Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

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Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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Appointments: Beers may go to White House, Kaidanow for State CT

With the White House nomination of Jeh Johnson to be Secretary of Homeland Security, multiple administration sources say they expect acting DHS Secretary Rand Beers to join the National Security/White House staff as a senior advisor on counterterrorism issues to National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Beers, confirmed as DHS Undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate in 2009, has served since September as acting DHS Secretary since the departure of Janet Napolitano to head the University of California, and before that, as acting deputy Secretary, after the departure of Jane Holl Lute last May. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel.

Beers worked closely with Rice as a foreign policy and intelligence advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and served as co-chair of the Obama/Biden DHS Transition team. He previously served in the NSC of four presidential administrations, and in multiple senior roles in the State Department, including as assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement and counter-terrorism coordinator. A former Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam, Beers resigned from the Bush NSC in March 2003, coinciding with the US invasion of Iraq, and later served as foreign policy advisor to John Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.

The White House declined to comment, saying they have no new appointments to announce at this time. White House sources previously said they expected Lisa Monaco to remain as the top White House advisor on counter-terrorism and intelligence issues, and it’s unclear exactly what Beers’ title will be. Associates said Beers was one of the few people in Washington who didn’t care about his title.

“When Rand was my boss, he always said there is no limit to what you can accomplish [in Washington] if you are willing to let someone else get the credit,” Heather Hurlburt, who worked with Beers at the progressive National Security Network, said Tuesday.

As the Back Channel previously reported, Rice is also bringing on Rob Malley to advise her and the NSS on Iran and Syria, sources said. The appointment, also not yet announced, is a “done deal,” but may await some final administrative work, one former official told the Back Channel Monday. Malley did not respond to queries.

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Deputy US Ambassador to Afghanistan Tina Kaidanow is expected to be nominated to be the next State Department Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, multiple officials tell the Back Channel.

Kaidanow, a former US Ambassador to Kosovo, previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and as a special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. She did not respond to a query from the Back Channel. If confirmed, Kaidanow, a career foreign service officer, will head the State CT bureau that includes senior advisors Eric Rosand and Michael Jacobson.

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Kurt Kessler, deputy counselor to the US mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, is expected to join the White House WMD coordinator shop as an Iran non-proliferation expert. Kessler, a former Middle East and Iran analyst in the State Department’s International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau and before that at the Agency, is considered one of the most knowledgeable experts on Iran’s nuclear program in the US government, associates said. He did not respond to a query.

(Photo of Rand Beers, acting Homeland Security Secretary, from his DHS biography.)

Appointments: Econ, Syria, NEA

Who will oversee US Syria diplomacy, if Robert Ford, as we first reported, is tapped to succeed Anne Patterson as US Ambassador to Cairo?

US officials told us, as far as they know, the decision on that has not yet been finalized. Ford, in any case, “will do Syria for a few more months,” as he prepares to go to Egypt, one official, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday.

“I think serious thought should be given to moving the position out of the Department and to the field, along with 'team Syria' currently cloistered in NEA”–the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, one former senior U.S. official told us. “A difference can be made in Turkey and Jordan with the opposition and in interacting with partners. Hard to do anything useful in Washington from inside the NEA bureaucracy.”

Syria needs a US government point of contact, who can “manage the whole inter-agency Syria process,” another current official said. That, in addition to “a seasoned diplomat who speaks Arabic and knows the region and could engage the Syrians.”

Meantime, US officials told the Back Channel that former Clinton White House Middle East advisor Rob Malley has been offered the job of National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, but as yet has not agreed to take it. (The Back Channel previously reported that the current NSS Senior Director for Iran/Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar may be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.)

One possibility is that Malley may instead become a senior advisor on Syria to Secretary of State John Kerry, working out of the front office, a US diplomatic source told the Back Channel. Malley did not respond to numerous queries. He is said to be very close with Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s deputy Middle East envoy.

Meantime, the Back Channel has learned of several other diplomatic appointments in the works:

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (NEA) Elizabeth Jones may move to become the deputy to US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Dobbins, after her successor Patterson is in place, officials, speaking not for attribution, said. Secretary of State John Kerry last week named deputy SRAP James Warlick, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, the next US envoy to the OSCE Minsk Group.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Elizabeth Dibble will become Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, US officials tell us. (She didn’t respond to a query.)

US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is expected to become the next PDAS in the NEA bureau, officials said. Feierstein, who met with Yemen’s president in Sanaa on Tuesday, the State Department said, is expected to serve a few more months there before returning to Washington.

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin is expected to be nominated Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, succeeding Robert Hormats, officials tell the Back Channel. “It’s a done deal,” one official said Tuesday, adding the nomination is expected to be announced the first week of September.

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Associates say National Security Advisor Tom Donilon may leave this summer

Several associates tell the Back Channel they believe that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is planning to leave this summer—several months earlier than previous reports had suggested, and even as the White House said Donilon has no plans to depart.

On the one hand he doesn’t seem to want to leave, but he’s been doing this five long years, one associate, speaking not for attribution, said Friday.

Noting several of Donilon’s recent and upcoming foreign trips and high-profile speeches on Asia and energy, the White House said Donilon’s calendar remains booked into June, including with a late May trip to China.

“Tom has no plans to depart,” NSS spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said by email late Friday. “As you’ve probably seen, he’s fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events.”

President Obama recently nominated Donilon’s wife Catherine M. Russell, chief of staff to Jill Biden, to be the next US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues. Some associates suggested a family health issue may be a factor in Donilon’s thinking on how long to stay, but declined to elaborate. The couple have high school age children.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is expected to succeed Donilon as National Security Advisor.

It’s not clear who will be nominated to succeed Rice at the UN—the name the Back Channel has consistently heard is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, but one official wasn’t certain that Burns wanted to stay. Secretary of State John Kerry would also like to keep Burns, another official said, noting there are too many vacant seats at State for another hole.

Neither Burns, nor Donilon, nor Rice’s office, responded to queries Friday.

While the transition of such a central player in Obama’s national security team as Donilon–-and the resulting shuffle—on the nearer term horizon could seem like one explanation for why several other anticipated senior foreign policy appointments have not yet been announced, foreign policy sources said they did not believe that to be a key factor.

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James Dobbins for SRAP

The Obama administration has tapped veteran diplomat James Dobbins to serve as the new U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

Dobbins “has deep and longstanding relationships in the region and I couldn’t be more grateful that Jim has agreed to take on this assignment,” Kerry said Friday.

Dobbins, 71, who led the US team to the Bonn Conference that established the post-Taliban Afghan government and who raised the US flag on the US embassy in Kabul in December 2001, will now lead US policy to Afghanistan and Pakistan as the US withdraws its remaining combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014, in what has become the longest war in US history. Afghanistan also holds presidential elections next year in which two-term President Hamid Karzai has agreed not to run.

“This is a pivotal moment for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, with interconnected political, security, and economic transitions already underway in Afghanistan, and Pakistani elections just days away, marking an important and historic democratic transition,” Kerry said Friday.

Dobbins, currently at the Rand Corporation, previously served as US envoy to Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia during the withdrawal of US forces there, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and many other posts.

After the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, Dobbins served as the Bush White House’s envoy to the Afghan opposition and represented the United States at the Bonn Conference that helped negotiate the formation of the post-Taliban Afghan government.

Dobbins did not respond to messages left by the Back Channel over the past two days on the rumored appointment. The New York Times first reported the appointment Friday.

A former Afghan government advisor told Al-Monitor he interpreted the appointment as a sign the Obama administration will push the Karzai government to negotiate with the Taliban as the US exits. Continue reading

Obama AfPak advisor may help unwind the war from NATO

Douglas Lute, who has served for the past eight years as both the Bush and Obama White House Afpak ‘war czar,” looks set to get a plum assignment helping guide the wind-down of the US-led war in Afghanistan: US Ambassador to NATO.

Two US officials say Lute, a retired Army Ltn. General, is likely to be tapped for the Brussels job, succeeding Ivo Daalder, who previously announced he will step down this summer to head the Chicago Council on World Affairs.

(The Back Channel reported Tuesday that Lute may be up for Special Envoy to AfPak (SRAP), but we appear to have been off. Brussels-based reporter Teri Schulz first alerted us on Twitter that word is Lute may be headed there.)

One US official said Wednesday that Lute, asked about the NATO job, at some point wasn’t certain if his family could relocate abroad. But Lute’s spouse, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Jane Holl Lute, announced earlier this month she is stepping down.

Lute didn’t respond to a query from the Back Channel. A NSC spokeswoman declined to comment: “No personnel announcements for you.”

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Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

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White House names Sherwood-Randall new defense/WMD coordinator


The White House last week named National Security Staff Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth “Liz” Sherwood-Randall as the new coordinator for defense and WMD, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

Sherwood-Randall will take up her duties as the first White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control on April 8, the White House said in a March 19 announcement.

The Back Channel first reported last month that Sherwood-Randall may be tapped to succeed WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for the Harvard Belfer Center; and subsequently reported that the defense and WMD portfolios were expected to be combined under the new coordinator position.

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US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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