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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Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

Obama officials ask Congress to delay new Iran sanctions


The Obama administration is asking Congress to delay new economic sanctions on Iran in order to give momentum to negotiations on a possible nuclear compromise.

“We think that this is a time for a pause [in new sanctions], to see if these negotiations can gain traction,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the Voice of America Persian Service in an interview Friday.

Members of Congress have “been very effective partners as we’ve tried to approach this negotiation,” she said. “We need them to continue to be effective partners to reach a successful conclusion, and I have trust that they will be.”

Three White House officials—Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, Phil Gordon, the National Security Staff Coordinator for the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and NSS Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs Puneet Talwar – met with aides to Senate leaders on Thursday to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions legislation being considered by the Senate Banking Committee, a Senate staffer said.

Sherman also briefed House leaders earlier this week on her negotiations with Iran and other members of the P5+1 in Geneva last week.

Diplomats from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold another round of negotiations in Geneva November 7-8.

Technical talks involving nuclear and sanctions experts from Iran and the P5+1 will be held in Vienna October 30-31, the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said Friday.

The US team to the technical talks in Vienna will include Sherman’s deputy and top advisor on arms control issues James Timbie, State Department deputy Iran sanctions official Richard Nephew, who previously served at the NSC and Energy Department; and Treasury Department sanctions office chief Adam Szubin, US officials told Al-Monitor. (Meantime, State Department Iran sanctions czar Daniel Fried was in Europe this week for consultations with European counterparts on the EU sanctions regime.) Iran’s delegation to the Vienna talks will be led by Hamid Baidinejad, the Iran Foreign Ministry director of political and international development, Nasim reported, adding that the Iranian team will include legal, nuclear, technical and economic experts.

Israeli diplomats, in Washington for consultations this week, urged their US counterparts to press for a deal that would dismantle as much as possible of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, including its entire domestic enrichment program. They also pressed for no let-up in existing sanctions for nuclear concessions that Iran might agree to make in an interim deal, including suspending 20% enrichment.

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Al-Monitor Tuesday. Iran is entitled to “civilian nuclear energy. …The only request, is that they buy nuclear fuel from” abroad.

Iranian diplomats told their P5+1 counterparts at meetings in Geneva this month that they would be willing to discuss various elements of Iran’s nuclear program to find a compromise to address international concerns, but did not offer a very concrete, detailed proposal, several diplomats said.

The P5+1 have asked Iran to bring a more concrete proposal to the next meetings, the diplomatic sources said.

Sherman, in her VOA interview, also seemed to express regret for her comments at a Senate hearing last month that deception is in the Iranian DNA.

“I chose some words in response to a member of the Senate that I think caused some concern,” Sherman told VOA’s Siamak Dehghanpour. “And I think that those words spoke to this deep mistrust that President [Barack] Obama [has] discussed… We have to really work to get over that mistrust, and I think these nuclear negotiations will help us to do so.”

Netanyahu meets Obama amid US Iran diplomatic push

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House Monday for a meeting and working lunch with President Obama and Vice President Biden, amid intensifying US-Iran diplomacy to resolve the nuclear dispute.

“We have to test diplomacy” with Iran, Obama said in remarks with Netanyahu at the White House Monday. “We, in good faith, will approach that. They will not be easy.”

“The Prime Minister and I agree that it is imperative that Iran not possess a nuclear weapon,” Obama said.

Netanyahu said he appreciated President Obama’s assurance that Iran’s words “have to be matched by real actions,” and urged that sanctions pressure not be relieved until there would be verifiable progress toward dismantling Iran’s nuclear program.

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Netanyahu’s White House meetings come ahead of his speech to the United Nations Tuesday, in which he vowed to deliver “facts” and straight talk to counter what he called Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s “smile campaign” in New York last week.

The Israeli leader’s first visit to Washington in 17 months comes as a new CNN/ORS poll shows that an overwhelming number of Americans–76% –back direct US-Iran negotiations to see if a diplomatic resolution can be found to address concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. The poll, conducted September 27-29, 2013, showed that large majorities of both parties–87% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans—favor the diplomatic outreach, while only one in five–21%–oppose it.

It also comes as former Israeli Defense Force (IDF) intelligence chief Amos Yadlin urged Netanyahu to face facts of his own, and recognize that even an imperfect Iran nuclear agreement is better than the status quo.

“Iran may well reject the Prime Minister’s demands (zero enrichment, removal of all the enriched material from Iran, the suspension of activity at the underground facility in Fordow and the reactor at Arak),” Yadlin wrote in a memo published Sunday (Sept. 29) by the Israeli think tank he now heads, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) . “Nonetheless it is important to define an agreement that even if containing a certain risk that Iran could break out to military nuclear capability either under or in violation of the deal, still represents a significantly smaller threat than the dangers inherent in the status quo, which is likely leading to an Iranian bomb or to a military move to forestall it.”

Yadlin also suggested that there were signs in the statements made by American and Iranian leaders last week–including in Obama himself announcing his phone call with Iran’s Rouhani from the White House Friday–that there had been coordination on the the broad terms for a potential deal worked out in advance.

“Anyone examining the statements made by the US and Iranian Presidents could justifiably assume that there was prior coordination in the terms used about the principles of an expected agreement,” Yadlin wrote. “On the one hand, Iran’s right to develop sources of nuclear energy, and on the other hand, transparency and verification as well as ‘significant steps’ that have not been specified by either side.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to CBS’s 60 Minutes Sunday, said he thought an Iran nuclear deal could be reached quickly, even in less than three to six months, if Iran is seriously prepared to make a reasonable deal.

“If it is a peaceful program, and we can all see that – the whole world sees that – the relationship with Iran can change dramatically for the better and it can change fast,” Kerry said.

“If the United States is ready to recognize Iran’s rights, to respect Iran’s rights and move from that perspective, then we have a real chance,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos Sunday.

Zarif is due to meet negotiators from the P5+1–the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia–in Geneva October 15-16 to lay out a more detailed proposal for resolving the nuclear issue within a year, beginning with a first step confidence building proposal.

(Top photo: Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama meet with their advisors at the White House Monday, by the Israeli embassy. Second photo: Netanyahu shakes hands with President Obama at the White House Monday, by the Associated Press. Cartoon of Netanyahu arriving at the UN amid signs of a party by Haaretz.)

Obama tasks Congress with Syria vote: ‘We should have this debate’

As the world braced for imminent action, President Obama announced on Saturday that he had decided to seek Congressional approval before carrying out military action in Syria to punish and deter alleged chemical weapons use.

“After careful deliberation, I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets,” Obama announced from the White House Rose Garden Saturday.

“But having made my decision..I’m also mindful that I’m the President of the world’s oldest constitutional democracy,” he said. “And that’s why I’ve made a second decision: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people’s representatives in Congress.”

The stunning decision, carried live by Syrian State television, was reportedly made by the president only on Friday evening, just hours after the White House released a declassified U.S. intelligence assessment laying out the evidence of the August 21 nerve gas attack, and Secretary of State John Kerry delivered a call for action.

“History would judge us all extraordinarily harshly if we turned a blind eye to a dictator’s wanton use of weapons of mass destruction against all warnings, against all common understanding of decency,” Kerry said at the State Department Friday.

Indeed, most of Obama’s national security cabinet reportedly only learned of Obama’s reversal at a White House meeting Saturday morning, during which some of them were said to have argued against it. Among other reasons, because Congress is on recess until September 9th. But Obama stood firm, and as Kerry said on Sunday, he’s the president.

The White House on Saturday submitted a proposed draft Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Syria to Congress. Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said he would convene the Senate to consider the authorization on Wednesday (Sept. 4). House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), however, said he would not call the House back into session early from recess, and House members would consider the motion following their return September 9th.

President Obama reserved the right to act even if Congress votes against the measure– but he did not explicitly vow to do so.

“While I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective,” Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden, said. “We should have this debate.”

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Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

The National Security Council's top advisor on Iran and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar is expected to be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, two US officials tell Al-Monitor, although a third official said the nomination announcement is not imminent.

Talwar did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Tuesday.

A former Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for the Middle East under then Chairman Joseph Biden, and one of Biden’s closets foreign policy advisors, Talwar has served as the NSS senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states since the beginning of Obama’s first term, during which time Vice President Biden has served as the Obama administration’s point-man on Iraq.

Talwar has also been deeply engaged on US Iran policy and participated in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as a senior member of the U.S. negotiating team.

The State Department political military affairs chief job, currently headed by acting Assistant Secretary Tom Kelly since the departure of Andrew Shapiro, involves decisions on U.S. arms sales and security assistance issues. Talwar has long worked on the region that accounts for the lion’s share of US arms sales and military assistance, especially in recent years, one official noted.

It’s not entirely clear who might succeed Talwar as NSS senior director for Iran and the Gulf if the nomination proceeds. But sources say new US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been a bit frustrated that several appointments were made by her predecessor Tom Donilon shortly before he left, and she would like to bring in some people who have more NSC experience.

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US Deputy NSA Blinken's unannounced visit to UAE to discuss Egypt


US Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken traveled to the United Arab Emirates earlier this week for consultations with Emirati, Iraqi and other Gulf country officials on Egypt, the White House told Al-Monitor.

Blinken in the UAE met with “counterparts from the UAE and neighboring countries to discuss recent developments in the region,” National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden told Al-Monitor in response to a query Wednesday. “I don't have any further details for you on those discussions.”

Blinken was accompanied on the trip by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran  Brett McGurk and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Amos Hochstein.

Among the issues discussed in the meeting were UAE and Gulf assistance to Egypt in the wake of the ouster of Mohammed Morsi.

Egypt’s Central Bank said Thursday that  it had received $3 billion in aid pledged by the UAE in the wake of Morsi’s ouster, Reuters reported.

“The UAE said last week that it would provide Egypt with $1 billion as a grant and a $2 billion loan in the form of an interest-free central bank deposit,” Reuters wrote.In addition, “Saudi Arabia pledged $5 billion and Kuwait, $4 billion.”

A significant portion of the pledged aid from the Gulf states is in the form of oil, petrol and diesel, rather than cash, a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Continue reading

US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks

The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

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Tom Donilon to step down, Susan Rice to succeed as NSA

President Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will step down, to be succeeded by UN envoy Susan Rice, the White House announced Wednesday. President Obama will nominate his former White House advisor and humanitarian expert Samantha Power to be the next US envoy to the United Nations.

The announcement comes in advance of President Obama’s first meeting with China’s President Xi, in California later this week. Donilon has made the US “rebalance” to Asia a focus of his tenure as Obama’s top national security advisor, and traveled to China late last month to discuss the agenda.

The Back Channel reported May 3rd that Donilon was expected to step down this summer, several months earlier than previous reports had suggested. Among his considerations, associates said, was that he had been doing this for over four long years, and family medical issues. (Sources say that Donilon’s wife Catherine Russell, former chief of staff to the Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, is recovering from a medical issue. Obama earlier this spring nominated her to be his next ambassador at large for global women’s issues.)

White House associates say Rice and Power, like Donilon, are trusted Obama advisors who have been in his inner circle of national security confidants going back to his 2008 presidential campaign. As such, sources anticipated a relatively smooth transition and a good deal of continuity on major foreign policy issues.

“I think the interesting thing about this transition is it’s clearly been planned for a long time,” former White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel Wednesday. “It’s not a shake up. It’s a transition in which Susan and Sam can hit the ground running because they have been doing it for four years.”

“The key to a successful national security adviser is having the President's trust,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told the Back Channel Wednesday. “That is what made Donilon such a power player and the same will be true of Rice, who has long been close to Obama.”

It remains to be seen if the elevation of Power to the UN and Rice's move to the White House will shift the Obama administration's thinking towards greater Syria intervention, given their reported roles inside the Obama inter-agency debate advocating for NATO intervention in Libya, and Power’s expertise in humanitarian intervention and as the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide.

“Power and Rice are strong and principled advocates of atrocity prevention, but are not the irresponsible liberal interventionists often portrayed,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who advised the Obama 2008 campaign on foreign policy said Wednesday. “They are close to President Obama on foreign policy and will face the same limits and obstacles constraining the current policy on Syria. I wouldn't expect them to rapidly push for a military intervention which the administration views as unlikely to succeed.”

“My sense is, everyone in the government, including Susan and Sam, is going to keep pushing for a better outcome in Syria,” Vietor said. “No one is satisfied with the outcome on the ground.”

“It’s wrong to assume that means military intervention,” he added. “We have a lot of considerations to work through. What you have got are people who have been in the government who understand the role that US diplomatic leverage and military power plays, and how that can often be the single most important thing we’ve got. So it’s certainly a significant set of changes. But it remains to be seen what it leads to in Syria.”

Donilon had been looking for the right time to announce his departure, to make the transition as smooth as possible, aides said. “Tom been thinking about this for a long time,” Vietor said. Rice and Donilon will work together over the next few weeks to manage the transition. Donilon is expected to depart mid-July.

While the administration's re-balance to Asia as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq were top Donilon policy priorities, his imprint as a manager of the policy process is perhaps more significant. Donilon was deeply involved in the day to day running of the inter-agency process, some say with a heavy hand, as well as discipline. Aides say he should be credited with running a national security process in which disparate views were heard and fought over internally, but where notably few high-level cabinet fights erupted publicly.

“Tom Donilon has been an outstanding national security adviser. As an inside manager of the President's national security policy process, Tom succeeded in leading a collaborative and insightful process in which all players – from top to bottom – worked together rather than against each other,” Ivo Daalder, outgoing US ambassador to NATO and a friend of Donilon, said.

“It's a feat very few of his predecessors were able to accomplish,” continued Daalder, who is co-author of one of the defintive studies on the role of the national security advisor, In the Shadow of the Oval Office. “He truly managed a 'no drama' process – one that produced very effective advice for the President and ensured smooth implementation of the President's decisions.” Continue reading

Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading