France gets new Iran negotiator

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When six world powers and Iran next hold nuclear talks in Vienna June 16th, France will have a new top negotiator.

France’s longtime lead negotiator, political director Jacques Audibert, was tapped in May to head the French Presidential (Elysee) diplomatic office on G-7/G-8 and multilateral issues.

France’s new political director and top negotiator at the P5+1 talks with Iran will be Nicolas de Rivière, who most recently served as France’s assistant secretary of UN affairs. De Riviere previously served as France’s deputy permanent representative at the UN in NY, among other diplomatic assignments.

The switch in France’s Iran team is not the only personnel change on the horizon, as negotiators seek to reach a final Iran nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is due to step down in October. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who led a US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year, has also announced he will retire in October.

Technical experts from the P5+1 and Iran began meeting in Vienna Wednesday for two days of expert level talks (June 5-6).

Meantime, lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is in Brussels Wednesday as part of President Obama’s delegation to the G-7 Leaders’ Summit, the State Department said.

US officials say they are working to try to reach a final deal by July 20th. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday.

But one western diplomat from a member of the six negotiating powers told Al-Monitor Wednesday that he thinks an extension is probably likely to be needed.

“The end of July comes very, very soon,” the western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “We definitely prefer to have a strong, clear, sustainable long-term agreement, even if we need a few months more, than what would be considered as an insufficiently good…agreement in the next six weeks.”

The western diplomat described the final deal talks to date as “serious” and delving deeply into the details. But the last round of talks in Vienna in May, while “serious,” were “also difficult,” he said. “We still have wide differences on some of the fundamentals of the talks, including mainly Arak and uranium enrichment capacity.”

The Iranians “have to make a clear political choice, which is really a kind of prerequisite for a long-term and sustainable agreement,” the diplomat said.

(Top photo: Russia’s Sergey Ryabkov, France’s Jacques Audibert, USA’s William Burns, China’s Wu Hailong, Britain’s Robert Cooper and EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton meet in Geneva, in December 2010. Photo by Anja Niedringhaus, AFP/Getty. Second photo: French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Nicolas de Rivière, UN director at the French foreign ministry. Photo by French UN office.)

Negotiators at halfway point, move to drafting phase of Iran deal talks


Iran and six world powers have advanced through the first phase of comprehensive nuclear talks and are preparing to shift into the next phase of drafting a final deal accord starting at the next meeting in May, negotiators said in Vienna Wednesday.

“We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Vienna Wednesday.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process,” Ashton said, in a statement subsequently delivered by Zarif in Persian.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.”

“I can say we agree on 50 to 60 percent of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse,” Iran’s Zarif said in a subsequent briefing to Iranian journalists Wednesday.

The next meeting, to be held in Vienna starting May 13th, will be open-ended, diplomats said. The U.S. delegation plans to be there at least a week, a senior U.S. official said, and Zarif suggested it could last up to ten days.

“For all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority,” the senior U.S. official said. “Everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.”

“I think…both Zarif and Ashton are trying to manage expectations, because in the past few days, there have been rumors about the parties starting the drafting of the final agreement as of May, and this created the illusion of agreement,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor from Vienna Wednesday.

The parties “wanted to make sure [to explain that there remain] central differences,” Vaez said. “Although progress has been made on some issues, there are still some sticky points.”

Until this round, the parties “have not got into the bargaining stage that much,” Vaez said. “Mostly they have been focused on providing justifications for each side’s positions and learning more about why each side takes their particular position.”

“From this point on, [they] get into the real bargaining part of this process,” Vaez said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday, described the final deal negotiations as at the “halfway” point, and said he remained “agnostic” about whether they would result in an agreement.

“I’m not expressing optimism, one side or the other,” Kerry said in response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “I remain agnostic and questioning, even as we are just about halfway through.”

“I talked with our team on the ground in Vienna yesterday,” Kerry said. “They are having serious, expert, in-depth, detailed conversations about what it takes to achieve our goal. I mean, of proving that this is a peaceful program.”

The recent rounds of negotiations “were substantive and useful,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “But needless to say, there is still a long way to go. We are working hard.”

(Photo: Final round of Iran comprehensive deal talks in Vienna Wednesday April 9, posted by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf to Twitter.)

Deal could double Iran breakout time: ex-US official

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Washington, D.C.__ A former senior Obama Administration official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that the deal proposed to Iran by the P5+1 countries in Geneva last weekend would “double Iran’s breakout time.”

“That means it would take Iran twice as long” to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl told the committee. “That is meaningful. The deal puts firm restrictions on Iran building fuel assemblies for the Arak fuel reactor.” It would “increase the inspections regime. [It] serves US and Israeli interests.”

Kahl testified that under the deal presented by six world powers to Iran at the end of a three day meeting in Geneva last weekend, Iran would suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize its 20% stockpile, refrain from building fuel assemblies at the Arak reactor and from installing new centrifuges, allow more inspections of nuclear facilities, as well as restrict the growth of its 3.5% stockpile.

In return for Iran suspending those activities for 6 months as part of the first phase of a two-part deal, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including on the auto, gold and petrochemical industries, and access to approximately $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad.

The sanctions relief envisaged in the first phase of the deal involves “nothing permanent if the Iranians reverse course,” Kahl, now associate professor at Georgetown University, said. “Nothing [in it] guts the oil and banking sanctions,” which would be subject to reaching a comprehensive agreement that the parties aim to negotiate during the six month first phase.

“The bigger risk is to escalate the sanctions at a sensitive moment of diplomacy and watch diplomacy careening off the cliff,” Kahl warned.

An Israeli official said Wednesday, however, that the Israeli government assessed that the measures proposed in the phase 1 deal would lengthen Iran’s breakout time by only a few weeks, and would potentially offer Iran many billions of dollars more in sanctions relief.

But an analysis by former weapons inspector David Albright shared with Kahl calculated that removing Iran’s 20% enriched uranium increases the amount of time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons grade uranium for one weapon from 1.3-2.3 months to 3.1-3.5 months, Kahl said.

The House Iran hearing came as the Obama administration mounted a full court press to lobby Congress against moving new Iran sanctions legislation now as negotiations with Iran make headway.

American, European and Iranian negotiators said significant progress was made at three days of talks in Geneva November 9-11th, but it would take at least another meeting to close an agreement. A new meeting between the P5+1 and Iran, at the political director level, is scheduled for next week, November 21-22.

Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with members of the Senate Banking committee behind closed doors Wednesday to press for a delay in legislation under consideration by the panel to tighten loopholes in existing Iran sanctions.

Advocates of increasing the sanctions now say they would increase western negotiators’ leverage and keep psychological pressure on Iran’s leadership, as well as deter foreign companies looking for a wink to resume business with Iran. But US negotiators insist new sanctions now, when Iran is trying to negotiate a deal, would backfire, and risk Iran retreating from the policy of engagement promoted by the new Hassan Rouhani administration and his foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

New sanctions now could “wind up setting us back in dialogue that has taken 30 years to be able to achieve,” Kerry said as he arrived at the Senate Banking committee Wednesday. “What we are asking everybody to do, is calm down. Look hard at what can be achieved, what the realities are.”

Western officials say that the six powers achieved consensus on a draft proposal that was presented to Iran’s Zarif only in the last hours of the meeting in Geneva. French foreign minister Laurent Fabius raised objections to the text Kerry had been negotiating with Zarif at a meeting hosted by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Geneva Friday.

Though US President Obama and French President Francois Hollande, in a phone call Wednesday, stressed their joint support for the unified P5+1 proposal,
French ambassador to Israel Patrick Maisonneuve told a press conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday that “all of the world powers that negotiated with Iran in Geneva fell in line with the French position,” Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

American diplomats–excited about the first sustained, direct US-Iran negotiations in thirty years, and concerned about opposition to a deal from Congress, Israel and Sunni Gulf allies–may have underestimated the ambivalence and even resentment some P5+1 partners may have felt about the five hour Kerry-Zarif-Ashton meeting on a draft accord in Geneva Friday in which other P5+1 powers were not included. Some European allies, led by France, may have sought to slow down what they saw as an overly hasty deal, some sources suggested.

“We are negotiating for more than 10 years,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “I think this complex, sensitive question can afford ten more days of negotiations.”

“We made fantastic progress in Geneva,” he added. “We are not far from an agreement.”

U.S. negotiator to brief Congress on Iran talks

Lead U.S. Iran negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, is expected to brief Congressional leaders and relevant committee chiefs in classified session this week on the talks between six world powers and Iran held in Geneva last week.

In a brief conversation last week that did not delve into the details of the Iranian proposal, Sherman told House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Eliot Engel “that the Iranians appeared serious,” but cautioned that the “devil’s in the details and made clear that the US negotiators will remain clear eyed as they seek to negotiate a deal to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” Engel said in a statement.

“Ranking Member Engel was pleased that the P5+1 reportedly had a productive first round of negotiations with the Iranians in Geneva,” spokesman Daniel Harsha told Al-Monitor Monday.  “But a change in tone is hardly sufficient. He believes pressure brought Iran to the table, and that pressure must be maintained until Iran has verifiably dismantled its nuclear weapons program.“

“The Iranians are masters at negotiation for the sake of buying time,” Harsha said.  “Given that, Ranking Member Engel would only be open to freezing further legislative action on the new sanctions bill if Iran quickly takes a number of concrete and fully verifiable steps to freeze enrichment and other elements of its nuclear weapons program. And he won’t even consider easing sanctions already on the books until Iran verifiably dismantles their program, leaving absolutely no possibility of a rapid ‘breakout.’”

Diplomats from the six world powers and Iran have agreed not to publicize the details of the Iranian proposal presented in two days of talks in Geneva last week (Oct. 15-16).

The new Iranian proposal “appears to have addressed some of our concerns, while leaving others unaddressed,” a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday. “That is what the upcoming talks will further flesh out. …[The process] has begun and now we need to see what the coming weeks will bring.”

Iran's deputy nuclear negotiators for the first time met with their US counterparts one on one for an hour in Geneva, and conducted the negotiations with their P5+1 counterparts in English, facilitating the pace and candor of the negotiations, western diplomats said.

But western diplomats were cautious in characterizing their reaction to the undisclosed Iranian proposal, describing a deal as still likely some ways off.

“We learned more about their program and their concerns,” a senior western diplomat told journalists in Brussels last week, Reuters reported. “However, it doesn't mean we are close to a solution and that we will have an agreement next month.”

We “got more today than we have ever gotten before, but there’s still a whole lot more we have to get,” a senior US administration official told journalists in Geneva last week, calling the process a “beginning.”

Regarding the seemingly lukewarm reaction, the US official said Monday to keep in mind that it’s not in the P5+1’s interest to sound overly enthusiastic about what the Iranians put on the table, “either from a negotiating perspective….or our own domestic politics.”

The administration would be “concerned about not looking gullible to Congress,” agreed Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official now with the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, in an interview Monday. Continue reading

State RUMINT: Malinowski for State DRL, Sewall for CT or PM

Updated: Two more Clinton administration alums may be tapped for senior State Department posts.

The Obama administration may name Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), sources tell the Back Channel. Harvard's Sarah Sewall is also rumored to be up for a top State Department job, with some sources saying the White House has picked her for Counterterrorism Coordinator, others hearing Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

Sewall, a lecturer at  the Harvard Kennedy School and expert in the field of protecting civilians in wartime, did not respond to queries from the Back Channel. The State Department and White House declined to comment on whether the appointment was in the works.

The Back Channel previously heard that the bureau's Deputy Coordinator Anne Witkowsky was also under consideration for the Counterterrorism Coordinator post, which was formerly held by Daniel Benjamin, who left in January to head Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Sewall, a member of the Obama/Biden transition team, previously served in the Clinton administration as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and as the foreign policy advisor to then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, is expected to be nominated to succeed Michael Posner as Assistant Secretary of State for DRL. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Friday.

Malinowski previously served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Continue reading

Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

Continue reading

The rise and fall of Mossad agent Ben Zygier


A month after Australian media first identified “Prisoner X” as Australian-born Mossad recruit Ben Zygier, the Australian journalist who first reported on the Zygier case and his partner have published a joint investigation into how Zygier’s dream-career with the Israeli intelligence service unravelled, culminating with his suicide in an isolated Israeli prison cell in December 2010.

According to the report Monday by Jason Koutsoukis in Australia’s Fairfax media, Melbourne-born Zygier was a passionate Zionist who was recruited into the Mossad in 2003, a few years after he had moved to Israel and had started working at an Israeli law firm. It ended with his 2010 arrest and suicide after Zygier embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized attempt to recruit a Hezbollah source in Eastern Europe and ended up instead allegedly betraying two claimed Mossad assets in Lebanon, according to Koutsoukis’ report.

Zygier’s career with the Mossad began in late 2003, after he responded to a Mossad advertisement that proclaimed “the Mossad is open – not for everyone, but for a few. Maybe for you,” Koutsoukis reported.

By early 2005, after a year of training, Zygier “was ready for his first mission,” Koutsoukis wrote. “He was sent to Europe, where he was instructed to infiltrate companies that had business relationships with countries including Iran and Syria.

“One chief executive of a mid-sized European company with extensive business interests across the Middle East and Persian Gulf – including Iran – confirmed that he had hired Zygier for an accounting position,” the report continues. Zygier worked for the unidentified firm for 18 months.

But apparently his Mossad supervisors were not overly impressed with his performance, and in 2007, to his great disappointment, they ordered Zygier back to a desk job in Israel.

(While Koutsoukis doesn’t identify the firm in Europe where Zygier took a cover job—apparently unbeknownst to the firm–he later reports that Zygier, upon returning to Australia in 2009 to pursue a masters degree, told fellow students that he had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers management consulting firm in Geneva.)

Zygier, apparently in an attempt to impress his Mossad superiors and salvage his intelligence career, embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized, freelance mission to try to recruit an East European man known to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a double agent, Koutsoukis writes. But it all went terribly wrong, when the unidentified Eastern European/Balkan man asked Zygier to prove his bona fides by providing Mossad intelligence on Lebanon. Continue reading

White House names Philip Gordon new coordinator for Middle East, Persian Gulf

The White House on Saturday named Philip Gordon Special Assistant to the President and Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

“Today, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon announced that Philip Gordon will be joining the National Security Staff as Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region,” the White House said in a press statement Saturday. “He will take up his duties beginning on March 11.”

“Phil has been a key member of President Obama’s foreign policy team for the past four years and his work with our European Allies and partners has been indispensable in helping us to formulate policy and address issues around the globe, including Libya, Syria and Iran,” Donilon said in the statement.  “His appointment further strengthens a superb team that includes Puneet Talwar, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq, and Prem Kumar, Acting Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa.”

Gordon has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs since 2009. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is rumored to be in the mix to succeed Gordon as A/S for Europe.
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Gordon takes up his duties as President Obama heads to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan later this month, and days after Iran and six world powers agreed to hold two more rounds of nuclear talks in Istanbul and Kazakhstan in the next few weeks. 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

Appointment news

Updated:
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Several moves afoot among President Obama's top European security advisors and close allies of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Together, sources suggested, they reflect Donilon's increased discretion to make senior National Security Staff appointments in Obama's second term after the move of Denis McDonough to become White House chief of staff, and that he seems inclined to pick trusted associates to oversee some of the most sensitive portfolios.

After four years in Brussels, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder will be named President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Back Channel has learned. The announcement is expected to come as early as this week. Daalder, a former Clinton NSC Europe director and Brookings senior fellow, will head to Chicago in July, when ambassador posts usually rotate.

Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, will join Obama's National Security Staff, administration and diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel, in a senior role overseeing the broader Middle East, at a rank similar to that previously held by Dennis Ross.

Gordon, who has headed the State Department EUR bureau throughout Obama’s first term, will take on a senior NSS coordinator role overseeing the wider Middle East, with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa and Persian Gulf reporting to him, sources said. Gordon did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

Much of Gordon's work handling the State Department Europe portfolio the past four years has been focused on coordinating joint US-European efforts towards the Middle East writ large, including Iran.

(Still to be named: the NSS Senior Director for the Middle East/North Africa previously held by Steve Simon, who has left the White House to head the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Sources continue to hear CSIS's Jon Alterman may be in the running, but that could not be confirmed.)

Administration sources have described Daalder and Gordon (also a Brookings alum) as among a group of trusted allies of NSA Donilon, along with NSS Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

And one diplomatic source said Monday that he had heard that Sherwood-Randall would be tapped to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator on WMD.  (Neither Sherwood-Randall nor a White House spokesperson responded to requests for guidance.) Continue reading