Iran nuclear diplomat known to U.S. as tough, professional

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When lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi and their teams met on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna this week, US officials described the now commonplace encounter between the U.S. and Iranian delegations as “useful and professional.”

“It’s now normal,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, described the bilateral meeting with Araghchi to journalists at a briefing in Vienna on April 9. “We met for about an hour and a half. … We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.”

“Mr. Araghchi is a very professional negotiator and also a tough negotiator,” Sherman told Al-Monitor by email on April 11.

Araghchi, 53, the lone holdover from Saeed Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team, has previously served as Iran’s envoy to Japan, Asian affairs deputy and, briefly during Iran’s presidential campaign and transition last summer, as the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since Hassan Rouhani tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator last August, Araghchi has been a key player in the nuclear talks that produced an interim deal last November, and a principal interlocutor in bilateral discussions with the United States aimed at advancing a comprehensive nuclear accord.

While Zarif’s willingness to engage with US officials was perhaps not surprising — the affable Iranian diplomat spent almost 20 years in the United States, earning graduate degrees and serving as Iran’s UN envoy in New York during the moderate Mohammad Khatami administration — his deputy Araghchi is less well-known to Western audiences.

Though Araghchi earned a doctoral degree at Kent University in the United Kingdom and speaks fluent English, he is not one of Zarif’s so-called “New York gang” or “New Yorkers,” as the Iranian diplomats who studied in the United States and served with Zarif in New York have been dubbed at home. A career diplomat who ascended under then-Iran Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, Araghchi is “not political,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. But it turns out that Araghchi was not entirely unknown to US officials before he was tapped as Zarif’s deputy last August and became part of the Iranian delegation that secretly met with U.S. officials a half dozen times in Oman, New York and Geneva last fall to try to advance a nuclear deal.

Interviews with former officials by Al-Monitor and US diplomatic cables indicate that Araghchi had a previous engagement with the Americans, at a regional summit in Iraq in March 2007, in which he impressed one observer as “extremely professional,” and constructive in the proceedings, in a rare departure from what were otherwise frustrating and unproductive US-Iranian encounters on Iraq at the time.

Araghchi subsequently appeared on the Americans’ radar as a highly effective and press-savvy Iran ambassador to Japan in 2008, in a move some US diplomatic interlocutors read as an effort by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to “protect” Araghchi from Iran’s hard-line then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US diplomatic cables show. Other US cables suggest that Araghchi played a quietly helpful background role in urging for the release of an Iranian-American reporter acquaintance, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009.

“Araghchi is a young, personable, polished and accomplished diplomat who presents well, argues his case calmly and rationally and who is clearly at ease making public presentations and dealing with the press,” then-US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer wrote in a March 2008 diplomatic cable to Washington about his newly arrived Iranian diplomatic counterpart in Tokyo.

One Japanese diplomat “told Embassy Tokyo,” Schieffer’s cable continued, that then-former “Foreign Minister Taro Aso speculated after meeting him … that if the US and Iran were to resume diplomatic relations, Araghchi would be a likely candidate to become ambassador to Washington.”

Araghchi, then — as now — Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, led Iran’s delegation to a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad in March 2007, attended as well by then-US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and then-State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield. The meeting came amid growing US frustration at Iran’s support for Iraq “special groups” conducting attacks against US-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran denied providing such support, while at the time making repeated overtures to the Americans that it would be interested to engage on Iraq, US cables show. The United States pursued several trilateral meetings with the Iranians on Iraq during 2007, but ultimately determined they were fruitless and counterproductive. But not so at the first meeting attended by Araghchi in March 2007.

“That recollection stays with me … the wholly professional conduct of the Iranian delegation, but particularly the Deputy Foreign Minister [Araghchi], which was quite striking,” a firsthand observer of the meeting, who requested to speak anonymously, told Al-Monitor in an interview on April 10. Continue reading

Ambassador to Egypt

U.S. Syria Envoy Robert Ford is likely to be nominated the next U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, two senior U.S. officials tell the Back Channel.

A State Department official said Thursday he had no information to provide on that.

The Back Channel previously reported that current U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is expected to be nominated the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. The unrest in Egypt the past month following the ouster of Egypt's Mohamed Morsi may have slightly delayed the announcement, but it is expected to proceed, maybe even before August recess, the officials said.

The Back Channel first reported that Ford has asked to step down from the Syria job, saying he is exhausted.

Ford, one of the preeminent Arabists in the US foreign service, previously served as U.S. ambassador to Algeria, as deputy US ambassador in Iraq, and as deputy chief of mission in Bahrain. A fluent Arabic speaker, Ford has previously served in Cairo, on the Egypt economics desk in Washington, and in the Peace Corps.

He could not be reached for comment Thursday. It's not clear who will be tapped to serve as the top US diplomat on Syria.

Secretary of State John Kerry has wanted Ford for Cairo, but Ford was previously said to be hesitant due to fatigue, one former official said, adding he assumes fatigue will have given way to Secretarial persuasion.

Update: President Obama late Thursday announced his nomination of Anne Patterson to be Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs.

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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'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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Top US Syria envoy expected to step down


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama nominates Stephen Beecroft for Iraq envoy

President Obama on Monday formally nominated Robert Stephen Beecroft to be US Ambassador to Iraq.

Beecroft, the Charge d’Affaires in Iraq since 2011, has served as de facto acting ambassador since the departure of US Ambassador James Jeffrey in May.

Beecroft, a career Foreign Service officer, previously served as executive assistant to two Secretaries of State and as US Ambassador to Jordan.

Beecroft’s nomination comes as Iraq’s government spokesman Ali Aldabbagh warned in an interview with Al-Monitor Monday of growing sectarian tensions in the country. Aldabbagh, a close advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, also charged that Iraqi’s fugitive Sunni Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi has “direct” ties to groups committing terrorism in Iraq. Continue reading

Former U.S. Iraq envoy Jim Jeffrey joins the Washington Institute

Veteran US diplomat James Jeffrey, who most recently served as US envoy to Iraq, has taken a post as a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“We are thrilled to welcome a foreign policy practitioner who combines a broad strategic understanding of the Middle East with unsurpassed experience in the field,” Washington Institute executive director Dr. Robert Satloff said in a draft press release on the appointment, which is expected to be announced next week.

Jeffrey stepped down from the Foreign Service in June after a three decade career that included senior assignments as US ambassador to Turkey, Iraq, Albania and deputy national security advisor. Before joining the Foreign Service, he served with the US infantry in Vietnam and Germany.

In an interview with Al-Monitor earlier this month, Jeffrey defended the Obama administration’s decision to withdraw remaining US forces from Iraq last year. He also spoke about the difficulty of negotiating with Iran, but how important he thinks it is. 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

Kurdistan’s man in Washington prepares for new role back home

Qubad Talabani, the longtime Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) envoy to Washington, will move to Kurdistan this summer after a twelve-year run representing Iraqi Kurdistan here that has seen the US invasion and withdrawal from Iraq.

Talabani, 34, the son of Iraq’s president Jalal Talabani, will head up a new strategic policy coordinating body reporting to the Kurdistan region’s prime minister, Talabani told me in an interview Tuesday. He will be based in the provincial capital of Erbil, and accompanied by his family– his wife Sherri Kraham, a managing director in the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) policy department, and their two year old son, Ari.

“Clearly, professionally, this is a step in the right direction for me,” Talabani said. “After twelve years of being here, I am sad to leave this great city but excited to start a new challenge.”

Given Talabani’s ancestral pedigree, however, it’s hard not to wonder if he’s being groomed to assume a future political leadership role.: Read the full piece here.