Roundup: Obama to Riyadh, Israel DM in front row for Zarif talk

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  • The White House confirmed that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March.
  • Hillary Clinton announces her opposition to new Iran sanctions in a Jan. 26 letter (.pdf) to Sen. Carl Levin.
  • Some 70 House Democrats reportedly sign a letter favoring diplomacy with Iran.
  • Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again” in an interview with Germany’s Phoenix TV.
  • In a shift, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row during Zarif’s panel at the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (photo top right).
  • Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that Iran will host a conference on Syrian humanitarian assistance involving Swiss, Syrian and Iranian officials in Tehran. Last week, Amir-Abdollahian denied an Al Jazeera report that Iranian officials were meeting in Bern with the Syrian sides.
  • Turkish President Abdullah Gul shows daylight with PM Erdogan on Syria policy.
  • GOP Senators say John Kerry expressed frustration with Russia slow-rolling US on Syria.
  • Iran’s top clergy backs Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.

EU, Iran reach agreement on implementing nuclear deal


Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.

Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”

The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.  Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.

“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.

The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.

But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading

White House warns new Iran bill could scuttle diplomacy

The White House, State Department and ten Senate Committee chairs warned on Thursday that new Iran sanctions legislation introduced  by Senator Bob Menendez risks undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran over its nuclear  program.

“We don’t want to see action that will proactively undermine American diplomacy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House Thursday. “We made it very clear to the Senate that it is not the time for new Iran sanctions. We don’t think it will be or should be enacted.”

“New sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” the US intelligence community wrote in an unclassified assessment provided to members of Congress December 10th.

The assessment was cited by 10 Senate Committee chairs in an unusual letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging against new Iran sanctions at this time.

“At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” the ten Senate committee chairs wrote, in a letter to Reid that was signed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-California), Commerce Committee Chair John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Homeland Security Committee chair Tom Carper, Energy Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Health, Education and Labor Committee chair Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Several veteran Hill hands expressed amazement at what one called the “unprecedented” letter by the ten Senate committee chairs, several of whom are Jewish, for publicly countering a fellow Senate committee chair Menendez and AIPAC, which has been pressing members of Congress to back the measure. “The new Senate bill defines parameters for a final agreement with Iran,” AIPAC wrote in a Tweet Thursday.

Sen. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Senate foreign relations panel, on Thursday introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 on behalf of 26 Senators, including several facing reelection races next year. Among the co-sponsors were Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). Continue reading

Russia urges Syria to surrender chemical arms to avert strikes

In a potentially dramatic turn of events, Russia on Monday announced that it would immediately urge Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control as a way to avert U.S.–led military strikes.

“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at an emergency press conference in Moscow Monday, following meetings with Syria’s visiting foreign minister Walid al-Moallem.

Lavrov said he had “already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a quick, and, hopefully, positive answer,’” the Associated Press reported.

“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.

Moallem, speaking from Moscow on Syrian State TV shortly later Monday, said Syria welcomed the Russian initiative. But it was not immediately clear from his reported comments whether “welcoming” the proposal constituted acceptance of it.

“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression,” Moallem was quoted as saying by ITV News.

The surprise turn in developments followed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters in London Monday that Syria could avert strikes only if it agreed to turn over all of its chemical weapons by next week.

“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Monday. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”

“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.

Kerry's remark–subsequently downplayed by State Department spokespeople as merely “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and characterized by another unnamed U.S. official to CNN as a “goof”–was followed by a telephone conversation between Kerry and Russia’s Lavrov Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

The Russian proposal emerged just as the White House is ramping up its public outreach as it presses Congress to vote to authorize the President to conduct limited military strikes to deter chemical weapons use in Syria.

President Obama is scheduled to give a half dozen television news interviews on Monday, and to give a prime time address to the nation Tuesday night at 9pm ET.

U.S. officials reacted to the news out of Moscow with skepticism Monday, suggesting it may be a stalling tactic, but promising to give the Russian proposal a “hard” look.

“Any effort to put Assad's chemical weapons under international control would be a positive step,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said at the department press briefing Monday. But we have “serious, deep skepticism.”

It's “even more important” that the United States doesn't take the pressure off Syria now, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. The Russian initiative is  “explicitly in reaction to [the] threat of retaliation” by the United States.

Notably, amid the official expressions of skepticism, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the White House Monday after a meeting with President Obama, reiterated the conditions under which such a deal might be feasible.

“Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” Clinton said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account.”

Initial reaction from the Hill ranged from cautious to skeptical—but did not entirely shut off openness to see if the Russian proposal pans out.

“While at this point I have healthy skepticism that this offer will change the situation and it will be several days before we can fully determine its credibility, I do know that it never would have been floated if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not approved the authorization for the use of force last week,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said in a statement Monday.

“We shouldn’t get our hopes up too high,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.

(Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, left, prior to talks in Moscow on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press.)

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Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said. Continue reading

Hagel assures Jewish groups on Israel, Iran

Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, met with leaders of several American Jewish organizations at the White House last week in an effort to alleviate any of their concerns ahead of his confirmation hearing, officials and Jewish groups said.

Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee has been scheduled for Jan. 31st.

“Senator Hagel met with the leadership of several major American Jewish organizations at the White House as a part of his ongoing outreach,” an official working on Sen. Hagel’s confirmation told the Back Channel Tuesday.

“He discussed his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, including his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and to sustaining the Obama Administration’s unprecedented security cooperation with Israel,” the official said. “He appreciated the opportunity to have a constructive, informed and wide-ranging discussion.”

The meeting, held at the White House last Friday Jan. 18th, included representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti- Defamation League (ADL), and the AJC, as well as Vice President Biden.

The meeting was “an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion of key issues of importance to all of us.,” a statement from the Conference of Presidents sent to journalists Monday said.

Meantime, a former ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued that allegations that Hagel is “indifferent to Israel” or “soft on Iran” are “false.” Continue reading

Sen. Nelson: Netanyahu raised no concerns about Hagel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised no concerns about President Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, US Senator Bill Nelson said in Israel Tuesday.

Nelson, a Florida Democrat who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said “that Hagel has a record of support for Israel” and he will vote to confirm him, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Nelson spoke on a visit to Israel following meetings Tuesday with Israeli leaders and Israeli intelligence officials about Iran’s nuclear program.

So far, several Democrats on the armed services panel have indicated they plan to back Hagel’s confirmation, including its chair, Carl Levin of Michigan, Jack Reed of Rhode Island—a close Hagel friend—and now Nelson.

Several Republicans have said they have strong concerns about the former two term Nebraska Republican and decorated Vietnam combat veteran. Among them, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the ranking Republican on the armed services panel; David Vitter (Louisiana), Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and Texas’ junior Senator Ted Cruz.

Both former Defense Secretary Bob Gates and ret. Gen. Colin Powell, with wide bipartisan support, issued statements strongly endorsing Hagel for Secretary of Defense on Monday.

Meantime, the Council on Foreign Relations told Al Monitor Tuesday that controversial accusations made by its senior fellow Elliott Abrams in an interview Monday did not represent the views of the institution.

Abrams, the former Bush White House Middle East advisor, called Hagel an anti Semite in an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered. The accusation was widely lambasted on social media sites after the interview aired. Asked by Al-Monitor what evidence he has to support his accusation, Abrams did not respond.

Abrams’ wife Rachel Abrams is a founding board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a Bill Kristol–led, GOP group at the center of the anti-Hagel campaign. ECI previously ran TV ads against President Obama’s 2012 reelection.

“As you may know, the Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional position on matters of policy,” CFR’s vice president for global communications and media relations Lisa Shields told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday. “The views expressed by our more than seventy experts, who reflect a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives, are theirs only.”

(Photo: Democratic Senator Bill Nelson during a debate October 17, 2012. Credit: Reuters/Joe Skipper.)

Bob Gates, Carl Levin endorse Hagel for SecDef

Two key endorsements for Chuck Hagel, who President Obama nominated today for Secretary of Defense, may help ease his confirmation battle. Both Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a key Jewish Senate leader, and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates said Monday they strongly endorsed the choice.

“Senator Hagel is well qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs,” Levin said in a statement Monday sent to reporters as Obama announced the nomination, urging the Senate to promptly confirm his choices.

Levin serves as a kind of unofficial dean of Jewish Democrats in the Senate, and many fellow Jewish Democratic Senators follow his lead on sensitive, Israel-related matters.

“The Armed Services Committee will give prompt and careful consideration to Senator Hagel’s nomination for this critical position,” Levin vowed in his statement Monday.

Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates also endorsed Hagel for SecDef, in a statement emailed to reporters by his former spokesman Geoff Morrell:

I congratulate Senator Hagel on his nomination to be secretary of defense. I am grateful for his willingness to take on this responsibility at a time of great challenges for the Defense Department. While there are issues on which I have disagreed with him, such as the 2007 surge in Iraq, he is a man of complete integrity and deep patriotism. He is also the president's choice. The country and our men and women in uniform would be well-served by his swift confirmation.” – Robert M. Gates

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