Roundup: Abbas’s ‘redline,’ McDonough mulled for WH chief of staff

Share

Ahead of new Iran nuclear talks, six powers debate updating package


Diplomats, stressing no date or location has yet been set, tentatively expect six world powers to hold a new round of nuclear talks with Iran in January.

Part of the hold-up is jammed-up calendars—NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels this week, several dozen countries’ top diplomats are due to meet in Morocco on Syria next week (December 12); the IAEA is due to visit Iran next week (December 13).

But a larger reason for the delay and current sense of uncertainty on when nuclear talks will resume is that the six powers that make up the so-called “P5+1” have still not agreed amongst themselves whether and how to refresh the package presented to Iran at the next meeting, diplomats speaking not for attribution told Al-Monitor in interviews in recent days.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton alluded to intense consultations on the matter last week.

“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 said at the Saban Forum of US and Israeli diplomats and Middle East experts last week (November 30th).

Britain’s political director Mark Sedwill and some of his team were in Washington last week for consultations with their American counterparts about that and other matters.

Some diplomatic sources thought that the United States and EU3—the UK, France and Germany–were expecting to reach consensus on the matter among themselves by the end of last week, but there were signs that the issue was still being discussed among the six as of Tuesday.

Clinton repeatedly stressed that the United States believes a bilateral conversation between the Americans and Iranians could help advance prospects for a nuclear deal.

“We have, from the very beginning, made it clear to the Iranians we are open to a bilateral discussion,” Clinton, speaking to the same Saban Forum, continued. “So far there has not yet been any meeting of the minds on that. But we remain open. … But we understand that it may take pushing through that obstacle to really get them fully responsive to whatever the P-5+1 offer might be.”

Al-Monitor has previously reported that the Americans were inclined to urge expanding the offer to “more for more”—while the Europeans had not reached consensus on that as of the meeting of P5+1 political directors held in Brussels on November 21st.

The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the “stop, ship, and shut” offer regarding 20% uranium enrichment 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.

“’Refreshing the package’ is the language being used,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor in an interview last week (November 3oth). “Consultations are continuing on how to refresh it.”

“But I am not impressed with” the diplomatic preparations to date, Clawson said. “The conversations are extremely timid.” The argument that there are only a “few windows” before Christmas to hold a meeting struck him as implausible, he said.

However, some diplomatic sources suggested international negotiators may be hoping to use the delay and distractions of the season to hold a couple quiet, technical meetings with the Iranians before the next round of high-level political talks. Such technical talks, held with minimal publicity, could be a way to try to narrow differences ahead of getting to the political directors’ meetings with Iran, where little progress to date has been made.

American and Iranian nuclear experts had “several” conversations at P5+1 “technical” meetings with Iran held in Istanbul July 3rd, diplomats told Al-Monitor, leaving unclear if subsequent conversations or contacts amongst those involved occurred after that date.

A spokesperson told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no information about any further contacts between the office of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton or her deputy Helga Schmid and Tehran.

Meantime, several sources told Al-Monitor they expected the US Iran team to undergo some changes as national security appointments shake out in Obama’s second term. Some sources thought chief US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Undersecretary of State for Policy, would likely leave when Clinton’s successor gets her or his team in place. Several sources also said State Department arms control envoy Robert J. Einhorn is likely to depart, for a chair waiting for him at the Brookings Institution. White House WMD czar Gary Samore may stay on for now, administration sources suggested.

Despite possible changes in the US Iran negotiating team, “the administration is determined that the transition will not be a problem in moving forward,” Clawson said.

(Photo: Political directors from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China met in Brussels November 21st, at a meeting on resuming Iran nuclear talks hosted by European Union foreign policy chief and chief international negotiator Catherine Ashton. Photo posted by the European External Action Service.)

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

Israeli official: Agreement not to build in sensitive E1 zone ‘no longer relevant’


As Israel announced that it was withholding tax payments to the Palestinian Authority Sunday, an Israeli official told Al-Monitor that Israel considers its 2009 understanding with the Americans that it would not build in the sensitive E1 zone of East Jerusalem “no longer relevant.”

“The Palestinians want to use the peace process in order to bring about the end of the State of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charged on Sunday, as the Israeli government said it was withholding some $100 million in tax funds to the Palestinian entity. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas returned home to a hero’s welcome in Ramallah Sunday, following his successful bid to get the United Nations to vote to grant the Palestinian Authority upgraded status in the world body last week.

Angered by the United Nations vote, Israel on Friday announced that it was building 3,000 new settlement homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and allowing zoning and building planning to go forward in the sensitive E1 zone, that if pursued would effectively divide the West Bank.

“I understand there was some agreement with the Americans in 2009 … at the start of this government’s term of office not to build in E1,” the Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Sunday by email. “That commitment has been kept in full.”

“Now we have two new factors making it no longer a relevant understanding,” he continued. First, “new elections in a few weeks [that] will bring a new government…and [secondly, the Palestinian Authority’s] fundamental violation of all prior agreements and re-writing of the rules.”

There is “no place for criticism (or even surprise) by [the] Americans,” he added. The “agreement [was] kept in full, for four long years.”

US officials did not immediately respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor Sunday.

But two former senior US officials told Al-Monitor that the Israelis know full well that building in E1 would cross an American red line, for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

“Building in E-1 has been a red-line for the United States, and for a reason–it would lead to the bifurcation of the West Bank and render territorial contiguity there nearly impossible,” former senior State Department official Robert Danin told Al-Monitor Sunday, noting that he spent over 20 years working Middle East issues for the State Department under both Republican and Democratic administrations. “I don’t see any administration acquiescing to building there.”

Continue reading

US, Israel low key as France announces support for Palestinian UN bid

The United States, in consultations with Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho in Washington in recent days, has urged Israel not to overreact to Palestinian plans to seek upgraded status at the United Nations on Thursday, advice Israel seemed inclined to take.

France on Tuesday said it would support the Palestinians’ bid to seek non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

British diplomats indicated Tuesday that Britain is still undecided how it will vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday about the issue, the State Department said, adding it agreed to disagree with France over its decision to back the Palestinian bid.

“With regard to France and any other countries, we obviously disagree with our oldest ally on this issue,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Tuesday. “They know that we disagree with them, but it’s their sovereign decision to make how to proceed.”

The United States, France and UK have urged the Palestinians to modify language in the draft resolution concerning whether Israel could be brought before the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court.

But western diplomats told Al Monitor Tuesday that the Palestinians think they have enough votes for the measure to pass at the UNGA without modifying the language and did not seem likely to change it. The key imperative is for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume soon, a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees pursuing the UN bid “as an act of [political] survival,” Rob Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, told a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday. His UN bid “is the most moderate expression of his frustration. Politically, he has no choice.”

“The smart answer for Israel would be … to say ‘fine by us,’ and not react in a harsh way,” Malley continued. “Taking harsh retaliatory measures [would risk promoting] the image of punishing Abbas for going to the UN when [Israel] rewarded Hamas with a ceasefire” after the Gaza conflict this month.

Israeli diplomats indicated that is the approach Israel was likely to take for now, though they complained the timing of the UN bid being just before Israeli elections was particularly unhelpful.

“At least for now, we’re going to go low profile on the whole deal,” an Israeli diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Just another day of ‘let’s be horrible to Israel.’. We’re used to it and aren’t getting excited, even if it is completely unhelpful to the pursuit of conflict resolution and a violation of all agreements between us, etc.” Continue reading

Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

Continue reading

Iran taps diplomat to field US non-official contacts

In a sign of Iranian interest in streamlining back channel contacts and reducing mixed messages ahead of anticipated, resumed nuclear negotiations next month, Iran was said to appoint a central point of contact for approaches from outside-government Americans, two Iran nuclear experts told Al-Monitor this week.

Mostafa Dolatyar, a career Iranian diplomat who heads the Iranian foreign ministry think tank, the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS), was tapped by Iran’s leadership to coordinate contacts with American outside-government policy experts, including those with former senior US officials involved unofficially in relaying ideas for shaping a possible nuclear compromise, the analysts told Al-Monitor in interviews this week. The IPIS channel is for coordinating non-official US contacts, which in the absence of formal diplomatic ties, have formed an important, if not unproblematic, part of Iran’s diplomatic scouting and Washington’s and Tehran’s imperfect efforts to understand and influence each others’ policy positions.

The appointment is the result of a desire “on the Iranian side for a more structured approach to dealing with America,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor in an interview Monday, adding that he now doubts that there are agreed plans for direct US-Iran talks after the elections.

“I was told … that Iran had appointed one person to be the channel for all approaches from the Americans,” specifically for former officials and non-governmental experts, Fitzpatrick continued. “And Iran wants to structure that so that Iran is speaking from one voice.“ Continue reading

Tuesday links: Middle East awaits election’s victor

White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

Continue reading