Former US officials detect shift in Israel on Iran nuclear deal

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Israel increasingly expects that a nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers will be reached, and has raised concerns with U.S. interlocutors about monitoring and enforcement of the deal, former American officials and Iran policy experts involved in recent discussions with the Israelis tell Al-Monitor.

While Israel’s official position remains that the only acceptable Iran nuclear deal would be “zero, zero, zero,” – meaning no centrifuges, domestic uranium enrichment or plutonium, or the facilities to produce them—former American officials and experts involved in recent consultations with the Israelis detect that Israel’s position on the matter has shifted as the prospect of a deal being reached has increased. Israeli officials are now focusing on concerns of what happens if a deal is reached, how can monitoring and verification be sufficient to detect if there is a violation, and how would such violations of an agreement be deterred or punished, at a time when Israel assesses U.S. credibility as weakened on the world stage, including because of events in Ukraine and Syria.

Most Israeli officials and experts “seem to understand that ‘zero, zero, zero’ is not going to happen,” a member of a US group of experts and former senior officials recently in Israel for consultations, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor in an interview this week. They seem “to understand that there is a need for a domestic, indigenous civil nuclear program….for the Iranians to” deal with their domestic opposition.

“Israel is very concerned about the current discussions with Iran because all signs point to the P5+1 accepting a deal that will leave Iran’s nuclear weapons capability intact,” Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer told an Anti Defamation League conference this week.

“Our policy is simple,” Dermer said. “Let Iran have only a peaceful nuclear program and nothing more.”

“On substantive issues, there is probably room for maneuver,” a senior former US diplomat involved in the April consultations in Israel told Al-Monitor on condition he not be named, referring to Israel’s requirements for an Iran nuclear deal.

“But two issues are going to be very hard to persuade the Israelis on,” the former American diplomat continued. “Monitoring: There is very little belief anywhere in Israel that [a comprehensive nuclear] accord can be monitored… that ensures there is not going to be clandestine activity, and the Iranians [could] not break out” at some phase.

“That is a serious concern,” the former US diplomat said. “I don’t want to minimize it, because monitoring is going to be a huge problem. How long did we not know about [aspects] of [Iran’s] clandestine program,” such as Iran’s underground enrichment facility at Fordo, which Iran did not declare to the IAEA until days before the U.S., UK and France publicly exposed it in 2009.

The Israelis are also deeply concerned, the former US diplomat said, that if there is a violation by Iran of a final nuclear accord, that the violation will be seen by Washington as too ambiguous or incremental, that there “is no smoking gun.”

The Israelis are “nervous that the U.S. will continuously say, ‘we are checking into it, we need more proof,’” the former diplomat described. “At what point does the cumulative effect of the small things add up to a violation?”

In addition, the Israelis are concerned that the United States does not have a sufficiently credible military threat to deter a future Iranian violation of a comprehensive agreement, the Iran policy expert said. “That is problematic from an Israeli perspective.”

The Iran policy expert said it was her group’s assessment that while the Iran nuclear negotiations are ongoing, there won’t be a unilateral strike by Israel. “While they are ongoing,” she repeated.

There continues to be a lot of “frustration” from the Israeli side that they will be “profoundly impacted” by a nuclear deal, even though they are not in the room for the P5+1 talks with Iran, nor do they feel the U.S. was forthcoming with them about secret US-Iran bilateral contacts leading up to the interim nuclear deal last fall.

Israeli officials felt deeply betrayed that their US counterparts were not more forthcoming with them last year about the extent of secret US-Iranian bilateral contacts on a nuclear deal. The U.S. has said the secrecy was necessary to maintain the sensitive bilateral channel, and they did not mean to be deceptive. However, a sense of betrayal may have contributed to Israeli distrust and denunciations of the interim Iran nuclear deal reached in Geneva last November, US and Israeli sources have told Al-Monitor. The US and Israel have been working to try to rebuild trust that took a hit over the Iran back channel episode.

If a nuclear deal is reached that allows Iran to maintain a nuclear threshold capacity, it could emerge from economic sanctions and seek European and Japanese technology to develop itself as an industrial power, while maintaining antagonistic policies in the region, Israeli sources have described official thinking in interviews this week.

Israel and Sunni powers fear Iran would be empowered by the lifting of sanctions after a prospective nuclear deal, while sponsoring actions and proxy groups that pose a threat to their stability, and competing for power and influence in the region and beyond.

Former US and international officials involved in track 2 conversations with Iran have been considering the utility of such a format to try to address deep regional mistrust of Iran amid the growing prospect that it could emerge from diplomatic and economic isolation if a nuclear deal s reached.

(Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu outside the White House on March 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. By Amos Ben Gershom/Israel GPO via Getty Images.)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress prepares letters, initiatives ahead of AIPAC confab

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AIPAC expected to lobby for Iran sanctions bill that Obama has vowed to veto


As Senate Democrats and Republicans traded blame Thursday over blocked veterans’ benefits legislation to which Republicans had tried to attach an Iran sanctions amendment, the pro-Israel lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) faced questions about its position on the matter just days before its big annual policy conference here.

“The Republicans are trying to mislead the American public by saying that a bipartisan majority supports moving forward with new sanctions right now,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said in a statement Thursday. “In fact, many Senators….as well as Israel’s strongest supporter, AIPAC…agree that now is not the right time to bring a sanctions package to the floor.”

“AIPAC was unequivocal in its request for a delay on additional sanctions,” Reid’s statement continued. “This is what AIPAC said: ‘Stopping the Iranian nuclear program should rest on bipartisan support and… there should not be a vote at this time on the measure.’”

An AIPAC official, speaking to reporters at a lunch at Morton’s restaurant Thursday, said AIPAC members would next week lobby for more Senate co-sponsors for the Kirk-Menendez Iran sanctions bill (S1881), sources at the lunch told Al-Monitor on condition they not be identified since the lunch was off the record. President Obama has vowed to veto the measure, which was shelved last month after gaining 59 co-sponsors, short of the 67 needed to override a presidential veto. (The House passed a version of the measure overwhelmingly last summer [.pdf], before an interim Iran nuclear deal was reached in November; a separate House Iran sanctions push was shelved in January.)

AIPAC lobbyists may urge Democrats to co-sponsor the bill by arguing, “We don’t support a vote, but why not cosponsor?” a Hill staffer, speaking not for attribution, suggested Thursday.

“They burned their fingers very badly on S1881,” Douglas Bloomfield, a former AIPAC official and columnist told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, referring to AIPAC. “And I think they are trying now to put some balm on it. But they still haven’t given up on pushing it.”

AIPAC officials, writing in the New York Times last week, were “vague” about when they would push to bring the bill to a vote, Bloomfield noted.

“We support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act, sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s chairman, Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, and by Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois,” AIPAC officials Michael Kassen and Lee Rosenberg write in a February 22, 2014 New York Times op-ed. “Earlier this month, we agreed with Mr. Menendez on delaying a vote in the Senate, but we remain committed to the bill’s passage.”

“I think they are torn,” Bloomfield said, by the desire to maintain bipartisan appeal in Congress and among its membership, while at the same time, he said, “they are under pressure from what has become their Republican base on the Hill and they also have big money people.”

Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) Executive Director Matthew Brooks agreed that AIPAC may be “shackled” by having to maintain bipartisan appeal, a constraint that he, as head of a Republican-aligned group, said he was glad not to suffer.

It’s a “luxury for me, I am not shackled by the handcuffs of bipartisanship,” Brooks said in a telephone interview from Dallas Thursday, where he Tweeted he was successfully fundraising over GOP support and Democratic opposition to moving forward now with the Iran sanctions bill. “AIPAC is in a much more difficult and challenging box, to maneuver to balance policy and practical considerations.”

An AIPAC spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Hill sources said that for now, an alternative resolution that would seek to define what should be the terms of a final Iran nuclear deal appeared to be off the table.

Kaine: Israel stance ‘no, no, no’ on Iran enrichment

Israel’s stance on acceptable terms for a final Iran nuclear deal remains as uncompromising as that which divided Washington and Jerusalem on the merits of an interim nuclear deal last fall, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) said Monday following a trip last week to the Middle East.

“Their position is no, no, no: No enrichment, no centrifuges, no weaponization program,” Kaine, referring to Israeli leaders, said in answer to a question on a conference call briefing with journalists Monday on his trip last week to Israel, Ramallah, Lebanon and Egypt.

Netanyahu, in a meeting with Senators Kaine and Angus King (Independent-Maine) in Israel last week, “said nothing about the pending legislation,” Kaine said, referring to stalled Iran sanctions legislation co-sponsored  by Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ron Kirk (R-Illinois). “He expressed what he has [previously] expressed. He has not backed away one iota [from his position] that the interim deal is a bad idea in his view. But he acknowledged…that the deal is done.”

Now the Israeli leader is turning his focus to how to “structure the final deal …so that it accomplishes what needs to be accomplished, and what would such a deal look like,” Kaine said, adding that Netanyahu did not refer to specific draft U.S. legislation on the matter. “He’s aware that if we can’t find an acceptable deal, it’s not hard to get Congress to pass more sanctions.”

When Netanyahu comes to Washington next week to address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference and to meet with President Obama, “I suspect that rather than a speech that three quarter deals with” the six month Join Plan of Action that went into effect last  month, he will spend “a lot of time on what should be the components of a final deal” and what “assurances will be needed.”

Asked if the Israeli leader had shown any signs of softening his maximalist positions from last fall that an acceptable Iran nuclear deal could allow no centrifuges or domestic Iranian enrichment, Kaine said no.

“I understand and they [the Israelis] understand that this is a negotiation,” Kaine said. “At the end of the day, we have the same goal of a diplomatic solution, [of Iran] without a nuclear weapon and easy ability to produce a nuclear weapon. Exactly how to define that question of what is acceptable in terms of nuclear research and what is unacceptable, that gets too close to a weapon, there are some gray areas.”

“The US and Israeli perspectives may be a little different,” Kaine continued. “That demands communication.”

“I would like there to be zero enrichment, I would like there to be no facilities, I would like there not to be an indigenous program,” lead US Iran negotiator Under Secretary of State Wendy  Sherman told journalists in Israel over the weekend. “I think I would like many things in life. But that does not mean I will always get them, and that is not necessarily the only path to ensuring that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon and that the international community can have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its program.”

Kaine also said that both Israeli and Palestinian leaders expressed gratitude for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to advance a framework for an Israel-Palestine two state solution, but that both expressed doubts the other side was willing to make the necessary compromises and concessions for it to succeed.

In Lebanon, he said Lebanese leaders told him and King that they appreciated US financial support for humanitarian efforts to support the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in the country, but that what was needed is to improve conditions inside Syria to slow the refugee exodus and move to end the conflict. He and King were preparing to leave a briefing at the US embassy in Beirut last week when a suicide blast went off some five miles south at an Iranian cultural center, killing several people–the latest sign of sectarian spillover violence from Syria’s civil war that threatens to destabilize its neighbors.

Kaine, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Near East and South Asia subcommittee, plans to hold a subcommittee hearing on Lebanon on Tuesday.

Photo: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), right, meets in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, and Sen. Angus King (I-Me.), via Washington Jewish Week.

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

Khamenei aide Velayati takes helm of Iran think tank


Little noticed in the flurry of high profile diplomacy that produced a breakthrough nuclear accord in Geneva last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, has been appointed the head of the Center for Strategic Research, the Iranian think tank formerly helmed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Velayati was tapped to succeed Rouhani as head of the Center for Strategic Research, a subsidiary of Iran’s Expediency Council, in November, IRNA reported.

Velayati, who did post-graduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins University, served as Iranian foreign minister from 1981-1997 and as Khamenei’s top foreign policy advisor since then. He has appointed Dr. Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian diplomat and scholar, as his deputy of international studies at CSR, Iranian sources told Al-Monitor Sunday.

Maleki, who served as Iran’s deputy foreign minister under Velayati from 1980-1997 and as a professor and dean at Sharif University, has in recent years been based in Boston as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011-2012) before his return to Iran in 2012.

Iranian sources also said that Dr. Mostafa T. Zahrani, a former Iranian diplomat at the Iran mission to the United Nations in New York when Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif served as Iran’s UN envoy, has been appointed director general of the Iranian Foreign Ministry-linked think tank, the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS), succeeding Mostafa Dolatyar. Al-Monitor could not reach officials at IPIS Monday to confirm.

Velayati, notably, has twice in recent days vigorously endorsed direct one-on-one nuclear talks with the United States and other members of the P5+1.

“Talks can be held separately (with every members of the P5+1),” Velayati told reporters in Tehran Sunday, Khabar Online reported.

“We aren’t on the right path if we don’t have one-on-one talks with the six countries,” Velayati previously told Iranian television last week December 27th. “We have to talks with the countries separately. … It would be wrong if we bring the countries into unity against us, since there are rifts among them over various international issues.”

The United States and Iran have held at least five rounds of secret talks in Oman, Geneva and New York since Rouhani’s inauguration in August to advance a nuclear accord, Al-Monitor first reported last month.

Meantime, in Israel, Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, has joined the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a senior advisor, an official at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs confirmed to Al-Monitor Monday.

Gold, a former Israeli advisor at the Madrid and Wye River peace talks, previously served as a foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu (1996-1997) and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (2002-2004), and as Israeli ambassador to the UN (1997-1999). Born in Connecticut, Gold has headed the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000, and has written several books, including The Rise of Nuclear Iran.

(Photo: In this June 3, 2013 photo, Iranian presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, attends a press conference in Tehran. The 11th presidential election after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution will be held on June 14.)

Iran, P5+1 meet on implementing nuclear accord


Technical talks between Iran and six world powers on implementing a Nov. 24 Iran nuclear accord got underway in Vienna on Monday, as top US officials vigorously argued that the six month deal will strengthen international security by halting the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program while negotiations towards a comprehensive deal take place.

“I am convinced beyond any doubt that Israel becomes safer the moment this first-step agreement is implemented,” Kerry told the Saban Forum in Washington DC on Saturday (Dec. 7).

“We hope that by the end of these talks, we can start implementing the first step of the Geneva agreement before the end of the year,” Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi told Al-Monitor by email Monday about the technical level talks.

The talks, which started at 3pm Monday, are “to discuss implementation of the 24 November agreement,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told Al-Monitor.

The EU delegation to the Vienna talks includes EEAS nuclear experts Stephan Klement and Klemen Polak.

Iran’s delegation to the talks is led by Hamid Baeedinejad, the Director General of Iran’s Foreign Ministry, Ravanchi said.

The US delegation to the Vienna technical talks includes James Timbie, the top nonproliferation advisor to Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman; Richard Nephew, the State Department’s deputy Iran sanctions expert; Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iran and Iraq Brett McGurk, and Adam Szubin, from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC).

Parallel to the consultations with the Iranians, US officials are also traveling around the world to discuss how to implement the sanctions relief in the phase 1 deal, while maintaining the major architecture of oil and banking sanctions on Iran. Deputy Assistant Secretaries of State Amos Hochstein and Peter Harrell are traveling to China, India, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates for consultations on easing sanctions on Iranian trade in gold and precious metals, and permitting Iran to receive $4.2 billion in frozen assets from oil sales, but not unwinding sanctions further than that spelled out in the six month deal.

The technical talks on implementing the six month, Phase 1 deal come as President Obama and Secretary Kerry told a pro-Israel security forum in Washington over the weekend that the deal would increase Israel’s security by lengthening the time it would take Iran to have nuclear weapons breakout.

“For the first time in over a decade, we have halted advances in the Iranian nuclear program,” Obama told the Saban Forum Saturday. “We are going to have daily inspectors in Fordow and Natanz. We’re going to have additional inspections in Arak. And as a consequence, during this six-month period, Iran cannot and will not advance its program or add additional stockpiles of…enriched uranium.”

Kerry is due to testify on the Iran deal to the House foreign affairs panel Tuesday. Lead US negotiator Wendy Sherman is also supposed to testify on the Hill later in the week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.

Kerry will further discuss Iran when he meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on his ninth visit to Jerusalem later this week, Psaki said.

Israel’s new national security advisor Yossi Cohen is also in Washington this week for consultations with US counterparts on the Iran deal. American officials have urged Israel to consult on terms for a comprehensive agreement, rather than litigate the terms of the Phase 1 deal, which Israel has opposed. “The real question is what’s going to happen with the final agreement,” Kerry told the Saban forum.

The Obama administration is pressing Congress to hold off on passing new Iran sanctions even if they would not take effect until after six months and only if a comprehensive deal is not reached. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned in an interview published by Time Monday that new US sanctions would sink the deal.

“If Congress adopts sanctions, it shows lack of seriousness and lack of a desire to achieve a resolution on the part of the United States,” Zarif told Time’s Robin Wright.

(Photo by the EEAS of British Foreign Secretary William Hague, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and US Secretary of State John Kerry in Geneva, Switzerland on Nov. 24.)

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.)

Iran nuclear deal close, US officials say

US negotiators say they feel they are close to finalizing a nuclear agreement with Iran for the first time in a decade.

“For the first time in nearly a decade we are getting close to [reaching agreement on] the first step towards a comprehensive agreement that would stop Iran’s nuclear program from advancing, and put time on the clock to reach a negotiated agreement that addresses all of our concerns,” a senior U.S. administration official told journalists at a background briefing at the State Department Friday.

“I don’t know if we will get agreement,” in Geneva next week, the U.S. official said. “It’s quite possible we can. But there are tough issues to negotiate.” The reason the last meeting ended in Geneva at 1am last weekend was that Iran, after receiving the consensus P5+1 draft proposal only late in the evening of November 9th, “felt it needed to look at the document and come back to the negotiations.”

Under the P5+1 proposed deal that six world powers and Iran will meet again to discuss next week in Geneva (November 20-22), Iran would agree to halt the expansion of its nuclear program for six months. Among the measures the first phase would address: suspend 20% enrichment, neutralize the 20% stockpile, hold steady the stockpile of 3.5% enrichment by oxidizing any more accrued, not install more centrifuges and not operate ones already installed but not yet enriching, including the more advanced IR-2Ms; stop building fuel assemblies for the unfinished Arak heavy water facility, and allow increased inspections and monitoring at enrichment facilities, for a period of six months, according to press reports and what sources familiar with the deal under discussion told Al-Monitor. US officials briefing Friday would not confirm the details of the P5+1 proposal.

In exchange, Iran would receive under $10 billion in sanctions relief, including about $3 billion in hard currency assets frozen in banks abroad that would be metered out each month depending on compliance, as well as the suspension of sanctions on auto sales, petrochemicals, gold and precious metals, as well as aircraft parts, sources said.

During the six month first phase, negotiators would then seek to reach a comprehensive agreement under which all of the outstanding concerns about Iran’s nuclear program would be addressed, in exchange for the lifting of proliferation related samctions, including on oil exports and those restricting Iran’s access to the international banking system. Iran also seeks language in the accord that would permit it to pursue domestic enrichment for a verifiably peaceful, civilian nuclear energy program as part of an end state deal.

The agreement would provide “unprecedented monitoring and verification” of Iran’s nuclear program, the senior U.S. official said. “The voluntary steps [in the first phase proposal] are good things in and of themselves. But the objective is to reach a comprehensive agreement that puts time on the clock, extends breakout time, shortens the time it would take to detect [breakout], and make the world, the US and Israel more secure.”

The US official acknowledged that Israel strongly opposes a confidence building step that would provide Iran any sanctions relief, even one that would by some estimates double Iran’s nuclear breakout time in the first phase alone.

“When it comes to our Israeli friends, and Israel’s security is foremost for us, it is worth noting we share exactly the same objective,” that Iran should not produce a nuclear weapon, the US official said. “We both believe diplomacy should be given a chance, but we diverge on tactical [steps]. We believe there should be a first step. We completely share Israel’s desire for a comprehensive agreement. But we don’t think it’s possible” without a first-step agreement.

“We think keeping the pressure on Iran is critical, and we are not asking Congress to lift sanctions,” the US official said. “We are asking Congress to take a pause” in adding new ones. “We need to see if they [the Iranians] are serious. If it appears they are not, [or] if they don’t comply, Congress can put new sanctions on in a nanosecond.”

The official said she doesn’t know if the administration’s appeal to Congress to pause new sanctions through the end of the year will succeed, or if the Senate, pressed by Israel and pro-Israel lobby groups, would move new Iran sanctions legislation in the Banking committee or to attach to the National Defense Authorization Act.

“Where Israel is concerned, I have tremendous respect for the prime minister [Netanyahu] and…I understand he will say or do what he needs to do,” the US official said. “We may not see eye to eye tactically, but we stand shoulder to shoulder in ensuring Iran will not have a nuclear weapon. The President [Obama] has done more to ensure Israel’s security than any other president. We have a close bond. I expect we’ll get through this.”