Roundup: Obama to dine with Miss Israel; Iran's man in Iraq

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US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'


The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Continue reading

Iran offers journalists rare tour of former US embassy

Iran recently invited some reporters to visit the former US embassy grounds in Tehran, ostensibly to promote new tours being offered of former front line sites in the Iran-Iraq war.

“The other day I was invited in the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times’ Iran correspondent, wrote on Twitter Monday, in the first of several posts showing his photos of the visit. The occasion was a press conference by a Baseej military commander on tours being offered of former fronts in the eight year war. The organizing committee for the tours now has its headquarters on the former US embassy grounds, Edbrink explained.

But to some the tours’ timing may suggest it’s part of an Iranian response to the recent Hollywood film “Argo,” which several Iranian officials have complained is insulting to Iran, and unfairly depicted Iran’s 1979 seizure of hostages from the US embassy, which led to the over thirty year breach in US-Iranian relations. The Baseej commander, for instance, gave his press conference promoting the new tours in the former US Ambassador’s office.

China’s Xinhua news agency on Monday also published several photos of the former US embassy, which it said were taken by an Iranian journalist for the agency on March 10th:

“An Iranian Journalist visits inside the former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, March 10, 2013,” Xinhua said in a caption:

“Pictures and equipment of Americans are seen inside the former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, March 10, 2013,” the caption to the photograph, below, published by Xinhua said.

The New York Times’ Erdbrink posted his photo, below, of a Baseej commander giving “a press conference on tours to the former [Iran/Iraq] war in the former US Ambassador’s office,” he wrote:

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Iraq advisor eyed for State DAS for Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s former nominee for Iraq ambassador, will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, current and former US officials tell the Back Channel. The State Department plans to fuse the two offices, officials say.

McGurk has been serving as a senior Iraq advisor at the State Department since withdrawing from consideration to be US ambassador to Iraq last summer. McGurk did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

The McGurk appointment, which several officials said is a done deal, is expected to be announced after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf is announced for her next assignment, which sources suggested may be deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Turkey. Former acting DAS for Iran Henry Wooster was made special Iran advisor to JSOC late last year, after he assumed helm of the office following the death of Philo Dibble.

McGurk, a trained lawyer who advised the last several US ambassadors to Iraq, developed a strong working relationship with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement on behalf of Bush White House and later the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq for the Obama administration. He is said by sources to have particularly won the admiration of Antony Blinken, President Obama’s new deputy national security advisor and former national security advisor to Vice President Biden, who oversaw US Iraq policy in Obama’s first term. Continue reading

Roundup: Bibi's all male Octet, women lead Knesset opposition

(Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, AFP/Getty.)

  • Mazal Mualem: Women dominate opposition bloc in new Israeli Knesset.
  • Akiva Eldar: Bibi’s kitchen cabinet “Octet” has not a single woman.
  • Shlomi Eldar on Arab women in Israel.
  • Palestinian rights activist Shireen Issawi on her mother.
  • US withdraws award to Egyptian activist Samira Ibrahim amid investigation of anti-Semitic tweets, she had said account hacked.
  • Peter Beinart: The left gives Hamas a pass on misogyny.
  • Libya women face Islamist rise since Gadhafi fall.
  • From our Middle East women trailblazers slideshow: Above photo, Iranian human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh spent a large part of her early career defending abused mothers and children, activists and journalists. In 2010, she was arrested, imprisoned and banned from practicing law. In 2011, she went on hunger strike after her daughter was issued a travel ban. The government eventually succumbed. Some of her most famous clients include Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi and journalist Isa Saharkhiz.(Arash Ashourinia/AFP/Getty Images)
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Roundup: Brennan confirmed, Obama: Iran needs way to climb down

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama salutes as he steps off Marine One at the White House in Washington after visiting wounded military personnel at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing.)

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Iran nuclear advisor: Almaty 'decisive turning point'

An advisor to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator has called the nuclear negotiations held in Almaty, Kazakhstan last week a “decisive turning point,” in three years of strategic calculations between the United States and Iran.

Mahdi Mohammadi, the former political editor of Kayhan who attended the Almaty negotiations as a media advisor to Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, wrote an analysis of the talks for the Iranian media that was published in English by Iran Review on March 7:

They expected Iran to change, but in practice, it was the United States which changed. I believe that an important mental shift has occurred in the minds of the US statesmen about the definition of a nuclear Iran. As a result of that change, the definition of the red line which should not be crossed by Iran, and the definition of “Iran's nuclear energy program” in a way that the United States would be able to accept it in a face-saving manner, have also changed. The only reason which caused the Baghdad proposal to change in Almaty was a change in the strategic calculations of the United States during the past year.

The updated international proposal presented to Iran in the Almaty talks on February 26-27 requests that Iran suspend operations at Fordo, rather than shutter the facility. It also would allow Iran to produce and keep enough 20% to fuel the Tehran Research Reactor which produces nuclear isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients. In exchange, it offered Iran relief from sanctions on the gold trade, and petrochemical sales, diplomatic sources told Al Monitor.

The revised proposal “calls for a suspension of the production of near 20 percent enriched uranium – an element common to the Iranian and P-5+1 positions,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty February 27:

It would significantly restrict the accumulation of near 20 percent enriched uranium in Iran while enabling the Iranians to produce sufficient fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.  It would suspend enrichment at Fordo and constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there.  It would call for enhanced IAEA monitoring measures to promote greater transparency in Iran’s nuclear program and provide early warning of any attempt to rapidly or secretly abandon agreed limits and produce weapons-grade uranium.

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In exchange for these constraints, the Almaty proposal would build on the Baghdad proposal by offering some steps to ease sanctions on Iran.  […] In keeping with that principle that sanctions easing should be proportionate to the measures accepted by Iran, the sanctions easing offered at this initial stage do not deal with the sanctions currently having the greatest impact, mainly oil and financial sanctions.  […]

Nonetheless, the sanctions easing steps contained in the Almaty proposal are meaningful and would be of substantial benefit to Iran.  They do include pledges to refrain from additional UN Security Council and European Union sanctions imposed as a result of the nuclear issue.  They also include a suspension of a number of significant U.S. and EU sanctions.

Iranian reaction to the Almaty talks has been notably positive, while western reaction has been more muted.

“They”–the Iranians–“are really upbeat about these negotiations,” an Iran analyst told the Back Channel Wednesday following a meeting with Iran’s envoy to the United Nations. However, some members of the P5+1 “don’t like the positive spin. They think the Iranians want to portray ‘we won.’”

The sanctions relief presented in the updated package is the most generous the six world powers could offer at this time given the level of mistrust and legislative constraints associated with most sanctions imposed, said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group which last week published a detailed analysis of the sanctions imposed on Iran and the complexity of unwinding them.

“After six months looking at the sanctions regime, the offer could not be more generous,” Vaez told the Back Channel. Continue reading

Hagel meets Israel's Ehud Barak


Newly confirmed US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday met with visiting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in his first bilateral meeting with a foreign leader since taking the helm of the Pentagon last week.

The two defense chiefs discussed Syria, Iran and continued US support for Israel’s qualitative military edge and anti-missile defense systems, despite looming US budget cuts, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

On Syria, the two defense chiefs discussed “the need for the Syrian regime to maintain control over chemical and biological weapons” in that country and pledged to “continue U.S.-Israel contingency planning to counter that potential threat,” Little said.

On Iran, Secretary Hagel “reiterated that President Obama is committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon with all options on the table,” Little said. “The United States continues to believe there is still time to address this issue through diplomacy, but that window is closing.”

Hagel and Barak have a long and constructive working relationship dating back over a decade, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas wrote for Al-Monitor late last year, noting he had personally been present at three of their past working meetings.  Continue reading

White House names Philip Gordon new coordinator for Middle East, Persian Gulf

The White House on Saturday named Philip Gordon Special Assistant to the President and Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

“Today, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon announced that Philip Gordon will be joining the National Security Staff as Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region,” the White House said in a press statement Saturday. “He will take up his duties beginning on March 11.”

“Phil has been a key member of President Obama’s foreign policy team for the past four years and his work with our European Allies and partners has been indispensable in helping us to formulate policy and address issues around the globe, including Libya, Syria and Iran,” Donilon said in the statement.  “His appointment further strengthens a superb team that includes Puneet Talwar, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq, and Prem Kumar, Acting Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa.”

Gordon has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs since 2009. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is rumored to be in the mix to succeed Gordon as A/S for Europe.
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Gordon takes up his duties as President Obama heads to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan later this month, and days after Iran and six world powers agreed to hold two more rounds of nuclear talks in Istanbul and Kazakhstan in the next few weeks. Continue reading