Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit

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Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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Three days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks

Late last February, after six world powers and Iran wrapped up nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan (Feb.26-27), two members of the U.S. nuclear negotiating team secretly flew to Oman where they rendezvoused at a beach-front villa with two American officials who had arrived from Washington.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Jake Sullivan, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor, flew to the Arabian Sea port of Muscat from Washington. White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar and State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn flew to Oman from the Almaty nuclear talks.

For the first days of March, the American officials, accompanied by some administrative and logistical support staff, stayed at a beach-side villa owned by Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said, whose government had regularly offered to discreetly host US-Iran talks safely away from the media spotlight.

In Oman, the US officials met with an Iranian delegation led by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Asghar Khaji, Al-Monitor has learned.

Khaji, then Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs, had previously served as Iran’s envoy to the European Union in Brussels from 2008 to 2012. In Brussels, in January 2008, Khaji accompanied Iran’s new nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili to a dinner hosted by then EU High Rep and chief  nuclear negotiator Javier Solana, a US cable published by Wikileaks notes. In March 2009, Khaji became the first Iranian official to meet with NATO  in almost three decades, to discuss Afghanistan, NATO officials said.

After he became Deputy Foreign Minister in 2012, in his capacity as the Iranian diplomat who oversaw Europe and American issues, Khaji regularly liaised with Swiss officials who serve–in the absence of official US-Iran relations–as the U.S. protecting power in Iran. But Khaji wasn’t a figure particularly well known to western Iran watchers.

In Oman in March, both Khaji’s and Burns’ teams, as well as their Omani hosts, went to some lengths to keep the unusual meeting off the radar. Burns, the second highest diplomat in the United States, did not appear on the State Department public schedules at all the first four days in March, without explanation. Similarly, Iran’s Foreign Ministry and media published nothing about Khaji’s trip to Muscat, although his March 7 trip to Switzerland, a few days after the secret talks with the Americans, was announced by his Swiss Foreign Ministry hosts and received press coverage. The next week in March, Omani media also extensively covered the visit of Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast to Oman, including his visit to the Omani New Agency and with Oman’s Information minister, complete with photos, almost as if it were a decoy mission to draw attention away from the earlier one.

“On every visit to Oman, the U.S. delegation stayed in a beach-side villa controlled by the Omani government,” a source familiar with the meetings told Al-Monitor. “All of the meetings with Iran occurred at this site, so as to ensure U.S. officials would never have to leave the villa and risk detection by journalists or others.”

Both US and Iranian sources briefed on the US-Iran March meeting in Oman say that while it allowed for more candid, direct exchanges than at the seven nation P5+1/Iran talks, that it did not show an opening for real movement in positions on either side before the Iran presidential elections in June.

“It was a useful engagement, but not much progress was made, because the Iran leadership was not really interested,” a former US official, speaking not for attribution, said. “It helped provide some basis [for understanding]… It was clear that while there could be more intensive and candid discussions bilaterally, the real progress wasn’t going to be possible” before the Iranian elections.

Another meeting was tentatively planned to be held in May, another former official told Al-Monitor, but the Iranians apparently backed out.

Oman to US: Iran is ready to begin a quiet dialogue

The Omanis had encouraged the U.S., from before President Barack Obama came into office, to pursue prospects for direct dialogue with Iran, and regularly offered US envoys updates on the current mood in Iran officialdom on the matter.

Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi “offered Oman as both an organizer and a venue for any meeting the U.S. would want with Iran – if kept quiet,” US Ambassador to Oman Richard Schmierer wrote in a December 7, 2009 US cable to Washington, released by Wikileaks.

Iran “is ready to begin a quiet dialogue ‘at a lower level’ with the U.S.,” Sultan Qaboos’ long-time special Iran envoy and Culture Minister Abdul `Aziz al-Rowas told the previous US ambassador Gary Grappo, according to an April 2009 cable he wrote to Washington.

“They are ready and want to start, and you should not wait,” al-Rowas told the US envoy. “You have many more bargaining tools with them than they have against you; use all of them,” he advised, adding that the US and Iran also share interests, too, including in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan and countering narcotics in Central Asia. “They don’t like to admit these things, but they need you in the region.”

But efforts by the Obama administration to get direct talks going with Iran were frustrated by domestic turmoil in the wake of Iran’s disputed June 2009 presidential polls. In October 2009, Burns and Iran’s Jallili met one-on-one, on the sidelines of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva, at which a nuclear fuel swap deal was announced. But Iran later backed away from the agreement, after it came under domestic criticism.

Increasingly convinced that Iran was paralyzed by domestic political infighting from moving forward on a nuclear compromise, the U.S. and Europeans moved in late 2009 and 2010 to persuade international partners that it was time to increase economic pressure on Iran to try to bring it to seriously negotiate.

“No U.S. president in the last 30 years had gone to as much effort as President Obama to engage Iran,” Burns told China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi at a December 2009 meeting, according to a US cable summarizing the meeting. The United States was “frustrated,” Burns explained, that the Iranians had “walked back” from the fuel swap agreement reached in Geneva. Washington “had sought creative solutions to build confidence with Iran…[but] Iran’s failure to follow through…had been disappointing.”

P5+1 talks with Iran ground to a halt at a gloomy January 2011 meeting in Istanbul attended by a grim-faced Burns. Iran’s Jalili, complaining of a headache, had avoided attending most of the meeting, and had refused to meet with Burns. Nuclear talks between the six world powers and Iran would not resume for over a year, until April 2012.

The “bilat” channel gains pace after Rouhani’s election

But the Omanis persisted, throughout the diplomatic stalemate, with their quiet efforts to forge US-Iran dialogue, and their patience eventually paid off.

In 2011 and 2012, Talwar and Sullivan–then serving as deputy chief of staff  and policy planning chief to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton–participated in at least two lower-level, “preparatory” meetings with the Iranians, facilitated by the Omanis, to see about the prospect of a bilateral channel to be led on the US side by Burns, a former US official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. Those preparatory talks included a July 7, 2012 meeting in Oman attended by Sullivan and Talwar, but not Burns, the AP reported.

“I was a member of a preparatory exploratory team that met with the Iranians on a couple of occasions to see if we could get talks going on the nuclear program,” Talwar told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at his confirmation hearing to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military affairs last month. “We met with the Iranians in Oman last summer. We had another meeting in March of this year.”

“It turned out the Iranians could not move forward with the talks at that point,” Talwar said, referring to the March 2013 meeting in Oman led by Burns and Khaji.

But the US-Iran back channel got traction after the election of Hassan Rouhani, and gained rapid pace after an exchange of letters in August between Presidents Obama and Rouhani. “President Rouhani and the Iranians agreed to move forward with the talks at that time,” Talwar said.

“We then had an accelerating pace of discussions bilaterally with the Iranians,” Talwar said, stressing that the one-on-one talks with the Iranians were “tied from the get-go to the P5+1 process [and] . . . focused exclusively on the nuclear issue.”

Since Rouhani’s inauguration in August, there have been at least five rounds of bilateral talks between the U.S. and Iran, in Oman, New York and Geneva. On the U.S. side, they’ve been led by Burns, and on the Iran side, by Khajji’s successor, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for European and American affairs Majid Ravanchi, sometimes joined by his colleague, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Abbas Araghchi. Both Araghchi and Ravanchi are members of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, led by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

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Tom Donilon to step down, Susan Rice to succeed as NSA

President Obama's National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will step down, to be succeeded by UN envoy Susan Rice, the White House announced Wednesday. President Obama will nominate his former White House advisor and humanitarian expert Samantha Power to be the next US envoy to the United Nations.

The announcement comes in advance of President Obama’s first meeting with China’s President Xi, in California later this week. Donilon has made the US “rebalance” to Asia a focus of his tenure as Obama’s top national security advisor, and traveled to China late last month to discuss the agenda.

The Back Channel reported May 3rd that Donilon was expected to step down this summer, several months earlier than previous reports had suggested. Among his considerations, associates said, was that he had been doing this for over four long years, and family medical issues. (Sources say that Donilon’s wife Catherine Russell, former chief of staff to the Vice President’s wife Jill Biden, is recovering from a medical issue. Obama earlier this spring nominated her to be his next ambassador at large for global women’s issues.)

White House associates say Rice and Power, like Donilon, are trusted Obama advisors who have been in his inner circle of national security confidants going back to his 2008 presidential campaign. As such, sources anticipated a relatively smooth transition and a good deal of continuity on major foreign policy issues.

“I think the interesting thing about this transition is it’s clearly been planned for a long time,” former White House spokesperson Tommy Vietor told the Back Channel Wednesday. “It’s not a shake up. It’s a transition in which Susan and Sam can hit the ground running because they have been doing it for four years.”

“The key to a successful national security adviser is having the President's trust,” former Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told the Back Channel Wednesday. “That is what made Donilon such a power player and the same will be true of Rice, who has long been close to Obama.”

It remains to be seen if the elevation of Power to the UN and Rice's move to the White House will shift the Obama administration's thinking towards greater Syria intervention, given their reported roles inside the Obama inter-agency debate advocating for NATO intervention in Libya, and Power’s expertise in humanitarian intervention and as the author of a Pulitzer Prize winning book on genocide.

“Power and Rice are strong and principled advocates of atrocity prevention, but are not the irresponsible liberal interventionists often portrayed,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who advised the Obama 2008 campaign on foreign policy said Wednesday. “They are close to President Obama on foreign policy and will face the same limits and obstacles constraining the current policy on Syria. I wouldn't expect them to rapidly push for a military intervention which the administration views as unlikely to succeed.”

“My sense is, everyone in the government, including Susan and Sam, is going to keep pushing for a better outcome in Syria,” Vietor said. “No one is satisfied with the outcome on the ground.”

“It’s wrong to assume that means military intervention,” he added. “We have a lot of considerations to work through. What you have got are people who have been in the government who understand the role that US diplomatic leverage and military power plays, and how that can often be the single most important thing we’ve got. So it’s certainly a significant set of changes. But it remains to be seen what it leads to in Syria.”

Donilon had been looking for the right time to announce his departure, to make the transition as smooth as possible, aides said. “Tom been thinking about this for a long time,” Vietor said. Rice and Donilon will work together over the next few weeks to manage the transition. Donilon is expected to depart mid-July.

While the administration's re-balance to Asia as well as the US withdrawal from Iraq were top Donilon policy priorities, his imprint as a manager of the policy process is perhaps more significant. Donilon was deeply involved in the day to day running of the inter-agency process, some say with a heavy hand, as well as discipline. Aides say he should be credited with running a national security process in which disparate views were heard and fought over internally, but where notably few high-level cabinet fights erupted publicly.

“Tom Donilon has been an outstanding national security adviser. As an inside manager of the President's national security policy process, Tom succeeded in leading a collaborative and insightful process in which all players – from top to bottom – worked together rather than against each other,” Ivo Daalder, outgoing US ambassador to NATO and a friend of Donilon, said.

“It's a feat very few of his predecessors were able to accomplish,” continued Daalder, who is co-author of one of the defintive studies on the role of the national security advisor, In the Shadow of the Oval Office. “He truly managed a 'no drama' process – one that produced very effective advice for the President and ensured smooth implementation of the President's decisions.” Continue reading

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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State RUMINT: Malinowski for State DRL, Sewall for CT or PM

Updated: Two more Clinton administration alums may be tapped for senior State Department posts.

The Obama administration may name Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), sources tell the Back Channel. Harvard's Sarah Sewall is also rumored to be up for a top State Department job, with some sources saying the White House has picked her for Counterterrorism Coordinator, others hearing Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

Sewall, a lecturer at  the Harvard Kennedy School and expert in the field of protecting civilians in wartime, did not respond to queries from the Back Channel. The State Department and White House declined to comment on whether the appointment was in the works.

The Back Channel previously heard that the bureau's Deputy Coordinator Anne Witkowsky was also under consideration for the Counterterrorism Coordinator post, which was formerly held by Daniel Benjamin, who left in January to head Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Sewall, a member of the Obama/Biden transition team, previously served in the Clinton administration as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and as the foreign policy advisor to then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, is expected to be nominated to succeed Michael Posner as Assistant Secretary of State for DRL. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Friday.

Malinowski previously served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Continue reading

Obama AfPak advisor may help unwind the war from NATO

Douglas Lute, who has served for the past eight years as both the Bush and Obama White House Afpak ‘war czar,” looks set to get a plum assignment helping guide the wind-down of the US-led war in Afghanistan: US Ambassador to NATO.

Two US officials say Lute, a retired Army Ltn. General, is likely to be tapped for the Brussels job, succeeding Ivo Daalder, who previously announced he will step down this summer to head the Chicago Council on World Affairs.

(The Back Channel reported Tuesday that Lute may be up for Special Envoy to AfPak (SRAP), but we appear to have been off. Brussels-based reporter Teri Schulz first alerted us on Twitter that word is Lute may be headed there.)

One US official said Wednesday that Lute, asked about the NATO job, at some point wasn’t certain if his family could relocate abroad. But Lute’s spouse, Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Jane Holl Lute, announced earlier this month she is stepping down.

Lute didn’t respond to a query from the Back Channel. A NSC spokeswoman declined to comment: “No personnel announcements for you.”

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Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

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Former Obama nuclear advisor Samore: Iran might take deal after June polls

Expectations are low for an Iran nuclear deal before Iranian presidential elections in June, former White House nuclear advisor Gary Samore told the Brookings Institution Monday. After that, it’s possible Iran might agree to a deal on curbing its 20% enrichment, or it will face increasing economic sanctions, Samore said.

“I think it’s possible Iran could decide after the presidential elections to accept the small deal on the table now,” Samore, who served as President Obama’s ‘WMD czar’ until January, told the panel on Iran negotiations Monday.

From Iran’s standpoint, “it’s a good deal,” Samore, now executive director of the Harvard Belfer Center, continued. “If it is looking at ways to create a respite” from economic sanctions, “what’s on offer might do that.”

The panel on negotiating with Iran comes as diplomats from Iran and six world powers return to Almaty, Kazakhstan later this week for the second round of nuclear talks in the past five weeks.

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White House names Sherwood-Randall new defense/WMD coordinator


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

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

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

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Appointments: Philip Gordon to White House, Jake Sullivan to OVP

As the Back Channel first reported, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon will be taking over the former Dennis Ross “Central Region” portfolio on Obama’s National Security Staff, the Back Channel has confirmed.

Gordon will have the title of NSS senior director for the Central Region–roughly but not entirely parallel to the military's Central Command region–with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa, Persian Gulf, and part of South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, but not India) reporting to him.

Still unclear is if NSS Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia Liz Sherwood-Randall will be named to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator for WMD, or if the post will go to Samore’s deputy Laura Holgate. Sources had previously suggested the post may shift in Obama's second term from a “czar”/coordinator role to that of a deputy national security advisor.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a former US ambassador to NATO, may succeed Gordon as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, officials told the Back Channel. Jen Psaki is heading to State as spokeswoman, Al Kamen reported.

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy planning director Jake Sullivan will succeed Antony Blinken as national security advisor to Vice President Biden, multiple officials said. (H/T @NatSecWonk.) Blinken was made the new principal deputy National Security Advisor, succeeding Denis McDonough, who President Obama last month named his new White House chief of staff.
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Dave McKeon, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff, will head State Policy Planning, a former State Department official told the Back Channel Friday.

Under Secretary of State for Policy Wendy Sherman is staying on, as is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, officials told the Back Channel this week. Continue reading