Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

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U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif’s team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

Former U.S. negotiator proposes ways to reach Iran nuclear deal


Iran and six world powers can reach a comprehensive nuclear deal by agreeing on Iran’s practical needs for enrichment, which are limited in the near term; as well as on technical modifications that could be made to the Arak reactor and turning the Fordo enrichment site into a research and development facility, former U.S. nuclear negotiator Robert Einhorn writes in a paper to be released by the Brookings Institution Monday.

“I think of the big issues, Arak is the easiest,” Einhorn told Al-Monitor in an interview last week. “Fordo is hard. But the hardest single issue is enrichment capacity.”

Einhorn, in his Brookings paper, “Preventing a Nuclear Armed-Iran: Requirements for a Comprehensive Iran Nuclear Deal,” released to Al-Monitor in advance, proposes that Iran and the P5+1 define the practical needs for Iran’s civil nuclear program. “Indeed, Iran’s actual need to produce enriched uranium for fueling reactors is quite limited, at least in the near and middle terms,” he writes. “Proposed modifications to Arak [would make it] better for producing medical isotopes,” he said.

Since reaching a breakthrough interim nuclear deal last November, Iran and six world powers have held two rounds of talks to try to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear deal by the July 20th expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action.

“For the U.S. side,…to get sufficient support domestically and abroad, the U.S. position [on the size of Iran’s enrichment program] will be pretty demanding,” Einhorn, who served as the top State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor until last summer and is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.  “If Iran wants to find a way out, I propose the practical needs issue, [which] gives them a narrative that it could explain that it won on enrichment.”

On enrichment, extending Iran’s potential “breakout” time to between six and twelve months in a final deal “could be achieved by limiting centrifuges to between 2000 and 6000 first-generation IR-1 Iranian centrifuges (or significantly lower numbers if more advanced IR-2m centrifuges are included) and reducing enriched uranium stocks, especially at the near-20 percent level,” Einhorn writes in the Brookings “requirements” paper.

“Whatever numbers and combinations [of centrifuges and uranium stocks] are chosen, lengthening the breakout timeline to between six and twelve months would require substantial reductions in current Iranian centrifuge and stockpile levels,” he writes.

On the Arak IR-40, Einhorn proposes that, at a minimum, “changes should be made in the reactor’s design to greatly reduce its production of plutonium, especially to fuel it with enriched uranium and reduce its power level,” he writes. “The best solution would be to convert it to a light water-moderated research reactor, but other options requiring less extensive modification of the reactor are being explored.”

However, “if you can’t get the Iranians to switch [Arak] to a light water reactor, you could limit the power of the Arak reactor” from 40 MW to 10 MW, and instead of natural fuel, feed low enriched fuel into it, George Perkovich, a non-proliferation expert who serves as vice president and director of non-proliferation studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor. “Then [you could] control how long it stays in the reactor, which actually makes better medical isotopes…If you do all these things, it dramatically reduces the amount of plutonium in spent fuel,” to about 6kg a year, Perkovich said.

“That’s a serious impediment to a breakout,” Perkovich said. “That would be less than a bomb’s worth of plutonium produced [a year].”

In addition, Perkovich said, “Any proposed agreement says ‘no reprocessing.’ So the reduced plutonium concentration in spent fuel in a safeguarded reactor is a barrier added to the more fundamental barrier that Iran agrees to fore-go reprocessing and not have a facility for it.”

Can the parties reach a deal by July 20th? Or will they need an extension?

“I think both parties really do have a strong incentive to get it done in six months,” Einhorn said. “I don’t think either party has an incentive to extend it.”

However, he said, while “both sides genuinely want to reach agreement and want to create the perception that agreement is possible…[to] generate momentum, the reality is the substantive positions” are still far apart.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking at the conclusion of the last round of comprehensive deal talks in Vienna this month, said reaching a final deal before the July 20 expiration of the six month Joint Plan of Action is possible.

“On four topics (Arak heavy water reactor, removal of sanctions, nuclear cooperation and uranium enrichment) we see signs of reaching an understanding which will protect the rights of the Iranian nation and move towards removal of problems,” Zarif told  Iranian reporters in Vienna March 19.

In the next round of talks, to be held in Vienna April 7-9, Zarif said the issues on the agenda to be discussed are “Iran’s access to technology, trade market and banking resources as well as the manner of inspections (of Iran’s nuclear facilities) and the period of time needed for the final phase,” Zarif said, Fars News reported.

The “brinksmanship” in the weeks of negotiations leading up to July 20 interim deal deadline could be useful for narrowing gaps in positions.

“The problem as we get closer to July, is [if the parties need an extension,] then it will be [seen as] a crisis,” Perkovich said.

(Photo of former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn by AFP/Getty Images.)

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.)

US: Iran final deal talks ‘complicated, difficult’ but ‘best chance’

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VIENNA — On the eve of the opening round of negotiations to get a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran, a US diplomat said the process would be “complicated, difficult and lengthy,” but that it represented “the best chance” the world has had in a decade to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“These next days will be the beginning of what will be a complicated, difficult and lengthy process,” the senior U.S. Administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists here Monday night. “When the stakes are this high, the devil truly is in the details. It can’t be done in a day, a week, or a month.”

“The aim is to move in a…deliberate manner to get the job done,” the official said. “We need to build on the progress of [the] first step to get a comprehensive agreement that addresses all of our concerns.”

The US official anticipated that the coming months of negotiations would likely have “some ups…and many downs” along the way, but said negotiators were going into them “clear-eyed, focused and determined…to see what can get done.” She did not rule out that an agreement could be reached within six months. President Obama has put the odds of getting a final deal at fifty/ fifty, the U.S. official noted.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif kicked off this round of talks with a dinner of Iranian kebabs and rice at the Iranian mission in Vienna Monday night. The formal meeting is due to get underway at a plenary session Tuesday 11 AM at the United Nations in Vienna, to be attended by Zarif, Ashton, and the political directors from six world powers. An afternoon session will be led by Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi and EU deputy secretary general Helga Schmid. This round of talks is currently scheduled to go til Thursday.

Procedural issues–how to structure the agenda and schedule a roadmap for negotiating a comprehensive accord– will be discussed this round, as well as substantive issues, the U.S. official said.

“How the talks will progress, the timing, how much at the expert level and political director level and foreign minister level,” the official said. “Substantively, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. …It’s tempting to hone in on one or two issues….But all of the issues must be addressed for us to get a comprehensive deal” completed.

The U.S. official said that the US and Iran have not had unannounced bilateral meetings going into the final deal talks, as they did last fall to try to advance an interim deal that was reached in Geneva November 24th. But she acknowledged that US and Iranian officials have been in email contact as needed to iron out the details for various measures in the six month deal known as the Joint Plan of Action, under which Iran halted its 20% enrichment, among other measures, in exchange for limited sanctions relief.

The International Atomic Energy Agency is now having daily access to Iran’s Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities, the U.S. official also said. The IAEA is providing monthly reports to the P5+1 on ts verification and monitoring of the steps Iran agreed to take in the Joint Plan of Action, and Iran to date has done what it committed to, she said. The P5+1 have likewise carried out the sanctions relief specifed in the six month deal, she said.

What Iran’s Foreign Minister told German TV about Israel, Iran

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Germany’s Phoenix TV on Sunday (February 2) in Berlin, following his attendance at the Munich Security Summit.

Al-Monitor has transcribed portions of the interview, conducted in English by ZDF journalist Elmar Theveßen, concerning Zarif’s comnents on Israel.

Israeli media reports over the weekend said that Zarif in the interview suggested that if the Israelis and Palestinians reached a peace settlement, then Iranian recognition of Israel might be possible.

But as we listened to the interview, the video of which was released in the original English on Tuesday, it was the interviewer who asked Zarif if Israel and Palestine reached a resolution, would Iran then be prepared to recognize the state of Israel. And Zarif’s answer was more equivocal. While not explicitly ruling it out, Zarif said it was up to the Palestinians to determine if they were satisfied with the agreement, and that Iran would not interfere:

Phoenix TV: So let me turn this around, sir. Would it be fair to say then, would you agree, that If the Palestinian issue can be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, would then Iran be willing to recognize the state of Israel?

Zarif: You see, that is a sovereign decision that Iran will make. But it will have no consequences on the situation on the ground in the Middle East. If the Palestinians are happy with the solution, then nobody, nobody outside Palestine, could prevent that from taking place. The problem for the past 60 years is that the Palestinians have not been happy. The Palestinians have not been satisfied. And they have every right not to be satisfied, because their most basic rights continue to be violated and people are not ready to redress those.

Here is the transcript of the relevant portion of the interview, from about 20 to 30 minutes in, below the jump: Continue reading

US negotiator hears, amid skepticism, Senate support for diplomacy with Iran

With support waning for Iran sanctions legislation, top US Iran negotiator Wendy Sherman and Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen testified on the Iran nuclear deal to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday.

Despite sinking prospects for the Iran sanctions bill he co-sponsored, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Robert Menendez (D-NJ) expressed continued deep skepticism about the terms of the interim Iran nuclear deal which went into effect on Jan. 20, and to be looking for ways to constrain the administration’s hand for negotiating a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal.

But the nitpicking, somewhat sour tone of the hearing was broken by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who made an impassioned case for aggressive US diplomacy with Iran, while defending colleagues who supported the Iran sanctions legislation from charges of war-mongering.

“We have to be able to look allies and citizens & [US service members] in the eye and tell them we exhausted every diplomatic effort,” Kaine told the hearing. “We have got to give diplomacy a chance. …. We have to return to the tradition of aggressive diplomacy.”

“Everyone would prefer a diplomatic path to [a] non-nuclear Iran,” Kaine said. “We have good faith differences on tactics.”

Kaine’s comments, praised by several other Senators, prompted Sherman to reach out to lawmakers, some of whom had championed the sanctions legislation the Obama White House fiercely opposed and threatened to veto. “I don’t believe any of you are war mongers,” Sherman said. “I don’t believe anyone prefers war.”

If diplomacy is unable to succeed in getting Iran to forgo a nuclear weapon and the US ultimately decides it needs to use force, “I want to be able to say at the end of the day, we have exhausted every opportunity to negotiate a diplomatic” solution, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) said, noting he had not declared a position on the sanctions bill, and praising Kaine’s defense of colleagues on both sides of it.

Another member of the panel, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), noted that he had been on a panel with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Munich Security Summit last weekend.

Earlier in the hearing, Menendez had pressed Sherman on the administration’s terms for a comprehensive nuclear deal. Sherman said she doesn’t want to negotiate with Iran in public, ahead of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal talks set to get underway in Vienna Feb. 18. But in response to his questions, she said the United States does not believe the underground Fordo site should be an enrichment facility in a final deal, or that Iran should have a heavy water reactor.

“Where Fordo is concerned, we see no reason for it to remain an enrichment facility,” Sherman said. Asked about Arak, she said, “We do not believe [there is] any reason for [a] heavy water reactor.”

Asked about how many centrifuges Iran could have in a final deal, Sherman responded, “I am not going to get into a specific number in this setting, but that needs to be addressed.” “Will there need to be a reduction?” Menendez asked. “Yes,” Sherman said.

She also clarified some misunderstandings about the centrifuge research and development Iran is permitted to do under the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA). Iran, under the JPOA, cannot work on advanced centrifuges not listed in Nov 14 2013 IAEA report, she said. It can only replace centrifuges in enrichment sites of the same type, not with more advanced models, she said.

The Joint Plan of Action “required Iran to come clean on past actions as part of a comprehensive agreement,” Sherman said. She suggested there will be an additional step or steps between the Phase 1 deal and the final deal, to bring Iran into compliance with UN Security Council resolutions, that would require Iran to address questions such as possible military dimensions to its nuclear program and alleged weaponization work carried out at the Parchin facility to which the IAEA has not gotten requested access.

“Iran has not rejected” addressing it, Sherman said. “It knows it has to be addressed.” Continue reading

Roundup: Obama to Riyadh, Israel DM in front row for Zarif talk

  • The White House confirmed that President Obama will travel to Saudi Arabia in March.
  • Hillary Clinton announces her opposition to new Iran sanctions in a Jan. 26 letter (.pdf) to Sen. Carl Levin.
  • Some 70 House Democrats reportedly sign a letter favoring diplomacy with Iran.
  • Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the Holocaust a “horrifying tragedy” that “should never occur again” in an interview with Germany’s Phoenix TV.
  • In a shift, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon sat in the front row during Zarif’s panel at the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (photo top right).
  • Iran Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian announced that Iran will host a conference on Syrian humanitarian assistance involving Swiss, Syrian and Iranian officials in Tehran. Last week, Amir-Abdollahian denied an Al Jazeera report that Iranian officials were meeting in Bern with the Syrian sides.
  • Turkish President Abdullah Gul shows daylight with PM Erdogan on Syria policy.
  • GOP Senators say John Kerry expressed frustration with Russia slow-rolling US on Syria.
  • Iran’s top clergy backs Hassan Rouhani’s nuclear diplomacy.

Iran FM Zarif, meeting Kerry, says not authorized to discuss Syria


Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference for just over an hour Sunday.

They discussed upcoming comprehensive Iran nuclear negotiations set to get underway in Vienna this month, and the case of Americans detained or missing in Iran.

But notably, when Kerry raised the issue of Syria, Zarif indicated that he was not authorized to discuss it, a U.S. official told Al-Monitor.

“Secretary Kerry raised his concerns about the delay in moving chemical weapons to the port in Latakia, and the humanitarian situation on the ground specifically in the besieged areas,” a senior US official told Al-Monitor Sunday. “He also urged Iran to show a willingness to play a constructive role in bringing an end to the conflict.”

“Foreign Minister Zarif made clear that he did not have the authority to discuss Syria and the focus of the meeting was on the nuclear negotiations,” the U.S. official said.

It was apparently the first time the State Department has acknowledged that Kerry has tried to raise the issue of Syria directly with the Iranians–and that it was the Iranian envoy who rebuffed it.

Kerry and Zarif, who met for just over an hour, “discussed the upcoming negotiations with the P5+1 and the EU on a comprehensive agreement that will begin in Vienna” later this month, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a readout of the meeting.

Kerry “reiterated the importance of both sides negotiating in good faith and Iran abiding by its commitments under the Joint Plan of Action,” Psaki said.  “He also made clear that the United States will continue to enforce existing sanctions.”

Kerry also brought up the case of US citizens detained or believed missing in Iran, Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati, and Saeed Abedini, and cooperation to try to secure their release, Psaki said.

Six world powers and Iran will launch the first round of negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear accord in Vienna on February 18th, the European Union and Iran announced last week.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, speaking to the Wall Street Journal Sunday, said everyone expects the talks on a final deal would be very difficult, and that the parties would take the time “necessary to get this to be the right agreement.” She also said she has accepted an invitation to travel to Iran sometime after the Vienna round of nuclear talks.

Also in Munich, Israeli officials remained in the room during Zarif’s speech to the Munich Security Conference Sunday. (The photo at the right shows Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Bogie Ya’alon in the front row, last seat, watching Zarif’s address to the Munich Security Conference Sunday.)

But Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz had harsh words for Kerry, who got asked in the Q/A after his address to the conference Saturday about the campaign to boycott goods and divest from Israel’s settlements. The boycotts/divestment solidarity (BDS) campaign has recently received global attention because of actress Scarlett Johansson’s dismissal as a special ambassador from Oxfam International because of her association with the SodaStream company, which has a factory in the West Bank settlement of Maale Adunim. “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a gun to its head,” Steinitz reportedly complained to reporters about Kerry’s comments.

The State Department pushed back forcefully against Steinitz’s attack, saying it was misleading to suggest that Kerry supported the boycott campaign or had threatened Israel with it.

Continue reading

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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