Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran

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Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

Kerry staff shifts as State appointments gather pace


One of John Kerry’s most experienced advisors has had to step back from his job as deputy chief of staff, but is staying on for now at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

William Danvers, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director and a former Clinton and Obama administration national security official, had some medical concerns, but is apparently cleared to ease back into work. His role appears to have shifted however from deputy chief of staff to other assignments, officials said. Danvers declined to comment.

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White House names Sherwood-Randall new defense/WMD coordinator


The White House last week named National Security Staff Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth “Liz” Sherwood-Randall as the new coordinator for defense and WMD, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

Sherwood-Randall will take up her duties as the first White House Coordinator for Defense Policy, Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction, and Arms Control on April 8, the White House said in a March 19 announcement.

The Back Channel first reported last month that Sherwood-Randall may be tapped to succeed WMD czar Gary Samore, who left the administration in January for the Harvard Belfer Center; and subsequently reported that the defense and WMD portfolios were expected to be combined under the new coordinator position.

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White House names Philip Gordon new coordinator for Middle East, Persian Gulf

The White House on Saturday named Philip Gordon Special Assistant to the President and Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

“Today, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon announced that Philip Gordon will be joining the National Security Staff as Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region,” the White House said in a press statement Saturday. “He will take up his duties beginning on March 11.”

“Phil has been a key member of President Obama’s foreign policy team for the past four years and his work with our European Allies and partners has been indispensable in helping us to formulate policy and address issues around the globe, including Libya, Syria and Iran,” Donilon said in the statement.  “His appointment further strengthens a superb team that includes Puneet Talwar, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq, and Prem Kumar, Acting Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa.”

Gordon has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs since 2009. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is rumored to be in the mix to succeed Gordon as A/S for Europe.
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Gordon takes up his duties as President Obama heads to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan later this month, and days after Iran and six world powers agreed to hold two more rounds of nuclear talks in Istanbul and Kazakhstan in the next few weeks. Continue reading

EU: Iran talks officially set

Iran will resume nuclear talks with six world powers on Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, European Union diplomats said Tuesday.

“Helga Schmid, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, agreed today with Dr Ali Bagheri, Deputy Secretary of the supreme national security council of Iran, that the next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran on Iran's nuclear programme will take place in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 26th February,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Tuesday.

Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for agreeing to host the meeting. (A US official noted that “Kazakhstan is a country that had a nuclear weapons program and voluntarily gave it up in the ‘90s,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday.  “So it sets a powerful example.”)

Talks have been on hiatus since last summer, after three rounds of talks failed to narrow agreement on a deal under which Iran would stop its 20% enrichment activities.

Iran notified the IAEA last week that it intends to install as many as 3,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its enrichment plant at Natanz.

Iran has been giving mixed signals about returning to the negotiating table, as well as whether it would take up an offer for direct talks with the United States.

Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for his part, expressed optimism on Monday. Continue reading

Hagel assures Jewish groups on Israel, Iran

Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, met with leaders of several American Jewish organizations at the White House last week in an effort to alleviate any of their concerns ahead of his confirmation hearing, officials and Jewish groups said.

Hagel’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee has been scheduled for Jan. 31st.

“Senator Hagel met with the leadership of several major American Jewish organizations at the White House as a part of his ongoing outreach,” an official working on Sen. Hagel’s confirmation told the Back Channel Tuesday.

“He discussed his commitment to the U.S.-Israel relationship, including his determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, to maintaining Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge, and to sustaining the Obama Administration’s unprecedented security cooperation with Israel,” the official said. “He appreciated the opportunity to have a constructive, informed and wide-ranging discussion.”

The meeting, held at the White House last Friday Jan. 18th, included representatives from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti- Defamation League (ADL), and the AJC, as well as Vice President Biden.

The meeting was “an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion of key issues of importance to all of us.,” a statement from the Conference of Presidents sent to journalists Monday said.

Meantime, a former ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee argued that allegations that Hagel is “indifferent to Israel” or “soft on Iran” are “false.” Continue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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In shift, Obama’s National Security Council staff step up public case for president’s policies

Exercising the White House prerogative to operate mostly in the dark, President Obama’s National Security Council staff have tended to be seldom heard and seen; but in recent weeks, that’s changed, and the Obama national security staff (NSS) have been making the rounds.

Recent appearances include: top White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan discussing drone strikes at the Wilson Center Monday, top NSS Europe hand Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall talking the upcoming NATO summit at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); a trio of NSC aides led by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the Chicago Council on World Affairs on the summit last week; White House WMD czar Gary Samore talked Iran and North Korea nukes to a Hill audience last week; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough is due to address a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference Sunday. And somewhat unusually, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s travel to Moscow was announced in advance by NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor Wednesday rather than after he got back, as has mostly been the pattern previously.

It’s not clear what exactly accounts for these new and welcome stirrings of openness from the White House–the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden? the US presidential campaign?

Brennan, for his part, told the Woodrow Wilson Center Monday that Obama himself had instructed his aides to be more open about U.S. counter-terrorism policies, including the previously universally known, but not officially acknowledged, U.S. use of drone strikes.

“President Obama believes that—done carefully, deliberately and responsibly—we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security,” Brennan said, continuing:

So let me say it as simply as I can.  Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.  And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.

Whatever accounts for the NSC’s new spirit of glasnost, however, it has apparently come at a cost. Namely, putting the NSC’s usually low-profile top dog Tom Donilon in the cross-hairs of the parody newspaper the Onion, which cites “White House sources” Thursday to report that Donilon has apparently been feeling a bit left out:

According to White House sources, President Obama gently urged his staff Monday to try to include national security adviser Thomas Donilon a little more in the operation of the U.S. government’s executive branch, having observed the senior aide is still struggling to fit in. … Continue reading