Nuclear negotiators still waiting for Iran RSVP

Share

The government of Iran has still not gotten back to international negotiators about a prospective date and venue for a new round of nuclear talks with six world powers, a diplomat told the Back Channel Sunday.

“No news,” a spokesperson for the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel by email Sunday in response to a query.

Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid held a telephone call with deputy Iran nuclear negotiator Dr. Ali Bagheri on December 12th to propose possible dates and the venue of Istanbul for a new meeting. Although one date proposed was December 20, several western diplomats said their expectation was that a new meeting would not materialize until January.

Meantime, Iran is due to host a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Iran on January 16th.

Amid the uncertainty on when nuclear negotiations will resume, the Obama administration gave a somewhat upbeat assessment to the New York Times last week about Iran’s having held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer.

Continue reading

Obama defends Hagel as ‘patriot’

President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended former Senator Chuck Hagel as a patriot and outstanding intelligence advisor, but said he had still not decided who he would nominate to serve as his next Defense Secretary.

Obama, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday for the first time since 2009, was asked by host David Gregory, “Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you, should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?”

“Not that I see,” Obama responded, after saying he had not made up his mind yet about his pick for Pentagon chief.

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” the president continued. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

“So I haven’t made a decision on this,” Obama said.

Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, apologized earlier this month for comments he made in 1998 regarding an ambassador nominee who was gay. Former US ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel subsequently wrote on Facebook that he accepts Hagel's apology.

“Senator Hagel's apology is significant–I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything,” Hormel reportedly wrote on Facebook Dec. 22, noting that over the past “fourteen years…public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.”

Obama made the same point to Gregory. “With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.  And that's something that I'm very proud to have led.”

Obama’s comments on the Sunday show gave no indication of when he might announce further cabinet nominations for his second term. To date since his reelection last month, Obama has nominated only Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and former Democratic presidential candidate is expected to be easily confirmed. Kerry and Hagel are both Vietnam veterans. Continue reading

Reports: Netanyahu may tap Ron Dermer as next US envoy

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering nominating his American-born advisor Ron Dermer as Israel’s next envoy to the United States, Israeli media, citing a report by Israeli daily Makor Rishon, said Friday.

“On Friday morning, the diplomatic correspondent of Israeli daily Makor Rishon Ariel Kahan reported that Netanyahu is nominating his advisor Ron Dermer to the role,” Haaretz’s Ben Ravid wrote. “Dermer has served as Netanyahu’s advisor for the past four years. I asked the Prime Minister’s Office whether they can confirm the report, and received an expected and routine answer: ‘No comment.’”

The reports said that Israel’s envoy to the US Michael Oren is expected to step down in May after serving in the role for the past four years.

Update: However, a spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington told the Back Channel Sunday that the rumor Ambassador Oren has asked to step down in the spring is baseless. “Ambassador Oren …. is continuing in his positions as planned,” the spokesperson said. “No decision has been made regarding the next ambassador to the United States or the timing of appointing a new ambassador.”

Continue reading

US sees hopeful sign in Iran pausing 20% stockpile

The Obama administration sees a potentially encouraging sign in the fact that Iran held flat its stockpile of higher enriched uranium last summer, the New York Times reports. However, analysts note that Iran subsequently resumed growing its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium in the fall and suggested the Iranian leadership’s intentions remain unclear.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported in August that Iran had diverted almost half its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium for medical use, thus keeping its stockpile of the higher enriched fuel steady at 91kg between May and August.

“One American official said the move amounted to trying to ‘put more time on the clock to solve this,’ characterizing it as a step ‘you have to assume was highly calculated, because everything the Iranians do in a negotiation is highly calculated,’” the New York Times’ David Sanger and James Risen reported Thursday (Dec. 27).

However, the latest IAEA Iran report from November shows that diversion of 20% fuel for medical purposes had not continued in the fall. Rather, Iran resumed adding to its 20% stockpile, which had grown to almost 135 KG by November 18th. (It would take about 200 KG of 20% enriched uranium to be higher enriched to weapons grade — 90% purity–to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb.)

Former Iranian nuclear negotiator Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel the explanation for the temporary diversion is simple: Iran has now produced enough 20% enriched uranium to build the fuel rods needed for the Tehran Research Reactor that produces isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. Thus, “from now on and as a confidence building [measure], Tehran [can] try either to convert or to slow down the production amount,” Mousavian said by email Friday.

However, given that the pause in Iran’s growth in its 20% stockpile did not continue into the fall, some Iran and arms control analysts expressed puzzlement at the US official’s reported assessment of the development, noting it comes amid a lot of mixed signals.

“There’s a real effort to indicate that things are going swimmingly and that a resumption of talks is imminent,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel Friday, adding his own view is that is “overly optimistic.”

“With the latest evidence”— that Iran had resumed growing its 20% stockpile—“there is less of a reason” to be confident in what Iran intended to signal with its diversion of 20% uranium for medical purposes last summer, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann told the Back Channel Friday. “Not that it removes it entirely. It still applies.” Continue reading

Roundup: Chuck Hagel and his enemies

Avineri: Israel behavior in sharp break with past

The Israeli government’s rapid expansion of settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the wake of the UN vote on Palestine has alarmed Israel’s allies in the United States and Europe and represents a sharp break with Israeli foreign policy strategy in the past, argues Shlomo Avineri in Haaretz:

In responding to the UN vote on Palestinian statehood, the government’s decision to build in E-1 and in East Jerusalem is the exact opposite of the underlying principles of how Zionist and Israeli international policies have evolved over the years. When Israel wins broader and deeper international support, it can achieve its aims, and when it is isolated it fails to achieve them.

What the government is doing now is not successfully challenging the Palestinian leadership. Rather it is engaging in unnecessary quarreling with Israel’s supporters in the democratic world – the United States and the European countries. It is not enough to think you are right and to convince your supporters of that: In the cruel world of international politics, a small nation can achieve its aims only if it is able to forge alliances with the powers-that-be and to ensure their support – not out of love, but because they are convinced there is congruence between their countries’ interests, or their leaders’ considerations, and the aims of, in this case, Zionism and the State of Israel. […] Continue reading

When Kerry learned his grandfather was Jewish

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Obama’s nominee for Secretary of State, learned during his 2004 presidential run that his paternal grandfather was Jewish, born Fritz Kohn, in what is now the Czech Republic, Dina Kraft recounts at Haaretz Friday:

His paternal grandfather Frederick A. Kerry, was born Fritz Kohn in a town in what today is the Czech Republic before changing his name ahead of his immigration to the United States a century ago. […]

Kerry’s brother Cameron converted to Judaism after marrying Kathy Weinman, a Jewish woman and fellow lawyer he met on the job at a Washington law firm.

In [2004] as his brother campaigned for president, Cameron Kerry, known as Cam, traveled to Israel for the first time […] During the visit he recalled finding out about his family’s Jewish roots and calling up his in-laws to tell them the news.

“I called up Kathy’s parents and said ‘I’m Jewish,’ and they said, ‘Yeah we know’ and I said, ‘No, I’m really Jewish,’” he said in an interview with JTA at the time.

Reform Judaism magazine, writing in the fall of 2003, said Kerry in fact learned in the 1980s from a relative that his paternal grandmother, Ida, a practicing Catholic, was born Jewish. But it wasn’t until more than a decade later that he learned more about his grandfather’s story:

Continue reading

Roundup: Kerry for Secretary of State

How To Get Your Ex Back With Facebookgnnone wp-image-3624″ title=”obamakerrydec212012″ src=”http://backchannel.al-monitor.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/obamakerrydec212012.jpg” alt=”” width=”600″ height=”400″ />

Mixed signals from P5+1 ahead of new Iran talks


Six power talks with Iran, on hold since July, now seem likely to resume more or less where they left off, though the updated package does offer specific, if limited, sanctions relief, and would be the “opening bid,” sources tell the Back Channel.

After weeks of deliberations, the updated P5+1 proposal to Iran is more or less a warmed up version of what was presented to Iran last May in Baghdad, Barbara Slavin reported at Al Monitor Wednesday.

But sources familiar with the American deliberations tell the Back Channel the six powers might be willing to sweeten the deal if and when the Iranians return to the table, but do not want to appear overly eager.

“On Iran, it may be the P5+1 have agreed behind the scenes to some possible sanctions relief …but don’t want to be seen as too eager for a deal,” a source familiar with US administration thinking told the Back Channel Thursday on condition of anonymity. “Any offer they make is only an initial bid.”

The presumption is that the Iranians will demand more no matter how generous the updated initial offer is. “So the P5+1 may be putting the ball in Tehran’s court to start the more-for-more discussion, and then will respond accordingly,” he said. If Iran wants more, what more would they be willing to offer.

The P5+1 “have decided to put concrete sanctions relief in the package,” another expert told the Back Channel on condition of anonymity Thursday. Such relief specifies that “Iran could purchase certain things, what are those certain things,” with a degree of concrete detail apparently not in the original package. Continue reading

Benghazi panel: Security at US outpost ‘grossly inadequate’


The head of State Department diplomatic security resigned Wednesday, in the wake of an investigation by a panel looking into the September 11, 2012 killing of four US diplomatic personnel in Benghazi, Libya.

The State Department said Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security Eric Boswell has resigned, and three other officials have been relieved of their current duties. “All four individuals have been placed on administrative leave pending further action,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement.

Veteran US diplomat Thomas Pickering, who chaired the independent Accountability Review Board (.pdf), said Wednesday that State Department security personnel were “heroic” in their actions after the US compound in Benghazi came under attack, but that security preparations at the facility were “grossly inadequate.”

“They did their best that they possibly could with what they had, but what they had was not enough,” Pickering told journalists at a briefing at the State Department Wednesday.

“Security posture at the Special Mission compound was inadequate for the threat environment in Benghazi, and in fact, grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place that night,” retired Adm. Mike Mullen, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served as vice chair of the ARB review, told journalists.

Continue reading