Former U.S. negotiator proposes ways to reach Iran nuclear deal

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Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive nuclear deal by agreeing on Iran’s practical needs for enrichment, which are limited in the near term; as well as on technical modifications that could be made to the Arak reactor and turning the Fordo enrichment site into a research and development facility, former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn writes in a paper to be released by the Brookings Institution Monday.

“I think of the big issues, Arak is the easiest,” Einhorn told Al-Monitor in an interview last week. “Fordo is hard. But the hardest single issue is enrichment capacity.”

Einhorn, in his Brookings paper, “Preventing a Nuclear Armed-Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Iran Nuclear Deal,” released to Al-Monitor in advance, proposes that Iran and the P5+1 define the practical needs for Iran’s civil nuclear program. “Indeed, Iran’s actual need to produce enriched uranium for fueling reactors is quite limited, at least in the near and middle terms,” he writes. “Proposed modifications to Arak [would make it] better for producing medical isotopes,” he said.

Since reaching a breakthrough interim nuclear deal last November, Iran and six world powers have held two rounds of talks to try to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal by the July 20th expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action.

“For the U.S. side,…to get sufficient support domestically and abroad, the U.S. position [on the size of Iran’s enrichment program] will be pretty demanding,” Einhorn, who served as the top State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor until last summer and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.  “If Iran wants to find a way out, I propose the practical needs issue, [which] gives them a narrative that it could explain that it won on enrichment.”

On enrichment, extending Iran’s potential “breakout” time to between six and twelve months in a final deal “could be achieved by limiting centrifuges to between 2000 and 6000 first-generation IR-1 Iranian centrifuges (or significantly lower numbers if more advanced IR-2m centrifuges are included) and reducing enriched uranium stocks, especially at the near-20 percent level,” Einhorn writes in the Brookings “requirements” paper.

“Whatever numbers and combinations [of centrifuges and uranium stocks] are chosen, lengthening the breakout timeline to between six and twelve months would require substantial reductions in current Iranian centrifuge and stockpile levels,” he writes.

On the Arak IR-40, Einhorn proposes that, at a minimum, “changes should be made in the reactor’s design to greatly reduce its production of plutonium, especially to fuel it with enriched uranium and reduce its power level,” he writes. “The best solution would be to convert it to a light water-moderated research reactor, but other options requiring less extensive modification of the reactor are being explored.”

However, “if you can’t get the Iranians to switch [Arak] to a light water reactor, you could limit the power of the Arak reactor” from 40 MW to 10 MW, and instead of natural fuel, feed low enriched fuel into it, George Perkovich, a non-proliferation expert who serves as vice president and director of non-proliferation studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor. “Then [you could] control how long it stays in the reactor, which actually makes better medical isotopes…If you do all these things, it dramatically reduces the amount of plutonium in spent fuel,” to about 6kg a year, Perkovich said.

“That’s a serious impediment to a breakout,” Perkovich said. “That would be less than a bomb’s worth of plutonium produced [a year].”

In addition, Perkovich said, “Any proposed agreement says ‘no reprocessing.’ So the reduced plutonium concentration in spent fuel in a safeguarded reactor is a barrier added to the more fundamental barrier that Iran agrees to fore-go reprocessing and not have a facility for it.”

Can the parties reach a deal by July 20th? Or will they need an extension?

“I think both parties really do have a strong incentive to get it done in six months,” Einhorn said. “I don’t think either party has an incentive to extend it.”

However, he said, while “both sides genuinely want to reach agreement and want to create the perception that agreement is possible…[to] generate momentum, the reality is the substantive positions” are still far apart.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at the conclusion of the last round of comprehensive deal talks in Vienna this month, said reaching a final deal before the July 20 expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action is possible.

“On four topics (Arak heavy water reactor, removal of sanctions, nuclear cooperation and uranium enrichment) we see signs of reaching an understanding which will protect the rights of the Iranian nation and move towards removal of problems,” Zarif told  Iranian reporters in Vienna March 19.

In the next round of talks, to be held in Vienna April 7-9, Zarif said the issues on the agenda to be discussed are “Iran’s access to technology, trade market and banking resources as well as the manner of inspections (of Iran’s nuclear facilities) and the period of time needed for the final phase,” Zarif said, Fars News reported.

The “brinksmanship” in the weeks of negotiations leading up to July 20 interim deal deadline could be useful for narrowing gaps in positions.

“The problem as we get closer to July, is [if the parties need an extension,] then it will be [seen as] a crisis,” Perkovich said.

(Photo of former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn by AFP/Getty Images.)

Ambassador Shuffle: Iraq, Jordan, Turkey

State Department executive secretary John R. Bass, a former US ambassador to Georgia, is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, U.S. officials told the Back Channel.

Bass, a career member of the Foreign Service, previously headed the Baghdad Reconstruction team, and served as the director of the State Department operations Center from 2005-2008, during which time he led the State Department response to 25 crises, including Hurricane Katrina. He served as a special advisor to then Vice President Dick Cheney from 2004-2005 on Europe and Eurasia.

Bass, who currently serves as executive secretary and special assistant to Secretary of State John Kerry, was double hatted as deputy chief of staff last year, before the appointment of Jon Finer. His potential nomination has not yet been formally sent from the White House to Ankara for agreement, diplomatic souces said.

US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart E. Jones is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Iraq, US officials tell Al-Monitor.

It won’t be Jones’ first tour in Iraq. Jones previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Iraq, as the Governate Coordinator in Anbar province; as well as the National Security Council Country Director for Iraq. Jones, who has served as the US envoy to Jordan since 2011, previously served from 2008-2010 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Europe Bureau; and from 2005-2008 as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt.

Alice Wells, the Special Assistant to President Obama and National Security Council Senior Director for Russia affairs and Eurasia, is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Jordan, to succeed jones, US officials told the Back Channel.

Wells, before assuming the top NSC Russia advisor job in 2012, previously served as the Executive Assistant to then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Before that, Well served as chief of staff to then Under Secretary of State William J. Burns from 2009 to 2011.  She served as political minister counselor at the US embassy in Moscow from 2006-2009; as Director of the Office of Maghreb Affairs at the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2006; and as Deputy Director of the Office of Egypt and North African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2004 to 2005. Earlier in her career, she served in diplomatic posts in India, Islamabad, Riyadh, and Tajikistan.

(First photo: State Department photo of John R. Bass; Second photo: State Department photo of Stuart E. Jones. Third photo: President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President-elect Vladimir Putin of Russia March 9, 2012. Alice Wells, Senior Director for Russian Affairs, is seated at right. Photo by Pete Souza.)

In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

U.S. says still waiting for Israeli minister’s apology


The State Department said Friday that it does not consider Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s clarification of his remarks this week about US weakness to constitute an apology, prolonging an unusually public spat between the two allies.

The United States is “disappointed with the lack of an apology” by Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday.

“We still have remaining concerns about [Defense Minister Yaalon’s] pattern of behavior,” Psaki said.

The latest diplomatic dust-up between Washington and Jerusalem erupted when Haaretz reported that Ya’alon, speaking at Tel Aviv University Monday, said the US was “showing weakness” on the world stage, and that Israel should not rely on Washington to handle Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday to protest Yaalon’s remarks, which Psaki, speaking at the State Department press briefing Wednesday, described as “not constructive,” and “confusing.” The U.S. demanded an apology, she said.

Ya’alon subsequently called his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel late Wednesday to clarify his remarks, saying it was not his intent to harm the US-Israel strategic relationship. “My statements had no criticism or intent to hurt the US or the relationship with it,” Ya’alon said in the call, according to a statement put out by his office to Israeli media.

But the State Department made clear Friday that it did not consider the explanation given to Hagel good enough to put the matter to rest.

“Ya’alon’s problem is that he does not make do with telling just the Americans themselves what he thinks,” Ben Caspit wrote for Al-Monitor Friday. “He seems to have some uncontrollable urge to vent his frustration in public. While Ya’alon might very well be right, he is probably not being smart. The Americans don’t like to hear such things said about them in public. Israel does not have another United States.”

Whether Netanyahu will agree and decide to have Yaalon make another effort at an apology, or will let the matter continue to fester, remains to be seen.

Twitter blocked, Turkish users say

Twitter appeared to be abruptly blocked for many users in Turkey Thursday, March

A protester uses her mobile phone during a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 8, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

A protester uses her mobile phone during a demonstration at Taksim Square in Istanbul, June 8, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov)

20, after the Turkish Prime Minister’s office announced that the social media microblogging site would be banned in Turkey.

“In the ongoing situation, Twitter has remained indifferent to remove certain links despite court orders favoring the citizens of the Turkish Republic,” a statement from the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office, published by Sabah and translated by Al-Monitor’s Tulin Daloglu, said.

“We came to [the] conclusion that in order to relieve our citizens, there is no way left beyond blocking Twitter, which disregards court orders, does not obey the rule of law,” the statement said. “Our Prime Minister has drawn attention to this issue in his Bursa rally speech.”

The US State Department expressed concern at the reported development.

Twitter Inc. said it was investigating the situation, and was meantime advising customers in Turkey that they could bypass the new restrictions by typing in text on their mobile phones.

“We remain very concerned by any suggestion that social media sites could be shut down,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement provided to Turkish blogger Ilhan Tanir Thursday. “Democracies are strengthened by the diversity of public voices.”

“An independent and unfettered media is an essential element of democratic, open societies, and crucial to ensuring official transparency and accountability,” the State Department statement continued.

Twitter “published a message on its service on Thursday advising users in Turkey that it was possible to send Tweets using mobile phone text messaging,” Reuters reported.

Twitter’s policy site tweeted:

Sources in Turkey told Al-Monitor, however, that based on the new Internet law approved Feb.17, no one will be able to change their IP or DNS address to access to the internet — every click, every move, will be stored for two years. Those who violate this ban — meaning those who find an alternative way to access Twitter from Turkey — therefore could also be considered in violation of the law.

In June 2013, Erdogan had referred to Twitter as a “scourge.”

“The biggest lies can be found there. This thing called social media is currently the worst menace to society,” Erdogan said, as recounted by Semih Idiz in his article on the Internet law.

Israel DM Ya’alon clarifies his comments on U.S. (updated)


Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon called US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday to clarify his remarks that described the US administration as projecting weakness and saying Israel should take matters into its own hands on Iran.

“My statements had no criticism or intent to hurt the US or the relationship with it,” Ya’alon told Hagel in the Wednesday night call, Israeli media reported on Twitter late Wednesday. “The strategic ties between Israel and the United States are of high importance, as are personal ties and mutual interests.”

Hagel “expressed deep concern about the minister’s comments on U.S. policy towards Iran,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a readout of the call Thursday. “Minister Ya’alon clarified his remarks by underscoring his commitment to the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The State Department had publicly–and unusually forcefully—denounced Ya’alon’s remarks and demanded an apology.

Ya’alon, speaking at Tel Aviv University Monday, said the United States “shows weakness” on the world stage, and that Israel should not rely on it to deal with Iran, Ha’aretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

“The U.S. at a certain stage began negotiating with [the Iranians], and unfortunately in the Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better,” Yaalon said, according to Ha’aertz. “We [Israelis] have to look out for ourselves.”

Ya’alon’s comments “were not constructive,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Wednesday.

President Obama “has provided an all-time high level of security assistance to Israel…even during times of budget uncertainty, to provide Israel with unprecedented capabilities and options,” Psaki said.

“So it is certainly confusing to us why Defense Minister Ya’alon would continue his pattern of making comments that don’t accurately represent the scope of our close partnership,” Psaki said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday “and protested to him his concerns about these comments,” Psaki said.

It’s the second time Ya’alon’s remarks have provoked U.S. demands for an apology.  In January, Ya’alon reportedly described Kerry’s diplomatic efforts on behalf of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a “messianic obsession.”  He subsequently apologized.

Ya’alon, in his call with Hagel Wednesday, “also provided…an update on Israel’s security situation and yesterday’s operation,” against Syrian army positions near the Golan, the Pentagon’s Kirby said. Hagel “expressed his sympathy for the wounded Israeli forces and their families, as well as his concern for the ongoing situation in Syria.”

The two defense chiefs “pledged to continue working closely with one another on the range of security issues facing the United States and Israel,” Kirby said.

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walking with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon after he arrived at the Pentagon, June 14, 2013. Photo by AP.)

Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit


Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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U.S. suspends Syria embassy operations

The United States announced Tuesday that it has ordered the Syrian government to immediately cease all operations at its embassy in Washington, D.C. and two honorary consulates in Houston, Texas and Troy, Michigan.

Personnel at the facilities who are not U.S. citizens or legal US residents have been ordered to depart the country.

“For three years, Bashar al-Asad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside…and created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Daniel Rubinstein, the new US Special Envoy for Syria, said in a press statement.

“Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Asad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States,”  Rubinstein said.

There are just two Syrian diplomats left at its embassy in Washington, a Syrian contact told Al-Monitor Tuesday, as well as 8 or 9 local employees. The Syrian diplomats in Washington do not have US residency and will have to leave, the contact said. The State Department gave them til the end of the month to depart..

Ayman Midani serves as the honorary consul general of Syria in Houston, Texas. The last Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, departed in December 2011, to become Syria’s envoy to China.

“The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations,” Rubinstein said.

The chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed the expulsions of the Syrian government personnel, and urged the Obama administration to withdraw diplomatic recognition of, and increase pressure on, the Assad regime.

“I welcome this overdue action,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), said in a joint statement.  “But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

“After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said. “The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

We feel that the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is overwhelming — 10,000 children killed, millions of refugees,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a State Department chat with university students on Tuesday.

Meantime, the Assad regime this week signaled that it “plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Iran chides criticism of Syria elections plan

The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, meeting with UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, criticized international objections to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad running in new elections, and suggested that the UN role in Syria is less than neutral.

Ali Shamkhani, in a two-hour meeting with Brahimi in Tehran Sunday, “expressed strong worry” that the UN was being influenced by the “will of certain countries that are opposed to the restoration of stability in Syria,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. “The SNSC secretary said he was surprised that some countries are worried lest democracy would prevail and the peopleˈs choice would be respected in Syria.”

Brahimi, speaking to reporters at the UN last week, warned if Assad ran in new elections, the Syrian opposition would likely refuse to return to reconciliation talks.

But Syria–and its Iranian patron–seen intent on pressing ahead. “Syria plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who served as Minister of Defense in the Khatami administration, was expected to play a key role in Iran’s handling of the Syria crisis, Ali Hashem reported at Al-Monitor in September.

Brahimi, on a two-day visit to Iran, also met with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Afffairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Monday.

“Illusions have cost 150k lives in Syria,” Zarif wrote on Twitter Monday after meeting Brahimi, before he traveled to Vienna for talks with the P5+1. “Reality check=progress.”

Amir-Abdollahian, according to IRNA, said that Iran has proposed a four-point plan for resolving the Syrian crisis. “The details of the plan have not been publicly announced but we are following up on it through negotiations and diplomatic consultations,” IRNA cited Amir-Abdollahian, who published an article on the plan at Al-Monitor (March 5).

Separately, the State Department on Monday announced that Daniel Rubenstein will succeed Robert Ford as the US Special Envoy for Syria, as Al-Monitor previously reported.

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Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness. .. The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)