Updated: U.S. denies mulling extension on Iran talks

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Updated 7/2:

Washington, D.C. __ The US on Monday denied that it is signaling that it is prepared to have to extend Iran nuclear talks into the fall if Iran does not return to the table with more realistic proposals including on the centrifuge capacity it could be expected to have in a final deal.

A senior US administration official, briefing small groups of Washington experts in recent days, has been downbeat about prospects for reaching a final deal by July 20, Al-Monitor reported Sunday, citing sources briefed by the official. One expert, speaking not for attribution, was left with the impression that the senior U.S. official “didn’t think it would get done.”

Update: “The United States is not signaling that we are prepared to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations, period,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date.”

“Of course, Iran will have to make tough decisions and the administration remains clear that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Harf said.

“We are not there yet,” however, a US official told Al-Monitor Friday, about whether the administration thought it would require an extension.

The US needs to determine “whether we see a mindset [from Iran] that is more realistic about what the outcome will have to be here,” the U.S. administration official told Al Monitor Friday. “We are not just waiting for a response…. There are discussions.”

Experts from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold technical talks in Vienna next week (June 5-6) on the sidelines of an IAEA board of governors meeting. The P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to hold the next round of final deal talks in Vienna on June 16-20.

With less than two months to go ‘til a July 20 expiration of an interim Iran nuclear deal, the US and Iran are not yet pursuing parallel bilateral meetings to narrow wide differences for a nuclear deal, US and Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor. That may be because the US and P5+1 believe that Iran is going to have to do most of the modifying, particularly on enrichment capacity, if a final deal is to be reached, US experts recently briefed by Obama administration officials tell Al-Monitor.

“The Iranians know what the bottom line is,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Friday. “This will not be a case of meeting in the middle.”

“It will be difficult for the powers to reach an agreement with Iran by the deadline of July 20,” Robert Einhorn, a former top US Iran arms control advisor, told Israel’s Ynetnew.com Sunday. “The last round of talks didn’t amount to expectations. There was hope that some main issues would be solved, like the issue of the reactor in Arak…but that didn’t happen.”

“My assessment is that when faced with the alternative of ending the talks, the two sides will agree to extend them,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Ynet.

“The odds of success are still long,” President Obama told graduating West Point cadets Wednesday, referring to a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal. “But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. “

The American side and the P5+1 “had sticker shock at what the Iranians came in on in Vienna,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Friday, referring to the Iranian proposal for the amount of centrifuges it would like to have in a final deal at the last round of talks in Vienna in May.

The Iranians seemed to have “the impression that the P5+1 was desperate for a deal, but it’s actually not true,” Clawson said. “Therefore they [the US and P5+1] are prepared to let the Iranians” stew in the impasse for now, and may not be rushing to send the bilat team to meet with them to try to narrow positions.

“There will be no final nuclear deal without direct US and Iran bilateral talks,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told an audience at the New America Foundation in New York last week.

The U.S. may yet pursue face to face meetings with Iran at a future point in the negotiations, U.S. sources told Al-Monitor, but hasn’t to date this year done so, outside of those meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran talks.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday that he would not be able to attend a June 18 meeting of Organization of Islamic States foreign ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia due to the Iran P5+1 nuclear talks previously scheduled to be held in Vienna June 16-20, Iranian media reported.

Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal


Washington, DC__ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday offered upbeat reassurances about prospects for reaching a nuclear deal, even as negotiators from Iran and six world powers reported no progress from “sticker shock” nuclear talks in Vienna last week, and urged each other to return to the table next time with more “realism.”

With the “positive trend of talks, we are on threshold of solving [the] nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in China Wednesday.

Despite the intentions of both sides, Iran and world powers will not be able to reach a final nuclear accord unless Iran lowers its expectations for the size of its enrichment program, non-proliferation experts in consultation with the parties warned.

“I think Iran genuinely wants a deal,” former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But it may not yet realize that it can’t get one unless it is prepared to lower its sights on the enrichment capacity it will be allowed to have under an agreement,” Einhorn said.

“If a deal is to happen, Iran must make the strategic decision to forego a near-term breakout capability in the form of a sizable enrichment program,” Jofi Joseph, a former White House Iran non-proliferation advisor, said Wednesday. “If it is prepared to do so, a deal can come together quickly this summer. If not, then an impasse will occur.”

Iran was frustrated by the P5+1 proposal in Vienna for a decade or more time-frame for phased sanctions relief, and wants sanctions relief in a deal to be more front-loaded for steps it’s also willing to take on the front end.

The P5+1 “say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse reported Wednesday.

Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said.

The largest gap that has Iran deal watchers concerned, however, is between the expectations of Iran and the West over the size of Iran’s enrichment program.

“What matters most is whether the two sides can agree on a much more limited uranium enrichment program for near term,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

“Only if Iran meets its obligations, builds confidence its program not being used for military purposes, and Iran demonstrates it has legitimate nuclear fuel needs will the international community agree to relaxing those constraints,” Kimball said.

“The brinkmanship will continue until the last minute,” one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “My problem is the incompatibility of the two sides’ end objectives…maintaining nuclear capability vs. rolling it back.”

Sources suggest the Iranians would like to initially maintain the number of centrifuges they are currently operating under the six month interim deal–about 9,000 IR-1s – to be the starting amount in the near term of a final deal, that would be allowed to increase after some duration. At the end of an as yet to be agreed period in which it would agree to restrictions and extensive inspections, monitoring and safeguards, Iran wants to have its status as a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) normalized, so that it could in theory have no restrictions on the size of its enrichment program.

“I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines,” former Obama White House non-proliferation advisor Gary Samore said in a speech posted at the Harvard Belfer Center website this week.

Meantime, Congressional sources and Israeli officials would find a deal under which Iran operated 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges while maintaining a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium, allowing a one year “breakout” period, “politically defensible,” Samore wrote.

Getting Iran to agree to restrict the size of its enrichment program in the near and medium term is probably more important than how many centrifuges it says it wants after a decade or two, some non-proliferation experts said.

“I actually think if you could get to a near term agreement, that would make us feel comfortable over the next ten years, it would take care of itself,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association, said Tuesday.

Sources expect Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet as early as this weekend to discuss how to bridge wide gaps in positions, ahead of the next round of talks in Vienna June 16th. US and Iranian sources did not immediately respond if U.S. officials would participate in the meeting or might meet separately.

(Photo of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attending a banquet in Vienna May 14 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Former US officials detect shift in Israel on Iran nuclear deal

Israel increasingly expects that a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers will be reached, and has raised concerns with U.S. interlocutors about monitoring and enforcement of the deal, former American officials and Iran policy experts involved in recent discussions with the Israelis tell Al-Monitor.

While Israel’s official position remains that the only acceptable Iran nuclear deal would be “zero, zero, zero,” – meaning no centrifuges, domestic uranium enrichment or plutonium, or the facilities to produce them—former American officials and experts involved in recent consultations with the Israelis detect that Israel’s position on the matter has shifted as the prospect of a deal being reached has increased. Israeli officials are now focusing on concerns of what happens if a deal is reached, how can monitoring and verification be sufficient to detect if there is a violation, and how would such violations of an agreement be deterred or punished, at a time when Israel assesses U.S. credibility as weakened on the world stage, including because of events in Ukraine and Syria.

Most Israeli officials and experts “seem to understand that ‘zero, zero, zero’ is not going to happen,” a member of a US group of experts and former senior officials recently in Israel for consultations, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor in an interview this week. They seem “to understand that there is a need for a domestic, indigenous civil nuclear program….for the Iranians to” deal with their domestic opposition.

“Israel is very concerned about the current discussions with Iran because all signs point to the P5+1 accepting a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear weapons capability intact,” Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer told an Anti Defamation League conference this week.

“Our policy is simple,” Dermer said. “Let Iran have only a peaceful nuclear program and nothing more.”

“On substantive issues, there is probably room for maneuver,” a senior former US diplomat involved in the April consultations in Israel told Al-Monitor on condition he not be named, referring to Israel’s requirements for an Iran nuclear deal.

“But two issues are going to be very hard to persuade the Israelis on,” the former American diplomat continued. “Monitoring: There is very little belief anywhere in Israel that [a comprehensive nuclear] accord can be monitored… that ensures there is not going to be clandestine activity, and the Iranians [could] not break out” at some phase.

“That is a serious concern,” the former US diplomat said. “I don’t want to minimize it, because monitoring is going to be a huge problem. How long did we not know about [aspects] of [Iran’s] clandestine program,” such as Iran’s underground enrichment facility at Fordo, which Iran did not declare to the IAEA until days before the U.S., UK and France publicly exposed it in 2009.

The Israelis are also deeply concerned, the former US diplomat said, that if there is a violation by Iran of a final nuclear accord, that the violation will be seen by Washington as too ambiguous or incremental, that there “is no smoking gun.”

The Israelis are “nervous that the U.S. will continuously say, ‘we are checking into it, we need more proof,’” the former diplomat described. “At what point does the cumulative effect of the small things add up to a violation?”

In addition, the Israelis are concerned that the United States does not have a sufficiently credible military threat to deter a future Iranian violation of a comprehensive agreement, the Iran policy expert said. “That is problematic from an Israeli perspective.”

The Iran policy expert said it was her group’s assessment that while the Iran nuclear negotiations are ongoing, there won’t be a unilateral strike by Israel. “While they are ongoing,” she repeated.

There continues to be a lot of “frustration” from the Israeli side that they will be “profoundly impacted” by a nuclear deal, even though they are not in the room for the P5+1 talks with Iran, nor do they feel the U.S. was forthcoming with them about secret US-Iran bilateral contacts leading up to the interim nuclear deal last fall.

Israeli officials felt deeply betrayed that their US counterparts were not more forthcoming with them last year about the extent of secret US-Iranian bilateral contacts on a nuclear deal. The U.S. has said the secrecy was necessary to maintain the sensitive bilateral channel, and they did not mean to be deceptive. However, a sense of betrayal may have contributed to Israeli distrust and denunciations of the interim Iran nuclear deal reached in Geneva last November, US and Israeli sources have told Al-Monitor. The US and Israel have been working to try to rebuild trust that took a hit over the Iran back channel episode.

If a nuclear deal is reached that allows Iran to maintain a nuclear threshold capacity, it could emerge from economic sanctions and seek European and Japanese technology to develop itself as an industrial power, while maintaining antagonistic policies in the region, Israeli sources have described official thinking in interviews this week.

Israel and Sunni powers fear Iran would be empowered by the lifting of sanctions after a prospective nuclear deal, while sponsoring actions and proxy groups that pose a threat to their stability, and competing for power and influence in the region and beyond.

Former US and international officials involved in track 2 conversations with Iran have been considering the utility of such a format to try to address deep regional mistrust of Iran amid the growing prospect that it could emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation if a nuclear deal s reached.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on March 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. By Amos Ben Gershom/Israel GPO via Getty Images.)

Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks


Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have previously said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

U.S. says still waiting for Israeli minister’s apology


The State Department said Friday that it does not consider Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s clarification of his remarks this week about US weakness to constitute an apology, prolonging an unusually public spat between the two allies.

The United States is “disappointed with the lack of an apology” by Israeli Defense Minister Ya’alon, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Friday.

“We still have remaining concerns about [Defense Minister Yaalon’s] pattern of behavior,” Psaki said.

The latest diplomatic dust-up between Washington and Jerusalem erupted when Haaretz reported that Ya’alon, speaking at Tel Aviv University Monday, said the US was “showing weakness” on the world stage, and that Israel should not rely on Washington to handle Iran.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday to protest Yaalon’s remarks, which Psaki, speaking at the State Department press briefing Wednesday, described as “not constructive,” and “confusing.” The U.S. demanded an apology, she said.

Ya’alon subsequently called his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel late Wednesday to clarify his remarks, saying it was not his intent to harm the US-Israel strategic relationship. “My statements had no criticism or intent to hurt the US or the relationship with it,” Ya’alon said in the call, according to a statement put out by his office to Israeli media.

But the State Department made clear Friday that it did not consider the explanation given to Hagel good enough to put the matter to rest.

“Ya’alon’s problem is that he does not make do with telling just the Americans themselves what he thinks,” Ben Caspit wrote for Al-Monitor Friday. “He seems to have some uncontrollable urge to vent his frustration in public. While Ya’alon might very well be right, he is probably not being smart. The Americans don’t like to hear such things said about them in public. Israel does not have another United States.”

Whether Netanyahu will agree and decide to have Yaalon make another effort at an apology, or will let the matter continue to fester, remains to be seen.

Israel DM Ya’alon clarifies his comments on U.S. (updated)


Israeli Defense Minister Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon called US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Wednesday to clarify his remarks that described the US administration as projecting weakness and saying Israel should take matters into its own hands on Iran.

“My statements had no criticism or intent to hurt the US or the relationship with it,” Ya’alon told Hagel in the Wednesday night call, Israeli media reported on Twitter late Wednesday. “The strategic ties between Israel and the United States are of high importance, as are personal ties and mutual interests.”

Hagel “expressed deep concern about the minister’s comments on U.S. policy towards Iran,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a readout of the call Thursday. “Minister Ya’alon clarified his remarks by underscoring his commitment to the strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

The State Department had publicly–and unusually forcefully—denounced Ya’alon’s remarks and demanded an apology.

Ya’alon, speaking at Tel Aviv University Monday, said the United States “shows weakness” on the world stage, and that Israel should not rely on it to deal with Iran, Ha’aretz’s Barak Ravid reported.

“The U.S. at a certain stage began negotiating with [the Iranians], and unfortunately in the Persian bazaar, the Iranians were better,” Yaalon said, according to Ha’aertz. “We [Israelis] have to look out for ourselves.”

Ya’alon’s comments “were not constructive,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Wednesday.

President Obama “has provided an all-time high level of security assistance to Israel…even during times of budget uncertainty, to provide Israel with unprecedented capabilities and options,” Psaki said.

“So it is certainly confusing to us why Defense Minister Ya’alon would continue his pattern of making comments that don’t accurately represent the scope of our close partnership,” Psaki said.

Secretary of State John Kerry called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday “and protested to him his concerns about these comments,” Psaki said.

It’s the second time Ya’alon’s remarks have provoked U.S. demands for an apology.  In January, Ya’alon reportedly described Kerry’s diplomatic efforts on behalf of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement as a “messianic obsession.”  He subsequently apologized.

Ya’alon, in his call with Hagel Wednesday, “also provided…an update on Israel’s security situation and yesterday’s operation,” against Syrian army positions near the Golan, the Pentagon’s Kirby said. Hagel “expressed his sympathy for the wounded Israeli forces and their families, as well as his concern for the ongoing situation in Syria.”

The two defense chiefs “pledged to continue working closely with one another on the range of security issues facing the United States and Israel,” Kirby said.

(Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walking with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon after he arrived at the Pentagon, June 14, 2013. Photo by AP.)

Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness. .. The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)

Syria envoy Robert Ford retires, Rubenstein to be named successor

US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.

Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.

US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).

Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General  in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.

Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

As the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference gets underway in Washington Sunday, Capitol Hill staff contacts said they were tracking at least three initiatives to demonstrate Congressional support for the US-Israel alliance.

Among the efforts staffers were aware of, demonstrations of support for U.S. foreign aid to Israel, as well as to its treaty partners Egypt and Jordan; and for renewal of the U.S-Israel Strategic Partnership.

On Iran, sources said there would likely be a House letter, downgraded from a resolution, which is being drafted by the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and  House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland).

The House letter, according to one source briefed on a draft of it Friday, asks the administration for regular  and serious consultations with Congress as the Iran nuclear negotiations go forward. It does not include demands for zero enrichment. To the extent that extraneous issues are included, they are not linked to the nuclear deal, the source said.  The letter also mentions the administration coming back to Congress for sanctions relief if there is a deal.

Sources said it was unclear but likely that there would also be a similar Senate letter. AIPAC members are also likely, as the Back Channel reported Thursday, to lobby Senators next week to sign on as co-sponsors to the Menendez-Kirk Iran sanctions bill (S1881) that President Obama has vowed to veto. The bill was shelved earlier this month with 59 co-sponsors. AIPAC has called for a delay in the vote, presumably until it has a veto proof 67 co-sponsors signed on, if they are able to reach it.

Sources said they were not sure if Democrats who had to date declined to sign on as co-sponsors might change their mind at the behest of AIPAC lobbying next week.

Meantime, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) announced they would hold a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday afternoon. Netanyahu is also due to meet with President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, and will speak at AIPAC on Tuesday, introduced by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), who , with Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, spearheaded the Iran sanctions bill that the White House warns could scuttle Iran negotiations.

Kerry will address the AIPAC conference Monday evening at 6:15pm ET, the State Department announced. US Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew will also represent the Obama administration at AIPAC this year.

Senate Republicans this week tried to attach the Iran sanctions as an amendment to veterans’ benefit legislation, which they voted to defeat after it was stripped out.  The head of the American Legion denounced the Republican vote to defeat the bill, and earlier effort to tie it up with controversial Iran sanctions, as “inexcusable.”

“There was a right way to vote and a wrong way to vote today, and 41 senators chose the wrong way,” American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said in a press statement Thursday. “That’s inexcusable.”

(Photo from AIPAC of members of Congress, 2010.) 

AIPAC expected to lobby for Iran sanctions bill that Obama has vowed to veto


As Senate Democrats and Republicans traded blame Thursday over blocked veterans’ benefits legislation to which Republicans had tried to attach an Iran sanctions amendment, the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) faced questions about its position on the matter just days before its big annual policy conference here.

“The Republicans are trying to mislead the American public by saying that a bipartisan majority supports moving forward with new sanctions right now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said in a statement Thursday. “In fact, many Senators….as well as Israel’s strongest supporter, AIPAC…agree that now is not the right time to bring a sanctions package to the floor.”

“AIPAC was unequivocal in its request for a delay on additional sanctions,” Reid’s statement continued. “This is what AIPAC said: ‘Stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and… there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.’”

An AIPAC official, speaking to reporters at a lunch at Morton’s restaurant Thursday, said AIPAC members would next week lobby for more Senate co-sponsors for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill (S1881), sources at the lunch told Al-Monitor on condition they not be identified since the lunch was off the record. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure, which was shelved last month after gaining 59 co-sponsors, short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. (The House passed a version of the measure overwhelmingly last summer [.pdf], before an interim Iran nuclear deal was reached in November; a separate House Iran sanctions push was shelved in January.)

AIPAC lobbyists may urge Democrats to co-sponsor the bill by arguing, “We don’t support a vote, but why not cosponsor?” a Hill staffer, speaking not for attribution, suggested Thursday.

“They burned their fingers very badly on S1881,” Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC official and columnist told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, referring to AIPAC. “And I think they are trying now to put some balm on it. But they still haven’t given up on pushing it.”

AIPAC officials, writing in the New York Times last week, were “vague” about when they would push to bring the bill to a vote, Bloomfield noted.

“We support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and by Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois,” AIPAC officials Michael Kassen and Lee Rosenberg write in a February 22, 2014 New York Times op-ed. “Earlier this month, we agreed with Mr. Menendez on delaying a vote in the Senate, but we remain committed to the bill’s passage.”

“I think they are torn,” Bloomfield said, by the desire to maintain bipartisan appeal in Congress and among its membership, while at the same time, he said, “they are under pressure from what has become their Republican base on the Hill and they also have big money people.”

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks agreed that AIPAC may be “shackled” by having to maintain bipartisan appeal, a constraint that he, as head of a Republican-aligned group, said he was glad not to suffer.

It’s a “luxury for me, I am not shackled by the handcuffs of bipartisanship,” Brooks said in a telephone interview from Dallas Thursday, where he Tweeted he was successfully fundraising over GOP support and Democratic opposition to moving forward now with the Iran sanctions bill. “AIPAC is in a much more difficult and challenging box, to maneuver to balance policy and practical considerations.”

An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill sources said that for now, an alternative resolution that would seek to define what should be the terms of a final Iran nuclear deal appeared to be off the table.