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.”

Some urge U.S. to pursue bigger nuclear deal with Iran

With Iran nuclear talks on hold until after the August inauguration of Iranian President-elect Hassan Rouhani, some U.S. national security experts are urging the Obama administration to pivot from trying to get a small nuclear deal with Iran, to going for a more comprehensive deal.

“Going ‘Big for Big’ now potentially gives Rouhani something substantial to use to claim he got the P5+1 to recognize Iran's ‘rights,’ something his predecessors didn't get, and thus perhaps help him build an elite consensus around a nuclear deal,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Thursday.

“We should move now to presenting an endgame proposal,” former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross wrote in the New York Times this week (June 25).  “One that focuses on the outcome that we, the United States, can accept on the nuclear issue.”

Negotiations over the past year between six world powers and Iran have focused on trying to get Iran to curb its 20% uranium enrichment in exchange for limited sanctions relief. (See the most recent P5+1 offer to Iran here.)

But Iran, at talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan in April, has said that it wants assurances that it will receive recognition of its right to enrich and the lifting of major US and European banking sanctions in exchange for stopping its 20% enrichment work and continuing to convert its 20% stockpile for medical use.

Rouhani, speaking at his first press conference following his win in Iran's June 14th presidential polls, said that Iran would not agree to suspend its lower level 3.5% uranium enrichment, as it did when he led negotiations with three European powers from 2003-2005. But he did not rule out a halt to Iran’s 20% enrichment, and signaled that Iran may be willing to offer greater transparency of its nuclear program to assure the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it wasn’t diverting material for a nuclear weapon, in exchange for having its “rights” recognized.

While one U.S. official indicated the argument for pivoting to a comprehensive proposal was getting a new hearing in the Obama administration, U.S. officials wouldn't comment if they thought that position would prevail.

“The P5+1 is consulting on what the next steps should be in this process,” Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Staff, told Al-Monitor Thursday.  “I would note, however, that Iranian officials have indicated they will not be ready to resume talks until the new President is sworn in in early August.”

Some US partners in the so-called P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany—however, have expressed wariness at the idea of putting forward any kind of end-game ultimatum to Iran. “After a ‘last chance’ offer, [then] what?” one western official, speaking not for attribution, said earlier this month. Continue reading

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

New report outlines containment strategy if efforts to prevent Iran nuclear weapon fail

President Obama has repeatedly declared that his policy is preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. A new report by a former Obama Pentagon official, to be released Monday by the Center for New American Security, argues prevention should be the US policy, but that the United States needs to develop a containment strategy if prevention fails.

Among the key points the report makes is that resort to force in the event diplomacy is deemed to fail could itself trigger Iran’s determination to produce a nuclear weapon—a decision that the US intelligence community this year assessed Iran’s leadership had not yet made.

“Even an operationally effective strike would not, in and of itself, permanently end Iran’s program,” the report’s lead author, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, told Al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.  “A strike might substantially degrade Iran’s near-term capability to produce nuclear weapons, but it would almost certainly increase Tehran’s motivation to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.”

Iran might respond to an attack by leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and substantially decreasing cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. “Such a move would complicate the international community’s ability to detect Iran’s efforts to rebuild its program,” Kahl said.

For these reasons, Kahl argues, force should only be used if other options for halting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions fail, if there is clear evidence that Iran is moving toward a bomb, and if every effort has been made to build international support for military action by seeking a diplomatic solution.

Outlining a Plan B containment strategy in the event prevention fails is not without political risks, however, Kahl acknowledged, while emphasizing he is no longer a member of the Obama administration. (Kahl, who served as DASD for the Middle East from 2009 until 2011, is now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at CNAS. He co-authored the new report If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear Armed Iran, with Georgetown graduate student Raj Pattani and CNAS researcher Jacob Stokes.) But the strategic risks of failing to prepare contingency plans would be more dangerous, Kahl said.

“If the administration were seen to be exploring a Plan B in the event that prevention fails, it might create the false impression that they were secretly planning to ‘accept’ a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kahl said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“At the same time, there are also substantial risks associated with sticking our collective heads in the sand,” he continued. “The failure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be bad, but the failure to be prepared for that possibility would be even worse.”

“One of the most important roles a think tank can play is to ask the questions that cannot be asked inside the government,” Kahl said. “I believe, in general, that it is important to plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the outcomes we desire.”

Asked to explain why the new report is not in essence arguing the US can live with a nuclear Iran, Kahl responded: “‘Live with’ makes it sound like it would be ‘no big deal’ to simply accommodate a nuclear-armed Iran. That is not the right way to think about it, and it is definitely not what the report argues.” Continue reading

Buzz on Obama 2.0 Middle East team

Turkey's President Gul attends a meeting with U.S. Congressmen and U.S. ambassador to Turkey Wilson in Ankara

With President Obama expected to name more cabinet picks next week, including Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, speculation has begun to turn to who will fill out senior and middle ranks of his second term Middle East team.

Among the questions affecting the transition shuffle is whether acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones will be formally nominated for the post under Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry, or, as seen as more likely, whether someone new will be tapped.

Jones, a career foreign service officer, is, like Kerry, the child of US Foreign Service parents, who spent much of her childhood abroad. A former Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (2001-2005), Jones came out of retirement in the private sector (APCO Worldwide) to assist in the Near East bureau in 2011. She assumed the Acting Assistant Secretary job for the bureau after Jeff Feltman retired to take the number three job at the United Nations last May, but has not been formally nominated for the job.

Department sources said that some State rank and file officers are troubled that the Benghazi investigation resulted in the impending departure of Jones’ deputy, Raymond Maxwell. A career foreign service officer tapped as the DAS for Libya and the  Maghreb in 2011, Maxwell had been scheduled to retire this past September. He stayed on however after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel to try to get the Maghreb shop, devastated about the loss of their friend and colleague, through. The perception among some in the rank and file is that Jones let Maxwell take the fall, while escaping blame herself, in part because of her long professional relationship with Tom Pickering, the veteran diplomat who chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board investigation, department sources who declined to speak for attribution said. Jones and Maxwell did not immediately return requests for comment. A former official subsequently told the Back Channel that Jones is definitely planning to leave.

If Jones moves on, among those rumored to be under consideration to helm the Near East bureau, officials said, is Puneet Talwar, who has served as the Obama administration National Security Council Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Talwar, the former top Iran and Iraq advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under then SFRC chairman Joe Biden, is also said to be under consideration to become national security advisor to  Vice President Biden. (Current Biden national security advisor Antony Blinken is expected to get a promotion in the new term: among the posts he is discussed for, Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, or US Ambassador to the UN, if Susan Rice is named National Security Advisor.) Continue reading

Israel not ‘merely bluffing’ on Iran strike threat, ex-Obama official says


A former senior Pentagon official says Israel is probably not bluffing in its latest saber rattling on Iran.

“I think it is more likely Israeli leaders are preparing the Israeli public for a strike, and creating a narrative for the international community that diplomacy and sanctions have failed and thus Israel has no choice,” Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East from 2009 to 2011, told Al Monitor Tuesday in an interview on the front page.

“There is clearly a crescendo emerging, and there is a lot of detailed, point-by-point argumentation …laying the foundation for a potential strike,” Kahl said. .”

The Pentagon said Tuesday Israel has not made a decision yet on possible Iran action.

“I don’t believe they’ve made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told journalists at the Pentagon Tuesday, Reuters reported. “With regards to the issue of where we’re at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate.”

But Israeli leaders are preparing the Israel public for a possible attack on Iran in September-October.

Tel Aviv designated 60 parking garages as bomb shelters Wednesday, amid defensive preparations for possible counterattacks, the Jerusalem Post reported Wednesday.

Israel appointed a new homeland defense chief Tuesday. Ex-Shin Bet chief Avi Dichter was unanimously approved by Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s cabinet in a Tuesday night vote. Dichter was formerly a professional soldier in the elite Israeli commando unit,the Sayeret Matkal, with Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Dichter now holds the key ninth vote in previously reportedly evenly divided ‘Octet’ that will vote if it comes to it on the action.

“Despite Obama’s existing promises to use all means, including military action, to prevent an Iranian bomb, I think Netanyahu and Barak have convinced themselves that they cannot sub-contract out their security on this issue to any US president,” Kahl said.

“At the end of the day, the Israeli leadership is building the case that they can trust no one but themselves on this issue,” he added. Continue reading

Panetta to Netanyahu: US “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period”


The United States will use all means to ensure that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Israeli leaders Wednesday.

The United States “will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, period,” Panetta said at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Wednesday “We will not allow them to develop a nuclear weapon, and we will exert all options in the effort to ensure that that does not happen.”

The Pentagon chief is the latest senior Obama official seeking to reassure Israel, amid mounting concern in Washington that Israel is losing patience with the U.S. approach and may move to strike Iran this fall, I report in a piece on the front page.

“The problem we face is, to the Israelis, it looks like we are dithering and that we are going to keep on dithering until they lose their opportunity to act,” said Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in an interview with Al-Monitor shortly after his research organization held discussions with former members of Israel’s strategic dialogue. “That is not confidence-building for the Israelis.”

“The US administration’s attitude is, we’ve got to wait to see if [the sanctions are] working, Clawson said. “On sanctions, … the big question is what political impact they have, not what economic impact they have. It’s hard to know why the Iranians show up for negotiations unless sanctions are responsible.”

Three sets of high-level six-nation nuclear talks with Iran this past spring have failed to date to narrow differences on a possible confidence-building measure that would end Iran’s higher-level 20% enrichment. Washington will not agree to another P5+1 political directors meeting with Iran if there is no serious prospect of progress toward an agreement, sources told Al-Monitor. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and chief Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili are due to confer this month to see if there’s a basis for further negotiations.

American diplomats said, however, there is significant value to the diplomatic channel despite the lack of progress to date.

“My feeling is it’s very, very important … to see if there is some give in Iran positions,” former US Ambassador to Iraq Jim Jeffrey said Tuesday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “As we go down to the wire, there is some hope for that particular channel.”

Meantime, some Israeli analysts continue to believe Netanyahu will heed the advice of his military and intelligence chiefs who are warning against unilateral Israeli action.

“The chances for an Israeli strike are very low, given the objections inside the security establishment,” Noam Sheizaf wrote at Israeli online magazine +972. “I think that Netanyahu is now trying to negotiate an American promise to attack by a certain date in 2013. An American led attack would eliminate the risk of political fallout resulting from a military failure, and save Netanyahu the need to fight with the entire security establishment.”

American defense experts are not convinced the threat of an Israeli strike has receded.

“Israeli anxiety and [the] risk of [an Israeli] Iran strike [are]  real, but [Israeli] impatience [is] also meant to press the administration in the wake of the Romney trip,” former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl wrote on Twitter.

(U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak (front, R) greet Israeli soldiers after a joint news conference during a visit to the Iron Dome defense system launch site in Ashkelon August 1, 2012. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool.)

Obama campaign aides portray Romney foreign tour as lightweight

Obama campaign advisors set out Monday to cast GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s upcoming foreign tour as a series of offshore fundraisers that lack much in the way of substance.

“We in the United States, Britain and NATO have agreed to a plan to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014,” Michele Flournoy, the Obama campaign’s top foreign policy advisor and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told journalists on a call arranged  by the Obama for America campaign Monday.  “The transition process is already underway.”

“Gov. Romney has articulated opposition to that timeline,” Flournoy continued. “So  he fundamentally disagrees with our British friends.”

Romney plans to depart this week for the UK, where he will attend the London Olympics, and meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Then he will travel to Israel and Poland, his campaign said. “He is really abroad to learn and to listen,” Romney policy director Lahnee Chen told reporters on a conference call, the AFP reported.

Robert Gibbs, Obama campaign senior advisor, portrayed the Romney itinerary as lightweight compared to candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 world tour in which he traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, as well as Germany, France and the UK. Obama “made it a priority to visit and talk with our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait,” Gibbs said. “It was important during the trip to meet servicemen and women, as well as consult commanders in the region to get a sense of the situation on the ground.”

On Iran, which is expected to be a major focus of Romney’s discussions with Israeli leaders, “all we have gotten from Romney is tough talk,” said Colin Kahl, who served as Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, on the campaign call. Continue reading

Colin Kahl, Brent Scowcroft, Andrew Parasiliti, Seyed Mousavian on how to close a deal with Iran

Al Monitor‘s front page today is teeming with several high-powered original pieces and interviews with policymakers on Iran, Syria, and Egypt:

To close the deal and advance the negotiations, the P5+1 could recognize Iran’s right to enrichment in the context of Iran being a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and freeze all pending sanctions on Iran. Additionally, the P5+1 might request a good-faith strategic pause in enrichment while Iran resolves outstanding questions about its nuclear program, which would lead to the removal of those related UN sanctions. …  Third, the P5+1 could offer a roadmap for lifting US and EU sanctions in return for Iranian cooperation on its nuclear program. …

Kahl: It would be helpful to give Iran a better sense of what they would need to do to get a delay of oil sanctions. And what’s the road map for eventual resolution of the nuclear issue. It is appropriate to focus on interim steps to build confidence and make important progress on issues like 20 percent enrichment, but it would also be good to make sure these steps are nested within a broader, more explicit framework that outlines the ultimate path ahead for an agreement that addresses remaining international concerns …

We have probably reached a point where we should put more of our cards on the table, both through ongoing P5+1 talks and through a bilateral U.S.-Iran conversation. The problem is, thus far, the Iranians have not been willing to meet with the US bilaterally.