US, Iran hold ‘intensive, useful’ talks as negotiations intensify

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Washington, D.C.__ U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiators have held two days of “intensive.. useful” talks, but gaps still remain, Iranian officials said Tuesday.

The talks, lasting 12 hours over two days in Geneva, were “intensive…but useful,” and “held in a good atmosphere,” an Iranian diplomat told Al-Monitor after talks ended Tuesday. “Gaps are still there. Consultations will continue.”

The US-Iran meetings “were business-like, and we covered all the issues that we have been discussing so far in Vienna,” a second Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “The exchange helped us better understand each others’ positions.”

“After these meetings in Geneva and bilateral meetings with the French, Russians and the Germans in the next few days, we hope we will be better prepared to start the talks next week in Vienna,” the second Iranian official said.

Iranian negotiators are due to hold a bilateral meeting with French counterparts in Geneva on Wednesday, and with Russia in Rome on Thursday and Friday. Iran will hold a bilateral meeting with Germany’s political director in Tehran Sunday, ahead of the next round of final deal talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Vienna June 16-20.

The US delegation to Geneva, led by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, has not yet publicly commented on the bilateral consultations with Iran, which were held at an undisclosed location. (Journalists in Geneva said they believed the talks were being held at Geneva’s President Wilson hotel, where the US delegation was thought to be staying, but the hotel would not confirm that.)

State Department and European Union spokespeople stressed that the series of bilateral meetings underway this week were all in support of the comprehensive deal negotiations being carried out by the P5+1 under the coordination of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. The talks are now intensifying, they said, as the parties aim to see if they can reach a final accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or will need to be extended for up to another six months.

“The E3/EU+3’s diplomatic efforts to reach a comprehensive solution are now intensifying,” Michael Mann, Ashton’s spokesman, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “They have always taken place at different levels and in different formats and included bilateral meetings in support of the central E3/EU+3 nuclear negotiations led by [High Representative] Ashton.”

“We’ve always said that we would engage the Iranians bilaterally if it can help advance our efforts, of course acting in total coordination with the P5+1 and the EU,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Monday.

“We also said that there was going to be an intensification of diplomatic efforts, particularly getting closer to July 20th,” Harf said “If we’re going to seriously test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution here, we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as possible.”

Meantime, France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius said Tuesday that it would be hard to close wide gaps over the size of Iran enrichment capacity in a final deal by next month.

“We are still hitting a wall on one absolutely fundamental point which is the number of centrifuges which allow enrichment,” Fabius told France Inter radio Tuesday, Reuters reported. “We say that there can be a few hundred centrifuges, but the Iranians want thousands so we’re not in the same framework.”

The timing of Fabius’ public comments, as the US held the first lengthy, one on one talks with Iran since last year, raised some eyebrows in Washington.

Asked about them, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday the focus should remain on the “behind the scenes” talks, not “public demands.”

“Subconsciously, [Fabius] hates when [the] US-Iran meet bilaterally for the usual French reasons,” Jeremy Shapiro, a Brookings fellow in foreign policy studies, told Al-Monitor. “More consciously, he doesn’t trust the US as negotiators and believes he plays an important role in shoring them up and ensuring that they don’t give away the store.”

France’s new political director Nicolas de Riviere will take part in bilateral discussions with Iranian negotiators in Geneva on Wednesday, Araghchi told Iran’s IRNA news agency.

(Photo of Iran’s delegation, including Deputy Foreign Ministers Abbas Araghchi and Majid Ravanchi ,and the head of its expert team Hamid Baeedinejad, heading to the Geneva talks on June 9, 2014, from Iran MFA website.)

US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

The bilateral meetings come as negotiators intensify efforts to see if they can reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or if they will need to extend the talks for another six months.

“We believe we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as we can to test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program,” a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday, noting that the US-Iran consultations “come at an important juncture” of the negotiations, as the “talks are intensifying.”

The meetings are taking place “in the context of the intensified E3/EU+3 negotiating process,” and are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her spokesman Michael Mann said Saturday. Ashton’s deputy, EU political director Helga Schmid will join the US Iran consultations in Geneva, he said, and other bilaterals will follow in the next days.

The US delegation will include, in addition to Burns and Sherman, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, deputy US negotiator Amb. Brooke Amderson, senior arms control advisor Jim Timbie, and NSC senior Middle East advisor Rob Malley, among others, a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

Iran will hold separate meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

20140607-102130.jpgIranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday announced that Iran would hold bilateral meetings at the deputy foreign minister level ahead of the next P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, due to be held in Vienna June 16-20.

Burns led a secret US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year that culminated in the signing of the interim nuclear deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, in Geneva last November. Burns’ secret team included Sullivan as well as then NSC Persian Gulf advisor Puneet Talwar, now assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, who has been succeeded by Malley. Burns has announced he will retire in October. The EU’s Ashton, the lead international negotiator for the six world powers, is also due to finish her term in October, adding impetus to complete the negotiations by then.

20140607-104205.jpgUntil now, the US and Iran have not pursued the bilateral channel to advance final deal talks this year, outside of meetings on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran negotiations in Vienna, US and Iranian officials have said. Notably, unlike the secret US-Iran meetings held in Oman, Geneva and New York last year, the US-Iran meeting in Geneva Monday was announced by both sides.

US officials said Saturday it made sense to bring the bilateral channel negotiators involved in advancing the interim deal last fall into the discussions at this critical time.

“It’s natural for Bill and Jake to join the delegation for this meeting given their history of negotiating with Iran during the Joint Plan of Action talks,” the US official said, referring to Burns and Sullivan. “The elements now under discussion in our negotiations over a comprehensive solution were part of the JPOA. So it just makes sense.”

“If a deal is going to be possible by July 20, the Americans and Iranians have to get down to real, no-kidding bottom lines now, and then go back to the P5+1 with the broad outlines of the deal,” former top Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Saturday. “These bilateral talks will probably determine whether a July 20 agreement is possible or whether we need to work out an extension.”

“The Iranians, in particular, need to come back with much more flexibility on enrichment, and the U.S. team will also need some creative ideas to address Iran’s ‘practical needs’ argument,” Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said, referring to the amount of enrichment capacity Iran will need to fuel power reactors and produce medical isotopes.

Iran, in turn, is concerned about the pace of sanctions relief in a final deal, and has balked at a P5+1 proposal that would unwind sanctions on a phased, step by step basis, over as long as a decade or two. Iran also wants to limit the amount of time it would be required to submit to highly intrusive inspections and transparency measures that it fears could be abused by adversaries to snoop on its defense capabilities.

“The addition of Burns and Sullivan, who were essential to the success of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, and the bilateral nature of the talks suggests something may be up,” a former senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Saturday.

“Together with recent news that [Iran Supreme Leader] Khameini is telling hardline critics to get in line behind Iran’s negotiating team, it seems to suggest that negotiations are entering a very serious phase,” the former American official said.

(Top photo of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in Wiesbadden in February, 2009 by Reuters. Second photo of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva in November, 2013. Third photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi at a P5+1 Iran meeting at the United Nations in New York September 24, 2013.)

US expected to tap Iraq envoy for Cairo

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft is expected to be nominated to be the next US envoy to Egypt, U.S. officials and diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, after the Cairo embassy has been without a full-time U.S. ambassador for several months.

Beecroft, who has served as the top American diplomat in Baghdad since 2012, is a career foreign service officer who previously served as executive assistant to both then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as well as former US Ambassador to Jordan. He has also served at US embassies in Riyadh, Damascus and in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Executive Secretariat.

Al-Monitor previously reported that current US envoy to Jordan Stuart Jones is expected to be nominated to succeed Beecroft as US ambassador to Iraq.

Neither Beecroft nor Jones responded to queries.

The anticipated nominations come as Secretary of State John Kerry informed Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy Tuesday that he will certify to Congress that Egypt is complying with its strategic commitments to the US to counter terrorism and proliferation as well as with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the State Department said in a read-out of the phone call Tuesday. The certification is expected to make way for the US to release Apache helicopters to Egypt.

Kerry, in the call, however, “noted that he is not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Fahmy is due to travel to Washington next week, after a stop in San Francisco. Kerry is also scheduled to meet with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Mohamed Farid El-Tohamy at the State Department Wednesday.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson left Cairo last August, and was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in December. Then-US Syria envoy Robert Ford had been expected to succeed her, but the nomination did not proceed, amid lingering Egyptian suspicions that the US was sympathetic to Egypt’s ousted, elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and associated Islamist factions in Syria’s rebel movement. Ford retired from the State Department at the end of February.

Separately, the Atlantic Council announced Wednesday that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone Jr., will become its vice president and director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Continue reading

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

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.)

Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

Bill Burns on nuclear diplomacy with Iran

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, in an interview (Jan. 14) with the Back Channel posted on the front page, spoke about leading the U.S. effort to open direct talks with Iran, expectations for the upcoming Geneva  II Syria peace talks, and a three decade career in US diplomacy:

With negotiations set to begin in February between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear accord, Burns said President Barack Obama’s estimate of 50-50 odds of reaching an agreement is not bad, considering the context.

“The truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested,” Burns said. “And I think it’s very important for us to test it.”

Full report and interview here. Earlier reports on the US-Iran channel: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran (Nov. 24, 2013);  Three Days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks (January 8, 2014).

Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

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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Indyk staffs up to intensify Israeli Palestinian peace push


US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk is expanding his team as the U.S. prepares to intensify its role facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“We've agreed that those talks should now be intensified and American involvement should be increased to facilitate these discussions,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. (Sept. 30). “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

To that end, he has grown his office's ranks.

Julie Sawyer, a career civil service officer who most recently served as Persian Gulf director on the National Security Staff, has joined Indyk’s team as his traveling senior aide. Sawyer previously served as a Middle East advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sawyer joins a team that already includes deputy envoy and longtime Kerry confidante Frank Lowenstein. Ilan Goldenberg, a former Middle East advisor at the Pentagon and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, has joined the office as chief of staff.

USAID deputy assistant Middle East administrator Hady Amr has joined the envoy’s team as an economics advisor.

Michael Yaffe, a career foreign service officer specializing in Middle East and arms control issues, has joined the envoy’s office to do international outreach with organizations such as the Arab League and the Quartet. Yaffe came to the envoy's office—next to the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau—after serving as a professor and dean at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia center for strategic studies.

The Pentagon has seconded an official to work with the team on security issues. David Wallsh, a Fletcher PhD candidate in Middle East and international security studies, joined Indyk's team last week to work on security issues related to the peace process. In addition, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jon Allen, the former Afghanistan and Centcom commander, has been leading a security dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces to help address Israel’s security requirements, Indyk told the J Street conference.

Indyk’s shop is expected to bring on someone to do outreach to the press, think tanks and the Hill, but sources would not yet disclose who that will be.

The growing ranks signal the seriousness of the negotiations effort, and the commitment to it by Secretary Kerry and President Obama, officials say.

“All core issues are on the table,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Sunday at Bar Ilan University, said negotiations were stuck over the Palestinian refusal to date to recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and to thereby give up the right of return, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly made reassuring comments in a meeting Monday with some members of the Israeli Knesset.

Relatively little has leaked from the talks to date, which have been conducted with little fanfare or publicity in the region since Kerry formally relaunched talks in Washington in July and named Indyk as envoy.

(Photo of US envoy Martin Indyk addressing the J Street Gala September 30, 2013, by J Street.)

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Shortlists: Higginbottom mulled for 2nd DepSecState; Tom Shannon after Brazil

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry are considering nominating State Department counselor and former OMB deputy director Heather Higginbottom as the next Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, several current and former U.S. officials say. The second Deputy Secretary slot, currently vacant, was previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, now Treasury Secretary.

“Kerry recruited Heather from OMB with an eye towards putting her in a confirm-able position soon, but he didn’t want to delay her arrival by several months during his transition period,” an administration official, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Wednesday.

“She started out with the confidence of the Secretary and the President and hit the ground running as Counselor, engaging with senior leaders at the State Department,” the official said. “I think it’s safe to say that this would be a hit across the board given her budget experience and relationships and her understanding now of the Department.”

Higginbottom served in the Obama White House as deputy director of OMB from 2011 to 2013, and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 2009-2010. She previously served as legislative director for then Senator Kerry from 1999 until 2007, and on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She didn’t respond to a query Wednesday.

Tom Shannon After Brazil

With his successor nominated, US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is heading back to Washington soon. While his next interim assignment is unclear, some current and former U.S. officials tell the Back Channel that the Obama administration is considering nominating Shannon to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, possibly in the fall or in 2014. Sources cautioned however that plans could change depending on other moves afoot in the upper ranks of the State Department bureaucracy.

Shannon said he expects to head next to Washington, but couldn’t comment beyond that. President Obama recently nominated Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Liliana Ayalde, a former ambassador to Paraguay and senior USAID official, to succeed him in Brazil.

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When Iran's Saeed Jalili met one-on-one with US diplomat Bill Burns

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Even as Iran presidential candidate and presumed frontrunner Saeed Jalili has flaunted his anti-US hardliner credentials on the campaign trail, it’s worth noting a less remarked-upon aspect of his professional resume. In October 2009, Jalili became one of the only Iranian officials to meet one-on-one with a US diplomat in three decades.

The meeting, with then Under Secretary of State William Burns, now the US Deputy Secretary of State, took place October 1, 2009, at a villa outside Geneva, on the sidelines of Iran nuclear negotiations with six world powers.

Lead US negotiator Burns and Iran’s Jalili held a “one-on-one sidebar conversation,” a White House spokesman confirmed at the time. “The sidebar occurred at the Villa”–Villa Le Saugy, in the Swiss countryside village of Genthod–during a lunch break in the nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1.

Iran and six world powers announced tentative agreement at the Geneva meeting on a nuclear fuel swap deal that would provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for shipping out most of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium; but the deal later broke down at follow up technical talks in Vienna.

Iran also agreed at the Geneva talks to let IAEA inspectors visit the secret Fordo enrichment facility at Qom, whose discovery the leaders of the United States, UK and France had jointly announced just days before, at a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said September 25, 2009.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that the Iranians agreed to the sit-down with the Americans in Geneva as a tactical gesture, out of concern over the western reaction to the discovery of the Qom enrichment facility, which Iran only hastily declared to the IAEA after it realized it had been discovered. But one Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, said the political decision in Tehran to hold the bilateral meeting with the Americans had already been taken.

Following the Geneva meeting, US envoys subsequently briefed foreign allies “that the U.S. sidebar meeting with Iranian representatives was direct and candid,” according to an October 5, 2009 US diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Manilla that was released by Wikileaks. While “the discussions were a constructive beginning,” the US envoys also relayed, “they must now be followed by positive action.”

“Iranian press gave considerable coverage to the bilateral meeting between [Under Secretary] Burns and Jalili,” another October 4, 2009 US diplomatic cable, sent from the U.S.'s Iran regional presence office in Dubai, noted. “While little coverage went beyond the Department's announcement that the meeting had taken place, Tabnak noted that unlike Iran's previous discussions on the nuclear issue, this time it was face-to-face with the US.” Another Iranian paper described the meeting as “unprecedented,” the US diplomatic cable continued.

Jalili’s deputy, Ali Bagheri–who has lately been accompanying Jalili on the campaign trail–acknowledged the Jalili-Burns sidebar meeting in an interview with Iran’s state television at the time, but stressed the meeting occurred only at the Americans’ insistence.

“The meeting of the US delegation with the Iranian delegation was held at the request of the Americans,” Bagheri, now deputy of the Iran Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s state-run TV, Fars News reported at the time, adding: “Elaborating on the contents of sideline talks between the Iranian and American delegations, Baqeri said that the meeting was held merely within the framework of Iran's proposed package.”

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