Iran nuclear diplomat known to U.S. as tough, professional

Share

When lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi and their teams met on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna this week, US officials described the now commonplace encounter between the U.S. and Iranian delegations as “useful and professional.”

“It’s now normal,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, described the bilateral meeting with Araghchi to journalists at a briefing in Vienna on April 9. “We met for about an hour and a half. … We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.”

“Mr. Araghchi is a very professional negotiator and also a tough negotiator,” Sherman told Al-Monitor by email on April 11.

Araghchi, 53, the lone holdover from Saeed Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team, has previously served as Iran’s envoy to Japan, Asian affairs deputy and, briefly during Iran’s presidential campaign and transition last summer, as the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since Hassan Rouhani tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator last August, Araghchi has been a key player in the nuclear talks that produced an interim deal last November, and a principal interlocutor in bilateral discussions with the United States aimed at advancing a comprehensive nuclear accord.

While Zarif’s willingness to engage with US officials was perhaps not surprising — the affable Iranian diplomat spent almost 20 years in the United States, earning graduate degrees and serving as Iran’s UN envoy in New York during the moderate Mohammad Khatami administration — his deputy Araghchi is less well-known to Western audiences.

Though Araghchi earned a doctoral degree at Kent University in the United Kingdom and speaks fluent English, he is not one of Zarif’s so-called “New York gang” or “New Yorkers,” as the Iranian diplomats who studied in the United States and served with Zarif in New York have been dubbed at home. A career diplomat who ascended under then-Iran Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, Araghchi is “not political,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. But it turns out that Araghchi was not entirely unknown to US officials before he was tapped as Zarif’s deputy last August and became part of the Iranian delegation that secretly met with U.S. officials a half dozen times in Oman, New York and Geneva last fall to try to advance a nuclear deal.

Interviews with former officials by Al-Monitor and US diplomatic cables indicate that Araghchi had a previous engagement with the Americans, at a regional summit in Iraq in March 2007, in which he impressed one observer as “extremely professional,” and constructive in the proceedings, in a rare departure from what were otherwise frustrating and unproductive US-Iranian encounters on Iraq at the time.

Araghchi subsequently appeared on the Americans’ radar as a highly effective and press-savvy Iran ambassador to Japan in 2008, in a move some US diplomatic interlocutors read as an effort by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to “protect” Araghchi from Iran’s hard-line then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US diplomatic cables show. Other US cables suggest that Araghchi played a quietly helpful background role in urging for the release of an Iranian-American reporter acquaintance, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009.

“Araghchi is a young, personable, polished and accomplished diplomat who presents well, argues his case calmly and rationally and who is clearly at ease making public presentations and dealing with the press,” then-US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer wrote in a March 2008 diplomatic cable to Washington about his newly arrived Iranian diplomatic counterpart in Tokyo.

One Japanese diplomat “told Embassy Tokyo,” Schieffer’s cable continued, that then-former “Foreign Minister Taro Aso speculated after meeting him … that if the US and Iran were to resume diplomatic relations, Araghchi would be a likely candidate to become ambassador to Washington.”

Araghchi, then — as now — Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, led Iran’s delegation to a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad in March 2007, attended as well by then-US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and then-State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield. The meeting came amid growing US frustration at Iran’s support for Iraq “special groups” conducting attacks against US-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran denied providing such support, while at the time making repeated overtures to the Americans that it would be interested to engage on Iraq, US cables show. The United States pursued several trilateral meetings with the Iranians on Iraq during 2007, but ultimately determined they were fruitless and counterproductive. But not so at the first meeting attended by Araghchi in March 2007.

“That recollection stays with me … the wholly professional conduct of the Iranian delegation, but particularly the Deputy Foreign Minister [Araghchi], which was quite striking,” a firsthand observer of the meeting, who requested to speak anonymously, told Al-Monitor in an interview on April 10. Continue reading

Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

What Iran’s Foreign Minister told German TV about Israel, Iran

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Germany’s Phoenix TV on Sunday (February 2) in Berlin, following his attendance at the Munich Security Summit.

Al-Monitor has transcribed portions of the interview, conducted in English by ZDF journalist Elmar Theveßen, concerning Zarif’s comnents on Israel.

Israeli media reports over the weekend said that Zarif in the interview suggested that if the Israelis and Palestinians reached a peace settlement, then Iranian recognition of Israel might be possible.

But as we listened to the interview, the video of which was released in the original English on Tuesday, it was the interviewer who asked Zarif if Israel and Palestine reached a resolution, would Iran then be prepared to recognize the state of Israel. And Zarif’s answer was more equivocal. While not explicitly ruling it out, Zarif said it was up to the Palestinians to determine if they were satisfied with the agreement, and that Iran would not interfere:

Phoenix TV: So let me turn this around, sir. Would it be fair to say then, would you agree, that If the Palestinian issue can be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, would then Iran be willing to recognize the state of Israel?

Zarif: You see, that is a sovereign decision that Iran will make. But it will have no consequences on the situation on the ground in the Middle East. If the Palestinians are happy with the solution, then nobody, nobody outside Palestine, could prevent that from taking place. The problem for the past 60 years is that the Palestinians have not been happy. The Palestinians have not been satisfied. And they have every right not to be satisfied, because their most basic rights continue to be violated and people are not ready to redress those.

Here is the transcript of the relevant portion of the interview, from about 20 to 30 minutes in, below the jump: Continue reading

David Makovsky joins Indyk’s Middle East peace team

20131118-134406.jpgVeteran Middle East scholar David Makovsky has joined the team of US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk as a strategist and senior advisor.

Makovsky formally joined Indyk’s team and started working at Foggy Bottom today, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Monday.

“Drawing upon decades of experience working and writing on Israeli-Palestinian issues, Makovsky will serve as a strategist for the U.S. efforts and will be dealing with the wide range of issues associated with the negotiations,” the State Department official said in a statement. “We believe this expertise will greatly contribute to the ongoing efforts to achieve peace.”

Indyk has been expanding his team as the U.S. prepares to step up its role in trying to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian final status peace agreement. Israeli media reported Monday that US Secretary of State John Kerry will travel again to Israel late next week.

Makovsky, a former journalist, has most recently served as a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he directed the project on the Middle East peace process. He has also taught as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Update: “While we are saddened to lose David, we are proud that he will play this critical role in U.S. policymaking,” Robert Satloff, executive director at the Washington Institute, said in a press statement later Monday. “We are confident that David will enrich the U.S. government’s diplomatic efforts to promote Middle East peace with the same creativity and wisdom that have made him a pivotal member of the Institute research team and a trusted resource to decisionmakers in Washington and throughout the region.”

(Photo: David Makovsky will serve as a senior adviwor to US Middle Peace envoy Martin Indyk. By Jennifer Logan.)

Netanyahu to UN: Keep pressure on Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the United Nations Tuesday to keep up the sanctions pressure on Iran until there would be a verifiable and meaningful agreement that would inhibit Iran from having a rapid nuclear breakout capability.

“Keep up the sanctions,” Netanyahu urged the UN General Assembly as its final speaker on Tuesday. “Lift the sanctions only when Iran fully dismantles its nuclear weapons program.”

“The international community has Iran on the ropes,” Netanyahu said. “If you want to knock out Iran's nuclear weapons program peacefully, don't let up the pressure. Keep it up.”

An Iranian diplomat rebutted Netanyahu's allegations that Iran seeks nuclear weapons, and urged that Israel join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and put its alleged nuclear weapons program under inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

“We just heard an extremely inflammatory statement by the last speaker in which he made made allegations against the peaceful nuclear activities of my country,” the Iranian diplomat, counsellor Khodadad Seifi, said in a formal response to Netanyahu's speech to the UNGA. “I do not want to dignity such unfounded allegations with an answer other than to categorically reject them all. He tries to mislead this august body about Iran's nuclear program.”

“The most ironic part of his comments was when he tried to be more royal than the king and set standards for Iran's nuclear activities and levels of enrichment,” Seifi continued. “He must know that no one can dictate to Iran what to do or not to do. As a party to the NPT, Iran is fully aware of its rights and it's fully committed to its obligations. .. Israel is the only non NPT Party in the Middle East.”

Full transcript of Netanyahu's remarks to the 68th United Nations General Assembly Tuesday below the jump: Continue reading

US Iran team shuffles as nuclear talks set to resume


President Obama this week nominated top White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar to be Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, as the Back Channel reported in July was expected.

The promotion for Talwar, who has served since 2009 as the National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf affairs, would mark the latest departure of a key member of the U.S. Iran negotiating team as the U.S. prepares to resume P5+1 nuclear talks with the new Iranian Hassan Rouhani administration in the coming weeks, after a five month hiatus.

Rob Malley, a former Clinton administration NSC Middle East advisor, is expected to join the NSC, succeeding Talwar after his confirmation, as the Back Channel previously reported was under consideration. The White House declined to comment. Malley didn’t respond to a query.

But several sources suggested that Malley may not play the same role on Iran issues as Talwar, and that National Security Advisor Susan Rice would like to bring Malley to the White House to help rethink how the National Security Staff Middle East work is organized. Malley has already been informally advising the State Department on Syria from the outside, officials tell the Back Channel.

Also expected to join the NSC as a director on Gulf affairs is Elisa Catalano, Rice’s former Iran/Gulf advisor at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, and a former special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sources said they were still uncertain who from the White House might be part of the U.S. delegation to the P5+1 talks with Iran, led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Talwar has accompanied Sherman as the +1 to most of the political directors meetings with the Europeans and P5+1 for the past few years. Former White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore, who left the administration early this year for Harvard, was also a key member of the U.S. delegation to both the P5+1 political and technical talks with Iran, along with former State Department Iran arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, who left the administration this summer for Brookings. Sherman has selected longtime State Department nonproliferation advisor Jim Timbie to be her top Iran arms control deputy, succeeding Einhorn, officials said.

Beyond their formal functions, Talwar, Samore and Einhorn have served as key points of contact for informal consultations among the foreign diplomatic, arms control and Iran expert communities seeking to confer with the administration.

American officials are preparing with their P5+1 counterparts to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month to agree on arrangements for resuming nuclear talks with Iran. Western officials are still waiting to see what kind of response to the P5+1’s offer new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may bring to the table, when nuclear talks finally resume.

Iranian sources suggested this week that Iran might be willing to limit the number of its centrifuges, but not the quality of them; cap enrichment at 5%; accept a more intrusive IAEA inspection and safeguards regime; and sign the Additional Protocol, in return for significant sanctions relief, recognition of its legal right to enrich to 5%, and additional, unspecified incentives put forward by three European powers in a past proposal.

(Photo: President Barack Obama is briefed by Puneet Talwar, Senior Director for Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States, in the Oval Office, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

NPR's Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines


We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels. Continue reading

Kerry names Indyk peace envoy, calls for reasonable compromise

Secretary of State John Kerry, as expected, named veteran diplomat Martin Indyk his new special peace envoy, as Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams arrived in Washington Monday to begin direct talks for the first time in three years.

Indyk, 62, a former US envoy to Israel and Clinton peace negotiator, “knows what has worked and he knows what hasn’t worked, and he knows how important it is to get this right,” Kerry told reporters at the State Department Monday. “Ambassador Indyk is realistic. He understands that Israeli-Palestinian peace will not come easily and it will not happen overnight.”

“But he also understands that there is now a path forward and we must follow that path with urgency,” Kerry said.

Kerry called on the parties to be willing to make “reasonable compromises on tough, complicated, emotional and symbolic issues,” the Associated Press reported. “I think reasonable compromises have to be a keystone of all of this effort.”

President Obama, in a statement Monday, praised the choice of Indyk, but also sounded a sober note about prospects for a breakthrough.

“The most difficult work of these negotiations is ahead, and I am hopeful that both the Israelis and Palestinians will approach these talks in good faith and with sustained focus and determination,” Obama said in a statement Monday.

An Arab diplomat, speaking not for attribution in an interview to Al-Monitor Monday, praised the pick of Indyk for negotiator, saying he is trusted by all sides, and, importantly, sees the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in a wider, regional context.

The Australian-born Indyk, currently vice president of the Brookings Institution, previously served as US envoy to Israel and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs. He helped found the think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Brookings said Monday he was taking a leave of absence effective immediately to take up his new duties as Special Envoy.

Indyk was recently engaged to Gahl Burt, vice chair of the American Academy in Berlin and former social secretary to Nancy Reagan, diplomatic sources and Indyk associates said.

Longtime Kerry staffer Frank Lowenstein will serve as deputy special envoy, Kerry said.

Continue reading

Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

The National Security Council's top advisor on Iran and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar is expected to be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, two US officials tell Al-Monitor, although a third official said the nomination announcement is not imminent.

Talwar did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Tuesday.

A former Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for the Middle East under then Chairman Joseph Biden, and one of Biden’s closets foreign policy advisors, Talwar has served as the NSS senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states since the beginning of Obama’s first term, during which time Vice President Biden has served as the Obama administration’s point-man on Iraq.

Talwar has also been deeply engaged on US Iran policy and participated in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as a senior member of the U.S. negotiating team.

The State Department political military affairs chief job, currently headed by acting Assistant Secretary Tom Kelly since the departure of Andrew Shapiro, involves decisions on U.S. arms sales and security assistance issues. Talwar has long worked on the region that accounts for the lion’s share of US arms sales and military assistance, especially in recent years, one official noted.

It’s not entirely clear who might succeed Talwar as NSS senior director for Iran and the Gulf if the nomination proceeds. But sources say new US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been a bit frustrated that several appointments were made by her predecessor Tom Donilon shortly before he left, and she would like to bring in some people who have more NSC experience.

Continue reading

The Closer: Why Ron Dermer may be Bibi’s perfect peace envoy


Ron Dermer, Israel’s next envoy to the United States, may be a sharp-elbowed Republican partisan who appeared to openly back Barack Obama’s opponent in the 2012 presidential campaign, and who has lived longer in the United States than he has in Israel, as Akiva Eldar wrote this week for Al-Monitor.

Other observers of US-Israel relations say while this may be true, it is not the full picture and misses the point. Dermer’s appointment, in this score, is not at all controversial. He has the ear of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — the gold standard for any ambassador. Dermer, because of his understanding of US politics and ties to the GOP, may be the perfect envoy to sell peace to the right if Netanyahu decides to get serious about negotiations, as many Israeli analysts suspect he is preparing to do.

“All signs point to the possibility that Netanyahu is relatively serious about going back to negotiations and attempting to do something,” Shmuel Rosner, an Israeli journalist and political analyst told me Wednesday.

“It is customary to say in Israel that it is easier for left-wing governments to make war, and right-wing governments to make peace,” Rosner said. “If you think about the Israeli ambassador to the US, and …the case in which the Obama administration attempts to advance some sort of peace process or any other controversial policy with the right wing, if Dermer stands behind the policy and endorses it, it will be much easier both for the government of Israel and for the [U.S.] administration to let this policy pass in the Congress.”

US Secretary of State John Kerry, currently on his sixth visit to the Middle East, looks increasingly close to realizing his goal of getting Israeli Palestinian peace talks re-launched, many observers believe.

“For the Obama administration, this makes Dermer more important,” Rosner said. “It also makes him a tool with which to devise a policy that Congress and the opposition cannot truly oppose.”

“For Bibi, it’s a good choice,” said Amir Radberg, an Israeli-American who previously worked as a legislative analyst at the Israeli embassy in Washington from 1993-2003. “If he continues with his current agenda, he will have an eloquent speaker to argue for him. If he needs to sell peace to the GOP and right-wing Jews, [Dermer] will handle them much better than a professional diplomat.”

In many ways, Dermer, 42, is a mirror image of Dan Shapiro, Obama’s highly-regarded ambassador to Israel. Shapiro, 44, previously served as the Obama campaign’s liaison to the Jewish community and as Obama’s first term White House Middle East advisor. As such, Shapiro is an avowed Obama/Democratic partisan with a close personal and direct tie to the president, who is known to Israeli interlocutors to be speaking for the president. Similarly, Dermer, a longtime political advisor to Netanyahu, is a partisan who has the trust of the Prime Minister, and can speak for him.

“The fact that he is close to Netanyahu is a huge advantage,” Rosner said. “When people in the administration talk to the ambassador, the first and most important thing for them to know is that their conversation has some value. To speak to someone who has no sway with Israeli government, is a waste of time. And speaking to Dermer will not be waste of time.”

Meantime, Rosner notes, there are many signs that Netanyahu is serious about entering into peace negotiations with the Palestinians. “The noose is getting tighter,” Rosner said. “Politically speaking, he’s in big trouble within his own party. However, if he doesn’t do anything about the peace process, he will have even bigger trouble with his coalition and the public.”

“It’s better for him to pursue something in the hope that if his approval ratings go up, his party will somehow cave,” Rosner said. “Or he can do what [former Israeli Prime Minsiter Ariel] Sharon did a couple years ago: abandon his party and move to the center. Just leaving things as they are now almost guarantees that this will be his last term as prime minister.”

(Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ron Dermer. Photo credit, Dudi Vaaknin, courtesy of Israeli government press office.)