Iran taps diplomat to field US non-official contacts

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In a sign of Iranian interest in streamlining back channel contacts and reducing mixed messages ahead of anticipated, resumed nuclear negotiations next month, Iran was said to appoint a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government Americans, two Iran nuclear experts told Al-Monitor this week.

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.“ Continue reading

Tuesday links: Middle East awaits election’s victor

Sudan accuses Israel of striking Khartoum arms factory

Sudan has accused Israel of being behind air strikes that targeted a Khartoum military complex around midnight Wednesday. The strikes, reportedly carried out by four aircraft, killed two people and caused a huge, fiery explosion at an arms factory located at a Sudanese army complex, local reports said.

“We think Israel did the bombing,” Sudan Information Minister Ahmed Bilal Osman told a press conference Wednesday, the AAP news service reported, adding that Khartoum “reserve(s) the right” to respond at a “place and time” of its choosing.

Avital Leibovich, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), declined to comment on the Sudanese charge. “I will not comment on those reports,” Leibovich told journalists Wednesday, speaking on a press call organized by the Israel Project.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak similarly refused comment, telling reporters in Israel Wednesday, “I have nothing to say about this thing,” Reuters reported.

Israel similarly did not confirm or deny its widely reported role in 2009 strikes on alleged weapons convoys in Sudan. But Israeli analysts have given broad credence to the claims, noting Israel suspects that Sudan is being used as a transit hub for Iran arms supplied to militant groups in Gaza via Sudan and Egypt.

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France seeks to toughen UN statement on Syria ceasefire


France has proposed revisions to a draft UN Security Council press statement on Syria, as UN/Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi seeks the body’s support for a cease-fire for the Eid Al Adha holiday on October 26.

In particular, France is seeking revisions to the text that would single out the Syrian regime for greater responsibility for the violence that has killed an estimated 30,000 people, over the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad, according to a copy of the proposed revised draft provided to Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“The Council must stress that the responsabilty [sic] lies first on the Syrian authorities to stop the killings,” the memo from France’s UN diplomats to other UN Security Council members proposing their revisions states. “This has been a consistent principle of the UNSC since the start of the crisis. We thus retained the formulation of the [Secretary General's] SG statement “in particular on the Government of the Syrian Arab republic as the stronger party.'”

Former UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan last week faulted great power divisions and western insistence on seeking a UN “Chapter 7″ resolution for the breakdown of a fragile accord he hammered out in Geneva in June. Russia, which vields a veto in the body, has opposed a Chapter 7 resolution on Syria, complaining such a measure was used to authorize NATO-led military intervention against Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi.

Meantime, some Syria scholars previously on the fence about deeper US entanglement in the conflict have shifted their positions, as spillover from the Syria conflict increasingly threatens to destabilize in particular Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

“The US government should tell Assad that he must launch serious negotiations for a transition government,” Syria scholar Joshua Landis wrote at his blog Monday. “If he does not, Western governments should supply opposition militias with ground to air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air-force.”

The French mark-up of the draft UN Security Council press statement on the Syria ceasefire, identified as version 3, below.

Security Council Draft Press Statement on Ceasefire in Syria

The members of the Security Council welcomed the important and timely initiative of the Joint Special Representative of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, Lakhdar Brahimi, for a ceasefire and a cessation of violence in all its forms during the period of Eid Al Adha, and echoed the joint appeal of the Secretaries-General of the United Nations and the League of Arab States to all regional and international actors to support it. Continue reading

Obama, Romney face off at foreign policy debate

The last debate of the 2012 US presidential campaign, on foreign policy, gets underway in a few minutes in Boca Raton, Florida, and Middle East issues–Iran, Libya, Syria, Israel–look set to predominate.

I’ll be joining the folks at NPR affiliate KCRW and friends for a live-blog of the debate, which you can follow here. What questions do you hope get asked? Continue reading

White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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A visit to the blast scene in Beirut

My colleague Ben Gilbert, Al-Monitor’s news editor, reports from the scene of Friday’s blast in Beirut, that reportedly killed Maj. Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, head of intelligence of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces, and seven others.

A car bomb tore through a predominantly Christian neighborhood of Beirut on Friday, killing at least eight people — including Wissam Hassan, a senior intelligence officer in Lebanon’s National Police Force — and wounding more than 70.

A visit to the scene shows that the explosion, which occurred at 2:50pm local time, tore at least one car in half and gutted many others. It ripped balconies from buildings, scattered glass and metal several blocks away from the blast site, and even tore leaves from trees.
Bloodied civilians could be seen being dragged from the area as ambulances attempted to evacuate the wounded to nearby hospitals. One small girl, carried away from the rubble, was bleeding heavily from deep gashes on her head and upper arms.

“It broke all the windows and shook the house,” Ghassan Baroudi, who was at home in the building next to the bomb when the blast struck, told Al-Monitor. “I saw a screaming woman get out of her car and a man running across the street carrying an infant. The child was okay, but the man was covered in blood.”

“We feared another explosion so we left and went around the back,” Baroudi, 28, added.
The bomb attack was the worst of its kind to hit Lebanon for more than four years, when a wave of political assassinations killed dozens of civilians and several officials between 2004 and 2007.

The explosion occurred just off Beirut’s Sassine Square, a major traffic junction in the capital’s eastern Ashrafieh district lined with several shops, cafes and restaurants.
Nour Kassab, a ninth-grade student living on the street where the bomb exploded, was visiting her cousin in a nearby restaurant when the blast hit.

“I came to my house and there was fire in the street,” she told Al-Monitor. “Cars were on fire and my neighbors were coming down from the buildings covered in blood. I was so scared I couldn’t move. ‘Oh my God,’ I thought. ‘The house is gone. There is nothing left.'”

Nour’s uncle, Toni Haddad, expressed the fear of many residents that the conflict in neighboring Syria was spreading to Lebanon. “The Shiites and Sunnis, the Russians and Americans and Qataris and Syrians, now they are bringing their war to Lebanon.”

The reported target of Friday’s blast, Lebanese police intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan, was a close ally of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a foe of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Saad Hariri on Friday accused Assad of the killing.

At a watch repair shop around the corner from where the bomb went off, owner Jimmy, who didn’t want to give his last name, swept the glass shards of what was once the store’s glass façade into the sidewalk.

“I had forgotten what a bomb sounds like, said Jimmy, who showed Al-Monitor scars on his leg he said was from one of the bombs that exploded 100 feet away from this one in 1978. “It’s funny how you can forget it, and I did.”

Ben Gilbert, Al-Monitor’s news editor, tweets @benrgilbert

(Photo: Firefighters try to extinguish a fire as a car burns at the scene of an explosion in Ashafriyeh, central Beirut, October 19, 2012. REUTERS/Hasan Shaaban)

Kofi Annan faults West for breakdown in Syria mediation efforts


Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on Thursday faulted western countries’ insistence on seeking a UN Security Council Chapter 7 resolution opposed by Russia and China in part for the breakdown of Syria mediation efforts he pursued as joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy earlier this year.

Annan, speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington Thursday, said he was able to broker agreement among the major powers on a six-step Syria transition plan, at a meeting in Geneva in June attended by both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

But immediately after the meeting, the US and European nations went to the UN Security Council to try to get a Chapter 7 resolution that Russia had made clear it opposed because such a resolution had been used to authorize NATO military intervention in Libya. Russia and China vetoed the measure, Annan quit a month later, and the Syria conflict has grown more militarized even as in recent weeks it has seemed to settle into a stalemate.

The Syrian conflict is “not winner take all,” Annan said. “Neither side [is going to] give up, unless presented with a [political] alternative.”

Military intervention is not the answer in every situation, Annan said, adding that in the case of Syria, he believes it would make things worse.

Syria will not implode, Annan said, it will explode, spreading instability and sectarian strife across the region, as increasingly witnessed. An estimated 30,000 Syrians have been killed in the 19 month conflict, that has sent large and potentially destabilizing refugee flows into Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and beyond.

“Some governments made the calculation that the fastest way to end the Syria conflict is to arm one side or other,” Annan said, warning, “that is only going to get more people killed.”

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Exxon may pull out of southern Iraq

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.”

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Texas man pleads guilty in plot to assassinate Saudi envoy

A former Texas used car salesman pleaded guilty Wednesday to conspiring in a plot to assassinate the Saudi envoy to the United States.

Mansoor Arbabsiar, 58, a naturalized American from Iran, pled guilty to three counts, including soliciting a murder for hire scheme, and conspiring in a terrorism plot against the United States. He could face twenty-five years in prison and will forfeit his assets.

Arbabsiar was charged last year wth conspiring with four members of Iran’s Qods force-among the, his cousin-in a bizarre plot to recruit members of a Mexican drug gang to blow up a Washington restaurant frequented by the Saudi envoy, Adel al-Jubeir. The plot came on the radar of federal authorities after Arbabsiar attempted to seek the help in Mexico, in May 2011, of a man fhe thought to be a member of the Zetas drug cartel. That man turned out, however, to be a paid informant for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Federal terrrorism investigators were allegedly monitoring Arbabsiar when he wired $100,000 to the DEA informant in the summer of 2011, as the downpayment for the alleged hit job, for which he had agreed to pay $1.5 million.

Iran’s mission to the UN last year called the allegations ‘baseless,’ and several outside observers have found the details of the allegedly thwarted plot far-fetched.

But in a demonstration of how seriously top US officials have viewed the case, Arbabsiar’s guilty plea was announced Wednesday by a half dozen top US law enforcement chiefs, including Attorney General Eric Holder, FBI Director Robert Mueller, and DEA chief Michelle Leonhart.

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