Kerry and new Iran FM Zarif to meet in NY

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New York__ US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet face to face on Thursday, at a meeting of foreign ministers from six world powers and Iran.

The decision to include Zarif in the P5+1 ministerial meeting was announced by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, after she met for the first time with Zarif Monday in New York.

“What I saw today was the energy and determination” of Zarif and his team to move talks forward, Ashton told journalists after their meeting at the United Nations Monday.

Kerry welcomes Zarif’s “commitment to a substantive response and to his agreement to meeting in the short term with permanent UN Security Council members and Germany coordinated by EU High Representative Ashton to discuss the nuclear program,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Monday.

Ashton and Zarif “talked about a number of issues,” with the discussion “focused on the nuclear issue,” she said. In addition to agreeing that Zarif would join the P5+1 ministerial meeting on Thursday, at 4pm, the two negotiators agreed that their two teams will meet again in Geneva in October, Ashton said.

Meantime, a spokesman for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon told Al-Monitor Monday that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has been invited to attend a luncheon that Ban is hosting for visiting heads of state Tuesday. UN spokesman Martin Nesky said he wasn’t yet sure if Rouhani plans to attend. Rouhani is due to arrive in New York later on Monday.

President Obama plans to attend the lunch, following a meeting with Ban on Tuesday, the White House said last week.

“We hope that the new Iranian government will engage substantively with the international community to reach a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program and to cooperate fully with the IAEA in its investigation,” Psaki said. “We remain ready to work with Iran should the Rouhani administration choose to engage seriously.”

Obama is due to address the UN General Assembly Tuesday morning. Rouhani is scheduled to address the body Tuesday afternoon.

P5+1 consider strategy for meeting new Iran team in NY

New Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is expected to meet with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in New York on September 23, US and Iranian diplomats told Al-Monitor.

Western officials hope the two lead negotiators will be able to agree at the meeting on a new date and venue for resumed P5+1 talks on Iran's nuclear program.

Meantime, the foreign ministers from the P5+1—the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia—are due to meet on Iran in New York, possibly on September 26th, a western official, speaking not attribution, said Thursday. (The State Department said it did not yet have a confirmed date for that meeting.) Iran is not currently expected to attend the meeting, but one source left open the possibility that could potentially change, depending on what Zarif and Ashton decide.

While Zarif is also expected to separately meet with British Foreign Secretary William Hague and with Russia’s Sergei Lavrov, no meeting with the U.S. has been planned, he told Iran’s Press TV in an interview Wednesday.

It’s possible that an impromptu “hallway” meeting could occur between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, but one is not planned, a western source suggested.

The White House has not confirmed but neither denied numerous Iranian reports that President Obama sent new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani a letter last month following his inauguration. A spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council told the Back Channel that they don’t discuss private correspondence. But current and former US officials indicated to the Back Channel they believe such a letter was sent, via Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, who traveled to Iran late last month. Obama is reported to have sent two earlier letters to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in 2009 and earlier this year.

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Ex IDF intel chief: Plan to remove Syria chemical arms 'important test'

Weeks before John Kerry or Russia's Sergei Lavrov, former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin proposed that Russia could force Syria to give up its chemical weapons, as an alternative to US-led military strikes in the wake of the alleged, large-scale nerve gas attack Aug. 21st outside Damascus.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to take Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons out of Syria, Yadlin, the former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief, told Israel's Channel 2 late last month, “that would be an offer that could stop the attack,” the Times of Israel reported August 31. “It would be a 'genuine achievement' for President Obama,” the Times cited Yadlin.

Yadlin, now head of Israel's leading think tank, the Institute for National Strategic Studies (INSS), demurred in an interview Tuesday if he knew the origins of the chemical arms removal plan that he first raised publicly last month, but which US and Russian officials acknowledged only this week that Obama and Putin had previously discussed, including at the G-20 summit last week.

But as head of a think tank trying to come up with 'out of box' ideas to solve complex security problems, the solution made sense, Yadlin told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, given both Washington's reluctance to become deeply enmeshed in Syria's civil war, and because of Putin's influence over Assad.

“When we thought about, since America is not willing to exercise excessive power or a long or decisive campaign against Assad, what will be an outcome that, on the one hand ,will eliminate the future exercise of chemical weapons, and on the other may not…escalate the Syrian civil war into a regional war,” Yadlin said.

“So, we thought that if Assad will be asked by Putin,” he said. “Putin is the key for the deal, because Putin is basically keeping Assad alive.”

“So if [Putin] says to himself, 'OK, I want to avoid an American attack,..and I don’t want to be identified with the chemical attack of Assad, my client, I can really achieve both of these goals by a deal that will end the chemical capabilities of Syria, by…taking [them] out of Syria and destroying” them, Yadlin said.

“And that will give enough diplomatic victory for the [U.S.] president [Obama], that he has done something directly correlated to the crossing of [his] red line,” he continued. “Win win.”

There is, however, “a loser here,” Yadlin said. “The loser is that Assad is not punished for what he has done. And maybe also saying that this allowed him to kill and continue to kill his people with conventional weapons. [But] I think this should be dealt with on another channel.”

The forthcoming United Nations chemical weapons inspector report is not likely to make Russia publicly admit the Syrian regime's alleged complicity in the Aug. 21 attack, Yadlin said.

“The only thing they care about is how to stop the Tomahawks and the B-2s from attacking Syria.” Yadlin said of the Russians.

“That's a very important lesson I think also for the Iranian issue,” he continued. “If you have a credible [threat of a] military attack, it is very likely that it will create a diplomatic solution.”

“If [the US] is serious with military threats, and your enemies and opponents really evaluate and analyze you are going to use it, then the chances you will not have to use it to reach some diplomatic solution is much higher.”

But in Obama projecting a credible threat of military force to punish and deter Syrian chemical weapons use that drove Russia at least to seek a last ditch diplomatic alternative, did the United States not indirectly demonstrate to Iran too its credibility on WMD proliferation?

“This is not enough,” Yadlin said, “especially because of the difficulties in exercising it”–an apparent reference to the political dysfunction and chaos that accompanied Obama's decision to put the decision on Syria strikes to a vote in Congress, which the White House appeared this week to be at risk of losing.

The details of any agreement to secure and remove Syria's chemical weapons also matter enormously, Yadlin said, and are both diplomatically and logistically daunting

“It should be a deal that is not camouflage, not an excuse not to do anything, but a real, performance based and highly legitimate deal,” Yadlin said. “Legitimacy should come from a UN Security Council resolution, which includes chapter 7, the article which says, if the Syrians are not living up to their obligations, force can be used.”

“Second, the timeline is important: don’t let the Syrians drag it [out] for years,” he said. “And then a very well defined mechanism: who is going to be on the ground to take care of it. UN forces, NATO forces, Russian forces…It must be a military force which is very professional, well protected, but with determination to complete the job.”

Asked about reports Russia had already Tuesday objected to a binding UN security council resolution and Putin saying the US must renounce its threat of force to secure the deal, Yadlin said such conditions would be, in his view, deal breakers. “Ok, if they prefer an American attack.”

“If you don't very much insist that the parameters are well defined, I think at the end of the day there will not be not a diplomatic solution, but a diplomatic failure.”

“This will be an important test,” Yadlin said, in international eyes, not just of Russia and Syria, but of Obama.

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Russia urges Syria to surrender chemical arms to avert strikes

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.

(Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov welcomes his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem, left, prior to talks in Moscow on Monday, Sept. 9, 2013. Photo: Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press.)

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Israel bristles at EU measure as Kerry arrives in Amman to push peace talks


Israel on Tuesday bristled at a new European Union directive curtailing EU financial agreements with Jewish settlements built outside Israel’s 1967 borders.

The move comes as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Amman Tuesday, for meetings with Arab diplomats about the peace process, Syria and Egypt.

Some sources said they were informed Monday that there was likely to be a three-way meeting of Israeli, Palestinian and US officials in Jordan while Kerry is there and a formal announcement of a re-launching of talks. U.S. officials however, tried vigorously to downplay the prospect of a big break-through. No trips to Jerusalem or meetings with Israeli officials were planned for this visit, Kerry's sixth to the region since becoming Secretary of State, State Department officials said.

Kerry met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh upon his arrival in Amman Tuesday before heading into what was billed as a private dinner with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Meantime, in Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke harshly against the new EU directive.

“I expect those who want peace in the region to deal with settlements after they solve the Syria crisis and the Iranian threat,” Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday in response to the EU measure, Haaretz reported.

The EU directive, adopted June 30, and due to come into effect 1 January 2014, “will prohibit the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships unless a settlement exclusion clause is included,” the Guardian newspaper reported.

The directive, which is non-binding on the EU’s 28 member states, “is financially inconsequential,” said Daniel Levy, head of Middle East programs at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It matters because liberal Israel, liberal Zionists, one of the main crutches of their argument for the two state solution, is the world won’t accept it otherwise.”

Israeli politicians such as Justice Minister Tzipi Livni have warned that Israel could face boycotts if it doesn’t curb settlements and the occupation of the West Bank, Levy said.

Israeli officials said the European move was unhelpful, however.

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G-8 urges Syria peace conference, France says Iran’s Rouhani could attend


G-8 leaders pressed Tuesday for Syria transition talks to get underway in Geneva “as soon as possible,” but Russia and western powers remain divided on other key issues.

Meantime, in a shift, France said Tuesday it would be willing to have Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani attend the Geneva II Syria peace conference, following the moderate’s surprise victory in Iran presidential elections last week.

“My position is that if he [Rouhani] can be useful, yes, he would be welcome” at the Geneva conference, French President Francois Hollande said Tuesday on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Lough Erne, Northern Ireland, Agence France Press reported. France previously opposed Iran's attendance at the Geneva conference, while Russia has argued that Iran should be at the table.

A joint communique issued Tuesday by the G-8 powers-—the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and Russia—”strongly” endorsed plans for the Syria peace conference to be held “as soon as possible,” to “implement fully the Geneva Communiqué of 30 June 2012, which sets out a number of key steps beginning with agreement on a transitional governing body with full executive powers, formed by mutual consent,” the document states.

“We remain committed to achieving a political solution to the crisis based on a vision for a united, inclusive and democratic Syria,” it says.

The document calls for the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front to leave Syria, but does not call on the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters from Syria. It also does not mention Bashar al-Assad even once.

American officials pointed to its call for a transition body with full executive authority to be established out of the Geneva meeting as an important area of Russian-western consensus, as well as its demand that Syria give the United Nations access to investigate alleged chemical weapons use.

“There’s agreement with the Russians that there needs to be a path to political transition, that the status quo is unacceptable, and what needs to be focused on is stability for the Syrian people,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department press briefing Tuesday.

“Our position… is there is no role for Assad in Syria,” Psaki said. “However, there is a [place] for those in the regime who are willing to accept the end of Assad’s reign and work for a better future for Syria.”

Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones are due to hold another preparatory meeting with Russian and UN officials next week in Geneva, the State Department said Tuesday. It wasn't clear if the conference would be held in July, or would be pushed back. Continue reading

Kerry urges support for Mideast peace bid


US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday signaled his determination to launch a new Middle East peace bid in the coming days, warning the time to get a two state solution is drawing to a close. But he offered few details of how new peace talks might avoid the pitfalls that have led earlier efforts to collapse.

“What happens in the coming days will dictate what happens in the coming decades,” Kerry told a Washington conference of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Monday, as the State Department said that Kerry planned to make his fifth trip as Secretary to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next week.

“Time is running out,” Kerry waned. “If we do not succeed now, we may not get another chance.”

Kerry, in his first major speech to a US Jewish audience since becoming Secretary of State, called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas peace partners, who shared his commitment to reach a negotiated two state solution. While saying he understands why many in the region are skeptical the time is right to achieve a permanent Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Kerry warned of the consequences of delay.

“Before anyone gives up hope, you have to ask if you are willing to live with a permanent conflict,” Kerry said. “A realistic one-state solution simply does not exist for either side.”

Many plugged-in US peace process veterans said they had little understanding of the details of Kerry’s initiative, while some Israeli observers expressed wariness that a fragile new peace effort, without the proper ground-work, was liable to collapse, potentially leading to violence.

Kerry “seems to think just talking to leaders and making speeches will make things happen,” a former senior State Department official, speaking not for attribution, said Monday. “He shows no appreciation for creating conditions for talks, not has he shown any understanding of the need to build a team or a coalition. He confides in nobody, has no real staff that is empowered, no conceptual thinkers under him, and is starting to appear desperate. That said, I sure hope he knows what he’s doing. Based on what I’ve seen, I have no reason to believe so. ”

The Israeli leadership wants peace, but “may be split between those who don’t believe the other side can deliver, and those who in addition are not yet ready [or] willing to put on the table what they know they’re going to do one day,” one Israeli official, speaking not for attribution, said Sunday.

“What they also want,” the Israeli official continued, “is a way to legitimately blame the Palestinians and not get blamed if it doesn’t happen now, which, to be fair, most think it won’t.”

“My guess is [Kerry] has no illusions about Netanyahu, and he knows President [Obama] will not expend heavy duty capital to rein him in,” one veteran Israeli peace activist, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

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