Israel's Ehud Barak heads to Washington

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Israel's outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak departed for Washington on Monday, ahead of the arrival later this week of a high-level Israeli delegation coming to Washington for consultations, apparently as part of the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

Barak “departed this morning for a working visit to the US,” the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement sent to the Back Channel Monday. “During his visit he will meet with senior administration officials and the heads of the intelligence and defense establishments.”

Later in the week an Israeli delegation led by Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror and including Yitzhak Molho is due to arrive in Washington for consultations with their American counterparts, Haaretz reported. Israeli and American officials did not immediately confirm to the Back Channel if the consultations are part of the semi-annual US-Israel strategic dialogue, co-led by Amidror and US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.

The visits come ahead of planned trips to the region by Secretary of State John Kerry later this month and President Obama’s first presidential trip to Israel next month, and amid a steady tempo of high-level Israeli-American security consultations.
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Israeli military jets struck an alleged weapons convoy near Syria’s border with Lebanon late last month.

The visits also come as reports suggest Iran may be slowing down growth of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defined as a key Israeli “red line.” Continue reading

Kerry urges Iran to let diplomacy succeed

New U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a heartfelt plea on Friday for Iran to take up the offer for serious negotiations, in order to peacefully resolve international concerns over its nuclear program..

“The international community is ready to respond if Iran comes prepared to talk real substance and to address the concerns, which could not be more clear, about their nuclear program,” Kerry said at a press conference with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird Friday, Reuters reported.

“And so my plea to the Iranians…is a clear statement,” Kerry said. “We are prepared to let diplomacy be the victor in this confrontation over their nuclear program.”

His remarks come as diplomats from the United States and five world powers are preparing to resume nuclear talks with Iran in Kazakhstan at the end of the month, after an eight-month break. Earlier this month, Iran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency that it plans to install 3,000 advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility, a development Kerry called “disturbing.” President Obama is also expected to be focused on Iran when he meets with Israeli leaders next month.

“The president has made it clear that his preference is to have a diplomatic solution, but if he cannot get there, he is prepared to do whatever is necessary to make certain that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon,” Kerry said.

(Photo: Jason Reed, Reuters.)

Levin: GOP demands on Hagel "far exceed" rules

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin charged panel Republicans with going overboard in their demands for financial information from Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel.

Hagel “has provided all the financial information the rules of the committee require,” Levin (D-Mich.) said Thursday.

“The committee cannot have two different sets of financial disclosure standards for nominees, one for Senator Hagel and one for other nominees,” Levin wrote in a follow up letter Friday to the panel's ranking Republican Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma).
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Republican Senators appear “to insist upon financial disclosure requirements that far exceed the standard practices of the Armed Services Committee and go far beyond the financial disclosure required of previous Secretaries of Defense,” he wrote.

Levin said he intends to schedule a vote on Hagel's nomination “as soon as possible.” Hill staffers suggest that may come early next week.

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Round up: Khamenei nixes US talks

  • Iran’s Khamenei rejects offer for US talks as ploy.
  • Iran reluctant to negotiate from position of weakness.
  • Analysis prepared for President Obama and staff depicts Supreme Leader as walled off from country’s economic strains.
  • European court throws out sanctions against Iran’s Bank Saderat
  • Don’t expect big new peace push when Obama visits Israel next month.
  • Senate panel vote on Hagel delayed.

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(Photo: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks during the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran, August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Hamid Forootan/ISNA.)

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Iran weakness may hinder nuclear deal, strategists say

As six world powers prepare to meet Iran in Kazakhstan at the end of the month, the problem international negotiators may confront is Iran’s reluctance to negotiate from a position of weakness, analysts said Wednesday.

“Rather than play a positive game, it pursues a negative game: to deny the objective of its adversaries,” Middle East analyst Jon Alterman told an Iran conference at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday. “It does not have a positive goal.”

“Iran has the conviction that …if the U.S. accepts the offer, it must be disadvantageous to Iran,” he said. “So they will work to get the offer down again. To keep from getting the deal that people in the US government would like to strike.”

If the dynamic can’t be changed, “I fear we may spiral down away from a resolution,” he said.

“A negotiated settlement may be doable,” ret. Maj. Gen. James Cartwright, former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel. Continue reading

Obama to visit Israel in spring

President Obama is planning to visit Israel this spring, the White House confirmed to Al Monitor Tuesday. It will be his first trip to the Jewish state since taking office.

“When the President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu on January 28, they discussed a visit by the President to Israel in the spring,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said by email Tuesday, in response to a query.

“The start of the President’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria,”  Vietor said.  “Additional details about the trip – including the dates of travel – will be released at a later time.”

Obama will also travel to the West Bank and Jordan.

Israel's Channel 10 reported Tuesday that President Obama will visit Israel on March 20th. The White House did not confirm his travel dates.

Israeli sources told Al-Monitor that President Obama initiated the plan for the Israel trip, early in his and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new terms. “It reflects a priority,” a former Israeli official surmised.

The early spring trip also gives Obama the opportunity to try to reach out to Israeli leaders and the public before potential new tensions strain the alliance, including over the timeline for diplomacy with Iran. It also offers perhaps something of a fresh start for relations between the two leaders who have often been at odds over the past four years, even as US-Israeli security cooperation has expanded to unprecedented levels. Continue reading

EU: Iran talks officially set

Iran will resume nuclear talks with six world powers on Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, European Union diplomats said Tuesday.

“Helga Schmid, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, agreed today with Dr Ali Bagheri, Deputy Secretary of the supreme national security council of Iran, that the next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran on Iran's nuclear programme will take place in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 26th February,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Tuesday.

Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for agreeing to host the meeting. (A US official noted that “Kazakhstan is a country that had a nuclear weapons program and voluntarily gave it up in the ‘90s,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday.  “So it sets a powerful example.”)

Talks have been on hiatus since last summer, after three rounds of talks failed to narrow agreement on a deal under which Iran would stop its 20% enrichment activities.

Iran notified the IAEA last week that it intends to install as many as 3,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its enrichment plant at Natanz.

Iran has been giving mixed signals about returning to the negotiating table, as well as whether it would take up an offer for direct talks with the United States.

Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for his part, expressed optimism on Monday. Continue reading

Iran FM says new nuclear talks Feb. 25

Iran’s Foreign Minister said Sunday that nuclear talks with six world powers will resume in Kazakhstan on February 25th. Western diplomats welcomed the remarks, but said they were still waiting for official confirmation from Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

Ali Akbar Salehi, addressing the Munich Security Conference, said he’d heard the “good news” that agreement on the new P5+1 meeting date and location had been reached the day before.

A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said they hoped Salehi’s encouraging comments are soon officially confirmed by her formal counterpart on Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, Dr. Saeed Jalili, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council.

“Our latest proposal had indeed been Kazakhstan in the week of February 25 after other proposals had not worked,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said by email Sunday. “So it is good to hear that the Foreign Minister finally confirmed now. We hope the negotiating team will also confirm.”

“We aren’t fully there yet,” another western official cautioned Sunday, saying negotiators hope to lock in confirmation over the next day.

Iran’s foreign ministry does not take the lead in Iran nuclear negotiations, and Salehi has often presented a more conciliatory Iranian stance on the international stage.

Salehi also offered mild support for US Vice President Joe Biden’s comments asserting US willingness to hold direct talks with Iran, but was not committal about whether Iran would take up the offer.

Continue reading

White House WMD czar short list

Gary Samore, who is heading to Harvard to become executive director of the Belfer Center,  had his last day at the White House on Friday, after serving four years as President Obama’s “WMD czar.”

The White House said no final decision has been made on who will succeed him. Arms control experts said there has been a closely-held short list of three or so prospective candidates under consideration, that narrowed further in recent weeks.

Among the names the Back Channel hears is on the short list is Samore's top deputy, Laura Holgate. Several diplomatic and arms control expert sources, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel they understood that Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State non-proliferation official now in London, may also have been under consideration. He declined to comment. A couple other people mentioned as prospective candidates, contacted by the Back Channel, denied they were in the running and said they were staying put in their current jobs.  Continue reading