Kerry staff shifts as State appointments gather pace

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One of John Kerry’s most experienced advisors has had to step back from his job as deputy chief of staff, but is staying on for now at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

William Danvers, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director and a former Clinton and Obama administration national security official, had some medical concerns, but is apparently cleared to ease back into work. His role appears to have shifted however from deputy chief of staff to other assignments, officials said. Danvers declined to comment.

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Top US Syria envoy expected to step down


The top US diplomat on Syria Robert Ford plans to step down this summer, several US officials tell the Back Channel.

Ford, who was confirmed as US Ambassador to Syria in 2011 after serving there since 2010 under a recess appointment, saw his job transformed by the unrest that has long since escalated into a full scale civil war. Earlier this month Ford traveled into Syria from Turkey with a convoy of US food aid, to meet with Syrian rebel commanders and urge them to support transition talks planned to be held in Geneva next month.

Ford was again in Turkey Wednesday trying, along with his French, Arab and Turkish diplomatic colleagues, to push Syria’s opposition to agree to expand and diversify its leadership ranks.

He is said by multiple officials to be exhausted, including from his efforts trying to unify the fractious Syrian opposition. The Back Channel was unable to reach Ford Wednesday.

Ford is expected to stay on for the Syria peace conference in Geneva next month, and possibly step aside in July. (One source thought Ford might next take a job at the State Department Inspector General office, but that couldn’t be confirmed.) It is still unclear who will succeed him in the Syria job, or if the role might be revamped to create a special US envoy to the Syrian opposition, State Department sources said.

(The Back Channel previously reported that US Middle East peace envoy David Hale will be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Lebanon. Secretary of State John Kerry’s Middle East senior advisor Frank Lowenstein is expected to succeed Hale working the Middle East peace portfolio that Kerry has personally spearheaded. US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be nominated to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for the Near Eastern Affairs.)

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones will travel to Geneva next week to meet Russian counterparts to prepare for the Geneva 2 conference, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki announced Wednesday.

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Middle East envoy Hale expected to be named Lebanon ambassador

US Middle East peace envoy David Hale is expected to be nominated to be the next US ambassador to Lebanon, two sources tell the Back Channel.

Hale, a former US Ambassador to Jordan and career foreign service officer, has served as the US special envoy on Middle East peace since the departure in 2011 of George Mitchell, for whom he served as deputy. Hale would succeed Maura Connelly, who has served in Beirut since 2010, and who is expected to spend a year as a fellow at a Washington think tank, sources speaking not for attribution told the Back Channel. We were unable to reach Hale Tuesday.

The Back Channel reported in February that longtime John Kerry foreign policy advisor and former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff Frank Lowenstein had moved into Hale’s office and was working as a senior Middle East advisor to the new Secretary of State.

The Hale nomination is one of several Near East bureau appointments expected to be announced as soon as this week, or more likely next week.

The Back Channel previously reported that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be nominated to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Patterson returned to the United States late last week for two weeks of meetings and a few days of R&R, sources said. Patterson did not respond to a previous request for comment.

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State RUMINT: Malinowski for State DRL, Sewall for CT or PM

Updated: Two more Clinton administration alums may be tapped for senior State Department posts.

The Obama administration may name Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), sources tell the Back Channel. Harvard's Sarah Sewall is also rumored to be up for a top State Department job, with some sources saying the White House has picked her for Counterterrorism Coordinator, others hearing Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

Sewall, a lecturer at  the Harvard Kennedy School and expert in the field of protecting civilians in wartime, did not respond to queries from the Back Channel. The State Department and White House declined to comment on whether the appointment was in the works.

The Back Channel previously heard that the bureau's Deputy Coordinator Anne Witkowsky was also under consideration for the Counterterrorism Coordinator post, which was formerly held by Daniel Benjamin, who left in January to head Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Sewall, a member of the Obama/Biden transition team, previously served in the Clinton administration as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and as the foreign policy advisor to then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, is expected to be nominated to succeed Michael Posner as Assistant Secretary of State for DRL. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Friday.

Malinowski previously served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Continue reading

Obama aims to reduce US drone strikes, close Guantanamo Bay


President Obama on Thursday outlined a broad overhaul of some of the most secretive and controversial US counter-terrorism policies, from drone strokes to the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, but many details remained murky, even as he warned the path to an exit from a war posture against al Qaeda and its affiliates will not be quick or without continued hard choices.

“Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue,” Obama said in a speech at the National Defense University Thursday. “But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.”

The speech follows a year-long policy review to try to institutionalize and codify the “rules of the road” for some of the most sensitive US counter-terrorism programs, that was led by then White House counter-terroism advisor, now CIA Director John Brennan, Newsweek's Daniel Klaidman reported.Several of these have come to a critical head in the past few weeks, with the hunger strike of 105 of the 166 prisoners at the US detention facility of Guantanamo Bay, and the revelation last week that the Justice Department had secretly obtained the phone records of more than 20 Associated Press journalists as part of a leak probe into the source for an AP story on a classified intelligence operation in Yemen.

“All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends,” Obama said Thursday. Continue reading

When Iran's Saeed Jalili met one-on-one with US diplomat Bill Burns

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Even as Iran presidential candidate and presumed frontrunner Saeed Jalili has flaunted his anti-US hardliner credentials on the campaign trail, it’s worth noting a less remarked-upon aspect of his professional resume. In October 2009, Jalili became one of the only Iranian officials to meet one-on-one with a US diplomat in three decades.

The meeting, with then Under Secretary of State William Burns, now the US Deputy Secretary of State, took place October 1, 2009, at a villa outside Geneva, on the sidelines of Iran nuclear negotiations with six world powers.

Lead US negotiator Burns and Iran’s Jalili held a “one-on-one sidebar conversation,” a White House spokesman confirmed at the time. “The sidebar occurred at the Villa”–Villa Le Saugy, in the Swiss countryside village of Genthod–during a lunch break in the nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1.

Iran and six world powers announced tentative agreement at the Geneva meeting on a nuclear fuel swap deal that would provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for shipping out most of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium; but the deal later broke down at follow up technical talks in Vienna.

Iran also agreed at the Geneva talks to let IAEA inspectors visit the secret Fordo enrichment facility at Qom, whose discovery the leaders of the United States, UK and France had jointly announced just days before, at a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said September 25, 2009.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that the Iranians agreed to the sit-down with the Americans in Geneva as a tactical gesture, out of concern over the western reaction to the discovery of the Qom enrichment facility, which Iran only hastily declared to the IAEA after it realized it had been discovered. But one Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, said the political decision in Tehran to hold the bilateral meeting with the Americans had already been taken.

Following the Geneva meeting, US envoys subsequently briefed foreign allies “that the U.S. sidebar meeting with Iranian representatives was direct and candid,” according to an October 5, 2009 US diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Manilla that was released by Wikileaks. While “the discussions were a constructive beginning,” the US envoys also relayed, “they must now be followed by positive action.”

“Iranian press gave considerable coverage to the bilateral meeting between [Under Secretary] Burns and Jalili,” another October 4, 2009 US diplomatic cable, sent from the U.S.'s Iran regional presence office in Dubai, noted. “While little coverage went beyond the Department's announcement that the meeting had taken place, Tabnak noted that unlike Iran's previous discussions on the nuclear issue, this time it was face-to-face with the US.” Another Iranian paper described the meeting as “unprecedented,” the US diplomatic cable continued.

Jalili’s deputy, Ali Bagheri–who has lately been accompanying Jalili on the campaign trail–acknowledged the Jalili-Burns sidebar meeting in an interview with Iran’s state television at the time, but stressed the meeting occurred only at the Americans’ insistence.

“The meeting of the US delegation with the Iranian delegation was held at the request of the Americans,” Bagheri, now deputy of the Iran Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s state-run TV, Fars News reported at the time, adding: “Elaborating on the contents of sideline talks between the Iranian and American delegations, Baqeri said that the meeting was held merely within the framework of Iran's proposed package.”

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Jalili seen as front runner as Iran bars Rafsanjani, Meshaei from June polls


Iran has disqualified former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Meshaei from running in next month’s presidential elections, Iran’s state news television channel reported Tuesday, according to the BBC.

Iran’s Guardian Council has approved 8 candidates to run in next month’s polls, including top Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili–widely seen as the regime's anointed front runner–and former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the BBC report said.

Other approved candidates, according to Fars News and reports on Twitter citing Iran State TV said, are: former Iran parliamentarian Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel–(whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader's son Mojtaba); Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani–a Rafsanjani ally who serves as the Supreme Leader's representative to the Iran National Security Council; former Iranian vice president Mohammad-Reza Aref and former Iran telecommunications minister Mohammad Gharazi.

“The most important lesson of 2009 was that prevention is better than cure… better eliminating Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, than dealing with them later down the road,” Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday, referring to the Iranin regime's view of the violent unrest that followed disputed June 2009 presidential elections results, which opposition green candidates and many of their supporters believed were stolen.

“Uncharted waters,” an Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, said of the disqualification of Rafsanjani and tightly circumscribed slate of approved candidates. It's “very complex to predict what comes [next] and [how it] ends up.”

“Jalili is the absolute frontrunner and the one who has gained the most,” the analyst continued. “Unless [the Supreme Leader] issues a special order for [Rafsanjani's] inclusion, which I think he won't.”

Iranian authorities appear to have engineered a slow roll out of the decision–while severely curtailing Internet service over the past week–in order to discourage unrest from supporters of candidates who have been shut out.

The Guardian Council, whose spokesman hinted Monday that Rafsanjani would be disqualified over his age (78), reportedly informed Iran’s Ministry of Interior Tuesday of its decision, and the Interior Ministry is slated to publicly announce the approved slate on Wednesday.

“VPN's down, the Internet's down and it's pouring rain in Tehran and two disqualifications that will have long term consequences for Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Tehran's quiet, it seems, as Rafsanjani and Meshaei are disqualified.”

Some Iranian analysts speculated earlier this week that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei might contemplate whether to step in and reinstate Rafsanjani’s candidacy in order to try to build legitimacy for the poll and increase voter turnout, but there were no signs yet on Tuesday whether he had any such intention.

“I think the Supreme Leader has decided to take the safe route to have the least uneventful election,” an Iranian academic, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “Although I am still not ruling out his intervention at the last minute to throw Rafsanjani back into the race, though the chances seem low at this point.”

The restricted slate of approved candidates, however, “definitely will exacerbate the fissures within the ruling elites,” he continued.

(Photo: Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani arrives to register his candidacy in Tehran on May 11, 2013. AFP/File, Behrouz Mehri)

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Jalili thrusts Iran nuclear stance to center of presidential race


The presidential campaign of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has thrust Iran’s nuclear policies to the center of Iran’s tumultuous presidential race.

Jalili, in a series of media interviews, appearances and campaign Twitter posts this week, doubled down on Tehran’s hardline stance in negotiations with six world powers, asserting that as president he would “accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

“Our nuclear objective is very legitimate & reasonable: To accelerate developing the peaceful Nuclear program,” Jalili’s official campaign Twitter feed wrote Friday.

Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, then took a swipe at key challenger, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. “Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended,” Jalili’s campaign vowed on Twitter. [We] “shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy.”

Jalili’s message seems notably targeted to one key audience at this point: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran watchers observed.

Jalili’s message of “resistance–political resistance, economic resistance–that feeds the narrative of the Supreme Leader,” said Iran political analyst Yasmin Alem, in an interview Thursday. It may resonate less, however, she added, with the average Iranian voter.

Jalili’s message “might resonate with Khamenei,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Role of the Dice, agreed Friday. “That’s the ‘voter’ whose vote he wants.”

“The fact that [the Jalili campaign writes] it in English is the point: he will be the president who will say this to the westerners,” Parsi added.

“Most of the main candidates”—Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former foreign minister and foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, former Majles speaker Haddad Adel, and Jalili—“are campaigning not for the Iranian electorate’s votes, but for the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, observed Friday. In his opinion, he said, that portends that June 14th will mark “the least democratic election” since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

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Who Is Saeed Jalili?


Four days after entering Iran’s presidential race, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Wednesday.

‘We had a useful discussion. It was not a negotiating round,” Ashton said after the dinner meeting, which was held at Iran’s consulate in Istanbul. “We talked about the proposals we had put forward and we will now reflect on how to go on to the next stage of the process. We will be in touch shortly.”

The negotiators’ meeting comes as six world powers have more or less put Iran nuclear diplomacy on hold while Iran’s presidential campaign, scheduled for June 14th, plays out.

Jalili’s entrance into Iran’s presidential race highlights some of the complications western negotiators confront in securing a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

While Iran’s nuclear file–as lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a Senate panel Wednesday– is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not the Iranian president, the deep fissures that have roiled the Iranian regime under the polarizing Ahmadinejad presidency have greatly complicated international negotiators’ task by making internal Iran consensus that much harder for Tehran to achieve.

Jalili, 47, a trusted Khamenei aide who has served since 2007 as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor–has managed to largely bypass the bitter feuds that have polarized Iran’s ruling factions, analysts and associates observe. As a candidate who may be able to unite key conservative factions, a Jalili presidency potentially offers the prospect of a more consolidated Iranian leadership, which might be able to muster internal Iranian consensus if the Leader decides to make a deal, some analysts suggest.

But Jalili’s elliptical negotiating style and somewhat retro worldview, while no doubt reflecting the milieu and instructions given from the Supreme Leader, also magnify the extreme difficulty of negotiating with an Iranian regime that is so isolated from and mistrustful of the outside world.

“I think he is the anointed one,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, told Al-Monitor. The regime “may test run it, see how he [does], if anybody else appears to take off.”

While Jalili has developed the reputation in some Iranian circles of being a not very effective international negotiator, Maloney said, “what is interesting is that Jalili managed the Ahmadinejad-Supreme Leader divide astutely. He has not been forced to side with one or the other.”

Current and former Iranian associates describe Jalili as a pious and intelligent man, who has earned the trust of the Supreme Leader, but shown a disinclination to deeply engage with the modern world.

Born in 1965 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, where Supreme Leader Khamenei is also from, Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war vet who joined Iran’s foreign ministry around 1990. (Earning his PhD from Iran’s Imam Sadeqh University, Jalili wrote his doctoral dissertation on the prophet Mohammad’s diplomacy.) He worked in the 1990s as an official in Iran’s foreign ministry, and then in 2001 joined the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, he became an advisor to new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2007 he has served as the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

“Before he became secretary of the SNSC, he worked in the office of the Supreme Leader for some time, in the inner circle, in the international affairs department,” an Iranian analyst and associate, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “He is liked [there] as somebody who is down to earth, who has a simple life, very honest. He is the prototypical revolutionary whom they like within the clerical system; they [and the Supreme Leader] trust him in a way.”

But part of Jalili’s appeal for Khamenei and the clerical circles is a kind of self-selecting isolationism and retro way of looking at the world, that seems somewhat stuck in the 1980s, when Iran fought an eight year war with Iraq, the Iranian analyst observed.

Though Jalili served for over a decade in Iran’s foreign ministry, he never served abroad, and allegedly turned down an offer to serve in Latin America, the associate said. And while Jalili worked for a time in the Foreign Ministry’s Americas’ bureau, he is not believed to be able to speak much English, the lingua franca of international diplomacy which is spoken by many Iranian diplomats, though his associate said he believes Jalili can read and understand it.

“That’s the real problem,” the Iranian analyst said. Figures like Jalili who have ascended to the top of Iranian conservative political circles in recent years “are not stupid. They are intelligent. But they have not been socialized in the way that global politics works.”

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New report outlines containment strategy if efforts to prevent Iran nuclear weapon fail

President Obama has repeatedly declared that his policy is preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. A new report by a former Obama Pentagon official, to be released Monday by the Center for New American Security, argues prevention should be the US policy, but that the United States needs to develop a containment strategy if prevention fails.

Among the key points the report makes is that resort to force in the event diplomacy is deemed to fail could itself trigger Iran’s determination to produce a nuclear weapon—a decision that the US intelligence community this year assessed Iran’s leadership had not yet made.

“Even an operationally effective strike would not, in and of itself, permanently end Iran’s program,” the report’s lead author, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, told Al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.  “A strike might substantially degrade Iran’s near-term capability to produce nuclear weapons, but it would almost certainly increase Tehran’s motivation to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.”

Iran might respond to an attack by leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and substantially decreasing cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. “Such a move would complicate the international community’s ability to detect Iran’s efforts to rebuild its program,” Kahl said.

For these reasons, Kahl argues, force should only be used if other options for halting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions fail, if there is clear evidence that Iran is moving toward a bomb, and if every effort has been made to build international support for military action by seeking a diplomatic solution.

Outlining a Plan B containment strategy in the event prevention fails is not without political risks, however, Kahl acknowledged, while emphasizing he is no longer a member of the Obama administration. (Kahl, who served as DASD for the Middle East from 2009 until 2011, is now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at CNAS. He co-authored the new report If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear Armed Iran, with Georgetown graduate student Raj Pattani and CNAS researcher Jacob Stokes.) But the strategic risks of failing to prepare contingency plans would be more dangerous, Kahl said.

“If the administration were seen to be exploring a Plan B in the event that prevention fails, it might create the false impression that they were secretly planning to ‘accept’ a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kahl said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“At the same time, there are also substantial risks associated with sticking our collective heads in the sand,” he continued. “The failure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be bad, but the failure to be prepared for that possibility would be even worse.”

“One of the most important roles a think tank can play is to ask the questions that cannot be asked inside the government,” Kahl said. “I believe, in general, that it is important to plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the outcomes we desire.”

Asked to explain why the new report is not in essence arguing the US can live with a nuclear Iran, Kahl responded: “‘Live with’ makes it sound like it would be ‘no big deal’ to simply accommodate a nuclear-armed Iran. That is not the right way to think about it, and it is definitely not what the report argues.” Continue reading