Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

More RUMINT: NSS, NEA, CT

No final decision has been made, one official cautioned. But the Obama National Security Staff’s Prem Kumar, the NSS director for Israel and Palestinian affairs who has served as acting Senior Director for the Middle East North Africa since the departure of Steve Simon, may be promoted to keep the job, officials tell the Back Channel.
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Simon has moved to become the head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Kumar didn’t immediately respond to a query.

Kumar seems to be something of the internal favorite, with several colleagues saying they hope he's chosen to move up. The administration had been mulling a few candidates for the post, however, and may be looking for someone more senior, one source suggested. It's not clear if that thinking has shifted, with the  decision to bring over Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon to take over the former Dennis Ross NSS Central Region portfolio, with Senior Directors for MENA, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia (minus India) reporting to him.

US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is in the running to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, sources said. The well regarded career diplomat previously served as US Ambassador to Pakistan. “Anne is very good,” a former diplomatic colleague said, adding the administration is “leaving no stone unturned” in candidates having been reached out to about the post. Others previously rumored in the mix include US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and NSS Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, but Patterson may have the edge.

Sources suggested that the State Counter-Terrorism coordinator may be hired from within. Among the possibilities, Eric Rosand or Michael Jacobson, two senior advisors in the office, experts in the field suggested. The post was previously headed by Dan Benjamin, who has moved on to Dartmouth. Continue reading

Appointments: Philip Gordon to White House, Jake Sullivan to OVP

As the Back Channel first reported, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon will be taking over the former Dennis Ross “Central Region” portfolio on Obama’s National Security Staff, the Back Channel has confirmed.

Gordon will have the title of NSS senior director for the Central Region–roughly but not entirely parallel to the military's Central Command region–with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa, Persian Gulf, and part of South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, but not India) reporting to him.

Still unclear is if NSS Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia Liz Sherwood-Randall will be named to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator for WMD, or if the post will go to Samore’s deputy Laura Holgate. Sources had previously suggested the post may shift in Obama's second term from a “czar”/coordinator role to that of a deputy national security advisor.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a former US ambassador to NATO, may succeed Gordon as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, officials told the Back Channel. Jen Psaki is heading to State as spokeswoman, Al Kamen reported.

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy planning director Jake Sullivan will succeed Antony Blinken as national security advisor to Vice President Biden, multiple officials said. (H/T @NatSecWonk.) Blinken was made the new principal deputy National Security Advisor, succeeding Denis McDonough, who President Obama last month named his new White House chief of staff.
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Dave McKeon, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff, will head State Policy Planning, a former State Department official told the Back Channel Friday.

Under Secretary of State for Policy Wendy Sherman is staying on, as is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, officials told the Back Channel this week. Continue reading

Waiting games: Iran, world powers play chicken over talks impasse


As Iran continues to balk at scheduling new nuclear talks, six world powers are prepared to wait them out.

European diplomats said this week that Iran was giving them the run-around in scheduling a new round of talks.

In the latest salvo in the blame-game over the delay, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council claimed in a statement Friday that it is actually the P5+1 asking to push back the meeting. Deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid called her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Friday, to ask to delay the meeting ’til February “because the P5+1 isn’t ready,” Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Friday. “Bagheri…asked [the] P5+1 to be committed to the fixed dates in January,” the Iran NSC statement said, implying the six powers were the ones holding up resumed talks.

“Nonsense,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, fired back. “The reason for the hold-up is not the 3+3. We are ready and have been for a long time.”

“We had at least five calls to push for a January 28-29 meeting in Istanbul – they did not accept,” a western diplomatic source told the Back Channel Friday. “Now we offered new dates in February (as Jan. 28 now too late from a logistical point of view) and we hope that they will finally accept so we can leave these games behind and focus on substance.”

Tehran’s procrastination is meant to show that the Western sanctions are not working and they are in no big hurry to get back to talks, Iran expert Trita Parsi wrote at the Huffington Post Thursday. But it may also be driven by Iranian fears that they will be blamed if the meeting fails, over what Iran sees as a paltry offer, he said in an interview Friday.

But the P5+1 is not going to improve the package to reward the Iranians for not coming, diplomats and analysts told the Back Channel, even as Iran is intent on showing the sanctions are not so devastating that they are desperate for a deal.

“In terms of why [the Iranians are] not coming, their objective is to hold out as long as possible, and draw as significant concessions as possible preemptively,” former State Department Iran advisor Suzanne Maloney told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “And I think they believe their leverage increases so long as they show they are not desperate for a deal.”

The Iranian calculation that delay favors their negotiating leverage is likely mistaken, Maloney said.

For the United States and P5 partners, “you sit and wait them out,” Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“I don’t think we improve the prospects for a deal by signaling” we’re prepared to sweeten the deal, she added. “They don’t put a lot of credibility in any signals we send, anyhow.”

While Iranian sources have suggested they are trying to press the P5+1 to put discussion of sanctions relief on the agenda for a new meeting, western diplomats say it’s simply “not true at all” that the group has resisted discussing sanctions relief, a  European diplomat told the Back Channel Friday.

Former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said he expected Iran would likely show up for talks in February or so.

“They have no prospects of getting an improved deal if they don’t come,” Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. And “they run the risk…that pressure will go up.”

The Iranians “want to show they are in no hurry,  that [the pressure] is not working,” Ross suggested. The Iranian calculus is that the longer the talks impasse drags on, and their program advances, “the pressure builds on us,” Ross said. “They believe we don’t really want to use force. …They are playing a very risky game.”

Iranian delay may also be the result of Iranian interest in seeing if Obama’s new national security team modifies US policy towards Iran, Ross said. Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry “in the past has signaled an interest in talking to them,” Ross said Iranian leaders may be thinking. “’Let the new team get on board.’ The truth is–and the Iranians will discover this as well–this is the same president and he is the one who makes the decisions.”

“I will give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat. …The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda here,” Kerry continued. “If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. That is what we are seeking.”

Maloney agreed Washington doesn’t need to go overboard to correct any Iranian misreading of Obama’s new national security team as being averse to the use of force if diplomacy with Iran fails.

“Ultimately, everyone knows that there’s a real military option,” Maloney said. “Sanctions are bleeding the country dry. … We don’t need to grandstand. We have far more leverage than the Iranians do.”

If and when negotiations resume, however, the United States will have to take a strategic decision “at what point are we prepared to pay to play,” Maloney said. “To put significant sanctions relaxation, even temporary relaxation, on the table.”

(Photo: U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.)

Obama urged to step up diplomacy on Iran


A growing chorus of national security experts from across the political spectrum is urging President Obama to pursue bolder diplomacy with Iran, including offering Iran a nuclear deal that would include sanctions relief.

“We know Iran is prepared to make a deal on 20% enrichment,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran advisor, said at a Brookings Institution foreign policy panel Thursday. “It’s low-hanging fruit. … Now is the time to get that deal.”

But getting it, she adds, will require President Obama to “elevate and intensify the diplomatic dialogue,” as well as offer some sanctions relief.

“The incentives must be more persuasive than the paltry offers the United States has made to date, and at least as inventive as the sanctions themselves have proven,“ Maloney wrote in a “memo to the president” published Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

The calls on President Obama to boost his Iran diplomatic game come at a paradoxical moment: Iran diplomacy is stuck, but a deal is in sight. There's increasingly broad consensus on the terms of an interim nuclear deal that many observers believe could be had. And the recently reelected US president, enjoying higher approval numbers going into his second term than throughout much of his first, is widely perceived to have the political space to offer more carrots if it would clinch a deal.

The uncertainty is Iran. Western negotiators are discouraged by the recent difficulty in getting Iran to even agree on the date and venue for resumed nuclear talks with the P5+1. Though consultations continue, no agreement on a new meeting date had been firmed up as of Thursday, American and European diplomats said.

“Tehran was asking [the] P5+1 about their new package prior to meeting,” former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossein Moussavian told the Back Channel Thursday. The “P5+1 was not ready to reveal [it] before the meeting. Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail and as always Tehran would be blamed.”

Perhaps defensive about their perceived stalling on new talks, Iranian officials signaled they were trying to set the agenda for the new meeting. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Barbara Slavin reported for Al-Monitor Jan. 14th.

“I think we sometimes read too much into Iranian foot dragging,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Back Channel. “Anyone who’s spent time in Tehran traffic or dealt with Iranian government agencies knows that efficiency and promptness are in short supply, especially on such a sensitive issue in which there may not exist an internal consensus.”

Reflecting the discouragement of American officials at the delay, he added: “When interested parties can’t agree on a date or location for a negotiation, it doesn’t portend well for the negotiation itself.”

That familiar and frustrating dynamic is in part what is driving a growing number of diplomats and policy analysts to urge Obama to take a less politically cautious approach, by signaling Iran that the United States is prepared to sweeten the deal, in return for greater Iranian transparency and inspections.

Two dozen former diplomats and experts, including former ambassadors Tom Pickering and James Dobbins, urged Obama “to direct your team vigorously to pursue serious, sustained negotiations with the Iranian government on an arrangement that guards against a nuclear-armed Iran,” in a Dec. 20th letter, organized by the National Iranian American Council and the Arms Control Association.

“Iran has insisted on two benefits from a deal: sanctions relief and nuclear enrichment,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at The Atlantic this week. “An agreement is more likely if these issues are addressed with a generous offer.”

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Bloomberg: Offer Iran nuclear deal with right to enrich

Bloomberg View editors propose a list of ways President Obama can “remake the world” in 2013. Among them, they say: offer Iran a deal that would allow it to conduct 3.5% enrichment for energy purposes, in exchange for tighter IAEA monitoring and verification:

On Iran, the U.S. should continue to lead the global sanctions effort. Yet it should simultaneously reopen the door to a deal under which Iran complies with International Atomic Energy Agency demands on monitoring, access and information, and halts nuclear fuel production — with the exception of enriching uranium to the maximum 3.5 percent level that is required to fuel civilian power stations, a level of enrichment that’s a red line for Iran. A fully monitored Iranian low-enrichment program entails risks and may not satisfy the government in Israel. But it has as good a chance of blocking Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon as airstrikes, with fewer risks and unintended consequences.

The emerging consensus?

Earlier this month, Jean-David Levitte, the former diplomatic advisor to France's hawkish former Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozky, also proposed offering Iran a last-ditch, take it or leave it deal that would allow it to enrich to 3.5%, Jim Hoagland reported at the Washington Post last week (Dec. 28): Continue reading

Diplomats mull refreshing Iran nuclear proposal ahead of new talks

Washington and five world powers are considering offering Iran a refreshed proposal that could include limited sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, Iran analysts and western diplomats briefed on the consultations said this week.

Diplomats rom the P5+1 are expected to hold a new round of talks with Iran next month, following informal contacts this month between European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her deputy Helga Schmid, and their Iranian counterparts, the sources said.

Western policymakers “recognize they need to include some sanctions relief,” in the reformulated proposal, Trita Parsi, an Iran analyst with the National Iranian American Council, told Al Monitor Thursday. “But there’s a problem with sequencing, and questions about how to stop, freeze, shut, ship out.”

Given many US sanctions on Iran are legislated by Congress, and not solely under the discretion of the executive branch to lift, Washington will be looking to the Europeans for options for limited sanctions relief, Parsi said.

“We recognize that the Iranians need something more with which they can sell a deal at home, and we will expect real change on the other side,” the Guardian’s Julian Borger cited a European official in a report published Thursday. “It is about getting the sequencing right.”

Western diplomats see a few month “window”–from the US presidential elections Nov. 6 until some time in the spring–in which to try to negotiate a deal, Al Monitor‘s Barbara Slavin reported this week. Western diplomats and analysts suggest the timeline may be constrained, both because of wide anticipation of renewed pressure from Israel for military action early in the new year, as well as Iran’s leadership preparing for Iran presidential elections in June.

“The American administration is essentially looking at a window of immediately after the US presidential elections until March of next year, when the Iranians have their new year and after that, presidential elections,” Parsi said. “Before then, something positive needs to happen.” Continue reading

Former top US diplomat Jeff Feltman meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader


Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.

Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.

American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.

Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.

Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”

“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.

Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”

But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.

And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.

The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program. Continue reading

Dennis Ross to JTA: No “split” with Obama

Former White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross has denied a report that he is distancing himself from President Obama’s Middle East policies.

“The idea of trying to get a sense that there is a split with the president is completely untrue,” Ross told the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) Tuesday.

Ross stepped down from the White House in December 2011 after serving three years in the Obama White House and returned to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The Washington Institute does not allow employees to work for political campaigns, and he has run out of leave he can take from the Institute while serving in the administration, he told JTA.

The Daily Beast reported Sunday that Ross’s absence from the campaign was a sign of his distancing himself from Obama’s Middle East policies that would be noted by pro-Israel American voters.

Ross told Al Monitor by email Sunday that such an interpretation was “spinning.”

Indeed, he continues to advise the White House and National Security Council on Iran policy. “I’m asked to give my advice from time to time [to the White House], and I give it,” he further told JTA. “I’m supportive of the president.”

“The one thing Israel cannot be or should not be is a partisan issue,” Ross told JTA. “Anyone who wants to turn it into a partisan issue is not helping Israel.”

(Photo: President Obama with Dennis Ross, third from right, in 2010. Pete Souza / The White House)