US Deputy NSA Blinken's unannounced visit to UAE to discuss Egypt

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US Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken traveled to the United Arab Emirates earlier this week for consultations with Emirati, Iraqi and other Gulf country officials on Egypt, the White House told Al-Monitor.

Blinken in the UAE met with “counterparts from the UAE and neighboring countries to discuss recent developments in the region,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told Al-Monitor in response to a query Wednesday. “I don't have any further details for you on those discussions.”

Blinken was accompanied on the trip by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran  Brett McGurk and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Amos Hochstein.

Among the issues discussed in the meeting were UAE and Gulf assistance to Egypt in the wake of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

Egypt’s Central Bank said Thursday that  it had received $3 billion in aid pledged by the UAE in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Reuters reported.

“The UAE said last week that it would provide Egypt with $1 billion as a grant and a $2 billion loan in the form of an interest-free central bank deposit,” Reuters wrote.In addition, “Saudi Arabia pledged $5 billion and Kuwait, $4 billion.”

A significant portion of the pledged aid from the Gulf states is in the form of oil, petrol and diesel, rather than cash, a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Continue reading

131 House members sign letter supporting U.S. diplomacy with Iran (Updated)

Updated 7/19:

Some 131 House members have signed onto a bipartisan letter calling on President Obama to try to advance opportunities for a diplomatic resolution with Iran in the wake of the election of Hassan Rouhani last month.

The letter, being circulated by Representatives David Price (D-North Carolina) and Charles Dent (R-Pennsylvania), is the biggest ever pro-Iran diplomacy letter from the Hill, those supporting the initiative said.

Shawn Millan, a spokesperson for Rep. Dent's office, told the Back Channel the letter had gotten 131 House members to sign on as of Friday afternoon, 17 of them Republican, 114 of them Democratic. (Full list of signatories below the jump.)

“This is not the first time that Iran has elected a president on a platform of moderation and reform, and history advises us to be cautious about the prospects for meaningful change,” the ‘Dear Colleague’ letter signed by Reps. Price and Dent states.

“Even so, given the stakes involved for the United States, Israel, and the international community, it would be a mistake not to test whether Dr. Rouhani’s election represents a genuine opportunity for progress toward a verifiable, enforceable agreement that prevents Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Price and Dent wrote.

Though the letter doesn't take a position on sanctions or the possible use of military force by the United States or its allies, it cautions that “we must also be careful not to foreclose the possibility of such progress by taking provocative actions that could weaken the newly elected president’s standing relative to Iran’s hardliners.” It also says that while members may have different views about those issues, “we should all be able to agree on the need for a renewed diplomatic push as part of our broader strategy toward Iran.”

The United States expects nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 to resume in the fall, following Rouhani's inauguration next month and the appointment of a new Iranian nuclear negotiating team, a senior US official said last week.

Meantime, former US diplomats William Luers and Thomas Pickering this week urged Obama to consider sending Rouhani a note of congratulations upon his inauguration, in a piece advocating ways the U.S. could try to reinvigorate diplomacy with Iran.

“Pressure has helped get Iran to negotiate; but diplomatic negotiation cannot succeed unless each side gets some of what it needs and unless each side comes to believe that the other wants an agreement and is willing to comply with it,” Luers, Pickering and MIT's Jim Walsh wrote, at the New York Review of Books. “With innovative and assertive diplomacy, the Obama administration can, in our view, still help change the direction of US–Iran relations, reach an interim nuclear agreement, and possibly open the door to discussions on other regional and bilateral issues.”

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The Closer: Why Ron Dermer may be Bibi’s perfect peace envoy


Ron Dermer, Israel’s next envoy to the United States, may be a sharp-elbowed Republican partisan who appeared to openly back Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential campaign, and who has lived longer in the United States than he has in Israel, as Akiva Eldar wrote this week for Al-Monitor.

Other observers of US-Israel relations say while this may be true, it is not the full picture and misses the point. Dermer’s appointment, in this score, is not at all controversial. He has the ear of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the gold standard for any ambassador. Dermer, because of his understanding of US politics and ties to the GOP, may be the perfect envoy to sell peace to the right if Netanyahu decides to get serious about negotiations, as many Israeli analysts suspect he is preparing to do.

“All signs point to the possibility that Netanyahu is relatively serious about going back to negotiations and attempting to do something,” Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist and political analyst told me Wednesday.

“It is customary to say in Israel that it is easier for left-wing governments to make war, and right-wing governments to make peace,” Rosner said. “If you think about the Israeli ambassador to the US, and …the case in which the Obama administration attempts to advance some sort of peace process or any other controversial policy with the right wing, if Dermer stands behind the policy and endorses it, it will be much easier both for the government of Israel and for the [U.S.] administration to let this policy pass in the Congress.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently on his sixth visit to the Middle East, looks increasingly close to realizing his goal of getting Israeli Palestinian peace talks re-launched, many observers believe.

“For the Obama administration, this makes Dermer more important,” Rosner said. “It also makes him a tool with which to devise a policy that Congress and the opposition cannot truly oppose.”

“For Bibi, it’s a good choice,” said Amir Radberg, an Israeli-American who previously worked as a legislative analyst at the Israeli embassy in Washington from 1993-2003. “If he continues with his current agenda, he will have an eloquent speaker to argue for him. If he needs to sell peace to the GOP and right-wing Jews, [Dermer] will handle them much better than a professional diplomat.”

In many ways, Dermer, 42, is a mirror image of Dan Shapiro, Obama’s highly-regarded ambassador to Israel. Shapiro, 44, previously served as the Obama campaign’s liaison to the Jewish community and as Obama’s first term White House Middle East advisor. As such, Shapiro is an avowed Obama/Democratic partisan with a close personal and direct tie to the president, who is known to Israeli interlocutors to be speaking for the president. Similarly, Dermer, a longtime political advisor to Netanyahu, is a partisan who has the trust of the Prime Minister, and can speak for him.

“The fact that he is close to Netanyahu is a huge advantage,” Rosner said. “When people in the administration talk to the ambassador, the first and most important thing for them to know is that their conversation has some value. To speak to someone who has no sway with Israeli government, is a waste of time. And speaking to Dermer will not be waste of time.”

Meantime, Rosner notes, there are many signs that Netanyahu is serious about entering into peace negotiations with the Palestinians. “The noose is getting tighter,” Rosner said. “Politically speaking, he’s in big trouble within his own party. However, if he doesn’t do anything about the peace process, he will have even bigger trouble with his coalition and the public.”

“It’s better for him to pursue something in the hope that if his approval ratings go up, his party will somehow cave,” Rosner said. “Or he can do what [former Israeli Prime Minsiter Ariel] Sharon did a couple years ago: abandon his party and move to the center. Just leaving things as they are now almost guarantees that this will be his last term as prime minister.”

(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ron Dermer. Photo credit, Dudi Vaaknin, courtesy of Israeli government press office.)

Israel bristles at EU measure as Kerry arrives in Amman to push peace talks


Israel on Tuesday bristled at a new European Union directive curtailing EU financial agreements with Jewish settlements built outside Israel’s 1967 borders.

The move comes as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Amman Tuesday, for meetings with Arab diplomats about the peace process, Syria and Egypt.

Some sources said they were informed Monday that there was likely to be a three-way meeting of Israeli, Palestinian and US officials in Jordan while Kerry is there and a formal announcement of a re-launching of talks. U.S. officials however, tried vigorously to downplay the prospect of a big break-through. No trips to Jerusalem or meetings with Israeli officials were planned for this visit, Kerry's sixth to the region since becoming Secretary of State, State Department officials said.

Kerry met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh upon his arrival in Amman Tuesday before heading into what was billed as a private dinner with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Meantime, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke harshly against the new EU directive.

“I expect those who want peace in the region to deal with settlements after they solve the Syria crisis and the Iranian threat,” Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday in response to the EU measure, Haaretz reported.

The EU directive, adopted June 30, and due to come into effect 1 January 2014, “will prohibit the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships unless a settlement exclusion clause is included,” the Guardian newspaper reported.

The directive, which is non-binding on the EU’s 28 member states, “is financially inconsequential,” said Daniel Levy, head of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It matters because liberal Israel, liberal Zionists, one of the main crutches of their argument for the two state solution, is the world won’t accept it otherwise.”

Israeli politicians such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni have warned that Israel could face boycotts if it doesn’t curb settlements and the occupation of the West Bank, Levy said.

Israeli officials said the European move was unhelpful, however.

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EU's Ashton hopes Iran nuclear talks resume soon

Lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton said Tuesday she looks forward to resuming Iran nuclear talks as soon as possible after the appointment of Iran's new nuclear negotiating team, following the inauguration next month of Iran president elect Hassan Rouhani.

Ashton spoke after a meeting in Brussels Tuesday of political directors from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China.

“We met to consider our position and to look at how best we can move forward in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue,” Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said in a statement.

“Of course we wait now for the team to be appointed by Iran,” she said. “We very much hope that will be soon and we look forward to meeting with them as soon as possible.

The six powers are likely to ask Iran when talks resume in the fall to provide a substantive response to an updated confidence building proposal they presented at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February, a senior US official told Al-Monitor last week.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the senior US official said, stressing the proposal is open for negotiating, but they were reluctant to  negotiate among themselves before hearing back from the Iranians.

“The onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

Some Iran experts are urging the Obama administration to be preparing a bolder offer, or at least to offer further clarification on a “road map” for resolving the nuclear dispute, beyond the confidence-building measure, which is focused on curbing Iran’s 20% enrichment.

“The administration ought to be going into these talks with an open mind and thoughts about how the negotiating process can be most usefully advanced,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Monday. Continue reading

US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks

The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

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P5+1 hopes new Iran nuclear team responds to Almaty offer

Diplomats from six world powers will meet in Brussels next week in anticipation of resuming nuclear talks with Iran in September, following the inauguration next month of Iran President-elect Hassan Rouhani.

Political directors from the P5+1 will meet in Brussels July 16th, a western official said Wednesday.

The meeting comes as western capitals signaled they hope the new Iran nuclear team selected under Rouhani responds substantively to a confidence-building proposal they presented to Iran at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

“We look to a new Government in Iran to give a comprehensive response to the E3+3’s proposal for a confidence building measure, and to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told British parliament Wednesday (July 10).

“We will respond in good faith to positive action by Iran,“ Hague said. “We are ready to improve our relations on a step by step basis, but no one should doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation.”

Hague's comments suggest western capitals have decided for now against pivoting to a “go big” offer when they resume talks with Iran, possibly in early September.

“The P5+1 is asking for a serious response to their serious proposal, which they did not receive [from Iran in the spring] because the Iranians were not in the mood to bargain just weeks before their elections,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“What everyone needs to recognize is that the proposal put forward in Kazakhstan in the spring is the opening position, it is not a take it or leave it proposition,” Kimball said. “It’s in Iran’s interest to offer a counter-proposal in September, or whenever the talks might occur.”

Kazakhstan’s foreign minister, who hosted the last two rounds of Iran nuclear talks, said that Rouhani’s election has made western officials somewhat hopeful about the prospects for progress.

“We hear different commentaries on this election, but the prevailing one is of hope,” Kazakh Foreign Minister Erlan Idrissov told Al-Monitor in an interview in Washington Wednesday. “Internally, [the Iranian people] voted for changes, for development.”

“Mr. Rounani in his own remarks has made very clear he wants greater engagement with the rest of the world,” Idrissov said. “And to create a more conducive environment for growth and development in Iran. There is potential for nuclear talks. It’s a hopeful situation.”

In his meetings this week, including with lead US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, American officials have “shared sentiments of hope,” Idrissov said. “Now it’s important, that this period of hope translates into practical things. Kazakhstan is a well-wisher. It would be wise by all parties to seize the moment.”

(Photo: Iran President Elect Hassan Rouhani speaking at a press conference in Iran June 17, 2013. Ebrahim Noroozi / AP.)

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Israel names Ron Dermer next envoy to Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday named his longtime political advisor Ron Dermer Israel's next ambassador to the United States.

“Ron Dermer has all the qualities necessary to successfully fill this important post,” Netanyahu said in a press release posted at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

The American-born Dermer, 42, has served as Netanyahu's senior adviser the past four years, and previously served as an economic attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

An Israeli diplomat said it's useful, given the importance of the US-Israel  relationship, for the Prime Minister to appoint a Washington envoy whom he trusts.

“It has always been the Prime Minister 's prerogative to appoint our ambassador to the USA, partially because of the importance of the position and the need for it to be someone the PM trusts and who has the PM's ear,” he said, speaking not for attribution. “Israel's professional diplomats work well with any appointment.”

Dermer will succeed diplomat and historian Michael Oren, who announced last week that he plans to step down in the fall after representing Israel in Washington since 2009.

(Photo of Israeli  Prime Minister and advisor Ron Dermer, Israel Government Press  Office.)

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Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–“the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

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Israel's US envoy Michael Oren to step down

img class=”alignright” alt=”” src=”https://profile-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hprofile-frc1/c44.44.553.553/s160x160/68747_115428941854182_4636361_n.jpg” width=”160″ height=”160″ />Israel's ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said Friday he will step down in the fall, after serving in the post for four years.

“After more than four years, during which I had the honor of serving as Israel's ambassador to our most important ally, the United States of America, I will conclude my term this fall,” Oren said in a statement sent out by the Israeli embassy Friday.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to represent the State of Israel and its Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the United States, President Barack Obama, the Congress, and the American people,” he said.

Oren, a US-born historian, previously told Al-Monitor in an interview he was interested to write another book. A spokesperson at the embassy said he did not immediately know what his next plans are.

Israeli media reported in recent days that Netanyahu political advisor Ron Dermer may be named the next Israeli envoy to the US. The US-born Dermer emigrated to Israel from Florida in 1998, and has previously served as an economics advisor in Israel's US embassy, the Times of Israel said.

(Top photo: Ambassador Michael Oren, from his Facebook page. Bottom photo: Amb. Oren, playing the Irish drums, joined Iranian-Israeli singer Rita Jahanforuz and her band in a performance at a dinner at his residence November 12, 2013. Photo Credit: Shmulik Almany, courtesy of the Embassy of Israel in Washington.

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