Opposition to Hagel may be softening

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As President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense Monday, opposition to the choice appeared to be receding somewhat.

“Chuck knows war is not an abstraction,” Obama said in a ceremony in the White House East Room. “He understands that sending young American to fight and bleed in the dirt and the mud is something we only do when absolutely necessary.”

Several groups and political leaders said Monday they would not formally oppose the choice, though some admitted to being lukewarm. Among them, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, and former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who earlier said he opposed the choice. Continue reading

Iran nuclear negotiator, in India, blasts US double standards

Amid preparations for a new round of nuclear talks, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator used a speech at an Indian think tank Wednesday to rail against US-led negotiations with the Taliban and what he decried as American double standards on terrorism and a “selective approach to the nuclear rights” of nations.

Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s national security council, spoke to an invitation-only crowd at a New Delhi think tank Wednesday while on a three day official visit to India before traveling to Afghanistan. But the immediate focus of Jalili's India visit, at the invitation of his counterpart Indian National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, seemed to have more to do with shared Indian and Iranian concerns about prospective US-led negotiations with the Taliban that could give Pakistan greater sway in Afghanistan, rather than the nuclear file, Indian analysts said.

“The good news is that Iran is as uncomfortable as India on the back-room developments with regard to Afghanistan as the United States-led international community seems hell bent on 'good' Taliban taking over the land-locked country in the post-2014 scenario of withdrawing American forces from Afghanistan,” Indian analyst Rajeev Sharma wrote.

Jalili, in his speech to the Observer Research  Foundation, “completely avoided specifics and focused on themes – despite very specific questions being asked, he focused on American double standards and US exceptionalism,” an Indian foreign policy analyst who attended the talk told the Back Channel by email Thursday. Continue reading

Nuclear negotiators discuss new talks with Iran

Negotiators for the P5+1 and Iran have held talks on arranging a new meeting soon.

Helga Schmid, the deputy to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, spoke by phone with her Iranian counterpart Dr. Ali Bagheri on December 31st, a European diplomat said.

“The two of them are working on the next meeting to happen soon,” a spokesperson for Ashton’s office said Wednesday.

Iran's top nuclear negotiator, speaking Wednesday in India, also said he welcomed new nuclear talks starting “very soon.”

“We have concluded several rounds of negotiations with the Group. The latest was six months ago in Russia…We hope to soon conduct negotiations with P5+1,” Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran's national security council, told reporters after a speech in New Delhi Wednesday, Outlook India reported Wednesday.

“The time and venue has not been finalized but we hope it will be done soon,” Jalili continued.

Details on when and where the next round of talks will be held have still not been released, but a meeting is expected this month.

Jalili is on a three-day official visit to India. While there, he is due to meet with Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid, National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon and Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai, the Times of India reported.

Jalili is then scheduled to travel to Afghanistan, Reuters said.

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Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Crocker defends Petraeus, urges US approach Syria opposition with caution

My colleague Barbara Slavin reports:

One of America’s most distinguished diplomats warned Tuesday against giving military support to Syrian rebels and said the US should have better knowledge of who the fighters are before providing more than humanitarian aid.

Ryan Crocker, a former ambassador to six nations – Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan – told NPR’s Steve Inskeep at the annual dinner of the Middle East Institute in Washington, “Be careful what you get into… Who are these guys? What do they stand for? Who’s against them?”

Crocker, whose residence was besieged by a mob when he was ambassador to Syria in the late 1990s, suggested that the US lacks sufficient information about the opposition even after a conference in Qatar brought together various factions to form a new group, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces.

“You have to be on the ground as we were in Libya, influencing and analyzing” the rebel forces, he said. “I’m not sure we have a clear address to pursue a policy of coordinated … assistance.”

“I would like to find more ways to get [US] diplomats into Syria,” Crocker said. Continue reading

New US National Intelligence Officer for Iran: Rachel Ingber

The new U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Iran is Rachel Ingber.

Ingber takes over from Jillian Burns, who has moved to Afghanistan to become the new U.S. Consul-General in Herat.

Ingber most recently served as a senior US government Middle East analyst. Earlier in her career, in 1997, she served as a research intern at the Washington Institute for Near East  Policy, and compiled an Iran Research Guide at Columbia University. (Little of her recent writing seems to be available on the Internet.)

“As a member of the National Intelligence Council, the NIO/Iran will oversee Intelligence Community wide production and coordination of the full range of analytic assessments on Iran including strategic analysis on Iran … and, as appropriate and required, more focused, time-sensitive analysis for the most senior decision makers,” the National Intelligence Council job posting for the NIO/Iran position said.

Among the job’s responsibilities, “Provide warning to policymakers on emerging issues that could portend major discontinuities or affect significant US interests and opportunities,” it continued. Ingber is expected to bring on a new deputy.

 

Obama campaign aides portray Romney foreign tour as lightweight

Obama campaign advisors set out Monday to cast GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s upcoming foreign tour as a series of offshore fundraisers that lack much in the way of substance.

“We in the United States, Britain and NATO have agreed to a plan to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014,” Michele Flournoy, the Obama campaign’s top foreign policy advisor and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told journalists on a call arranged  by the Obama for America campaign Monday.  “The transition process is already underway.”

“Gov. Romney has articulated opposition to that timeline,” Flournoy continued. “So  he fundamentally disagrees with our British friends.”

Romney plans to depart this week for the UK, where he will attend the London Olympics, and meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Then he will travel to Israel and Poland, his campaign said. “He is really abroad to learn and to listen,” Romney policy director Lahnee Chen told reporters on a conference call, the AFP reported.

Robert Gibbs, Obama campaign senior advisor, portrayed the Romney itinerary as lightweight compared to candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 world tour in which he traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, as well as Germany, France and the UK. Obama “made it a priority to visit and talk with our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait,” Gibbs said. “It was important during the trip to meet servicemen and women, as well as consult commanders in the region to get a sense of the situation on the ground.”

On Iran, which is expected to be a major focus of Romney’s discussions with Israeli leaders, “all we have gotten from Romney is tough talk,” said Colin Kahl, who served as Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, on the campaign call. Continue reading

Who will Obama nominate to be US envoy to Iraq? A short list

In the wake of Obama’s nominee for Iraq ambassador withdrawing his name from consideration last week after an unusually bruising ordeal, it’s a fair bet the Obama administration is inclined to go with a safe, more easily confirm-able pick for its next nominee for the post.

Washington Iraq experts say they expect the new nominee to be announced in the next couple weeks, and have offered a somewhat lengthy list of diplomats they have heard are in the mix for the post overseeing the largest US embassy in the world.

The last US Ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, left Baghdad earlier this month and formally retired from the State Department in a ceremony last week. His deputy, the Chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Robert Stephen Beecroft, is currently the de facto acting ambassador, conducting meetings that the ambassador otherwise would have. Several Washington Iraq hands consider that the administration may decide to keep Beecroft, a former US Ambassador to Jordan and career foreign service officer, in the job.

Another leading contender on the short list is the current US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, according to a source close to the administration who declined to be identified. Jones was confirmed last summer as the US Ambassador to Jordan—perhaps the best indicator of his ability to get confirmed in the current atmosphere. He previously served as the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Iraq and was very involved in the transition from Pentagon- to State-lead of US efforts in the country. Jones also previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, DCM in Cairo, Governor Coordinator for Al Anbar Province, Iraq; and as Iraq/Iran director in the NSC, among other assignments and is considered to be a rising star in the State Department (and White House). Meantime, the situation in Jordan is considered to have stabilized sufficiently after some initial jitters early into the Arab uprisings that it is not considered overly disruptive to possibly move Jones next door to Iraq, if the nomination proceeds, all things considered, sources suggested.

Other contenders: several Washington Iraq “hawks” are rumored to want US envoy to Syria, Robert Ford, for Iraq. (Though some of the same hawks previously moved to block Ford’s confirmation for the Syria post in 2010, but later changed their minds.) Ford, one of the State Department’s leading Arabists, previously served as the deputy ambassador in Iraq, and as ambassador to Algeria,  speaks fluent Arabic and has impressed Republicans and Democrats alike with his principled and brave show of support for Syrian demonstrators even as the US embassy in Damascus had to close for security reasons late last year. Continue reading

Slavin: Former Iran nuclear negotiator’s memoir recounts 2011 outreach to US envoy

In her report on the new memoir of former Iran nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian, my colleague Barbara Slavin reports this scooplet: Iran, in February 2011, invited US Af-Pak envoy Marc Grossman to Iran to discuss a variety of issues.

Alas, as Slavin reports, it turned out to be yet another US-Iran diplomatic encounter not to be:

At the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday (June 5), Mousavian said he believes that Obama was sincere in efforts to restart diplomacy in 2009 and that Ahmadinejad has also evolved over time. According to Mousavian, Ahmadinejad wants talks with the US on a variety of issues. In February 2011, Mousavian said, Iran asked Marc Grossman, the US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, to pay an official visit to Iran to discuss Afghanistan.

“They were going to open another door,” Mousavian said of the offer, but “the US declined.”

Asked about this, a senior US official told Al-Monitor that an offer emerged from Iranians taking part in so-called Track II discussions with former US officials, including former US ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner.

Grossman responded “through the same channel that he could not go but would be delighted to see an Iranian representative to talk about Afghanistan in Kabul,” the senior official said. Iran did not follow up, added the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was describing confidential diplomatic communications.

It has been the pattern of US-Iran relations that when one side is ready to move, the other is not and vice versa. On both sides, domestic politics frequently inhibit progress, with hard-liners quick to pounce on perceived naïveté or “excessive” concessions.

Mousavian says the key is to improve US-Iran relations, however hard that is to envision at this time. …

It’s worth noting Tehran’s invite to Grossman came just a couple weeks after international-Iran nuclear talks broke down in Istanbul in January 2011 (and didn’t resume again until some 15 months later).

Read her piece.

 

Diplomatic exodus?

The United States is in the midst of losing some of its top diplomats to retirement. Among the departures underway:

US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey left Baghdad last week and will retire from the State Department; US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker will step down from the job this summer reportedly for health reasons. US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter plans to leave the post this summer after two  years in Islamabad, and retire from the State Department in the fall. And the top US Middle East troubleshooter, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeff Feltman, retired from the State Department last week to take a top UN post. (Beth Jones is acting Assistant Secretary for Near East affairs since Feltman’s departure.)

All the posts are grueling and the departures, individually, understandable. But is there some larger reason that explains why State is losing so much diplomatic firepower at this time? Continue reading