Anne Patterson for Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs

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As the Back Channel reported Friday, US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson will be the Obama administration’s nominee to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, a senior US official confirmed to the Back Channel Saturday.

Patterson has been asked and has agreed to take the job if confirmed, the US official, who spoke not for attribution, said.

Patterson did not respond to a request for comment from the Back Channel.

It’s unclear who will succeed Patterson in Cairo, but US diplomatic sources suggested that US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones was likely to be considered. Continue reading

NEA

Diplomatic sources say they believe that US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is again the Obama administration’s leading choice to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs nominee, but say she wasn’t anxious to come back to Washington.

In the unusually long second term transition shuffle, the rumor mill on top contenders to head the NEA bureau has cycled through a list that had Patterson at the top of the list a couple months ago, and also includes US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, among others. Most recently, some in the bureau wagered Beecroft would  get tapped. But in the past few days, several former senior US officials and diplomats say  they believe Patterson has returned to the top of the list yet again, for a few reasons, despite her rumored reluctance to come back from the field. Continue reading

Report: UN to blacklist Syria’s Al-Nusra Front

The United Nations Security Council is expected to formally designate the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group next week, Agence-France Press reported Friday, amid intensified efforts to rally international consensus on a plan to halt Syria”s civil war.

The designation, expected to be finalized by the Security Council al-Qaeda sanctions committee on Tuesday, would make the group subject to a global asset freeze, the AFP report said.

The move, supported by France and Britain, comes days after the United States and Russia agreed to try to convene a Syria peace conference. The conference, expected to take place in Geneva as early as the end of this month, aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and opposition together to try to negotiate the creation of a transition body.

The United States designated Al–Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in December.

Late last year, US intelligence officials encouraged moderate Syrian rebel forces at a meeting in Jordan to target Al-Nusra Front even at the cost of setbacks in their fight against Assad’s forces, Phil Sands reported in The National this week.

(Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo December 24, 2012. REUTERS.)

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.

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Roundup: Upbeat start to Obama Israel trip

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US, Iran nuclear teams to Istanbul for technical talks

Nuclear experts from Iran and six world powers head to Istanbul next week to discuss a revised international proposal that Iranian officials welcomed as a “turning point” at a meeting in Kazakhstan last month.

The U.S. team to the Istanbul talks, to be held March 18, includes two veteran State Department arms control negotiators, Robert Einhorn and Jim Timbie, as well as Jofi Joseph, an Iran director in the White House WMD shop, US officials told the Back Channel Thursday. Einhorn and Timbie previously attended technical talks with Iran held in Istanbul last July, along with then White House WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for Harvard.

Iran’s delegation to the technical talks in Istanbul next week is expected, as last July, to be led by Hamid-Reza Asgari, a longtime member of Iran's nuclear negotiating team, who multiple Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor is an Iranian intelligence officer who has been involved in Iran's international arms control discussions for over a decade. Iran's team to Istanbul last July also included Ali Ashgar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

(A revealing detail on their dynamic comes from a late 2009 US cable, released by Wikileaks, and written by then US envoy to the IAEA Glyn Davies. It describes Soltanieh as having moved to shake US Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Poneman's hand at a 2009 Vienna meeting, “necessitating Iranian Legal Advisor Asgari to pull him [Soltanieh] away from” the U.S. delegation, Davies wrote.)

American and Iranian officials had fairly extensive discussions at the last technical meeting in Istanbul last July, a senior US official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists at P5+1 talks with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month.

“There’s a little heightened hope that Iran will respond in a meaningful way when they meet,” Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department arms control official now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told the Back Channel Thursday. “If Iran comes back engaging in the details…if they are talking the same language…it would be very much progress.”

President Obama, speaking on Wednesday ahead of his first presidential trip to Israel next week, said that the United States currently assesses it would be at least a year before Iran could manufacture a nuclear weapon if it decided to do so, and the United States and international partners had been intensifying efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution in that window because it would prove more durable.

“Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don’t want to cut it too close,” Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.
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Iran intensifies debate on US talks


Iranian leaders have intensified debate on the pros and cons of direct talks with the United States in recent days, suggesting Tehran may be mulling whether to take President Obama up on the offer and under what conditions. The flurry of debate comes as arms control officials from Iran, Washington and five world powers are due to meet in Istanbul next week, to discuss a revised international nuclear proposal that Iranian negotiators greeted favorably in Kazakhstan last month.

Iranian Supreme Leader's longtime foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossan Rowhani, and two Iranian diplomats involved in 2007 talks with the United States on the issue of Iraq, have all weighed in on the merits of possible US-Iranian talks in recent days, in interviews with Iranian media and, notably, in photos of US and Iranian officials meeting in Iraq six years ago, newly published on the Supreme Leader's website.

“It is not the Supreme Leader’s view that Iran and the United States should not have negotiations and relations until the Day of Judgment,” Rowhani, former Iranian nuclear negotiator and a candidate in June’s presidential elections, was cited by Iranian media Thursday.

“If there is a situation where the country’s dignity and interests are..served, he will give permission for dialogue…as…negotiations have been held between the two countries on issues related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear (issue),” Rowhani continued.

“Our red line, according to the Leader, was to negotiate only for the issue of Iraq and nothing else,” Hussein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African affairs who was involved in the Iraq talks with the Americans, said in an interview published on the Supreme Leader’s website this week, Iran news site Iran’s View reported Thursday.

“If you ask me about the US’ willingness to negotiate, as a person who has had the experience, I would say they are willing, but they are not intending to solve the problem,” Amir Abdollahian continued.

Then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, pictured above right, told the Back Channel Friday that the publication of the photos by the Iranian leadership was “interesting,” and said they were from meetings that occurred in Iraq in 2007.

Crocker and Iran's envoy to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi held two meetings in Iraq in the summer of 2007, on May 28 and July 24, 2007, according to media reports at the time. “Their May 28 meeting marked the first public and formal talks between U.S. and Iranian representatives since the United States cut off diplomatic relations 27 years ago,” CNN reported at the time.

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Roundup: Obama to dine with Miss Israel; Iran's man in Iraq

Iran offers journalists rare tour of former US embassy

Iran recently invited some reporters to visit the former US embassy grounds in Tehran, ostensibly to promote new tours being offered of former front line sites in the Iran-Iraq war.

“The other day I was invited in the former US embassy in Tehran, Iran,” Thomas Erdbrink, the New York Times’ Iran correspondent, wrote on Twitter Monday, in the first of several posts showing his photos of the visit. The occasion was a press conference by a Baseej military commander on tours being offered of former fronts in the eight year war. The organizing committee for the tours now has its headquarters on the former US embassy grounds, Edbrink explained.

But to some the tours’ timing may suggest it’s part of an Iranian response to the recent Hollywood film “Argo,” which several Iranian officials have complained is insulting to Iran, and unfairly depicted Iran’s 1979 seizure of hostages from the US embassy, which led to the over thirty year breach in US-Iranian relations. The Baseej commander, for instance, gave his press conference promoting the new tours in the former US Ambassador’s office.

China’s Xinhua news agency on Monday also published several photos of the former US embassy, which it said were taken by an Iranian journalist for the agency on March 10th:

“An Iranian Journalist visits inside the former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, March 10, 2013,” Xinhua said in a caption:

“Pictures and equipment of Americans are seen inside the former U.S. embassy in downtown Tehran, Iran, March 10, 2013,” the caption to the photograph, below, published by Xinhua said.

The New York Times’ Erdbrink posted his photo, below, of a Baseej commander giving “a press conference on tours to the former [Iran/Iraq] war in the former US Ambassador’s office,” he wrote:

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Iraq advisor eyed for State DAS for Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, President Obama’s former nominee for Iraq ambassador, will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, current and former US officials tell the Back Channel. The State Department plans to fuse the two offices, officials say.

McGurk has been serving as a senior Iraq advisor at the State Department since withdrawing from consideration to be US ambassador to Iraq last summer. McGurk did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

The McGurk appointment, which several officials said is a done deal, is expected to be announced after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf is announced for her next assignment, which sources suggested may be deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Turkey. Former acting DAS for Iran Henry Wooster was made special Iran advisor to JSOC late last year, after he assumed helm of the office following the death of Philo Dibble.

McGurk, a trained lawyer who advised the last several US ambassadors to Iraq, developed a strong working relationship with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement on behalf of Bush White House and later the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq for the Obama administration. He is said by sources to have particularly won the admiration of Antony Blinken, President Obama’s new deputy national security advisor and former national security advisor to Vice President Biden, who oversaw US Iraq policy in Obama’s first term. Continue reading