Beyond US strikes, signs of intensifying UN diplomacy on Syria

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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.

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Former top US diplomat Jeff Feltman meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader


Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.

Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.

American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.

Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.

Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”

“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.

Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”

But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.

And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.

The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program. Continue reading

UN’s Ban to attend Iran summit, over US, Israeli requests

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will attend a conference in Tehran next week, over the objections of Israel and the United States, his spokesman said Wednesday.

“In Tehran, Ban will raise Iran’s nuclear program, terrorism, human rights and the crisis in Syria,” Ban’s spokesman Martin Nesirky told journalists at the UN Wednesday.

Ban will visit Iran for three days, August 29-31, to participate in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, Nesirky said. He will also hold discussions with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Some 30 leaders are expected to attend the 16th NAM summit, including Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.The non-aligned movement is a Cold War legacy, comprised of some 120 countries that were ostensibly independent of the US or Soviet blocs.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had publicly lobbied Ban to reject the invitation, in an effort to signal Iran’s growing isolation over its nuclear program. The State Department more recently also encouraged Ban to skip the meeting, though its protests seemed a bit pro forma. (US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, now traveling in India, also had urged Ban not to go, InnerCityPress reported.)

Ban “was fully aware of the sensitivities, and fully aware of the responsibilities” in choosing to attend the meeting, Nesirky said Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

Whatever diplomatic victory Iran may claim from Ban’s RSVP, his discussions with Iranian leaders are likely to be tense.  P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program have made little progress, and the UN International Atomic Energy Agency is due to issue a new report on Iran’s nuclear program at the end of the month.

A firm date has not yet been finalized for an anticipated phone call between chief international nuclear negotiator, EU High Rep Catherine Ashton and Iran’s Saeed Jalili, to discuss how to proceed, a European Union spokesperson told Al Monitor Wednesday.

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Who will Obama nominate to be US envoy to Iraq? A short list

In the wake of Obama’s nominee for Iraq ambassador withdrawing his name from consideration last week after an unusually bruising ordeal, it’s a fair bet the Obama administration is inclined to go with a safe, more easily confirm-able pick for its next nominee for the post.

Washington Iraq experts say they expect the new nominee to be announced in the next couple weeks, and have offered a somewhat lengthy list of diplomats they have heard are in the mix for the post overseeing the largest US embassy in the world.

The last US Ambassador to Iraq, Jim Jeffrey, left Baghdad earlier this month and formally retired from the State Department in a ceremony last week. His deputy, the Chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Baghdad, Robert Stephen Beecroft, is currently the de facto acting ambassador, conducting meetings that the ambassador otherwise would have. Several Washington Iraq hands consider that the administration may decide to keep Beecroft, a former US Ambassador to Jordan and career foreign service officer, in the job.

Another leading contender on the short list is the current US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones, according to a source close to the administration who declined to be identified. Jones was confirmed last summer as the US Ambassador to Jordan—perhaps the best indicator of his ability to get confirmed in the current atmosphere. He previously served as the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Iraq and was very involved in the transition from Pentagon- to State-lead of US efforts in the country. Jones also previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, DCM in Cairo, Governor Coordinator for Al Anbar Province, Iraq; and as Iraq/Iran director in the NSC, among other assignments and is considered to be a rising star in the State Department (and White House). Meantime, the situation in Jordan is considered to have stabilized sufficiently after some initial jitters early into the Arab uprisings that it is not considered overly disruptive to possibly move Jones next door to Iraq, if the nomination proceeds, all things considered, sources suggested.

Other contenders: several Washington Iraq “hawks” are rumored to want US envoy to Syria, Robert Ford, for Iraq. (Though some of the same hawks previously moved to block Ford’s confirmation for the Syria post in 2010, but later changed their minds.) Ford, one of the State Department’s leading Arabists, previously served as the deputy ambassador in Iraq, and as ambassador to Algeria,  speaks fluent Arabic and has impressed Republicans and Democrats alike with his principled and brave show of support for Syrian demonstrators even as the US embassy in Damascus had to close for security reasons late last year. Continue reading

Diplomatic exodus?

The United States is in the midst of losing some of its top diplomats to retirement. Among the departures underway:

US Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey left Baghdad last week and will retire from the State Department; US Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker will step down from the job this summer reportedly for health reasons. US Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter plans to leave the post this summer after two  years in Islamabad, and retire from the State Department in the fall. And the top US Middle East troubleshooter, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Jeff Feltman, retired from the State Department last week to take a top UN post. (Beth Jones is acting Assistant Secretary for Near East affairs since Feltman’s departure.)

All the posts are grueling and the departures, individually, understandable. But is there some larger reason that explains why State is losing so much diplomatic firepower at this time? Continue reading

Top US Mideast diplomat expected to take senior UN post

Reuters’ Arshad Mohammed and Warren Strobel report that veteran US Middle East troubleshooter Jeff Feltman is expected to take a top job at the United Nations:

Feltman, who is assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, is expected to replace Lynn Pascoe, another career U.S. diplomat, as U.N. under-secretary-general for political affairs, a key post at the world body.

In that position, Feltman would help to formulate U.N. policy in negotiations on the Middle East peace process and other conflicts and to oversee U.N. mediation efforts.

It was not clear when Feltman might step down but one source said it could be as early as next week.

The State Department isn’t officially commenting yet, but would normally wait for his new agency to announce the posting.

Feltman, the former US ambassador to Lebanon, is one of the most well regarded, straight shooting diplomats in the US government. He recently topped the Obama administration’s shortlist for next US envoy to Iraq, but was considered too essential for being able to work the whole Middle East region amid the Arab uprisings.

One wonders if this move may be, in part, a vote of frustration at the lack of effective US leadership on the Middle East peace process.