Diplomats from Iran and the European Union said Friday that they were able to reach agreement on implementing the Iran nuclear accord. Pending review by capitals of six world powers, an announcement on a start date for the accord to go into force could come as soon as the weekend.
Negotiators “made very good progress on all the pertinent issues,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for the EU, said Friday. “This is now under validation at political level in capitals.”
The announcement came after two days of talks in Geneva between European Union deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi. Lead US negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, accompanied by her non-proliferation advisor James Timbie and Treasury Department’s Adam Szubin, also held bilateral meetings in Geneva Thursday with Araghchi’s team as well as met with Schmid, the State Department said.
“A final decision is to be made in capitals and a result to be announced within the next two days, ” Araghchi told Iranian media Friday.
The progress in Geneva came as Iran sanctions legislation opposed by the White House had by Friday attracted a total of 59 Senate co-sponsors, not yet the 67 needed to override a presidential veto.
But notably, the bill has gotten mostly GOP support, attracting only two Democrats and 25 Republicans as co-sponsors since it was first introduced last month by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois). Continue reading →
The White House, State Department and ten Senate Committee chairs warned on Thursday that new Iran sanctions legislation introduced by Senator Bob Menendez risks undermining U.S. diplomatic efforts to reach a peaceful resolution with Iran over its nuclear program.
“We don’t want to see action that will proactively undermine American diplomacy,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at the White House Thursday. “We made it very clear to the Senate that it is not the time for new Iran sanctions. We don’t think it will be or should be enacted.”
“New sanctions would undermine the prospects for a successful comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran,” the US intelligence community wrote in an unclassified assessment provided to members of Congress December 10th.
The assessment was cited by 10 Senate Committee chairs in an unusual letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid urging against new Iran sanctions at this time.
“At this time, as negotiations are ongoing, we believe that new sanctions would play into the hands of those in Iran who are most eager to see the negotiations fail,” the ten Senate committee chairs wrote, in a letter to Reid that was signed by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin (D-Michigan), Intelligence Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein (D-California), Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Appropriations Committee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer (D-California), Commerce Committee Chair John Rockefeller (West Virginia), Homeland Security Committee chair Tom Carper, Energy Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), and Health, Education and Labor Committee chair Tom Harkin of Iowa.
Several veteran Hill hands expressed amazement at what one called the “unprecedented” letter by the ten Senate committee chairs, several of whom are Jewish, for publicly countering a fellow Senate committee chair Menendez and AIPAC, which has been pressing members of Congress to back the measure. “The new Senate bill defines parameters for a final agreement with Iran,” AIPAC wrote in a Tweet Thursday.
Sen. Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and chair of the Senate foreign relations panel, on Thursday introduced the Nuclear Weapon Free Act of 2013 on behalf of 26 Senators, including several facing reelection races next year. Among the co-sponsors were Senators Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), Lindsay Graham (R-South Carolina), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania). Continue reading →
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On the eve of his trip to New York, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani continued his charm offensive, publishing an op-ed in the Washington Post Friday urging world leaders to “seize the opportunity presented by Iran’s recent election” and his “mandate” for “prudent engagement.”
“To move beyond impasses, whether in relation to Syria, my country’s nuclear program or its relations with the United States, we need to aim higher,” Rouhani wrote in the Post. “Rather than focusing on how to prevent things from getting worse, we need to think — and talk — about how to make things better.”
Rouhani’s push for dialogue on both regional and nuclear issues came as the White House continued to assert U.S. willingness for direct talks.
“We have heard a lot in the world from President Rouhani’s administration about its desire to improve the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s relations with the international community,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Thursday. “And President Obama believes we should test that assertion, and we are and we will do that.”
In his letter to Rouhani, “the President indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” Carney said. “The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency.”
Ahead of Rouhani's arrival in New York, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was scheduled to meet with Iranian scholars and think tank experts in New York Friday. Zarif is due to hold talks with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton Monday, and with the British and Russian foreign ministers later in the week.
Rouhani will likely meet with French President Francois Hollande in New York on Tuesday, a French official told Al-Monitor Friday.
The White House has signaled Obama’s openness to meet with Rouhani, but has previously said there are no current plans for a meeting.
The media has gone into a frenzy about the possibility of an Obama-Rouhani handshake in New York. Both leaders are due to address the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday September 24th, Obama as the second speaker in the morning, and Rouhani, the seventh, in the afternoon.
“People here [in Washington] will want to see something very real from Tehran,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, told Al-Monitor Friday. “And of course the US has to reciprocate. But from the dominant US perspective, the onus is on Iran.”
Amir Mohebbian, a political commentator in Iran, told the New York Times in an interview that Iran is seeking short-term relief from sanctions imposed on its ability to transfer money. “We particularly want to be readmitted to the Swift system,” Mohebbian told the Times. What Iran would be willing to trade for such a concession is not yet clear, but scholars in the orbit of Zarif and Rouhani have suggested they would be amenable in an end-state deal to more aggressive IAEA monitoring and safeguards, capping enrichment at 5%, and limiting the number of Iran's centrifuges and enrichment sites.
“All the optics from Tehran — even from Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — indicate that Iran is gearing up for a new attempt at a nuclear deal,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote at Foreign Policy Thursday. “If a deal can't be made in the next few months, it's hard to see another opportunity when the chances would ever be this good again.”
The new Iranian “administration has opened a door to a better relationship, and one better for the United States, about as widely as such doors ever are opened,” Paul Pillar, former senior US intelligence analyst, wrote at the National Interest. “The United States would be foolish not to walk through it.”
(Photo: Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Getty.)zp8497586rq
President Obama wrote Iran’s President that he sees a way to resolve the nuclear issue, the White House said Wednesday, amid the latest signal that the US and Iran are moving towards direct talks.
“In his letter the president indicated that the U.S. is ready to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that allows Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday, Reuters reported.
“The letter also conveyed the need to act with a sense of urgency,” Carney said.
“There is an opportunity here for diplomacy,” Obama told Telemundo in an interview Tuesday. “And I hope the Iranians take advantage of it.”
Meantime, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told NBC’s Ann Curry in an interview in Tehran Wednesday that Iran will “never develop nuclear weapons under any circumstances,” Curry told NBC's Andrea Mitchell.
Rouhani also said that he has “full authority to make a nuclear deal with the west,” Curry said. “The nuclear issue is on the table.”
He also praised the “tone” of the letter he received from Obama as “positive and constructive,” he told Curry.
Rouhani's signals of interest in dialogue seemed to be endorsed this week by Iran's hardline Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “I am not opposed to correct diplomacy,” Khamenei said in a meeting with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps Tuesday, Al-Monitor's Arash Karami, citing ISNA, reported. “I believe in what was named many years ago as ‘heroic flexibility.”
The exchange of more positive comments between the American and Iranian leaders come as Iran on Wednesday freed a dozen political prisoners, including the prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and the reformist former deputy foreign minister Mohsen Aminzadeh.
Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in New York Wednesday and was meeting with senior officials and permanent representatives of the United Nations, Alireza Miryousefi, the spokesperson for Iran's mission to the UN, said Wednesday on Twitter.
Obama and Rouhani are due to address the UN General Assembly in New York next Tuesday, Sept. 24th.
(Photo of NBC's Ann Curry interviewing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on September 18th by Hooman Majd.)
In a potentially dramatic turn of events, Russia on Monday announced that it would immediately urge Syria to turn over its chemical weapons to international control as a way to avert U.S.–led military strikes.
“We are calling on the Syrian leadership to not only agree on placing chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also on its subsequent destruction and fully joining the treaty on prohibition of chemical weapons,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at an emergency press conference in Moscow Monday, following meetings with Syria’s visiting foreign minister Walid al-Moallem.
Lavrov said he had “already handed over the proposal to al-Moallem and expects a quick, and, hopefully, positive answer,’” the Associated Press reported.
“If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in that country would allow avoiding strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus,” Lavrov said.
Moallem, speaking from Moscow on Syrian State TV shortly later Monday, said Syria welcomed the Russian initiative. But it was not immediately clear from his reported comments whether “welcoming” the proposal constituted acceptance of it.
“The Syrian Arab Republic welcomes the Russian initiative, motivated by the Syrian leadership's concern for the lives of our citizens and the security of our country, and motivated by our confidence in the wisdom of the Russian leadership, which is attempting to prevent American aggression,” Moallem was quoted as saying by ITV News.
The surprise turn in developments followed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry telling reporters in London Monday that Syria could avert strikes only if it agreed to turn over all of its chemical weapons by next week.
“He could turn over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week,” Kerry said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague Monday. “Turn it over, all of it, without delay, and allow a full and total accounting for that.”
“But he isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done, obviously,” Kerry added.
Kerry's remark–subsequently downplayed by State Department spokespeople as merely “rhetorical” and “hypothetical,” and characterized by another unnamed U.S. official to CNN as a “goof”–was followed by a telephone conversation between Kerry and Russia’s Lavrov Monday, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
The Russian proposal emerged just as the White House is ramping up its public outreach as it presses Congress to vote to authorize the President to conduct limited military strikes to deter chemical weapons use in Syria.
President Obama is scheduled to give a half dozen television news interviews on Monday, and to give a prime time address to the nation Tuesday night at 9pm ET.
U.S. officials reacted to the news out of Moscow with skepticism Monday, suggesting it may be a stalling tactic, but promising to give the Russian proposal a “hard” look.
“Any effort to put Assad's chemical weapons under international control would be a positive step,” State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said at the department press briefing Monday. But we have “serious, deep skepticism.”
It's “even more important” that the United States doesn't take the pressure off Syria now, White House spokesman Jay Carney said at the White House press briefing Monday. The Russian initiative is “explicitly in reaction to [the] threat of retaliation” by the United States.
Notably, amid the official expressions of skepticism, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at the White House Monday after a meeting with President Obama, reiterated the conditions under which such a deal might be feasible.
“Now, if the regime immediately surrendered its stockpiles to international control as was suggested by Secretary Kerry and the Russians, that would be an important step,” Clinton said. “But this cannot be another excuse for delay or obstruction. And Russia has to support the international community's efforts sincerely, or be held to account.”
Initial reaction from the Hill ranged from cautious to skeptical—but did not entirely shut off openness to see if the Russian proposal pans out.
“While at this point I have healthy skepticism that this offer will change the situation and it will be several days before we can fully determine its credibility, I do know that it never would have been floated if the Senate Foreign Relations Committee had not approved the authorization for the use of force last week,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations panel, said in a statement Monday.
“We shouldn’t get our hopes up too high,” Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said.
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Even amid mounting signs the U.S. will soon conduct strikes in Syria, the White House made clear Tuesday that the purpose of the intervention would be limited and narrow, to uphold the universal prohibition on the use of chemical weapons. There were also signs of intensifying UN diplomacy behind the scenes to make way for a Syria peace conference in Geneva this fall.
“I want to make clear that the options that we are considering are not about regime change,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists at a White House press conference Tuesday. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.”
While “it is our firm conviction that Syria’s future cannot include Assad in power,” Carney continued, “this deliberation and the actions that we are contemplating are not about regime change.”
“We believe…that resolution of this conflict has to come through political negotiation and settlement,” Carney said.
Indeed, even as the U.S. advanced its public case for a limited air campaign in Syria, there were signs of intensifying United Nations preparations for a Geneva 2 Syria transition talks conference.
UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman, a former top US diplomat, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif Monday on Syria, and reportedly urged Iran to be calm if there is US-led action on Syria.
“Mr. Feltman shared the U.N. position that Iran, given its influence and leadership in the region, has an important role to play and a responsibility in helping to bring the Syrian parties to the negotiating table,” UN spokesman Farhan Haq said Tuesday, Reuters reported.
Feltman, in his meetings in Iran, discussed “the worsening situation on the ground in Syria, including the U.N.'s grave concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons and how the U.N. can work together with Iran and other states to end the bloodshed and suffering of the Syrian people,” Haq said.
UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, meantime, is scheduled to give a news conference from Geneva on Wednesday. (Brahimi has reportedly reportedly moved his base to Geneva to prepare for the conference.)
Following Feltman's visit, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, notably, issued a strong call for the international community to uphold the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.
“Iran gives notice to international community to use all its might to prevent use of chemical weapons anywhere in the world, esp. in Syria,” Rouhani wrote on his official Twitter account Tuesday, after noting, twice, that it is his only official English language Twitter feed, and that Iran has itself been the victim of chemical weapons attack, by Iraq in the 1980s.
Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday began laying out the US case for limited international military action in Syria, saying it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons were used in a mass casualty attack last week that he described as a “moral obscenity” that shocks “the conscience of the world.”
“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department on Monday. “What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”
“Make no mistake: President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said.
Kerry’s unusually forceful comments came as a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team got its first access to the site of the alleged chemical attack, in the outskirts of Damascus, five days after it occurred.
Kerry said the fact that the Syrian government did not agree to grant access to the site before Sunday and carried on shelling and attacking the area was an attempt to destroy evidence.
“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling,” Kerry said. “Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.”
“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Kerry said. “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence. That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”
“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry said.
Kerry said the US has additional intelligence attributing the attack to Syrian forces including from partners that it was reviewing with allies and would start presenting to the public in the coming days.
Even as the U.S. began laying out its case for action, Moscow was ratcheting up arguments against any sort of Syria intervention, and casting doubt on western assessments of Syrian culpability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, reportedly insisted that there had been no chemical weapons attack in Syria at all.
His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference Monday, expressed doubts about the veracity of amateur videos of the alleged attack in Ghouta, and railed against the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Libya.
But Lavrov also signaled Moscow wasn’t planning to become involved in hostilities against western action in Syria. “Of course, we're not going to war with anyone,” Lavrov told the news conference. Continue reading →
White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to press questions Monday about Israeli leaks of alleged U.S. intelligence on Iran.
“We have a shared interest with Israel, countries in the region and around the world in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and we cooperate accordingly,” Carney told journalists aboard Air Force One en route to Nebraska Monday when asked about Israeli leaks of U.S. Iran intelligence.
Asked again if leaks are complicating the matter, Carney didn’t exactly deny that any such leaks had occurred.
“We, as you know, have a robust, cooperative relationship with Israel on security matters; we share a great deal of information, and especially about Iran,” he said.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak raised eyebrows in the United States last week when he said that a new U.S. intelligence report “making the rounds” in Washington “transforms the Iranian situation into an even more urgent one.”
“Apparently a report by American intelligence agencies – I don’t know if it’s under the title NIE or under another title – which is making the rounds of high offices …comes very close to our own estimate, I would say, as opposed to earlier American estimates,” Barak told Israel Radio August 9, CBS News reported. (However, the last US NIE on Iran is from late 2010, experts told Al-Monitor, who said it would not be unusual if there was a new, more focused report on a narrow aspect of Iran’s nuclear program.)
Carney reiterated Monday that the US administration and its allies believe “there remains time and space to pursue a diplomatic course” with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said that “they had not yet made a decision about taking action, kinetic action,” Carney noted. Continue reading →
NATO ambassadors, meeting in Brussels Tuesday, expressed strong solidarity with member nation Turkey over Syria’s downing of a Turkish military reconnaissance plane last week (June 22). But the 28-member military alliance remained muted on the looming question of what further action it may be willing to contemplate, vowing only to “remain seized” of developments.
“Let me make this clear: The security of the Alliance is indivisible,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a press briefing following the meeting of the North Atlantic Council Tuesday. “We stand together with Turkey in the spirit of strong solidarity.”
“I would certainly expect that such an incident won’t happen again,” Rasmussen said. “Should anything happen Allies will remain seized of development, we closely monitor the situation and if necessary we will consult and discuss what else could be done.”
The White House, echoing the expressions of solidarity from Brussels, also praised Ankara’s “measured response” so far.
“The United States and NATO stand in solidarity with Turkey,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told journalists on Air Force One Tuesday. “We will work with Turkey and other partners to hold the Assad regime accountable and to continue to push forward for Syria’s needed political transition.”
“We commend Turkey for its measured response thus far,” Carney added.
The meeting in Brussels came as reports emerged Tuesday suggesting the downed Turkish aircraft–an unarmed RF-4E Phantom reconnaissance fighter jet–may have been conducting a spying mission over Syria. But Turkey’s deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc, while acknowledging in comments Monday the craft was outfitted for espionage, “strongly denied it was doing so on this particular mission,” the New York Timesreported, in an article noting that the downed 2-seat aircraft “has the ability to gather high-resolution imagery about 60 miles from the target, aviation experts said.”
Syria says the plane was shot down in self-defense after straying into Syrian airspace and that it did not know it was a Turkish plane. Ankara vehemently denies this, hinting it has some technological evidence–such as intercepted radar communications–to prove it.
Back in Brussels Tuesday, the military alliance did not discuss possibly declaring the plane downing an attack on the entire alliance, Rasmussen indicated. Such an invocation of NATO’s Article 5 has only once occurred—after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. Continue reading →