Khamenei aide Velayati takes helm of Iran think tank

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Little noticed in the flurry of high profile diplomacy that produced a breakthrough nuclear accord in Geneva last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, has been appointed the head of the Center for Strategic Research, the Iranian think tank formerly helmed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Velayati was tapped to succeed Rouhani as head of the Center for Strategic Research, a subsidiary of Iran’s Expediency Council, in November, IRNA reported.

Velayati, who did post-graduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins University, served as Iranian foreign minister from 1981-1997 and as Khamenei’s top foreign policy advisor since then. He has appointed Dr. Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian diplomat and scholar, as his deputy of international studies at CSR, Iranian sources told Al-Monitor Sunday.

Maleki, who served as Iran’s deputy foreign minister under Velayati from 1980-1997 and as a professor and dean at Sharif University, has in recent years been based in Boston as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011-2012) before his return to Iran in 2012.

Iranian sources also said that Dr. Mostafa T. Zahrani, a former Iranian diplomat at the Iran mission to the United Nations in New York when Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif served as Iran’s UN envoy, has been appointed director general of the Iranian Foreign Ministry-linked think tank, the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS), succeeding Mostafa Dolatyar. Al-Monitor could not reach officials at IPIS Monday to confirm.

Velayati, notably, has twice in recent days vigorously endorsed direct one-on-one nuclear talks with the United States and other members of the P5+1.

“Talks can be held separately (with every members of the P5+1),” Velayati told reporters in Tehran Sunday, Khabar Online reported.

“We aren’t on the right path if we don’t have one-on-one talks with the six countries,” Velayati previously told Iranian television last week December 27th. “We have to talks with the countries separately. … It would be wrong if we bring the countries into unity against us, since there are rifts among them over various international issues.”

The United States and Iran have held at least five rounds of secret talks in Oman, Geneva and New York since Rouhani’s inauguration in August to advance a nuclear accord, Al-Monitor first reported last month.

Meantime, in Israel, Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, has joined the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a senior advisor, an official at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs confirmed to Al-Monitor Monday.

Gold, a former Israeli advisor at the Madrid and Wye River peace talks, previously served as a foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu (1996-1997) and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (2002-2004), and as Israeli ambassador to the UN (1997-1999). Born in Connecticut, Gold has headed the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000, and has written several books, including The Rise of Nuclear Iran.

(Photo: In this June 3, 2013 photo, Iranian presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, attends a press conference in Tehran. The 11th presidential election after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution will be held on June 14.)

Top Iran, EU diplomats agree to meet to plan new nuclear talks

Top European diplomat Catherine Ashton has agreed to meet soon with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to advance preparations for resumed nuclear negotiations. The meeting plans come amid unconfirmed Iranian media speculation about Zarif possibly playing a key role in the negotiations–speculation that may be linked to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's expressed interest in having the nuclear negotiations conducted at higher level representation, Iran analysts suggested.

Ashton, in a congratulatory phone call to Zarif on Saturday August 17th, said six world powers “were ready to work with the new Iranian negotiating team as soon as they were appointed,” a press statement (.pdf) from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said. Ashton and Zarif also agreed “to meet soon.”

Western officials said Sunday that Ashton's proposed meeting with Zarif did not indicate in any way whether Zarif was expected to be Iran’s chief interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, succeeding Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that no such decision has yet been made, Iranian media reports said.

American officials, speaking not for attribution Sunday, said they were awaiting the appointment of Iran's new nuclear team, and indicated they were aware of unconfirmed Iranian rumors and media reports that Rouhani was studying transferring Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations who earned his PhD at the University of Denver, forged ties with many US national security experts when he served in New York, and his appointment as foreign minister has been seen in the West as an encouraging sign. So too has that of outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to become Iran's next chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

Zarif, for his part, demurred in an interview Saturday on whether the nuclear dossier was being moved to his purview, while noting that Iranian President Rouhani had the authority to make such a decision.

“I have not heard anything about this issue,” Zarif told Iran's IRDiplomacy August 17th. “This is a decision that is within the domain of the President’s authority. Nevertheless, considering my experiences in this case, I will make efforts to help in the advancement of this issue no matter what responsibility I might have. But decisions with regard to how we should pursue the nuclear dossier and the form and framework of negotiations are made at the higher levels of our political system.”

Zarif “is a smooth operator, a very clever and successful diplomat,” Gary Samore, former Obama White House WMD czar, told Al-Monitor in an interview earlier this month. “When I knew him, [after Iran indicated it was going to resume enriching uranium after a suspension in] 2005, I engaged in a number of discussions about the nuclear program; he was a very forceful advocate… but that’s fine. He’s more pleasant to deal with.”

“I have seen no indication of a change of substance” in Iran’s nuclear negotiating stance as yet, Samore, now with Harvard's Belfer Center, continued. “The next couple of months are all about process. Will there be some kind of bilateral [US-Iran] channel established, which I think everybody agrees is a necessary condition for achieving an agreement.” 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

Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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White House names Sherwood-Randall new defense/WMD coordinator


The White House last week named National Security Staff Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth “Liz” Sherwood-Randall as the new coordinator for defense and WMD, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

Sherwood-Randall will take up her duties as the first White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control on April 8, the White House said in a March 19 announcement.

The Back Channel first reported last month that Sherwood-Randall may be tapped to succeed WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for the Harvard Belfer Center; and subsequently reported that the defense and WMD portfolios were expected to be combined under the new coordinator position.

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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

Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

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