Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Burns to retire, led back channel to Iran

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Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the veteran U.S. diplomat who helped President Obama open a back channel to Iran last year, will retire from the Foreign Service in October, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

“It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy,” Kerry said in a press statement Friday.

“With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues,” Kerry said. “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Like so many others who worked with him, I have seen Bill Burns as a mentor– [and] have learned so much by watching how he does his job,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter.

Burns, in a letter informing Kerry of his decision to retire in October after 32 years serving 10 US Secretaries of State, wrote that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President….You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.”

Burns, in an interview with Al-Monitor in January, said while reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would be very challenging, it should be achievable.

“The truth is, at the end of the day … if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon … we’ve made clear…we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” Burns said.

“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” he added. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”

Burns is only the second career Foreign Service officer to be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State. He has previously served as US Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, among many other positions in his 32 year diplomatic career.

Sources told Al-Monitor that Burns considered retiring last year, but President Obama personally asked him to stay to pursue the Iran diplomatic channel at a critical moment, which he did.

Diplomatic sources previously considered State Department counselor Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken to be possible contenders to succeed Burns as Deputy Secretary.

(Bottom photo of President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

Negotiators at halfway point, move to drafting phase of Iran deal talks


Iran and six world powers have advanced through the first phase of comprehensive nuclear talks and are preparing to shift into the next phase of drafting a final deal accord starting at the next meeting in May, negotiators said in Vienna Wednesday.

“We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Vienna Wednesday.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process,” Ashton said, in a statement subsequently delivered by Zarif in Persian.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.”

“I can say we agree on 50 to 60 percent of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse,” Iran’s Zarif said in a subsequent briefing to Iranian journalists Wednesday.

The next meeting, to be held in Vienna starting May 13th, will be open-ended, diplomats said. The U.S. delegation plans to be there at least a week, a senior U.S. official said, and Zarif suggested it could last up to ten days.

“For all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority,” the senior U.S. official said. “Everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.”

“I think…both Zarif and Ashton are trying to manage expectations, because in the past few days, there have been rumors about the parties starting the drafting of the final agreement as of May, and this created the illusion of agreement,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor from Vienna Wednesday.

The parties “wanted to make sure [to explain that there remain] central differences,” Vaez said. “Although progress has been made on some issues, there are still some sticky points.”

Until this round, the parties “have not got into the bargaining stage that much,” Vaez said. “Mostly they have been focused on providing justifications for each side’s positions and learning more about why each side takes their particular position.”

“From this point on, [they] get into the real bargaining part of this process,” Vaez said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday, described the final deal negotiations as at the “halfway” point, and said he remained “agnostic” about whether they would result in an agreement.

“I’m not expressing optimism, one side or the other,” Kerry said in response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “I remain agnostic and questioning, even as we are just about halfway through.”

“I talked with our team on the ground in Vienna yesterday,” Kerry said. “They are having serious, expert, in-depth, detailed conversations about what it takes to achieve our goal. I mean, of proving that this is a peaceful program.”

The recent rounds of negotiations “were substantive and useful,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “But needless to say, there is still a long way to go. We are working hard.”

(Photo: Final round of Iran comprehensive deal talks in Vienna Wednesday April 9, posted by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf to Twitter.)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. suspends Syria embassy operations

The United States announced Tuesday that it has ordered the Syrian government to immediately cease all operations at its embassy in Washington, D.C. and two honorary consulates in Houston, Texas and Troy, Michigan.

Personnel at the facilities who are not U.S. citizens or legal US residents have been ordered to depart the country.

“For three years, Bashar al-Asad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside…and created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Daniel Rubinstein, the new US Special Envoy for Syria, said in a press statement.

“Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Asad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States,”  Rubinstein said.

There are just two Syrian diplomats left at its embassy in Washington, a Syrian contact told Al-Monitor Tuesday, as well as 8 or 9 local employees. The Syrian diplomats in Washington do not have US residency and will have to leave, the contact said. The State Department gave them til the end of the month to depart..

Ayman Midani serves as the honorary consul general of Syria in Houston, Texas. The last Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, departed in December 2011, to become Syria’s envoy to China.

“The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations,” Rubinstein said.

The chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed the expulsions of the Syrian government personnel, and urged the Obama administration to withdraw diplomatic recognition of, and increase pressure on, the Assad regime.

“I welcome this overdue action,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), said in a joint statement.  “But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

“After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said. “The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

We feel that the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is overwhelming — 10,000 children killed, millions of refugees,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a State Department chat with university students on Tuesday.

Meantime, the Assad regime this week signaled that it “plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Iran chides criticism of Syria elections plan

The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, meeting with UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, criticized international objections to Syria’s Bashar al-Assad running in new elections, and suggested that the UN role in Syria is less than neutral.

Ali Shamkhani, in a two-hour meeting with Brahimi in Tehran Sunday, “expressed strong worry” that the UN was being influenced by the “will of certain countries that are opposed to the restoration of stability in Syria,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. “The SNSC secretary said he was surprised that some countries are worried lest democracy would prevail and the peopleˈs choice would be respected in Syria.”

Brahimi, speaking to reporters at the UN last week, warned if Assad ran in new elections, the Syrian opposition would likely refuse to return to reconciliation talks.

But Syria–and its Iranian patron–seen intent on pressing ahead. “Syria plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Shamkhani, an ethnic Arab who served as Minister of Defense in the Khatami administration, was expected to play a key role in Iran’s handling of the Syria crisis, Ali Hashem reported at Al-Monitor in September.

Brahimi, on a two-day visit to Iran, also met with Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Afffairs, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Monday.

“Illusions have cost 150k lives in Syria,” Zarif wrote on Twitter Monday after meeting Brahimi, before he traveled to Vienna for talks with the P5+1. “Reality check=progress.”

Amir-Abdollahian, according to IRNA, said that Iran has proposed a four-point plan for resolving the Syrian crisis. “The details of the plan have not been publicly announced but we are following up on it through negotiations and diplomatic consultations,” IRNA cited Amir-Abdollahian, who published an article on the plan at Al-Monitor (March 5).

Separately, the State Department on Monday announced that Daniel Rubenstein will succeed Robert Ford as the US Special Envoy for Syria, as Al-Monitor previously reported.

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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.)

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World powers, Iran agree on roadmap for ‘marathon’ nuclear talks

Vienna_ The first round of comprehensive Iran nuclear deal negotiations concluded here Thursday with agreement on all the issues that need to be addressed and a timetable of meetings over the next four months to try to do so.

“We are at the beginning of a very difficult, complex process,” a senior U.S. official said Thursday. “It’s going to be both a marathon and a sprint….We have a long distance to cover in a short period of time.”

“We have had three very productive days during which we have identified all of the issues we need to address in reaching a comprehensive and final agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton announced at a brief joint press conference with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif Thursday morning.

“There is a lot to do,” Ashton said, in a statement that Zarif later gave in Persian. “It won’t be easy but we have made a good start.”

Political directors from six world powers as well as Zarif and Ashton and their teams will reconvene for the next meeting in Vienna on March 17th. That meeting will be preceded by technical experts consultations among the six powers and Iran, that seem like they will become almost ongoing throughout the next months as negotiators aim to advance a comprehensive accord.

“We all feel we made some progress,” the senior U.S. administration official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in a briefing here after the meeting concluded Thursday. “We can’t predict all ahead. But we do now have a path forward for how these negotiations will proceed.”

The US official described the meetings as “constructive and useful,” and said they discussed “both process and substance.” They had produced a “framework for going forward,” she said, although one that is apparently not yet officially on paper. “We are trying to do so in as open and transparent” a manner as possible, the U.S. official said, but “it’s critical to leave space for everyone’s points of view to be heard and taken into account.”

Regarding Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif’s reported complaints about some recent US officials’ statements complicating his efforts to sell the negotiations at home, the U.S. official said the two sides had agreed to try to be thoughtful about what impact their statements to domestic audiences have in the other’s political space. Iranian hardliners have reacted negatively to Secretary of State John Kerry saying in a recent interview that “all options are on the table,” and to US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman telling a Senate committee this month that the comprehensive deal will address such issues as Iran’s ballistic missiles, which are mentioned in UN Security Council resolutions but are not strictly in the nuclear issue purview of the P5+1, according to the Iranians.

In turn, media coverage of Iran’s recent marking of the 35th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, for example, has shown Iranian protesters proclaiming ‘death to America,’ some carrying posters denigrating President Obama and Sherman, among other frequent statements that antagonize Israel and the United States.

“Everybody in the negotiations have domestic audiences and partners with points of view; they say things the other side won’t like,” the US official said. “That is going to happen. What we agreed to try to do is be thoughtful [about the impact] those statements have on the negotiation. And to the extent that we can, try to be thoughtful.”

Indeed, the U.S. official seemed to show a greater degree of sensitivity to widespread Iranian frustration at remaining international sanctions after the recent interim nuclear deal, by talking up for the first time the legitimacy of some business activities now allowed under the six month deal, including auto and petrochemical sales. And she noted that it would be a positive thing if Iranians seeking fuller sanctions relief realized a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal could deliver that.

“If the message to Iran is, when Iran reaches a comprehensive agreement…there is a potential that sanctions would be removed, and therefore Iran would see a more normal business environment, so it’s important to negotiate a comprehensive agreement, that is a useful message,” the U.S. official said. “Sanctions are not an end in itself. We would like to lift them.”

“I think the Iranians see [the meeting] not too differently from what the Americans said publicly,” Reza Marashi, a former State Department official with the National Iranian American Council , told Al-Monitor Thursday in Vienna. “There are a lot of very difficult isues that need to be addressed, and which will require some creative thinking in order to address them.” But negotiators from both sides have gained confidence from their ability to get the interim nuclear deal last fall, despite moments of doubt.

“It is fair to say that this is a very difficult process and it’s fair for one to be skeptical, but it’s unfair to stop the sentence there,” Marashi cited what one senior Iranian negotiator told him Thursday. “To finish the sentence, one must say that everything that has happened up to this point has been unprecedented. We should use that momentum going forward to tackle the very difficult challenges ahead. We should believe that this process can succeed. Otherwise, what’s the point.”

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a press conference at the conclusion of comprehensive nuclear deal talks in Vienna February 20, 2014, by Shargh.)