White House: US not 'urging' Morsi to hold early elections

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The White House on Tuesday pushed back on a report that American officials are urging Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi to call early elections, in response to the largest anti-government demonstrations Egypt has ever witnessed. The comments seem intended to reduce any perception that Washington is trying to dictate a course of action to the Egyptian leadership.

“It is not accurate that the United States is 'urging' President Morsy to call early elections,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in an e-mail Tuesday to Al-Monitor.

“President Obama has encouraged President Morsy to take steps to show that he is responsive to the concerns of the Egyptian people and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process,” Meehan continued.  “As the President has made clear since the revolution, only Egyptians can make the decisions that will determine their future.”

The White House comment, responding to a CNN report Tuesday, didn't rule out that US officials may be discussing the option of early elections with Egyptian officials behind closed doors.

“We are saying to him, 'Figure out a way to go for new elections,'” a senior US official told CNN. “That may be the only way that this confrontation can be resolved.”

President Obama, in a call with Morsi Monday, said the United States does not favor any particular group in Egypt, and stressed only Egyptians can determine their future.

The comments are widely seen in Egypt as a step back from Washington’s past, at least-perceived support for Morsi’s elected, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, Egyptian journalist and Al-Monitor contributor Mohannad Sabry said.

(Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans against him and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a demonstration in Tahrir square in Cairo June 30, 2013. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters.)

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When Iran's Saeed Jalili met one-on-one with US diplomat Bill Burns

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Even as Iran presidential candidate and presumed frontrunner Saeed Jalili has flaunted his anti-US hardliner credentials on the campaign trail, it’s worth noting a less remarked-upon aspect of his professional resume. In October 2009, Jalili became one of the only Iranian officials to meet one-on-one with a US diplomat in three decades.

The meeting, with then Under Secretary of State William Burns, now the US Deputy Secretary of State, took place October 1, 2009, at a villa outside Geneva, on the sidelines of Iran nuclear negotiations with six world powers.

Lead US negotiator Burns and Iran’s Jalili held a “one-on-one sidebar conversation,” a White House spokesman confirmed at the time. “The sidebar occurred at the Villa”–Villa Le Saugy, in the Swiss countryside village of Genthod–during a lunch break in the nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1.

Iran and six world powers announced tentative agreement at the Geneva meeting on a nuclear fuel swap deal that would provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for shipping out most of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium; but the deal later broke down at follow up technical talks in Vienna.

Iran also agreed at the Geneva talks to let IAEA inspectors visit the secret Fordo enrichment facility at Qom, whose discovery the leaders of the United States, UK and France had jointly announced just days before, at a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said September 25, 2009.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that the Iranians agreed to the sit-down with the Americans in Geneva as a tactical gesture, out of concern over the western reaction to the discovery of the Qom enrichment facility, which Iran only hastily declared to the IAEA after it realized it had been discovered. But one Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, said the political decision in Tehran to hold the bilateral meeting with the Americans had already been taken.

Following the Geneva meeting, US envoys subsequently briefed foreign allies “that the U.S. sidebar meeting with Iranian representatives was direct and candid,” according to an October 5, 2009 US diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Manilla that was released by Wikileaks. While “the discussions were a constructive beginning,” the US envoys also relayed, “they must now be followed by positive action.”

“Iranian press gave considerable coverage to the bilateral meeting between [Under Secretary] Burns and Jalili,” another October 4, 2009 US diplomatic cable, sent from the U.S.'s Iran regional presence office in Dubai, noted. “While little coverage went beyond the Department's announcement that the meeting had taken place, Tabnak noted that unlike Iran's previous discussions on the nuclear issue, this time it was face-to-face with the US.” Another Iranian paper described the meeting as “unprecedented,” the US diplomatic cable continued.

Jalili’s deputy, Ali Bagheri–who has lately been accompanying Jalili on the campaign trail–acknowledged the Jalili-Burns sidebar meeting in an interview with Iran’s state television at the time, but stressed the meeting occurred only at the Americans’ insistence.

“The meeting of the US delegation with the Iranian delegation was held at the request of the Americans,” Bagheri, now deputy of the Iran Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s state-run TV, Fars News reported at the time, adding: “Elaborating on the contents of sideline talks between the Iranian and American delegations, Baqeri said that the meeting was held merely within the framework of Iran's proposed package.”

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Jalili seen as front runner as Iran bars Rafsanjani, Meshaei from June polls


Iran has disqualified former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad ally Esfandiar Rahim Meshaei from running in next month’s presidential elections, Iran’s state news television channel reported Tuesday, according to the BBC.

Iran’s Guardian Council has approved 8 candidates to run in next month’s polls, including top Iran nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili–widely seen as the regime's anointed front runner–and former Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati, the BBC report said.

Other approved candidates, according to Fars News and reports on Twitter citing Iran State TV said, are: former Iran parliamentarian Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel–(whose daughter is married to the Supreme Leader's son Mojtaba); Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani–a Rafsanjani ally who serves as the Supreme Leader's representative to the Iran National Security Council; former Iranian vice president Mohammad-Reza Aref and former Iran telecommunications minister Mohammad Gharazi.

“The most important lesson of 2009 was that prevention is better than cure… better eliminating Rafsanjani and Mashaei now, than dealing with them later down the road,” Ali Vaez, Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said Tuesday, referring to the Iranin regime's view of the violent unrest that followed disputed June 2009 presidential elections results, which opposition green candidates and many of their supporters believed were stolen.

“Uncharted waters,” an Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, said of the disqualification of Rafsanjani and tightly circumscribed slate of approved candidates. It's “very complex to predict what comes [next] and [how it] ends up.”

“Jalili is the absolute frontrunner and the one who has gained the most,” the analyst continued. “Unless [the Supreme Leader] issues a special order for [Rafsanjani's] inclusion, which I think he won't.”

Iranian authorities appear to have engineered a slow roll out of the decision–while severely curtailing Internet service over the past week–in order to discourage unrest from supporters of candidates who have been shut out.

The Guardian Council, whose spokesman hinted Monday that Rafsanjani would be disqualified over his age (78), reportedly informed Iran’s Ministry of Interior Tuesday of its decision, and the Interior Ministry is slated to publicly announce the approved slate on Wednesday.

“VPN's down, the Internet's down and it's pouring rain in Tehran and two disqualifications that will have long term consequences for Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times correspondent in Tehran, wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Tehran's quiet, it seems, as Rafsanjani and Meshaei are disqualified.”

Some Iranian analysts speculated earlier this week that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei might contemplate whether to step in and reinstate Rafsanjani’s candidacy in order to try to build legitimacy for the poll and increase voter turnout, but there were no signs yet on Tuesday whether he had any such intention.

“I think the Supreme Leader has decided to take the safe route to have the least uneventful election,” an Iranian academic, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “Although I am still not ruling out his intervention at the last minute to throw Rafsanjani back into the race, though the chances seem low at this point.”

The restricted slate of approved candidates, however, “definitely will exacerbate the fissures within the ruling elites,” he continued.

(Photo: Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani arrives to register his candidacy in Tehran on May 11, 2013. AFP/File, Behrouz Mehri)

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Jalili thrusts Iran nuclear stance to center of presidential race


The presidential campaign of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has thrust Iran’s nuclear policies to the center of Iran’s tumultuous presidential race.

Jalili, in a series of media interviews, appearances and campaign Twitter posts this week, doubled down on Tehran’s hardline stance in negotiations with six world powers, asserting that as president he would “accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

“Our nuclear objective is very legitimate & reasonable: To accelerate developing the peaceful Nuclear program,” Jalili’s official campaign Twitter feed wrote Friday.

Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, then took a swipe at key challenger, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. “Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended,” Jalili’s campaign vowed on Twitter. [We] “shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy.”

Jalili’s message seems notably targeted to one key audience at this point: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran watchers observed.

Jalili’s message of “resistance–political resistance, economic resistance–that feeds the narrative of the Supreme Leader,” said Iran political analyst Yasmin Alem, in an interview Thursday. It may resonate less, however, she added, with the average Iranian voter.

Jalili’s message “might resonate with Khamenei,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Role of the Dice, agreed Friday. “That’s the ‘voter’ whose vote he wants.”

“The fact that [the Jalili campaign writes] it in English is the point: he will be the president who will say this to the westerners,” Parsi added.

“Most of the main candidates”—Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former foreign minister and foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, former Majles speaker Haddad Adel, and Jalili—“are campaigning not for the Iranian electorate’s votes, but for the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, observed Friday. In his opinion, he said, that portends that June 14th will mark “the least democratic election” since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

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Who Is Saeed Jalili?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Daniel Levy: What Israeli elections results mean on global front


Former Israeli peace process advisor Daniel Levy analyzes the global implications of Israel’s election results in a private memo for the European Council on Foreign Relations. The upshot: while the expected coalition is not likely to advance prospects for the two-state solution, the results indicate Israelis are concerned about Israel’s growing international isolation in large part because of the settlements:

“The key lesson for the West, and notably Europe, from the election is that concern over potential international isolation brought on by overzealous right-wing policies towards the Palestinians helped boost the centrist vote,” Levy, the director of ECFR’s Middle East programs, writes in a paper shared with the Back Channel. Yair Lapid, Israel’s second place finisher Yair Lapid:

repeatedly emphasised during the campaign that Israel risked being isolated internationally absent a more credible peace effort. Israel’s rightward drift, then, can be stemmed and even reversed if the West sends the right signals through smart pressure and imposing consequences, rather than evading its responsibility in responding to Israeli violations of international law. How the West approaches that responsibility will go some way to determining whether Lapid becomes the presentable face of a government that continues to deny Palestinian rights and defy International law or recognizes the need to challenge existing policies in this respect. The policy choices that the Palestinians take, of course, are not irrelevant to that equation.

Meantime, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, forced towards the center domestically, may actually try to double-down on Iran, Levy suggests: Continue reading

Israel FM Lieberman resigns

Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has announced his intent to resign a day after he was indicted for fraud and breach of trust, though he’s still expected to stand in Israeli Knesset elections next month, the BBC reports:

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has resigned after being charged with fraud and breach of trust following a long-running investigation.

Mr Lieberman has also resigned as deputy prime minister, and said he would fight to clear his name of the charges. … His resignation comes five weeks before Israel’s general election.

Lieberman,  the leader of Israel’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, had said Thursday that he did not intend to resign, but would make a decision after consulting with his attorneys. Continue reading

P5+1 to propose new meeting dates to Iran

Diplomats from six world powers, following further unpublicized consultations in recent days, have decided to propose to Iran dates for holding a new round of nuclear talks as early as this month, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor Monday. However, a meeting is not expected to materialize before January, they said.

Diplomats from five of the six nations in the so-called P5+1 also agreed in their latest consultation to “update” the package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, the diplomatic sources said, although they downplayed expectations for major changes to the package. In addition, one country, believed to be Russia, had not yet formally signed on to that decision, one expert briefed by the US administration told Al-Monitor Monday, adding that it was his understanding the dissenting nation wanted a more revamped, generous package. That position is apparently now at odds with the consensus of other members of the international negotiating group, comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia.

“Dates in December will be proposed, but I doubt a meeting will materialize before January,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

“The package needs a little bit of updating, as things have evolved since the package was defined, but nothing radical is to be expected,” the diplomat added.

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, asked by Al-Monitor Monday about the consultations, said that a date for the next round of Iran nuclear negotiations “is still under discussion.” There had been no physical meeting of the P5+1 in recent days, he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Saban Forum of Middle East experts in Washington late last month, alluded to intense consultations on the issue of what the international group should present to Iran at resumed nuclear talks.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton told the  Saban Forum November 30th.

The Obama administration had in recent weeks been debating whether the “stop, shut and ship” package presented to Iran last May should be “refreshed” and possibly broadened to what some in the administration called “more for more.” The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the Baghdad 20% proposal to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

But the diplomatic sources told Al Monitor Monday that the changes to the package were not expected to be large scale.

Some Washington Iran watchers expressed concern at the contradictory signals the international group was sending, including regarding their sense of urgency for getting back to negotiations, in light of the fact no new talks had been scheduled more than a month after the US presidential elections, held November 6th. Continue reading

Obama golfs with Bill Clinton, spurring interest from Mideast watchers


Middle East watchers were seized with the news that President Barack Obama was playing golf on Sunday with former President Bill Clinton.

“Pleeeeze offer him role of Mideast Envoy? Pleeeeeze?,” Israeli lawyer and anti-settlements expert Daniel Seidemann wrote on Twitter, in response to a post noting Bill Clinton was among Obama’s golfing companions Sunday.

President Obama “is golfing with former President Bill Clinton, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Virginian gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, according to the White House press office,” White House pool reporter Eric Wasson of The Hill wrote in a pool report Sunday sent to other reporters covering the administration.

“I’m sure 42 will have advice to share on the #MidEast Peace Process,” William Daroff, Vice President for Public Policy at the Jewish Federation of North America, commented on the golf outing of Presidents 42 and 44, reported to have grown closer during Obama’s reelection campaign.

Middle East peace activists have long fantasized about Obama enlisting the popular former President to try to advance the stalled Middle East peace process. (“Bill Clinton is the only guy I can think of who is trusted and liked by all sides,” veteran US foreign policy watcher Steve Clemons told this reporter two years ago. “Employ Bill Clinton as peace envoy,” Bernard Avishai, writing at the Daily Beast, urged anew this month.)

But until recently, with the imminent departure of Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, and the key role Bill Clinton played helping Obama’s reelection campaign, the prospects of such an appointment seemed entirely unlikely. Even now, as yet, there is little sign the Obama administration seems inclined to wade back into a big new Israeli-Palestinian peace push, certainly not before Israeli elections next month. The biggest obstacle: the Israelis and the Palestinians don’t seem to want it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, angry over the United Nations vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s status last week, lashed out at the Palestinian entity Sunday, as Israel announced new settlement building plans and that it was withholding $100 million in tax payments to the PA. “The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Netanyahu charged Sunday.

Given the obstacles the Israeli and Palestinian parties have thrown up to returning to the peace table, “the ultimate question is what does America do,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House on Middle East and Jewish affairs, told the Back Channel in an interview last week. 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