Report: Ex-Iran FM Mottaki slams Iran negotiating team

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Former Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki has reportedly delivered a stinging assessment of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team. He cast Iran's negotiators, in comments reported by Iranian news site Baztab, as amateurish and given to posturing, more obsessed with what city to hold nuclear talks, than in making diplomatic progress that could help relieve economic hardship suffered by the Iranian people.

“Is the chief [goal]…obtaining results and solving the problem of 75 million Iranians–or globe-trotting and entering third-party countries?” Baztab cited Mottaki, who served as Iran's foreign minister from 2005-2010.

Mottaki’s reported comments were removed from Baztab's website on Wednesday, but are available on another Persian language site. They appear to respond in part to information in a recent Back Channel report on the proposed negotiating stance put forward by a young advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, who previously served as political editor of Iran's hardline Kayhan newspaper.

“Amid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” the Back Channel reported January 22. “The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi…is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.”

Iran–under the proposal Mohammadi set out in Iran Review Jan. 9–would not begin to discuss curbing its 20% enrichment activities–a chief international demand–until after the lifting of US and European sanctions. Reacting to the proposal, former State Department nonproliferation official Mark Fitzpatrick said it suggests that “Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands.”

Mottaki expressed exasperation at the posturing and “strange pre-conditions,” according to the Baztab report: “When a young journalist from Kayhan, with no experience in diplomacy and international relations, has become …a key member on the nuclear negotiation team, and introduces strange preconditions; what kind of result can we expect from nuclear talks?”

Mottaki also reportedly admonished Iran's nuclear negotiating team over its haggling with the P5+1 over the “marginal issue” of where to hold negotiations. Instead, he suggested, negotiators might better invest their energy in making diplomatic headway that could advance a negotiated settlement that benefits the Iranian people.

“Perhaps,” he reportedly proposed, negotiators should “choose a fixed location for negotiations in a non-partisan country, like Switzerland…and permanently solve the marginal issue of the negotiations' location, and prepare the way for addressing the core of the issue and solving the country's problem.”

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Israeli jets said to have struck target near Syria border

The Lebanese Army reported the heavy presence of Israeli jets over its airspace on Wednesday, as sources in the region said Israeli Air Force jets had struck a target, possibly anti-aircraft systems, near Syria's border with Lebanon overnight.

Israeli officials would not comment on the reports.

“There was definitely a hit in the border area,” an unnamed regional security source told Reuters.

“The Israeli air force blew up a convoy which had just crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon,” an unnamed security source told Agence France Press.

A source in the region told Al-Monitor the alleged target was anti-aircraft systems, or a convoy of components for such systems, but that could not be confirmed. The Associated Press reported that the target was SA-17 anti-aircraft missile defenses.

Syria possesses advanced anti-aircraft defense systems, including the Russian-made SA-17 (and, Israel believes, Russian made S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles). Israel would consider it a “game changer” if Hezbollah acquired such advanced systems, that would “change the balance of power” between Israel and Hezbollah, and interfere with Israel's ability to overfly Lebanon and deter Hezbollah, an Israeli security expert told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity Wednesday.

Israeli sources told McClatchy that what was targeted was electronic radar equipment, that targets the GPS system of drones, such as the U.S. unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle that went down over Iran in 2011.

“The entire world has said more than once that it takes developments in Syria very seriously, developments which can be in negative directions,” Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Wednesday.

A Hezbollah spokesperson told Lebanon's Daily Star he had no knowledge of the alleged Israeli strike, the paper reported. Regional sources suggested it might be in the interests of the parties involved, including Syria, Hezbollah and Israel, not to acknowledge a strike if one occurred.

Earlier Wednesday, a Lebanese army statement said a total of twelve Israeli planes had entered Lebanese air space in three waves overnight, beginning at 4:30 p.m. (9:30 a.m. ET) on Tuesday, and leaving on Wednesday at 7:55 a.m (12:55 a.m. ET), Reuters reported.

Israeli media, circumscribed by military censorship, cited Lebanese and other foreign media reports on the developments, which came after days of intense and secretive security consultations in Israel and with foreign capitals.

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi traveled to Washington for closed-door consultations with American officials Tuesday, Al-Monitor exclusively reportedTuesday. Israeli officials would not comment on the focus of his consultations.

Among those Kochavi met at the Pentagon Tuesday was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

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Israeli military intel chief traveling to Washington

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is traveling to Washington for consultations with American officials, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

Israeli officials declined to confirm the focus of his visit, but it comes amid signs of heightened Israeli concern about Syria.

“Hezbollah has set up several bases in Syria, near known locations where Syrian President Bashar Assad is holding parts of his chemical warfare arsenal,” Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai reported Monday.

Netanyahu “recently held a number of security assessments focusing on the developments in the war-torn country,” the Ynet report said. “Israel’s defense establishment has been holding similar assessments, focused on the potential shift in the balance of power between the IDF and Hezbollah, in the event that the latter would get hold of Assad’s WMDs.”

Netanyahu spoke by phone with President Obama on Monday, following a meeting Sunday with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Netanyahu also dispatched his National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror to Moscow, reportedly to seek Russian help in averting various Syrian contingencies.

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Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

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EU tries for February nuclear talks after Iranian stalling

Ali Akbar Velayati, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser on international affairs, attends a news conference in DamascusNegotiators have proposed new dates in February for nuclear talks with Iran, after Iran did not accept repeated invitations to meet six world powers next week in Istanbul, European diplomats said Saturday. Meantime, a top aide to the Supreme Leader vowed Saturday that Iran won’t give up its right to peaceful nuclear energy, and said that the Leader remains adamantly opposed to direct talks between the United States and Iran.

“The nuclear issue is our strategic issue. The Islamic republic of Iran will never give up its right to peaceful nuclear energy,” Ali-Akbar Velayati, the former Iranian foreign minister and top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei, was cited in an interview with Mehr News on Saturday.

The United States should “definitely make a revision in its policies” towards Iran’s nuclear program, Velayati said. He also dismissed the likelihood of future American military action against Iran’s nuclear program, saying “today, the United States is weaker than the time when it attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran is currently far stronger than Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The defiant comments from Khamenei’s longtime close aide and prospective Iranian presidential candidate come as Iran has been stalling international efforts to resume nuclear negotiations that have been on hiatus since last summer.

“As Iran did not accept the offer to go to Istanbul on January 28-29 we have offered new dates in February,” Michael Mann, spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said in an email Saturday.

“We are disappointed that we have so far not managed to agree on a meeting,” he continued. “We on our side showed flexibility when it came to date and venue, while Iran has been putting forward time and again new conditions, which amounted to delaying tactics.” Continue reading

Waiting games: Iran, world powers play chicken over talks impasse


As Iran continues to balk at scheduling new nuclear talks, six world powers are prepared to wait them out.

European diplomats said this week that Iran was giving them the run-around in scheduling a new round of talks.

In the latest salvo in the blame-game over the delay, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council claimed in a statement Friday that it is actually the P5+1 asking to push back the meeting. Deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid called her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Friday, to ask to delay the meeting ’til February “because the P5+1 isn’t ready,” Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Friday. “Bagheri…asked [the] P5+1 to be committed to the fixed dates in January,” the Iran NSC statement said, implying the six powers were the ones holding up resumed talks.

“Nonsense,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, fired back. “The reason for the hold-up is not the 3+3. We are ready and have been for a long time.”

“We had at least five calls to push for a January 28-29 meeting in Istanbul – they did not accept,” a western diplomatic source told the Back Channel Friday. “Now we offered new dates in February (as Jan. 28 now too late from a logistical point of view) and we hope that they will finally accept so we can leave these games behind and focus on substance.”

Tehran’s procrastination is meant to show that the Western sanctions are not working and they are in no big hurry to get back to talks, Iran expert Trita Parsi wrote at the Huffington Post Thursday. But it may also be driven by Iranian fears that they will be blamed if the meeting fails, over what Iran sees as a paltry offer, he said in an interview Friday.

But the P5+1 is not going to improve the package to reward the Iranians for not coming, diplomats and analysts told the Back Channel, even as Iran is intent on showing the sanctions are not so devastating that they are desperate for a deal.

“In terms of why [the Iranians are] not coming, their objective is to hold out as long as possible, and draw as significant concessions as possible preemptively,” former State Department Iran advisor Suzanne Maloney told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “And I think they believe their leverage increases so long as they show they are not desperate for a deal.”

The Iranian calculation that delay favors their negotiating leverage is likely mistaken, Maloney said.

For the United States and P5 partners, “you sit and wait them out,” Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“I don’t think we improve the prospects for a deal by signaling” we’re prepared to sweeten the deal, she added. “They don’t put a lot of credibility in any signals we send, anyhow.”

While Iranian sources have suggested they are trying to press the P5+1 to put discussion of sanctions relief on the agenda for a new meeting, western diplomats say it’s simply “not true at all” that the group has resisted discussing sanctions relief, a  European diplomat told the Back Channel Friday.

Former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said he expected Iran would likely show up for talks in February or so.

“They have no prospects of getting an improved deal if they don’t come,” Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. And “they run the risk…that pressure will go up.”

The Iranians “want to show they are in no hurry,  that [the pressure] is not working,” Ross suggested. The Iranian calculus is that the longer the talks impasse drags on, and their program advances, “the pressure builds on us,” Ross said. “They believe we don’t really want to use force. …They are playing a very risky game.”

Iranian delay may also be the result of Iranian interest in seeing if Obama’s new national security team modifies US policy towards Iran, Ross said. Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry “in the past has signaled an interest in talking to them,” Ross said Iranian leaders may be thinking. “’Let the new team get on board.’ The truth is–and the Iranians will discover this as well–this is the same president and he is the one who makes the decisions.”

“I will give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat. …The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda here,” Kerry continued. “If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. That is what we are seeking.”

Maloney agreed Washington doesn’t need to go overboard to correct any Iranian misreading of Obama’s new national security team as being averse to the use of force if diplomacy with Iran fails.

“Ultimately, everyone knows that there’s a real military option,” Maloney said. “Sanctions are bleeding the country dry. … We don’t need to grandstand. We have far more leverage than the Iranians do.”

If and when negotiations resume, however, the United States will have to take a strategic decision “at what point are we prepared to pay to play,” Maloney said. “To put significant sanctions relaxation, even temporary relaxation, on the table.”

(Photo: U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.)

Daniel Levy: What Israeli elections results mean on global front


Former Israeli peace process advisor Daniel Levy analyzes the global implications of Israel’s election results in a private memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations. The upshot: while the expected coalition is not likely to advance prospects for the two-state solution, the results indicate Israelis are concerned about Israel’s growing international isolation in large part because of the settlements:

“The key lesson for the West, and notably Europe, from the election is that concern over potential international isolation brought on by overzealous right-wing policies towards the Palestinians helped boost the centrist vote,” Levy, the director of ECFR’s Middle East programs, writes in a paper shared with the Back Channel. Yair Lapid, Israel’s second place finisher Yair Lapid:

repeatedly emphasised during the campaign that Israel risked being isolated internationally absent a more credible peace effort. Israel’s rightward drift, then, can be stemmed and even reversed if the West sends the right signals through smart pressure and imposing consequences, rather than evading its responsibility in responding to Israeli violations of international law. How the West approaches that responsibility will go some way to determining whether Lapid becomes the presentable face of a government that continues to deny Palestinian rights and defy International law or recognizes the need to challenge existing policies in this respect. The policy choices that the Palestinians take, of course, are not irrelevant to that equation.

Meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, forced towards the center domestically, may actually try to double-down on Iran, Levy suggests: Continue reading

Diplomats press Iran to stop stalling on nuclear talks

After weeks of Iranian foot-dragging, western negotiators are pressing Iran to commit to a firm date for resumed nuclear talks.

“We have been very surprised to see Iran come back to us again and again with new pre-conditions on the modalities of the talks, for example by changing the venue and delaying their responses,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton responded to a question from the Back Channel Wednesday.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi was cited in media reports Wednesday proposing Cairo host the next round of talks with the P5+1.

But western diplomats say such reports are “total spin,” and that in fact, Iran has not yet agreed to a new meeting, in Cairo or anywhere else.

“Several venues have been proposed. We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time,” a European official said. “Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions.”

Russia on Wednesday pointedly pressed Iran to stop giving nuclear negotiators the run-around.

“We think that our Iranian colleagues could be doing this a little faster,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow Wednesday, the AFP reported. Continue reading

Hagel assures Jewish groups on Israel, Iran

Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, met with leaders of several American Jewish organizations at the White House last week in an effort to alleviate any of their concerns ahead of his confirmation hearing, officials and Jewish groups said.

Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee has been scheduled for Jan. 31st.

“Senator Hagel met with the leadership of several major American Jewish organizations at the White House as a part of his ongoing outreach,” an official working on Sen. Hagel’s confirmation told the Back Channel Tuesday.

“He discussed his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, including his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and to sustaining the Obama Administration’s unprecedented security cooperation with Israel,” the official said. “He appreciated the opportunity to have a constructive, informed and wide-ranging discussion.”

The meeting, held at the White House last Friday Jan. 18th, included representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti- Defamation League (ADL), and the AJC, as well as Vice President Biden.

The meeting was “an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion of key issues of importance to all of us.,” a statement from the Conference of Presidents sent to journalists Monday said.

Meantime, a former ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued that allegations that Hagel is “indifferent to Israel” or “soft on Iran” are “false.” Continue reading

Iran nuclear advisor sets out ‘maximalist’ stance as Iran mulls new talks

Iran's IAEA ambassador Soltanieh and Iran's IAEA advisor Asgari attend a meeting on the Iranian nuclear issue in ViennaAmid a continued stalemate in efforts to resume nuclear talks, a key advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team has published a proposal he says has been previously presented to the United States and five world powers for resolving international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

The author, Mahdi (or Mehdi) Mohammadi, the former political editor of Iran’s hardline Kayhan newspaper, is one of two key architects of Iran’s nuclear negotiating strategy under the team led by Iran National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, an Iranian source who requested anonymity said.

The other is Hamid-Reza Asgari, the low-profile legal advisor to Iran’s Atomic Energy organization and senior non-proliferation advisor to Iran’s National Security Council. Asgari led Iran’s team to technical talks with arms control officials from the United States and other P5+1 powers in Istanbul July 3rd.. Asgari previously met with American, as well as Russian and French diplomats, in Vienna on October 21, 2009 to discuss the details of a nuclear fuel swap deal that later fell apart amid domestic infighting in Iran.

Asgari “is the real boss,” the Iranian source told the Back Channel.

“The two sides, according to Tehran, should first address each other’s concerns,”  Mohammadi wrote in Iran Review January 9th:

The United States should, thus, recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium and Iran, in return, will announce that it has no plan to build nuclear weapons. In the next stage, the US and the European Union should remove all unilateral sanctions against Iran and Iran, for its part, will take immediate steps to address the remaining concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which the Western countries claim to be very important. In fact, a new round of IAEA’s inspections of and access to Iran’s nuclear sites will begin. In the third stage, Iran will be ready to negotiate about 20-percent enrichment provided that the United Nations Security Council will annul all its sanctions resolutions against Tehran. […]

The proposal, which would not have Iran negotiate curbing its higher 20% uranium enrichment activities until the third step, after the lifting of US and European sanctions, might be viewed as a disheartening sign that Iran may still not be prepared to seriously negotiate. At the same time, it could be read as an Iranian effort not to appear over-eager for a deal, ahead of anticipated negotiations Tehran does hope will lead to sanctions relief.

“It’s all part of the pre-negotiation negotiation,” analyst Mark Fitzpatrick suggested.

“Iran is still in the opening salvo stages of negotiations, presenting its maximalist demands,” Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told the Back Channel Tuesday. “And clearly these so-called reciprocal concessions are not in the ballpark for what the six powers can accept. Because Iran is not really giving up anything other than 20%. No mention of Fordo, of its stockpile [of enriched uranium] and no limits on its 5% production.”

“Considering that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad repeatedly said Iran could stop 20% in exchange for fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor] TRR, now Iran is demanding everything for stopping 20%,” Fitzpatrick continued. “That is not a reasonable position for the P5. And they [the Iranians] need to get in the room and talk seriously.”

The publication of Tehran’s proposal comes as western negotiators have been waiting with growing discouragement for Iran to respond to numerous attempts to schedule a new round of talks with six world powers.

“We have spoken to them a number of times since before the new year and have offered dates and venue, but they still don’t come back with a straight answer,” Michael Mann, a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told the Back Channel Monday. Continue reading