Iran, P5+1 meet on implementing nuclear accord

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Technical talks between Iran and six world powers on implementing a Nov. 24 Iran nuclear accord got underway in Vienna on Monday, as top US officials vigorously argued that the six month deal will strengthen international security by halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations towards a comprehensive deal take place.

“I am convinced beyond any doubt that Israel becomes safer the moment this first-step agreement is implemented,” Kerry told the Saban Forum in Washington DC on Saturday (Dec. 7).

“We hope that by the end of these talks, we can start implementing the first step of the Geneva agreement before the end of the year,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi told Al-Monitor by email Monday about the technical level talks.

The talks, which started at 3pm Monday, are “to discuss implementation of the 24 November agreement,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Al-Monitor.

The EU delegation to the Vienna talks includes EEAS nuclear experts Stephan Klement and Klemen Polak.

Iran’s delegation to the talks is led by Hamid Baeedinejad, the Director General of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Ravanchi said.

The US delegation to the Vienna technical talks includes James Timbie, the top nonproliferation advisor to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; Richard Nephew, the State Department’s deputy Iran sanctions expert; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Iraq Brett McGurk, and Adam Szubin, from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).

Parallel to the consultations with the Iranians, US officials are also traveling around the world to discuss how to implement the sanctions relief in the phase 1 deal, while maintaining the major architecture of oil and banking sanctions on Iran. Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Amos Hochstein and Peter Harrell are traveling to China, India, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for consultations on easing sanctions on Iranian trade in gold and precious metals, and permitting Iran to receive $4.2 billion in frozen assets from oil sales, but not unwinding sanctions further than that spelled out in the six month deal.

The technical talks on implementing the six month, Phase 1 deal come as President Obama and Secretary Kerry told a pro-Israel security forum in Washington over the weekend that the deal would increase Israel’s security by lengthening the time it would take Iran to have nuclear weapons breakout.

“For the first time in over a decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program,” Obama told the Saban Forum Saturday. “We are going to have daily inspectors in Fordow and Natanz. We’re going to have additional inspections in Arak. And as a consequence, during this six-month period, Iran cannot and will not advance its program or add additional stockpiles of…enriched uranium.”

Kerry is due to testify on the Iran deal to the House foreign affairs panel Tuesday. Lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman is also supposed to testify on the Hill later in the week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

Kerry will further discuss Iran when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his ninth visit to Jerusalem later this week, Psaki said.

Israel’s new national security advisor Yossi Cohen is also in Washington this week for consultations with US counterparts on the Iran deal. American officials have urged Israel to consult on terms for a comprehensive agreement, rather than litigate the terms of the Phase 1 deal, which Israel has opposed. “The real question is what’s going to happen with the final agreement,” Kerry told the Saban forum.

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to hold off on passing new Iran sanctions even if they would not take effect until after six months and only if a comprehensive deal is not reached. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned in an interview published by Time Monday that new US sanctions would sink the deal.

“If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif told Time’s Robin Wright.

(Photo by the EEAS of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 24.)

President Obama and Elie Wiesel writing book

Holocaust survivor, writer and philanthropist Elie Wiesel is writing a book with President Barack Obama, he tells Ofer Aderet in an interview published in Haaretz Friday:

Wiesel, who celebrated his 84th birthday on September 30, looks and sounds well and says he is up to his neck in work – despite the open-heart surgery he underwent a year ago. [...] Much of his time is devoted to writing …

He did, however, agree to disclose an interesting project that will resume after the presidential elections in the United States. “[President Barack] Obama and I decided to write a book together, a book of two friends,” he says.

Wiesel became friends with Obama in 2009, a few months after the Democratic candidate was elected. Obama’s staff invited Wiesel to join the president on a visit to the site of Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. Wiesel had first arrived at the camp at the end of World War II, with his father and other prisoners, following a death march from Auschwitz. His mother and his younger sister were murdered there, while Wiesel and his father, who did forced labor there, survived; his father died at Buchenwald. Only Wiesel and two of his sisters were still alive at the liberation.

When Obama concluded his remarks at Buchenwald, he whispered to Wiesel, “The last word has to be yours here.” Choking with tears, Wiesel made an impromptu speech in which he said to Obama, “Mr. President, we have such high hopes for you, because you, with your moral vision of history, will be able and compelled to change this world into a better place … You are our last hope.”

Since then, he adds, the two have become good friends and he is occasionally invited to dinner by the president: “We talk about philosophy, contemplation, thought, but never about politics. He is a thinking person, a person with depth and intellectual curiosity.”

 

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama hugs Nobel Laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel after Wiesel introduced him to speak at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, April 23, 2012. Obama delivered remarks on future holocaust prevention at the museum.    REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

Key advisor to Supreme Leader may seek Iran presidency

Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is likely to run for Iran’s presidency next year, and if elected would take a more pragmatic stance to ease soaring tensions with the West that have isolated Iran and hurt its economy, a former Iranian diplomat told Al Monitor.

The former diplomat and academic, who plans to advise Velayati, a longtime family friend, if he does run, asked not to be named in a piece. He spoke to Al Monitor in an interview Friday, as Iranians were trying to analyze press reports showing the United States increasing its muscular rhetoric in an effort to stave off any possible Israeli unilateral strike against Iran. Iran does not fear an Israeli attack, the former diplomat said, but does feel the impact of economic sanctions and takes the prospect of possible future US military action more seriously.

The former diplomat expressed optimism that Iran would reach a negotiated solution with the West over its nuclear program by June of next year, when Iranian presidential elections are due to be held. He also said the Iranian foreign ministry may take a larger role in handling Iran’s negotiations with the P5+1 over its nuclear program in the future.

The larger message the former diplomat conveyed is that Khamenei, at 73, does not want the end of his legacy in Iranian history books to be having brought economic hardship to the Iranian people. The sanctions are hurting Iran and Iranians, including in the fall of the Iran’s currency, the rial, to 20,000 to the dollar last week. Iran also recognizes that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will eventually be toppled in Syria, the former diplomat said, but said whatever future leadership comes to power in Syria will maintain ties with Tehran. (Among economic reasons he cited, Iranian pilgrims bring Syria $2 billion in annual revenues, and Syria needs Iranian oil and gas, he said.)

Iran’s leadership “believes Obama will win” reelection, the former diplomat said. Iran’s leadership “are rational, and calculate how to deal with the US,” he said. Key factions of Iran’s elite are looking for more effective stewardship of Iran’s international relations.

Velayati, who studied pediatric medicine at John Hopkins University in the 1970s, served as Iran’s foreign minister from 1981-1997, under then President Khamenei and Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. From Iran’s conservative “right-wing,” Velayati’s prospective 2013 presidential candidacy has the support of Rafsanjani and some reformists, and would be acceptable to the Supreme Leader, who does not back a candidate per se, the former diplomat said.

At a news conference late last month, Velayati said Iran would pursue negotiations with the P5+1 until they reach “positive and constructive” results, Iranian news media reported. “The Islamic Republic of Iran should be allowed to use peaceful nuclear energy and such a right should be recognized by negotiators of the P5+1,” Velayati said July 27th, Press TV reported. Continue reading

Romney to Israeli paper: Both Obama and I say nuclear Iran unacceptable


GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has given two interviews to Israeli newspapers ahead of his arrival in Jerusalem Saturday night.

“I would treat Israel like the friend and ally it is,” Romney told Israel Hayom, the newspaper owned by Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has donated millions of dollars to Republican and Israeli causes. Adelson, who owns a home in Israel, may attend a $50,000 a plate fundraiser for Romney in Israel Monday.

“I cannot imagine going to the United Nations, as Obama did, and criticizing Israel in front of the world,” Romney continued. “You don’t criticize your allies in public to achieve the applause of your foes.”

So Romney learned first-hand in London Thursday, as his perceived criticism of preparations for the London Olympics got his three-nation foreign trip off to a quite rocky start.

British Prime Minister David Cameron and London mayor Boris Johnson–both conservatives–fiercely defended preparations for the London Olympic Games after Romney told NBC Wednesday he found some reports of some pre-Games snafus “disconcerting.”

“If Mitt Romney doesn’t like us, we shouldn’t care,” railed the headline from the conservative UK Telegraph Thursday. London mayor Boris Johnson later mocked Romney in front of a crowd of 60,000 in Hyde Park, asking: “Mitt Romney wants to know whether we’re ready! Are we ready?” .

Romney also gave an interview in London Thursday to Israel’s liberal Haaretz newspaper. (Being on foreign soil when the interview was conducted, he told the paper he was trying to refrain from politicizing foreign policy.)

Asked about his Iran policy, Romney said he, like President Obama, have both said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable:The military option is the least attractive option but should not be ruled out, he said.

“President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. I feel a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Romney told Haaretz. “The term ‘unacceptable’ continues to have a meaning: It suggests that all options will be employed to prevent that outcome.”

“I am personally committed to take every step necessary to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability,” Romney said.

In Israel, Romney will hold a breakfast fundraiser Monday (July 30) at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. He will also meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–an old friend from their days at the Boston Consulting Group; Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, and US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who served as the Obama campaign’s chief of Jewish outreach in 2008.

But even with the personal ties and partisan sympathies Romney shares with Netanyahu, the powers of his White House incumbent challenger to make policy, sign bills, and grab headlines are hard to match.

On Friday, President Obama signed “a new U.S.-Israel security pact …a move that could steal some of the headlines there” as Romney arrives,” Yahoo’s Olivier Knox noted.  Indeed.

Israeli leaders and American Jewish groups applauded Obama’s action Friday.

“The Government and the people of Israel express profound gratitude to President Barack Obama on his signing of the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act,” Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said in a statement Friday. It “sends an unequivocal message of support to the people of Israel at a time of great uncertainty throughout the entire Middle East.”

The security pact bolsters the “crucial” US-Israel security alliance “by extending loan guarantees…authorizing American military stockpiles in Israel, and improving military and intelligence cooperation, particularly in missile defense,” the Orthodox Union’s Nathan Diament said in a press statement.

Meantime, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to travel to Israel, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia next week, the Pentagon announced Thursday.

The bill signing, as well as the Pentagon chief’s Israel trip, come “as Mitt Romney nears a visit to Israel with no power to provide security aid, unlike the incumbent,” CBS’s Mark Knoller noted.

(Photo: U.S. Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to the press following his meetings with British Prime Minister David Cameron and British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne outside 10 Downing Street in London, July 26, 2012.   REUTERS/Jason Reed.)

Yahoo Activist Daniel Loeb’s Next Battle

Will hedge fund manager Daniel Loeb do to Obama what he did to Yahoo?

After waging battle with Yahoo’s board for months, the activist shareholder and Third Point LLC founder has now completed what amounts to total regime change at the company. Having upended the company’s board and helped oust its last CEO, Scott Thompson, Loeb played a key behind the scenes role in recruiting Google’s Marissa Mayer as Yahoo’s new CEO, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher reported Tuesday.

Now Loeb and his new Yahoo CEO recruit Mayer share the goal of boosting Yahoo’s fortunes. But they find themselves on opposite sides of the 2012 US presidential race.

Loeb this month co-hosted a $25,000-person Hamptons fundraiser for GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va), the Los Angeles Times reported.

Mayer, 37, by contrast, “is an active Democratic fundraiser,” who hosted a 2010 fundraiser at her Palo Alto home for President Barack Obama, “and has given to Obama annually since 2007,” Politico reported Tuesday.

Continue reading

Romney to Israel

GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney will travel to Israel later this summer, his campaign confirmed Monday.

On the visit, Romney will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu–a former associate of Romney’s at the Boston Consulting Group in the 1970s. (Romney and Netanyahu both worked in the financial consulting world, before launching political careers; Romney after attending Harvard Business School, while Netanyahu attended MIT.) The former Massachusetts governor will also meet with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro (who served as chief of Jewish outreach for the Obama campaign in 2008); Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Israeli President Shimon Peres, and members of Israel’s opposition Labor party, the New York Times reported. It will be Romney’s fourth trip to Israel.

“He’s a strong friend of Israel and we’ll be happy to meet with him,” Ron Dermer, a top Netanyahu advisor, told the New York Times’ Jodi Rudoren, who first broke news of the visit. “We value strong bipartisan support for Israel and we’re sure it will only deepen that.”

Then candidate Barack Obama similarly traveled to Israel during the 2008 presidential campaign. But some Israelis and American Jewish groups have expressed disappointment Obama has not yet traveled to Israel as President.

“There is a definite perception that the Jewish vote and the pro-Israel vote are in play this election cycle,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy of the Jewish Federations of North America, told Al Monitor in a statement Monday.

“By going to Israel, Governor Romney will be highlighting the fact that President Obama has not been to Israel as President, as well as emphasizing differences in how Romney says he would work with Israel generally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu specifically,” Daroff said. Continue reading

Romney advisor: Arm the moderates in Syria opposition

Richard Williamson, a top foreign policy spokesperson for the Mitt Romney campaign, tells Al Monitor‘s Barbara Slavin that the US should arm selected rebel forces in Syria and be willing to go beyond the UN Security Council to intervene in Syria. Williamson also demanded that Iran cease all uranium enrichment and said the US should be more loyal to Israel, which he said President Barack Obama had thrown “under the bus.”

From Slavin’s interview:

Williamson: The first thing is we should be in there… You can have covert operatives, others you are working with, Turkey and … working with exiles, just like we did with Libya. The suggestion that you should lead from behind is folly in a case like this. We have great strategic interests in Syria. The commander of Central Command [Gen. James Mattis] said that the greatest strategic blow to Iran would be a change of the Assad regime… The question really is why haven’t we done more in the last 14 months.

Al-Monitor: Do you think it’s going to be necessary at some point for the US to inject its own forces, beyond special forces? Continue reading

Romney advisor on Syria: First, antagonize Russia, China

What to do about the bloodshed in Syria? John Bolton, the gleefully hawkish former US ambassador to the UN and a top foreign policy adviser to GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, argues in a National Review oped Monday that President Obama’s current policy is feckless and weak. Few surprises there.

But Bolton’s proscription for what a President Romney should do–essentially antagonize Russia and China, pull out of the new START arms control treaty, threaten Iran with war, and find secular, liberal (Ahmad Chalabi) types in Syria Americans would prefer rule the country–“‘assuming they exist”)–seems to help partly explain why some say Iran may prefer a Republican victory this fall. After all, such a course of action would seemingly quickly explode the international consensus on diplomatically isolating and economically pressuring Iran over its nuclear program.

Brief excerpt from Bolton’s piece below the fold, but go read the whole piece: Continue reading