US expected to tap Iraq envoy for Cairo

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

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

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

Neither Beecroft nor Jones responded to queries.

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

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

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

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

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

Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks


Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because technically it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have repeatedly said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

U.S. releases funds to Iran as IAEA verifies compliance with nuclear deal


The United States said Thursday that it has released the latest tranche of $450 million to Iran based on verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency this week that Iran is complying with the terms of a six month interim nuclear deal.

The announcement came as US officials said that the US has taken steps to resolve problems Iran was alleged to have had accessing some funds.

“We can confirm that we have taken the necessary steps in all good faith pursuant to the Joint Plan of Action to facilitate the release of certain Iranian funds in the installments agreed,” a Treasury Department spokesperson, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported to its Board of Governors this week that Iran has diluted 75% of its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium since the six month Joint Plan of Action went into effect on January 20th, Reuters reported Thursday.

“Based on this confirmation and consistent with commitments that the United States made under the Joint Plan of Action, the Department of Treasury took the necessary steps… to facilitate the release of a $450 million installment of Iran’s frozen funds,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Thursday.

“As Iran remains in line with its commitments under the JPOA, the the US … will continue to uphold our commitments as well,” Harf said.

Iranian officials, under fire from hardliners suspicious of the nuclear negotiations, echoed the assessment that the six world powers were delivering the sanctions relief promised in the deal.

Majid Takht Ravanchi, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister and nuclear negotiator, told Iran’s IRNA news agency Tuesday that to date, four installments of Iran’s frozen oil sale proceeds have been released to Iran per the deal’s terms, and that the “Central Bank of Iran has no problem in having access” to the funds, IRNA reported  Wednesday.

A fifth installment was expected to be released on Wednesday, IRNA cited Ravanchi.

Under the terms of the Joint Plan of Action, Iran is to receive a total of $4.2 billion in its oil sale proceeds held in foreign bank accounts, delivered in eight installments over six months, based on IAEA verification of its compliance.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif likewise defended the nuclear negotiations this week and said he believed both sides wanted to get a final deal and were negotiating in good faith.

“There is the political will to get an answer,” Zarif told Reuters in Abu Dhabi April 15th.  “The domestic audience will be satisfied if we have a good deal. Of course some people will never be satisfied but that is fine because we have a pluralistic society.”

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers have held three rounds of talks in Vienna this year and are set to begin drafting the text of a final nuclear accord at their next meeting in May, with the aim of trying to conclude an agreement by the July 20th expiration of the interim deal.

Ahead of the fourth round of talks, to be held in Vienna starting on May 13th, experts from Iran and the P5+1 will hold expert-level talks on the sidelines of a NPT Preparatory Committee meeting in New York the first week of May, Zarif said this week.

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

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the veteran U.S. diplomat who helped President Obama open a back channel to Iran last year, will retire from the Foreign Service in October, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

“It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy,” Kerry said in a press statement Friday.

“With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues,” Kerry said. “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Like so many others who worked with him, I have seen Bill Burns as a mentor– [and] have learned so much by watching how he does his job,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter.

Burns, in a letter informing Kerry of his decision to retire in October after 32 years serving 10 US Secretaries of State, wrote that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President….You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.”

Burns, in an interview with Al-Monitor in January, said while reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would be very challenging, it should be achievable.

“The truth is, at the end of the day … if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon … we’ve made clear…we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” Burns said.

“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” he added. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”

Burns is only the second career Foreign Service officer to be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State. He has previously served as US Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, among many other positions in his 32 year diplomatic career.

Sources told Al-Monitor that Burns considered retiring last year, but President Obama personally asked him to stay to pursue the Iran diplomatic channel at a critical moment, which he did.

Diplomatic sources previously considered State Department counselor Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken to be possible contenders to succeed Burns as Deputy Secretary.

(Bottom photo of President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

U.S. expects drafting of Iran final nuclear deal to begin in May


Six world powers and Iran are on pace to start drafting the text of a comprehensive Iran nuclear accord in May, with the aim of reaching a final agreement by the July 20th expiration of the six month interim deal, a senior U.S. official said Friday ahead of the third round of final deal talks in Vienna next week.

“We have set out a work plan on how to proceed to get a comprehensive agreement…and we are on pace with that work plan and look to begin drafting in May,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a conference call briefing Friday.

“All of the parties are committed to finishing within the six-month [duration of the] Joint Plan of Action,” the official said. “I am absolutely convinced that we can.”

“So the real issue is not about whether you can write the words on paper,” the U.S. official said. “It’s about the choices Iran has to make, some very difficult, in order to ensure that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon.”

“They will have to make some significant changes and some significant choices,” the official said. “But the drafting is certainly doable.”

There have been no additional US-Iran bilateral meetings outside of those that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran meetings in Vienna and been announced, another senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Friday.

As to whether it is accurate to detect that US officials are expressing more confidence about reaching a final deal, in particular in the six month time frame without needing an extension since comprehensive deal talks got underway, the second U.S. official affirmed that may be the case.

“I think you’re right to say increasing confidence since the talks started – everyone has kept their commitments in implementing the JPOA, we’re having substantive and detailed discussions about the issues that will have to be part of a comprehensive agreement,” the second senior U.S. official said.

But “we are still clear-eyed about how tough this will be,” the second U.S. official added. “The real question is if everyone is willing to make the tough choices this will require.”

The first two rounds of comprehensive deal P5+1/Iran talks to date, supplemented by intensive expert-level talks, have been used to “to go over every single [element of] a future agreement and to make sure we understand each others’ positions on those issues, both at the macro level and the technical level,” the first senior U.S. official said.

Even the early rounds of comprehensive deal talks focused on agenda setting and “laying the table” for drafting the comprehensive accord have been “quite substantive,” the official said.

“When you lay the table, you get down to…serious issues…and in those discussions, one begins to see areas of agreement and areas where [there are] still gaps that have to be overcome,” the official said.

The official spoke in the wake of the release of reports this week by the former top State Department Iran arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, and a Princeton nuclear expert team, that propose ways Iran could keep but modify key facilities in its nuclear program in a final deal, while reducing international proliferation concerns and extending its nuclear breakout time to between six months and a year. Iran has insisted that it be allowed to maintain a domestic enrichment program and that it would not dismantle key facilities, but has expressed willingness to make modifications to the Arak reactor.

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Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif's team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

Former U.S. negotiator proposes ways to reach Iran nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive nuclear deal by agreeing on Iran’s practical needs for enrichment, which are limited in the near term; as well as on technical modifications that could be made to the Arak reactor and turning the Fordo enrichment site into a research and development facility, former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn writes in a paper to be released by the Brookings Institution Monday.

“I think of the big issues, Arak is the easiest,” Einhorn told Al-Monitor in an interview last week. “Fordo is hard. But the hardest single issue is enrichment capacity.”

Einhorn, in his Brookings paper, “Preventing a Nuclear Armed-Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Iran Nuclear Deal,” released to Al-Monitor in advance, proposes that Iran and the P5+1 define the practical needs for Iran’s civil nuclear program. “Indeed, Iran’s actual need to produce enriched uranium for fueling reactors is quite limited, at least in the near and middle terms,” he writes. “Proposed modifications to Arak [would make it] better for producing medical isotopes,” he said.

Since reaching a breakthrough interim nuclear deal last November, Iran and six world powers have held two rounds of talks to try to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal by the July 20th expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action.

“For the U.S. side,…to get sufficient support domestically and abroad, the U.S. position [on the size of Iran’s enrichment program] will be pretty demanding,” Einhorn, who served as the top State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor until last summer and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.  “If Iran wants to find a way out, I propose the practical needs issue, [which] gives them a narrative that it could explain that it won on enrichment.”

On enrichment, extending Iran’s potential “breakout” time to between six and twelve months in a final deal “could be achieved by limiting centrifuges to between 2000 and 6000 first-generation IR-1 Iranian centrifuges (or significantly lower numbers if more advanced IR-2m centrifuges are included) and reducing enriched uranium stocks, especially at the near-20 percent level,” Einhorn writes in the Brookings “requirements” paper.

“Whatever numbers and combinations [of centrifuges and uranium stocks] are chosen, lengthening the breakout timeline to between six and twelve months would require substantial reductions in current Iranian centrifuge and stockpile levels,” he writes.

On the Arak IR-40, Einhorn proposes that, at a minimum, “changes should be made in the reactor’s design to greatly reduce its production of plutonium, especially to fuel it with enriched uranium and reduce its power level,” he writes. “The best solution would be to convert it to a light water-moderated research reactor, but other options requiring less extensive modification of the reactor are being explored.”

However, “if you can’t get the Iranians to switch [Arak] to a light water reactor, you could limit the power of the Arak reactor” from 40 MW to 10 MW, and instead of natural fuel, feed low enriched fuel into it, George Perkovich, a non-proliferation expert who serves as vice president and director of non-proliferation studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor. “Then [you could] control how long it stays in the reactor, which actually makes better medical isotopes…If you do all these things, it dramatically reduces the amount of plutonium in spent fuel,” to about 6kg a year, Perkovich said.

“That’s a serious impediment to a breakout,” Perkovich said. “That would be less than a bomb’s worth of plutonium produced [a year].”

In addition, Perkovich said, “Any proposed agreement says ‘no reprocessing.’ So the reduced plutonium concentration in spent fuel in a safeguarded reactor is a barrier added to the more fundamental barrier that Iran agrees to fore-go reprocessing and not have a facility for it.”

Can the parties reach a deal by July 20th? Or will they need an extension?

“I think both parties really do have a strong incentive to get it done in six months,” Einhorn said. “I don’t think either party has an incentive to extend it.”

However, he said, while “both sides genuinely want to reach agreement and want to create the perception that agreement is possible…[to] generate momentum, the reality is the substantive positions” are still far apart.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at the conclusion of the last round of comprehensive deal talks in Vienna this month, said reaching a final deal before the July 20 expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action is possible.

“On four topics (Arak heavy water reactor, removal of sanctions, nuclear cooperation and uranium enrichment) we see signs of reaching an understanding which will protect the rights of the Iranian nation and move towards removal of problems,” Zarif told  Iranian reporters in Vienna March 19.

In the next round of talks, to be held in Vienna April 7-9, Zarif said the issues on the agenda to be discussed are “Iran’s access to technology, trade market and banking resources as well as the manner of inspections (of Iran’s nuclear facilities) and the period of time needed for the final phase,” Zarif said, Fars News reported.

The “brinksmanship” in the weeks of negotiations leading up to July 20 interim deal deadline could be useful for narrowing gaps in positions.

“The problem as we get closer to July, is [if the parties need an extension,] then it will be [seen as] a crisis,” Perkovich said.

(Photo of former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn by AFP/Getty Images.)

In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

U.S. suspends Syria embassy operations

The United States announced Tuesday that it has ordered the Syrian government to immediately cease all operations at its embassy in Washington, D.C. and two honorary consulates in Houston, Texas and Troy, Michigan.

Personnel at the facilities who are not U.S. citizens or legal US residents have been ordered to depart the country.

“For three years, Bashar al-Asad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside…and created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Daniel Rubinstein, the new US Special Envoy for Syria, said in a press statement.

“Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Asad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States,”  Rubinstein said.

There are just two Syrian diplomats left at its embassy in Washington, a Syrian contact told Al-Monitor Tuesday, as well as 8 or 9 local employees. The Syrian diplomats in Washington do not have US residency and will have to leave, the contact said. The State Department gave them til the end of the month to depart..

Ayman Midani serves as the honorary consul general of Syria in Houston, Texas. The last Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, departed in December 2011, to become Syria’s envoy to China.

“The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations,” Rubinstein said.

The chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed the expulsions of the Syrian government personnel, and urged the Obama administration to withdraw diplomatic recognition of, and increase pressure on, the Assad regime.

“I welcome this overdue action,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), said in a joint statement.  “But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

“After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said. “The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

We feel that the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is overwhelming — 10,000 children killed, millions of refugees,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a State Department chat with university students on Tuesday.

Meantime, the Assad regime this week signaled that it “plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

US staffs up to pursue intensified Iran final deal talks


Diplomats and experts from six world powers and Iran have staffed up to pursue intensified, almost “constant” contacts to try to reach a final nuclear deal, a senior US administration official said Friday, ahead of a second round of political directors-Iran nuclear talks in Vienna next week. The parties have already agreed that sanctions relief in a final deal would be phased in, step by step, in response to specific action that Iran takes, the official said.

“These comprehensive negotiations will not be done for three days a month by the political directors,” the senior US administration official said. “Our experts have been and will be in constant contact between these rounds.”

“For example, last week, our experts spent a full week in Vienna to talk through various issues at a detailed level and explore options for a comprehensive solution,” the US official said. “When not in Vienna, they are back in capitals communicating with one another and working through various technical issues that are part of the negotiations.”

Lead US negotiator at the talks, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, spoke at length individually with every political director from the P5+1—the US, UK, France, China, Russia plus Germany—this past week, the US official said. Tensions between the West and Russia over Ukraine do not appear to have yet impacted P5+1 co-ordination in the Iran negotiations, the official suggested, saying it was a US hope and priority that it does not.

Former Deputy US UN ambassador Brooke Anderson has joined the US Iran nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor to Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry. Anderson, the former Obama National Security Council chief of staff, will be based out of Brussels full-time to coordinate with European Union negotiators and P5+1 partners and Washington, amid ongoing expert and political level consultations. The US has also added several more experts to its team, and several officials, particularly from the US Department of Energy, will be joining the negotiations in Vienna, the official said.

The US has not had bilateral talks with Iran since their meeting on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks in Vienna last month, the U.S. official said.

To date, Iran and the P5+1 have fulfilled their commitments in the Joint Plan of Action, the six month interim nuclear deal signed in Geneva in November, the US official said. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) recently verified that Iran has diluted half of its 20% stockpile, among other steps laid out in the interim deal, the official noted.

The parties’ ability to reach the interim deal has given then a bit more confidence that they may be able to reach a final deal, she said, adding, however, that there are no guarantees.

With no issue agreed until all the issues are agreed, the final deal talks are like a “Rubik’s cube,” the US official said,  “a puzzle that has to be put together….over the course of the negotiations, until one has narrowed [it] down to the few toughest parts.”

In terms of some of those toughest issues, such as past possible military dimensions (PMDs) to Iran’s nuclear program, and ballistic missiles, the JPOA says that all UN Security Council resolutions on Iran must be addressed before a comprehensive agreement is reached, the US official said. “There are a variety of things in the UN Security Council resolutions, including the issue of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. All of this will have to be addressed in some way.” But the US official did not elaborate on what would constitute satisfactorily addressing the issue. The more that Iran can demonstrate transparency to the IAEA, including on PMDs, the better the odds of reaching a final deal, the official said.

Regarding Iranian enrichment, the US official said while the US prefers that Iran supply its civil nuclear energy program without a domestic enrichment program, “we understand Iran feels strongly” that it should have one. “The JPOA envisions that a domestic enrichment program can be the subject of [comprehensive deal] discussions,” the official said. If all the parties to the comprehensive talks agree, “the program will be quite limited, under heavy monitoring and verification, for very specific purposes.”

Regarding sanctions relief for a possible final deal, the US official said, “we need to understand in great detail how to unwind sanctions, what by the executive branch, what by waivers, what by Congressional action. We are detailing all of that.”

The US, its P5+1 partners and Iran have agreed that “any sanctions relief [in a final deal] should… be phased in…in response to actions that Iran takes,” the US official said.  “It will happen over time, step by step.”

(Top Photo: Secretary of State John Kerry with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman after the P5+1 reached a nuclear deal with Iran in Geneva, Switzerland, Nov. 24, 2013. // State Department Photo. Second photo, former US Ambassador to the UN Brooke Anderson has joined the US nuclear negotiating team as a senior advisor and will be based out of Brussels.)