Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Burns to retire, led back channel to Iran

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Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the veteran U.S. diplomat who helped President Obama open a back channel to Iran last year, will retire from the Foreign Service in October, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

“It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy,” Kerry said in a press statement Friday.

“With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues,” Kerry said. “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Like so many others who worked with him, I have seen Bill Burns as a mentor– [and] have learned so much by watching how he does his job,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter.

Burns, in a letter informing Kerry of his decision to retire in October after 32 years serving 10 US Secretaries of State, wrote that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President….You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.”

Burns, in an interview with Al-Monitor in January, said while reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would be very challenging, it should be achievable.

“The truth is, at the end of the day … if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon … we’ve made clear…we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” Burns said.

“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” he added. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”

Burns is only the second career Foreign Service officer to be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State. He has previously served as US Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, among many other positions in his 32 year diplomatic career.

Sources told Al-Monitor that Burns considered retiring last year, but President Obama personally asked him to stay to pursue the Iran diplomatic channel at a critical moment, which he did.

Diplomatic sources previously considered State Department counselor Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken to be possible contenders to succeed Burns as Deputy Secretary.

(Bottom photo of President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

White House meets Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions

The White House on Tuesday met with a small group of Jewish leaders as part of an intensifying effort to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions it fears could derail negotiations with Iran on a possible nuclear deal.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes briefed leaders from the Jewish groups on the Iran negotiations to date.

“Following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran, and in advance of the next round of talks November 7-8, Senior Administration Officials today briefed the leaders of several Jewish organizations on our progress,” National Security Staff spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told A-Monitor Tuesday.  “The administration officials made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.  The meeting was constructive and we look forward to continuing these discussions going forward.”

“We had a constructive and open exchange and agreed to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” a statement from the Jewish leaders who attended the meeting Tuesday said. “We welcome the reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.”

Participants in the off record discussion, which was first reported by JTA, included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC, the statement said.

The Obama administration has been waging a more vigorous effort to try to push back against new Iran sanctions legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking committee, arguing there should be a pause in new sanctions through the fall, while maintaining existing major oil and banking sanctions, to give momentum to negotiations and test if Iran is serious about making a nuclear compromise. The administration wants a “pause” on new sanctions until January to try to come to closure on a possible confidence building measure, and they feel new sanctions now could derail that effort, sources briefed on the discussions said.

As part of that effort, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Sherman, the lead US negotiator, have been doing classified briefings on the Hill this week, sources said. Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry are due to brief Senators on Iran in closed session on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently argued that the only acceptable deal with Iran is one that would permit no enrichment and zero centrifuges. Current and former American officials and even some former Israeli officials contend that a zero enrichment deal is unachievable, and wonder if Netanyahu intends to try to spoil a possible deal that could increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to have potential nuclear breakout capability.

A good if imperfect negotiated solution is superior to the alternative options available, former top State Department Iran nonproliferation official Robert Einhorn argued in a paper delivered in Israel last week, noting increased pressure from the US now could fracture the international community and push Iran to escalate by increasing its enrichment activities.

“At a minimum, the Israelis want us to bargain very hard,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday. “And I think they see their tough position as a way of strengthening our resolve. But whether at the end of the day they would be content with less than [the] maximalist approach is hard to tell at this point.”

The Obama “administration wants to test Iranian willingness to accept significant constraints on its nuclear program in order to get relief from sanctions,” Einhorn said. “And so it’s prepared to [see]… how far they are prepared to go to meet US concerns.”

President Obama “has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program,” Secretary Kerry told the Ploughshares Fund  Monday.   Continue reading

Who would broker an Obama-Rouhani encounter in NY?


If President Obama decides to try to pursue a handshake or encounter with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in New York next week, odds are it may occur when he meets with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday, before attending a lunch hosted by Ban, a veteran of US-Iran dialogues suggested Friday.

“There is a range of potential interlocutors to coordinate such an encounter,” Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president of global policy studies at the Asia Society, told the Back Channel Friday. “Ban Ki-Moon is hosting a Tuesday lunch. That would be [ideal], given he’s an international civil servant.”

No meeting between Obama and Rouhani next week is currently planned, though Obama is open to engagement, the White House said again Friday. Obama is currently scheduled to have four one-on-one meetings with world leaders in New York, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told journalists in a call Friday previewing Obama’s schedule in New York.

Obama will meet on Monday with Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan, and then on Tuesday, following his address to the UN General Assembly, Obama is due to meet with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. Obama is then due to meet privately with the UN’s Ban, then attend a lunch hosted by Ban, Rhodes said. Finally, Obama is due to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, before attending a Clinton Global Initiative event promoting health care hosted by former President Bill Clinton.

Given that schedule, it seems most likely that, if an encounter between Obama and Rouhani were to occur, it would be brokered by Ban, DiMaggio mused. Her organization, the Asia Society, is due to host Rouhani at an event Thursday for think tank scholars, along with the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also been involved in extensive track 2 work on Iran.

There are rumors that Ban might also organize a meeting of foreign ministers, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, DiMaggio said.

“There’s some creative thinking going on,” she said.

There could be some US-Iran “interaction at different levels”, the NSC’s Rhodes said in the press call Friday. “I can’t predict every interaction that might take place.”

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Kerry, Rice brief Jewish, Arab American groups on Mideast peace talks

Secretary of State John Kerry and National Security Advisor Susan Rice hosted Jewish-American and Arab-American community leaders at separate meetings at the White House Thursday and Friday to try to bolster domestic support for U.S. Middle East peace-making efforts.

Also attending the meetings were new US peace envoy Martin Indyk and his deputy Frank Lowenstein, as well as the White House’s top Middle East strategist Phil Gordon, senior director for Middle East and North Africa Prem Kumar, and deputy national security advisor for communications Ben Rhodes, attendees told Al-Monitor.

The meetings-ostensibly off the record–come as Indyk and Lowenstein are heading back to the region to facilitate a new round of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks next week. Negotiations will be held August 14th in Jerusalem followed by a meeting in Jericho, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Thursday.

“Obviously, they wanted to brief Jewish community leaders on their efforts with regard to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and also to appeal for the community to support their efforts,” Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy at the Orthodox Union, told the Back Channel Friday.

“I think everybody were appreciate of their efforts and commitment and motivations,” Diament continued. “Obviously, there were some difficult questions asked. But it was a very cordial and civil and substantive discussion.”

“I would say both Rice and Ben Rhodes … made a point of stating President Obama’s commitment to this agenda item and also his appreciation for what Secretary Kerry is doing,” Diament said.

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White House to step up aid to Syria rebels, after US confirms Assad chemical use

President Obama has decided to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale numerous times, the White House announced Thursday.

“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC,” the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, the White House statement continued. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

The US assistance provided to the Syrian rebels “is going to be substantively different than what we were providing before our initial chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes told journalists in a press call Thursday evening.

While declining to provide a full inventory of the assistance the US might provide to the rebels, Rhodes said the U.S. aim “is to be responsive to the needs of the SMC on the ground…There will be an increase in support to both the political and military side.”

Among the types of assistance the US was looking to provide, in coordination with allies, Rhodes said, was aid to enhance the Syrian rebels’ cohesion and effectiveness. “Communications equipment, transport, … medical assistance” [such as ambulances] “relevant to their effectiveness…to allow them to cohere as a unit that can challenge the regime.” The US would also provide small arms and ammunition, and would consider supplying anti-tank weapons, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

Representatives of the US, UK and France are expected to meet SMC military commander Gen. Salim Idriss in Turkey on Saturday, wire reports said Thursday.

The US announcement was made during a week of intensive, high level White House consultations on Syria, including a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and visiting UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It also comes ahead of the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in the United Kingdom next week.

Notably, the United States has briefed Russia on its latest Syria chemical weapons assessment, Rhodes said in the call Thursday. It has also provided the information to the United Nations, which Rhodes said had been unable to get its Syria chemical weapons investigation team on the ground in Syria due to Assad’s obstruction.

The announcement came as the United Nations said Thursday that it assesses 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date.

“We’re at a tipping point” in Syria, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s former top Middle East diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.

Recent gains by Assad forces, backed by Hizbollah, on the ground have thrown plans for transition talks in Geneva into doubt.

“There can’t be any political solution on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room.”

Full White House statement below the jump:

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In shift, Obama’s National Security Council staff step up public case for president’s policies

Exercising the White House prerogative to operate mostly in the dark, President Obama’s National Security Council staff have tended to be seldom heard and seen; but in recent weeks, that’s changed, and the Obama national security staff (NSS) have been making the rounds.

Recent appearances include: top White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan discussing drone strikes at the Wilson Center Monday, top NSS Europe hand Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall talking the upcoming NATO summit at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); a trio of NSC aides led by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the Chicago Council on World Affairs on the summit last week; White House WMD czar Gary Samore talked Iran and North Korea nukes to a Hill audience last week; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough is due to address a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference Sunday. And somewhat unusually, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s travel to Moscow was announced in advance by NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor Wednesday rather than after he got back, as has mostly been the pattern previously.

It’s not clear what exactly accounts for these new and welcome stirrings of openness from the White House–the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden? the US presidential campaign?

Brennan, for his part, told the Woodrow Wilson Center Monday that Obama himself had instructed his aides to be more open about U.S. counter-terrorism policies, including the previously universally known, but not officially acknowledged, U.S. use of drone strikes.

“President Obama believes that—done carefully, deliberately and responsibly—we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security,” Brennan said, continuing:

So let me say it as simply as I can.  Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.  And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.

Whatever accounts for the NSC’s new spirit of glasnost, however, it has apparently come at a cost. Namely, putting the NSC’s usually low-profile top dog Tom Donilon in the cross-hairs of the parody newspaper the Onion, which cites “White House sources” Thursday to report that Donilon has apparently been feeling a bit left out:

According to White House sources, President Obama gently urged his staff Monday to try to include national security adviser Thomas Donilon a little more in the operation of the U.S. government’s executive branch, having observed the senior aide is still struggling to fit in. … Continue reading