iran’s nuclear program as an “existential threat” to Israel and complained that Iran was playing for time in talks with major powers, the Iran-born Mofaz seemed to take a much less alarmist view of Iran than Netanyahu.

Asked to explain what he meant when he said that the time for diplomacy and sanctions was “limited,” Mofaz said that military action was a “last resort” and that Iran’s adversaries could wait until Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei decides to take “the last step for having a bomb.” According to US intelligence, Khamenei has not made such a decision.

Mofaz also said that Iran’s nuclear program was “a problem the superpowers should take care of” and that before using force, one should ask: “How long will we delay the Iranian program” and “What will happen the day after in the Middle East?”

‘Intense and tough’ Iran nuclear talks in Moscow reveal wide gaps

Moscow_ Iran for the first time on Monday gave a point-by-point response to an international proposal on halting its 20% enrichment activities. But international diplomats said the presentation, replete with PowerPoint slides, at a meeting in Moscow Monday, if anything only made more daunting the diplomatic challenge of trying to narrow the yawning gaps between the two sides in the near term.

“We had an intense and tough exchange of views today,” Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief and lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton, told journalists at the conclusion of the first day of international Iran nuclear negotiations in Moscow Monday.

The Iranians “responded to our package of proposals from Baghdad but, in doing so, brought up lots of questions and well-known positions, including past grievances,” Mann said. “We agreed to reflect overnight on each others’ positions.”

“It’s not enough, it’s not close to enough,” a diplomat at the talks said later, on condition of anonymity, saying the lengthy Iranian presentations Monday did not strike him as signaling Iranian seriousness about negotiations on confidence-building steps.

Then again, the Russians would not want the Iran diplomatic process to “break down” on their turf, he surmised. Some stray hopes for progress rested on the fact that lead Iran negotiator Dr. Saeed Jalili had a dinner meeting Monday night with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s national security council and former FSB chief, although no results from it were yet known Monday night. “We’ll see what happens tomorrow,” the official said.

The lead Russian negotiator at the talks acknowledged wide gaps in the two sides’ thoughts on how to structure and sequence a work plan for easing international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and accumulating stockpile of 20% enriched uranium.

“The difficulty here is not only quite a distance between the positions but also the sequencing … what comes first, what comes next, what this reciprocity means,”  Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told journalists upon leaving the meetings–at a hotel near Moscow’s Foreign Ministry and famed Arbat pedestrian boulevard. “The logic of the negotiations is extremely complicated.”

Diplomatic observers cautioned that these high-stakes multiparty talks tend to have an ebb and flow, and things that looked irrevocably stuck at one point sometimes got unstuck a few hours later. Sometimes.

“Give this some time,” a European diplomat said late Monday. “We can’t judge the talks every five minutes.”

Mann’s statement that the parties had agreed to “reflect overnight” seemed to imply code for the Iranian negotiators having an opportunity to make calls back to Tehran for further consultations and instructions. (The point when it becomes evident that things can’t move further until Iran calls back home comes in every such meeting, diplomats have said.) There were likely some calls back to Washington and European capitals Monday evening as well. Continue reading

MEK May Retain Terrorist Label if it Refuses to Leave Ashraf

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

The US State Department Monday (June 18) warned an Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), that its chances of being taken off a US terrorist list would be diminished if it does not fully evacuate its long-time base in Iraq.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland reminded the group that “cooperation in the closure of Camp Ashraf, the Mujahedin-e Khalq’s main paramilitary base, is a key factor in determining whether the organization remains invested in its violent past or is committed to leaving that past behind.”  Continue reading

US envoy to Iraq nominee withdraws

Obama’s nominee to be US ambassador to Iraq withdrew his name from consideration Monday. Brett McGurk, a former Bush NSC Iraq director and “surge” proponent who negotiated a possible US Iraq follow on force for Obama last year, withdrew his name after his personal emails were leaked, leading his wife to resign her job and some Senators to say they would not support his nomination.

“Iraq urgently needs an ambassador,” McGurk wrote in a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking to withdraw his nomination, the New York Times’ Peter Baker reports. Continue reading

Diplomats describe “intense and tough” talks with Iran in Moscow

Moscow_”Tense and tough” is how a western diplomat characterized the atmosphere at talks between six nations and Iran that got underway in Moscow today. But diplomats so far are not saying very much.

Russian negotiator Sergei Ryabkov, emerging briefly during a lunch break, dodged reporters’ questions. He did say that Iran’s chief negotiator Saeed Jalili had accepted a meeting tonight with his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, the head of Russia’s national security council and former FSB chief.

Diplomats from the P5+1 and Iran met in a plenary session for two hours Monday morning, then broke for lunch. They then went into another plenary meeting at about 3:30  PM. That meeting ended around 6 PM, as expected, so that Jalili could make his dinner appointment with Russia’s NSC chief.

Talks will resume on Tuesday. Diplomats from the seven delegations–Iran plus the United States, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China–plan to reconvene in a plenary meeting at noon, leaving the morning open for possible bilateral discussions, EU spokesman Michael Mann said.

“We had an intense and tough exchange of views today,” Mann told journalists at the conclusion of the first day of talks Monday.

The Iranians “responded to our package of proposals from Baghdad but, in doing so, brought up lots of questions and well-known positions, including past grievances,” he continued. “We agreed to reflect overnight on each others’ positions.”

“Reflect overnight” being code–by some interpretations–for the Iranians calling Tehran to get further instructions. Continue reading

US sees Moscow Iran talks as pivotal

Moscow__Diplomats from five nations and Iran have arrived in Moscow ahead of a new round of nuclear talks Monday that some American diplomats consider pivotal to determining whether to continue pursuing the current incremental approach.

“Tomorrow’s E3 + 3 talks in Moscow are important meetings,” a senior Western official told journalists in Moscow Sunday.

”Iran should come prepared to negotiate seriously and take concrete steps to address the unified proposal laid out” in Baghdad, the official continued.”Iran has a right to peaceful nuclear energy under the NPT, but it must first meet its international obligations,” the official said. “If Iran remains unwilling to take the opportunities these talks present, it will face continuing and intensified pressure and isolation.”

Western diplomats said Sunday they have asked Iran to respond to a detailed proposal put forward by the six-nation negotiating group at a meeting last month in Baghdad. That package called for Iran to halt its production of 20 percent enriched uranium, ship out its 20 percent stockpile, and halt operations at Fordow, a highly fortified enrichment facility built into a mountain near Qom. In return, Iran would get spare parts for old US civilian airliners and fuel and safety upgrades for a reactor that makes medical isotopes.

But some American advisers say if Iran does not show a willingness in Moscow to seriously engage on that interim proposal, then the United States should consider pivoting to a different, higher stakes, approach, that they say would clarify Iran’s intentions.

“We have to see what comes out of Moscow,” Dennis Ross, former senior Obama White House strategist and a consultant to the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Sunday. “If Moscow produces something that exceeds expectations, we should try this track. If not, then we have to prepare to pivot, with the US at that point taking the lead to coordinate.”

The current approach, focused on a short-term confidence building proposal that seeks to address Iran’s higher enrichment activities, “had a certain logic,” Ross said. But if it doesn’t start showing results, “given the other pressures the US is under, the Iranians keep enriching, and accumulating, Israeli patience wears very thin. If we want diplomacy to have any success, the current track is unlikely do so. We should offer something more of an end game proposal.”

Ross laid out his proposal—described by some current and former Obama officials as “go big” and first reported by Al Monitor—in the New Republic this week.

“The Obama administration is considering putting forward a broader proposal to Iran, rather than the more incremental one presented at a meeting last month in Baghdad,” Al Monitor reported June 7th. “Those arguing in favor of the ‘go big’ approach say their thinking has been influenced by two recent diplomatic encounters with Iran that cast doubt on the viability of an incremental deal, as well as by Israeli concerns over any interim deal being the last one reached with Iran for the next few years, officials said.”

A number of other Iran analysts, including Andrew Parasiliti of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US, have urged both sides to put forward an “end game” that can provide  confidence that concessions now will lead to a resolution of the crisis. “To close the deal and advance the negotiations, the P5+1 could recognize Iran’s right to enrichment in the context of Iran being a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and freeze all pending sanctions on Iran,” Parasiliti wrote. “Additionally, the P5+1 might request a good-faith strategic pause in enrichment while Iran resolves outstanding questions about its nuclear program.”

But key US allies are not yet prepared to consider shifting from the current step-by-step approach.

“I don’t think it makes much sense to undercut our own proposal by attacking it,” one western diplomat told Al Monitor Sunday on condition of anonymity. Continue reading

Panetta calls Egypt’s Tantawi

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the head of Egypt’s ruling military council Field Marshal Tantawi Saturday to discuss the Egyptian constitutional court’s controversial ruling  to dissolve parliament, the Pentagon said.

“Secretary Panetta highlighted the need to move forward expeditiously with Egypt’s political transition, including conducting new legislative elections as soon as possible,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said in a statement.

“Field Marshal Tantawi reiterated the SCAF’s commitment to hold free and fair presidential elections as scheduled and to transfer power to a democratically elected government by July 1,” Little’s statement said. Continue reading

UN observer mission in Syria suspends activities, citing “significant risks”

The head of the UN observer mission in Syria, Gen. Robert Mood, announced Saturday that it was temporarily suspending operations and patrols due to escalating violence on the ground that poses “significant risks” to his 300-member team.

The suspension will be reviewed on a daily basis.

“There has been an intensification of armed violence across Syria over the past 10 days,” Mood said in a statement Saturday. “This escalation is limiting our ability to observe, verify, report as well as assist in local dialogue and stability projects – basically impeding our ability to carry out our mandate.”

“The lack of willingness by the Parties to seek a peaceful transition, and the push towards advancing military positions is increasing the losses on both sides: innocent civilians, men women and children are being killed every day,” he said. “It is also posing significant risks to our observers.”

“In this high risk situation, UNSMIS is suspending its activities,” he said. “UN observers will not be conducting patrols and will stay in their locations until further notice. Engagement with the Parties will be restricted.” Continue reading

Saudi Crown Prince and next in line Nayef dies in Geneva

Saudi Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who was selected last year to be the next in line for the throne, has died abroad after an illness, his brother, Saudi King Abdullah, announced Saturday.

Nayef, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, had led the Kingdom’s fight against Al Qaeda. Nayef, who was reportedly thought to be 85 years old, had received medical treatment last month in the United States. Reports Saturday said he had died at a hospital in Geneva. Continue reading