Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

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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

Observers Fear Conflict in Gaza Could Escalate


Israel on Thursday said that 15 Palestinians had been killed, 9 of them militants, since the start of its military operation in Gaza, Pillar of Defense, a day earlier.

Three Israeli civilians were killed on Thursday when a Hamas rocket hit their home in Kiryat Malachi, about 25 km north of Gaza.

Israeli air raid sirens went off in Tel Aviv at nightfall Thursday, but the rocket that triggered them fell into the sea, an Israeli diplomat told Al-Monitor. “Confirmed:despite sirens in Tel Aviv, rockets did not land in the area,” Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson Avital Leibovich wrote on Twitter.  Israel warned, however, that a strike on Tel Aviv could trigger an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.

Earlier Thursday, another rocket fired from Gaza struck an open area near Rishon LeZion, a city with more than 200,000 people, Leibovich said.

The seemingly deeper reach of Hamas rockets into Israel may suggest that since the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, “the smuggling routes have flourished,” allowing Hamas to grow its stockpile of Soviet-made Katyusha rockets, Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor by email Thursday. “If this is the case, the stockpile could be significant.”

Palestinians held a funeral for Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari Thursday, a day after he was targeted in an Israeli air strike. Israeli media reported that Jabari, who headed Hamas’ militant wing, the Ezzedin Qassam Brigades, had been involved in back channel talks about a long-term Hamas-Israel truce.

“Hours before Hamas strongman Ahmed Jabari was assassinated, he received the draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel, which included mechanisms for maintaining the cease-fire in the case of a flare-up between Israel and the factions in the Gaza Strip,” Haaretz’s Nir Hasson reported. “This, according to Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin, who helped mediate between Israel and Hamas in the deal to release Gilad Shalit.”

Witnesses posted video of the US-provided  Iron Dome missile defense system attempting to intercept Hamas rocket fire.

President Barack Obama consulted by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Wednesday.  The US and Egyptian leaders agreed on the importance of efforts to de-escalate the situation, the White House said in a read out of the call.

Egypt, amid street protests in Cairo against the Israel action, recalled its ambassador to Israel. Israel’s ambassador to Egypt had already returned to Israel before the military operation began, to avoid being expelled, Israeli media reported.

The United Nations Security Council held an emergency session behind closed doors Wednesday night at Egypt’s request. Arab League foreign ministers were due to meet on Saturday for consultations on the crisis.

The number of Palestinians injured in the military action to date was disputed, with Israeli sources saying 80 injured, and Palestinians saying 130. Among the Palestinian civilians killed was the 11 month old son of BBC producer Jihad Masharawi in Gaza, BBC colleagues said. “This was Jihad’s 11 month old son Omar who was killed in #Gaza yesterday when a shell came through the roof,” BBC Middle East bureau chief Paul Danahar posted on Twitter. Continue reading

Israel, Iran attend arms talks in Brussels

Both Israel and Iran took part in a European nonproliferation conference in Brussels this week. The meeting, first reported by the Guardian, was held to advance uncertain prospects for a conference on transforming the Middle East into a zone free of weapons of mass destruction, which Finland is due to host later this year.

But many eyes were on the dynamic between the two arch enemy nations. The diplomatic encounter comes as world powers expect to hold a new round of P5+1 talks with Iran later this month, and amid a recent uptick in rumored contacts exploring the possibility of direct US-Iran talks to advance a nuclear deal.

Israeli and European diplomats, for their part, downplayed that the Brussels meeting was anything much out of the ordinary, noting it’s an annual seminar, and that Israeli and Iranian officials had no direct contact at the meeting. “We’re talking here about an EU Seminar that takes place every year with more that 100 people attending,” one European diplomat told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “This was not an Israeli-Iranian meeting, nor were either positive.”

“Sorry to disappoint, but there was absolutely no contact between me and Soltanieh there,” Jeremy Issacharoff, the Israeli diplomat who led the Israeli delegation to the Brussels meeting, told Al-Monitor by email Tuesday, referring to Iran’s envoy to the IAEA Ali Ashgar Soltanieh. “Over recent years, I have been in many seminars and track 2 meetings like this, and believe me, any exchanges are mostly pretty hostile.”

The Israeli delegation, in addition to Issacharoff, Israel’s deputy director general of strategic affairs, included Ariel “Eli” Levite, the former deputy head of Israel’s atomic energy commission, a source at the talks said.

Iran’s delegation, in addition to Soltanieh, included Hamid Aref, the deputy head of Iran’s mission to Belgium and the European Union, and Babee, another diplomat from the Iranian mission in Brussels.

Soltanieh announced Tuesday that Iran plans to attend the Helsinki WMD free zone conference. Israel to date has signaled it is unlikely to attend, but European diplomats continue to try to persuade it to participate. (Soltanieh’s announcement, made in the meeting’s closing session, “scored a PR coup,” the European diplomat said. It was a “smart tactical move by the Iranians, now putting the pressure on the conveners and Israel.”)

Participants in the two-day Brussels seminar offered a mixed take on the atmospherics. “In all the sessions I attended, the tone was respectful and largely positive,” Mark Fitzpatrick, an Iran nuclear expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Al-Monitor, adding, however, that “in one breakout session I didn’t attend, some crockery reportedly came close to being broken, but so far, so good.”

While there was “little..concrete outcome from this seminar, … the fact that Iranian and Israeli attendance was quite good is telling,” Dina Esfandiary, also of IISS, said.

Such diplomatic encounters are not quite as rare as advertised–as Issachaoff’s comments indicate–although there is no sign they signal any shift in the two nations’ mutual hostility.

Current and former Israeli and Iranian officials have in fact taken part in various meetings and unofficial dialogues across Europe over the years, including at least two previous meetings this year, Al-Monitor has learned.

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

Diplomats confer ahead of Ashton-Jalili call

Diplomats from the 5+1 conferred Tuesday ahead of an expected conversation next week between the top international and Iran negotiators, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Political directors from the US, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China held a conference call Tuesday with European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton, to determine exactly what she should say when she speaks with Iran’s Saeed Jalili. An exact date for the Ashton-Jalili call has not been finalized. US negotiator Wendy Sherman, the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, is in Washington this week, the State Department said, after traveling earlier this month to China, Russia and London for consultations with her P5+1 counterparts on Iran and Syria.

Iran’s hosting of the non-aligned movement summit in Tehran this week has consumed its diplomatic attention for the moment and pushed back the Ashton-Jalili conversation a few days. The extra time is just as well given the P5+1 Iran diplomacy having to contend with the potential wrench thrown into the negotiating calendar presented by recent Israeli saber-rattling on Iran. House Intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Tuesday he thinks any Israel strike on Iran will come after the US presidential election, November 6.  Israeli official sources have offered the same suggestion to Al-Monitor in interviews this month. Israeli officials indicated that a decision has not yet been taken. Continue reading