Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

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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.

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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.)

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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New report outlines containment strategy if efforts to prevent Iran nuclear weapon fail

President Obama has repeatedly declared that his policy is preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. A new report by a former Obama Pentagon official, to be released Monday by the Center for New American Security, argues prevention should be the US policy, but that the United States needs to develop a containment strategy if prevention fails.

Among the key points the report makes is that resort to force in the event diplomacy is deemed to fail could itself trigger Iran’s determination to produce a nuclear weapon—a decision that the US intelligence community this year assessed Iran’s leadership had not yet made.

“Even an operationally effective strike would not, in and of itself, permanently end Iran’s program,” the report’s lead author, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, told Al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.  “A strike might substantially degrade Iran’s near-term capability to produce nuclear weapons, but it would almost certainly increase Tehran’s motivation to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.”

Iran might respond to an attack by leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and substantially decreasing cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. “Such a move would complicate the international community’s ability to detect Iran’s efforts to rebuild its program,” Kahl said.

For these reasons, Kahl argues, force should only be used if other options for halting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions fail, if there is clear evidence that Iran is moving toward a bomb, and if every effort has been made to build international support for military action by seeking a diplomatic solution.

Outlining a Plan B containment strategy in the event prevention fails is not without political risks, however, Kahl acknowledged, while emphasizing he is no longer a member of the Obama administration. (Kahl, who served as DASD for the Middle East from 2009 until 2011, is now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at CNAS. He co-authored the new report If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear Armed Iran, with Georgetown graduate student Raj Pattani and CNAS researcher Jacob Stokes.) But the strategic risks of failing to prepare contingency plans would be more dangerous, Kahl said.

“If the administration were seen to be exploring a Plan B in the event that prevention fails, it might create the false impression that they were secretly planning to ‘accept’ a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kahl said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“At the same time, there are also substantial risks associated with sticking our collective heads in the sand,” he continued. “The failure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be bad, but the failure to be prepared for that possibility would be even worse.”

“One of the most important roles a think tank can play is to ask the questions that cannot be asked inside the government,” Kahl said. “I believe, in general, that it is important to plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the outcomes we desire.”

Asked to explain why the new report is not in essence arguing the US can live with a nuclear Iran, Kahl responded: “‘Live with’ makes it sound like it would be ‘no big deal’ to simply accommodate a nuclear-armed Iran. That is not the right way to think about it, and it is definitely not what the report argues.” Continue reading

US, looking to Madrid model, gives support to relaunched Arab Israel peace bid


With new backing from Washington, the Arab League on Monday re-launched its Arab-Israel peace initiative, following day long meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry at Blair House.

Analysts said Washington’s embrace of the initiative could make way for a Madrid-like process of Arab-Israeli discussions to occur in parallel to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

“The Arab League delegation affirmed that agreement should be based on the two-state solution on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line, with the possible of comparable and mutual agreed minor swap of the land,” Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al Thani said at a news conference with Kerry Monday night.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, I underscored the Arab League’s very important role… in bringing about a peace to the Middle East and specifically by reaffirming the Arab Peace Initiative here this afternoon with a view to ending the conflict,” Kerry said.

Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni welcomed the initiative, which Al-Monitor reported  earlier this month was expected to be rolled out anew at the April 29 meeting.

“Even during a period of ups and downs in the Arab world, they must achieve normalization with Israel when we achieve peace with the Palestinians,” Livni said. “It’s true that there is still a long way to go, and we can’t accept all the clauses [in the Arab initiative] as holy writ, but sometimes you need to look up over the difficulties and just say good news is welcome.”

Kerry “has on his desk a proposal to replace the bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with a multilateral platform,” Akiva Eldar reported for Al-Monitor last month (March 29).

Using the Arab peace initiative as a framework “will enable the renewal of the multilateral channels established following the 1991 Madrid peace conference on the issues of regional security, refugees, water and economic and environmental development,” Eldar wrote.

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The rise and fall of Mossad agent Ben Zygier


A month after Australian media first identified “Prisoner X” as Australian-born Mossad recruit Ben Zygier, the Australian journalist who first reported on the Zygier case and his partner have published a joint investigation into how Zygier’s dream-career with the Israeli intelligence service unravelled, culminating with his suicide in an isolated Israeli prison cell in December 2010.

According to the report Monday by Jason Koutsoukis in Australia’s Fairfax media, Melbourne-born Zygier was a passionate Zionist who was recruited into the Mossad in 2003, a few years after he had moved to Israel and had started working at an Israeli law firm. It ended with his 2010 arrest and suicide after Zygier embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized attempt to recruit a Hezbollah source in Eastern Europe and ended up instead allegedly betraying two claimed Mossad assets in Lebanon, according to Koutsoukis’ report.

Zygier’s career with the Mossad began in late 2003, after he responded to a Mossad advertisement that proclaimed “the Mossad is open – not for everyone, but for a few. Maybe for you,” Koutsoukis reported.

By early 2005, after a year of training, Zygier “was ready for his first mission,” Koutsoukis wrote. “He was sent to Europe, where he was instructed to infiltrate companies that had business relationships with countries including Iran and Syria.

“One chief executive of a mid-sized European company with extensive business interests across the Middle East and Persian Gulf – including Iran – confirmed that he had hired Zygier for an accounting position,” the report continues. Zygier worked for the unidentified firm for 18 months.

But apparently his Mossad supervisors were not overly impressed with his performance, and in 2007, to his great disappointment, they ordered Zygier back to a desk job in Israel.

(While Koutsoukis doesn’t identify the firm in Europe where Zygier took a cover job—apparently unbeknownst to the firm–he later reports that Zygier, upon returning to Australia in 2009 to pursue a masters degree, told fellow students that he had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers management consulting firm in Geneva.)

Zygier, apparently in an attempt to impress his Mossad superiors and salvage his intelligence career, embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized, freelance mission to try to recruit an East European man known to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a double agent, Koutsoukis writes. But it all went terribly wrong, when the unidentified Eastern European/Balkan man asked Zygier to prove his bona fides by providing Mossad intelligence on Lebanon. Continue reading

Roundup: Upbeat start to Obama Israel trip

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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

Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

Appointment news

Updated:
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Several moves afoot among President Obama's top European security advisors and close allies of National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. Together, sources suggested, they reflect Donilon's increased discretion to make senior National Security Staff appointments in Obama's second term after the move of Denis McDonough to become White House chief of staff, and that he seems inclined to pick trusted associates to oversee some of the most sensitive portfolios.

After four years in Brussels, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder will be named President of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Back Channel has learned. The announcement is expected to come as early as this week. Daalder, a former Clinton NSC Europe director and Brookings senior fellow, will head to Chicago in July, when ambassador posts usually rotate.

Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, will join Obama's National Security Staff, administration and diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel, in a senior role overseeing the broader Middle East, at a rank similar to that previously held by Dennis Ross.

Gordon, who has headed the State Department EUR bureau throughout Obama’s first term, will take on a senior NSS coordinator role overseeing the wider Middle East, with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa and Persian Gulf reporting to him, sources said. Gordon did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

Much of Gordon's work handling the State Department Europe portfolio the past four years has been focused on coordinating joint US-European efforts towards the Middle East writ large, including Iran.

(Still to be named: the NSS Senior Director for the Middle East/North Africa previously held by Steve Simon, who has left the White House to head the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Sources continue to hear CSIS's Jon Alterman may be in the running, but that could not be confirmed.)

Administration sources have described Daalder and Gordon (also a Brookings alum) as among a group of trusted allies of NSA Donilon, along with NSS Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall.

And one diplomatic source said Monday that he had heard that Sherwood-Randall would be tapped to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator on WMD.  (Neither Sherwood-Randall nor a White House spokesperson responded to requests for guidance.) Continue reading