Updated: U.S. denies mulling extension on Iran talks

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Updated 7/2:

Washington, D.C. __ The US on Monday denied that it is signaling that it is prepared to have to extend Iran nuclear talks into the fall if Iran does not return to the table with more realistic proposals including on the centrifuge capacity it could be expected to have in a final deal.

A senior US administration official, briefing small groups of Washington experts in recent days, has been downbeat about prospects for reaching a final deal by July 20, Al-Monitor reported Sunday, citing sources briefed by the official. One expert, speaking not for attribution, was left with the impression that the senior U.S. official “didn’t think it would get done.”

Update: “The United States is not signaling that we are prepared to extend the Iran nuclear negotiations, period,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told Al-Monitor Monday. “We are working towards the July 20th date, and we believe we can meet that date.”

“Of course, Iran will have to make tough decisions and the administration remains clear that no deal is better than a bad deal,” Harf said.

“We are not there yet,” however, a US official told Al-Monitor Friday, about whether the administration thought it would require an extension.

The US needs to determine “whether we see a mindset [from Iran] that is more realistic about what the outcome will have to be here,” the U.S. administration official told Al Monitor Friday. “We are not just waiting for a response…. There are discussions.”

Experts from Iran and the P5+1 are due to hold technical talks in Vienna next week (June 5-6) on the sidelines of an IAEA board of governors meeting. The P5+1 and Iran are scheduled to hold the next round of final deal talks in Vienna on June 16-20.

With less than two months to go ‘til a July 20 expiration of an interim Iran nuclear deal, the US and Iran are not yet pursuing parallel bilateral meetings to narrow wide differences for a nuclear deal, US and Iranian sources tell Al-Monitor. That may be because the US and P5+1 believe that Iran is going to have to do most of the modifying, particularly on enrichment capacity, if a final deal is to be reached, US experts recently briefed by Obama administration officials tell Al-Monitor.

“The Iranians know what the bottom line is,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran expert now at the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor Friday. “This will not be a case of meeting in the middle.”

“It will be difficult for the powers to reach an agreement with Iran by the deadline of July 20,” Robert Einhorn, a former top US Iran arms control advisor, told Israel’s Ynetnew.com Sunday. “The last round of talks didn’t amount to expectations. There was hope that some main issues would be solved, like the issue of the reactor in Arak…but that didn’t happen.”

“My assessment is that when faced with the alternative of ending the talks, the two sides will agree to extend them,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Ynet.

“The odds of success are still long,” President Obama told graduating West Point cadets Wednesday, referring to a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal. “But for the first time in a decade, we have a very real chance of achieving a breakthrough agreement — one that is more effective and durable than what we could have achieved through the use of force. “

The American side and the P5+1 “had sticker shock at what the Iranians came in on in Vienna,” Patrick Clawson, deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Friday, referring to the Iranian proposal for the amount of centrifuges it would like to have in a final deal at the last round of talks in Vienna in May.

The Iranians seemed to have “the impression that the P5+1 was desperate for a deal, but it’s actually not true,” Clawson said. “Therefore they [the US and P5+1] are prepared to let the Iranians” stew in the impasse for now, and may not be rushing to send the bilat team to meet with them to try to narrow positions.

“There will be no final nuclear deal without direct US and Iran bilateral talks,” former Iranian nuclear negotiator Seyed Hossein Mousavian told an audience at the New America Foundation in New York last week.

The U.S. may yet pursue face to face meetings with Iran at a future point in the negotiations, U.S. sources told Al-Monitor, but hasn’t to date this year done so, outside of those meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran talks.

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Sunday that he would not be able to attend a June 18 meeting of Organization of Islamic States foreign ministers in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia due to the Iran P5+1 nuclear talks previously scheduled to be held in Vienna June 16-20, Iranian media reported.

Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not involved.

But Aboutalebi’s even remote alleged association with the embassy seizure and hostage crisis that traumatized Americans and ruptured US Iranian diplomatic ties over three decades ago has set off a flurry of denunciations from former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “is more reformist and more skeptical and critical of the [Iranian] system than” many others, one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“Iran’s policy is to formally appoint ambassadors – to all posts – once all the formalities are completed,” an Iranian official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday, in response to a query on Aboutalebi’s status.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif’s team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

Syria: ‘The next 24 hours are crucial’

By Barbara Slavin and Laura Rozen

The assassination Wednesday (July 18) of key members of Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle marked a dramatic turning point in the Syrian rebellion, but the growing prospect of regime collapse seemed to offer no near-term reprieve from the bloodshed and chaos that have engulfed one of the Middle East’s most pivotal nations.

“The next 24 hours are crucial,” Aram Nerguizian, a military expert and Levant specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Al-Monitor after the deaths of Assad’s brother in law, defense minister and other key officials were announced by Syrian state television.

“Either the regime and the security services hang together and try to recalibrate from this … or we move on to next phase of the crisis: decay and truly sectarian strife with the potential for even deeper cantonization,” Nerguizian said.

“It could go either way at this point, either triggering rapid regime collapse or massive regime assaults,” Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University who consults the Obama administration on the region, told Al Monitor by email Wednesday. “Either way I think, as I have for months, that Assad is doomed.  But his choices today will have a serious effect on the amount of bloodshed and pain Syrians will have to suffer.”

“Let’s hope that the momentum sustains itself and Assad flees,” Lynch said.  “We’re not there yet. …. Even if he goes there’s a lot of post-Assad issues for which nobody really prepared — the price of the fragmented opposition and power of armed groups.”

Indeed, Nerguizian last week predicted a “protracted civil war like in Lebanon or Algeria” even if Assad steps down. Tensions between majority Sunnis and Assad’s Alawite clan, as well as regional and economic inequities in Syria, ensure continuing bloodshed, he told an audience at CSIS.

The Syrian opposition remains divided, with no transitional government groomed to take Assad’s place as was the case in Libya.

The international community is also divided, with Russia and Iran clinging to the Assad regime despite its horrific crackdown on Syrians over the past 17 months. A UN mission whose main achievement has been to investigate some of the human rights atrocities that have taken place in the country is about to see its mandate expire unless a divided Security Council can agree on new terms for extending it. UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan called Wednesday for the UN Security Council to postpone a planned vote Wednesday on a new Syria resolution as diplomats consulted at the highest level on the unfolding situation.

In Washington, official reaction to developments was mixed. “There is real momentum against Assad, with increasing defections, and a strengthened and more united opposition that is operating across the country,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement, adding “it’s time for the Syrian people and the international community to focus on what comes next.” US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking Wednesday at the Pentagon with his British counterpart, had a more cautious take, saying events on the ground appeared to be “rapidly spinning out of control.” British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond warned Assad that use of Syria’s substantial chemical weapons stockpile “would not be tolerated.”

Russian Foreign Ministry Sergei Lavrov said a “decisive battle” was underway in Damascus, but reiterated Moscow’s opposition to any UN resolution that would authorize international intervention in the country. “Adopting a resolution against this backdrop would amount to a direct support for the revolutionary movement,” Lavrov told reporters at a news conference in Moscow Wednesday, Reuters reported

Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the New America Foundation, noted that the Syrian regime “still has a lot of firepower.” While she called the semi-decapitation of the government the “beginning of the end of the regime,” she said that it was possible that both Iran and Hezbollah would intervene more forcefully to try to rescue Assad. Continue reading