EU's Ashton hopes Iran nuclear talks resume soon

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Lead international negotiator Catherine Ashton said Tuesday she looks forward to resuming Iran nuclear talks as soon as possible after the appointment of Iran's new nuclear negotiating team, following the inauguration next month of Iran president elect Hassan Rouhani.

Ashton spoke after a meeting in Brussels Tuesday of political directors from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China.

“We met to consider our position and to look at how best we can move forward in trying to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue,” Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, said in a statement.

“Of course we wait now for the team to be appointed by Iran,” she said. “We very much hope that will be soon and we look forward to meeting with them as soon as possible.

The six powers are likely to ask Iran when talks resume in the fall to provide a substantive response to an updated confidence building proposal they presented at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February, a senior US official told Al-Monitor last week.

“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 senior US official said, stressing the proposal is open for negotiating, but they were reluctant to  negotiate among themselves before hearing back from the Iranians.

“The onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

Some Iran experts are urging the Obama administration to be preparing a bolder offer, or at least to offer further clarification on a “road map” for resolving the nuclear dispute, beyond the confidence-building measure, which is focused on curbing Iran’s 20% enrichment.

“The administration ought to be going into these talks with an open mind and thoughts about how the negotiating process can be most usefully advanced,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Monday. Continue reading

Obama statement on Egypt avoids 'coup'

President Obama refrained from declaring the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi a military coup in a statement issued Wednesday after White House consultations with his national security aides.

“No transition to democracy comes without difficulty, but in the end it must stay true to the will of the people,” Obama said in the statement.

“The United States continues to believe firmly that the best foundation for lasting stability in Egypt is a democratic political order with participation from all sides and all political parties —secular and religious, civilian and military,” he said.

Obama statement “expressing deep concern over the military's decision to remove President Morsi tracks that [U.S.] legislative definition of a coup very closely, and I can't help but think that's deliberate,” Tamara Wittes, a former senior State Department Middle East official who heads the Brookings Saban Center, wrote. “The law in place is designed to give coup-established governments a strong incentive to return their countries to democratic rule — aid can resume as soon as new democratic elections are held.”

Meantime, Egypt's Al-Tahrir newspaper had a message for President Obama on its front page Thursday:

Top Photo: President Obama, photographed on Wednesday meeting with his national security team to discuss the situation in Egypt. To his left, new National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Attorney General Eric Holder, CIA Director John Brennan, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Jake Sullivan, national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. To Obama's right, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, DNI James Clapper. Secretary of State John Kerry called into the meeting by phone, State Department officials said. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

Second photo of Al-Tahrir front page from the Newseum, posted to Twitter by @Jfdulac.

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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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Martin Indyk: ‘We’re at a tipping point’ in Syria


Doha, Qatar__“We’re at a tipping point in Syria,” Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and one of the architects of Middle East policy under former President Bill Clinton, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Doha Tuesday.

“I don’t know what President Obama will decide,” Indyk, speaking at the conclusion of the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, said, regarding reports the White House is meeting this week to consider possibly coming out in support of lethal aid to the Syria rebels.

“I think the objective now is to help the opposition stave off further defeats. The Iranians and Hezbollah have intervened in a dramatic way with troops and weapons and this has led to a total imbalance on the battlefield. This is external intervention to try to ensure Assad survives.

“There can’t be any political solution based on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, who served as the Clinton era envoy to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said. “So we’re at a tipping point. We’ve got to tip the balance back the other way. […] Whether the British and French with our support, or our lead, it doesn’t matter, [if] that staves off defeat. That’s urgent.”

But any decision to provide lethal aid and organizational support to the Syrian rebels “has to be part of an overall strategy which begins with an effort to achieve a political solution,” Indyk continued. “Geneva provides a framework for that. We can’t get to Geneva if Assad thinks he’s winning on the battlefield.”

“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room,” Indyk said. “If [the conflict is] stalemated, [it’s more likely] you can get a political agreement.”

Indyk said he doesn’t believe Russia gave a green light to the recent Hezbollah actions in Syria.

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White House meets on Syria as allies seek support for arming rebels

Doha, Qatar__ Secretary of State John Kerry has postponed a planned trip to the Middle East for urgent consultations on Syria at the White House and with US allies this week. The intense consultations come as the Obama administration, under pressure from the UK and France amid regime gains on the ground, could decide this week whether to approve sending lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, the Associated Press reports Monday.

President Obama on Monday will hold a principals committee meeting with his national security cabinet on Syria, a western diplomatic source tells Al-Monitor. Kerry is also scheduled to hold a video conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, according to his State Department schedule.

The flurry of high-level meetings come as the UK and France, which pushed for the expiration last month of a European Union arms embargo on Syria, have been seeking Obama's vocal endorsement to arm and advise the Syrian opposition military. The UK plans to put the matter to a vote before British parliament.

The possible US pivot comes as the Syrian military, backed by Hezbollah, has been reversing opposition gains on the ground in Syria, and as the US has sought to see Assad's forces set back ahead of possible transition talks in Geneva next month, analysts said.

“There's developed an orthodoxy within key Washington circles that, in order to effect a political solution, you need to change the military balance on the ground,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha center, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Qatar Monday.

The core reasons for the turn are allied pressure, including the allegations of possible chemical weapons use; the fall of Qusair (see Ali Hashem's first-hand account) and the signs of setback for the opposition; and the Syrian opposition National Coalition saying it is not coming to Geneva without more support.

The US has also over the past few months had more time to vet Syrian rebel groups, analysts said, and has somewhat increased its comfort level with Syrian opposition military leader Salim Idriss.

Kerry urges support for Mideast peace bid


US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled his determination to launch a new Middle East peace bid in the coming days, warning the time to get a two state solution is drawing to a close. But he offered few details of how new peace talks might avoid the pitfalls that have led earlier efforts to collapse.

“What happens in the coming days will dictate what happens in the coming decades,” Kerry told a Washington conference of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Monday, as the State Department said that Kerry planned to make his fifth trip as Secretary to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next week.

“Time is running out,” Kerry waned. “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”

Kerry, in his first major speech to a US Jewish audience since becoming Secretary of State, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas peace partners, who shared his commitment to reach a negotiated two state solution. While saying he understands why many in the region are skeptical the time is right to achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Kerry warned of the consequences of delay.

“Before anyone gives up hope, you have to ask if you are willing to live with a permanent conflict,” Kerry said. “A realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side.”

Many plugged-in US peace process veterans said they had little understanding of the details of Kerry’s initiative, while some Israeli observers expressed wariness that a fragile new peace effort, without the proper ground-work, was liable to collapse, potentially leading to violence.

Kerry “seems to think just talking to leaders and making speeches will make things happen,” a former senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said Monday. “He shows no appreciation for creating conditions for talks, not has he shown any understanding of the need to build a team or a coalition. He confides in nobody, has no real staff that is empowered, no conceptual thinkers under him, and is starting to appear desperate. That said, I sure hope he knows what he’s doing. Based on what I’ve seen, I have no reason to believe so. ”

The Israeli leadership wants peace, but “may be split between those who don’t believe the other side can deliver, and those who in addition are not yet ready [or] willing to put on the table what they know they’re going to do one day,” one Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said Sunday.

“What they also want,” the Israeli official continued, “is a way to legitimately blame the Palestinians and not get blamed if it doesn’t happen now, which, to be fair, most think it won’t.”

“My guess is [Kerry] has no illusions about Netanyahu, and he knows President [Obama] will not expend heavy duty capital to rein him in,” one veteran Israeli peace activist, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

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Who Is Saeed Jalili?


Four days after entering Iran’s presidential race, Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Wednesday.

‘We had a useful discussion. It was not a negotiating round,” Ashton said after the dinner meeting, which was held at Iran’s consulate in Istanbul. “We talked about the proposals we had put forward and we will now reflect on how to go on to the next stage of the process. We will be in touch shortly.”

The negotiators’ meeting comes as six world powers have more or less put Iran nuclear diplomacy on hold while Iran’s presidential campaign, scheduled for June 14th, plays out.

Jalili’s entrance into Iran’s presidential race highlights some of the complications western negotiators confront in securing a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

While Iran’s nuclear file–as lead US negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told a Senate panel Wednesday– is controlled by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, not the Iranian president, the deep fissures that have roiled the Iranian regime under the polarizing Ahmadinejad presidency have greatly complicated international negotiators’ task by making internal Iran consensus that much harder for Tehran to achieve.

Jalili, 47, a trusted Khamenei aide who has served since 2007 as the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) — the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor–has managed to largely bypass the bitter feuds that have polarized Iran’s ruling factions, analysts and associates observe. As a candidate who may be able to unite key conservative factions, a Jalili presidency potentially offers the prospect of a more consolidated Iranian leadership, which might be able to muster internal Iranian consensus if the Leader decides to make a deal, some analysts suggest.

But Jalili’s elliptical negotiating style and somewhat retro worldview, while no doubt reflecting the milieu and instructions given from the Supreme Leader, also magnify the extreme difficulty of negotiating with an Iranian regime that is so isolated from and mistrustful of the outside world.

“I think he is the anointed one,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst at the Brookings Institution Saban Center, told Al-Monitor. The regime “may test run it, see how he [does], if anybody else appears to take off.”

While Jalili has developed the reputation in some Iranian circles of being a not very effective international negotiator, Maloney said, “what is interesting is that Jalili managed the Ahmadinejad-Supreme Leader divide astutely. He has not been forced to side with one or the other.”

Current and former Iranian associates describe Jalili as a pious and intelligent man, who has earned the trust of the Supreme Leader, but shown a disinclination to deeply engage with the modern world.

Born in 1965 in the Iranian holy city of Mashhad, where Supreme Leader Khamenei is also from, Jalili is an Iran-Iraq war vet who joined Iran’s foreign ministry around 1990. (Earning his PhD from Iran’s Imam Sadeqh University, Jalili wrote his doctoral dissertation on the prophet Mohammad’s diplomacy.) He worked in the 1990s as an official in Iran’s foreign ministry, and then in 2001 joined the Supreme Leader’s office. In 2005, he became an advisor to new Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since 2007 he has served as the Iranian equivalent of National Security Advisor and Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator.

“Before he became secretary of the SNSC, he worked in the office of the Supreme Leader for some time, in the inner circle, in the international affairs department,” an Iranian analyst and associate, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “He is liked [there] as somebody who is down to earth, who has a simple life, very honest. He is the prototypical revolutionary whom they like within the clerical system; they [and the Supreme Leader] trust him in a way.”

But part of Jalili’s appeal for Khamenei and the clerical circles is a kind of self-selecting isolationism and retro way of looking at the world, that seems somewhat stuck in the 1980s, when Iran fought an eight year war with Iraq, the Iranian analyst observed.

Though Jalili served for over a decade in Iran’s foreign ministry, he never served abroad, and allegedly turned down an offer to serve in Latin America, the associate said. And while Jalili worked for a time in the Foreign Ministry’s Americas’ bureau, he is not believed to be able to speak much English, the lingua franca of international diplomacy which is spoken by many Iranian diplomats, though his associate said he believes Jalili can read and understand it.

“That’s the real problem,” the Iranian analyst said. Figures like Jalili who have ascended to the top of Iranian conservative political circles in recent years “are not stupid. They are intelligent. But they have not been socialized in the way that global politics works.”

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Iran, Jordan call for Syria transition talks


Iran’s Foreign Minister, on a rare visit to Jordan Tuesday, called on the Syrian regime and opposition to enter talks on forming a transitional government.

“We have called for talks between the Syrian government and the peaceful opposition to form a transitional government,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said at a joint conference with his Jordanian counterpart Nasser Judeh in Amman Tuesday, Agence-France Press reported.

“We have advised the Syrian government to sit with the opposition but not with Al-Nusra,” Salehi added, referring to the Syrian offshoot of Al Qaida in Iraq, that has been listed as a terrorist group by the United States but been among the more militarily effective anti-Assad militias on the ground in the conflict.

Salehi’s two day visit to Jordan, a close US ally, comes amid a flurry of intensified regional and international diplomacy on the Syria conflict, and as the United States and Europeans consider stepped up measures to aide the Syrian opposition on the ground while pushing the two sides into transition talks.

“We’re working intensively with a range of partners to strengthen the Syrian opposition and help shift the balance on the ground, which is essential to any chance of shifting Asad’s calculus,” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns said in a speech at Princeton University Saturday.

Secretary of State John Kerry was in Russia Tuesday for meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to try to find “common ground” on Syria. Kerry is due to meet with Jordan’s Nasser Judeh in Rome on Wednesday.

Salehi, meantime, was scheduled to travel on to Damascus later Tuesday for a meeting with Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, IRNA and AFP reported. Qatari Prime Minister Hamad al-Thani, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, is due to make a rare visit to Iran next week.

Iran’s stepped up diplomacy on Syria in the wake of Israeli strikes in Syria over the weekend is part of Tehran’s “hedging” strategy, to ensure “the Islamic Reublic retains influence in Damascus irrespective of he outcome of the civil war,” Iran analyst Suzanne Maloney wrote at the Brookings Institution website Tuesday.

“Iran hopes to preserve at least a vestige of its ally Bashar, but has also sought a seat at the table in shaping post-Asad Syria in any formal regional dialogue,” Maloney wrote. Tehran also has “a genuine national interest in precluding the expansion of Sunni extremism.”

Iran has continued to be involved in a regional dialogue on how to resolve the Syria crisis with Egypt and Turkey, a member state diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told al-Monitor Monday. (Saudi Arabia has refused to attend the meetings of the regional ‘quartet’ because of Iran’s presence, the diplomat said.)

A high level US Defense Department delegation is also currently in Jordan for meetings of the US-Jordan Joint Military Commission, that got underway Monday. Continue reading

Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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White House names Sherwood-Randall new defense/WMD coordinator


The White House last week named National Security Staff Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth “Liz” Sherwood-Randall as the new coordinator for defense and WMD, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

Sherwood-Randall will take up her duties as the first White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control on April 8, the White House said in a March 19 announcement.

The Back Channel first reported last month that Sherwood-Randall may be tapped to succeed WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for the Harvard Belfer Center; and subsequently reported that the defense and WMD portfolios were expected to be combined under the new coordinator position.

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