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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

Obama to visit Israel in spring

President Obama is planning to visit Israel this spring, the White House confirmed to Al Monitor Tuesday. It will be his first trip to the Jewish state since taking office.

“When the President spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu on January 28, they discussed a visit by the President to Israel in the spring,” NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor said by email Tuesday, in response to a query.

“The start of the President’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including Iran and Syria,”  Vietor said.  “Additional details about the trip – including the dates of travel – will be released at a later time.”

Obama will also travel to the West Bank and Jordan.

Israel's Channel 10 reported Tuesday that President Obama will visit Israel on March 20th. The White House did not confirm his travel dates.

Israeli sources told Al-Monitor that President Obama initiated the plan for the Israel trip, early in his and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new terms. “It reflects a priority,” a former Israeli official surmised.

The early spring trip also gives Obama the opportunity to try to reach out to Israeli leaders and the public before potential new tensions strain the alliance, including over the timeline for diplomacy with Iran. It also offers perhaps something of a fresh start for relations between the two leaders who have often been at odds over the past four years, even as US-Israeli security cooperation has expanded to unprecedented levels. Continue reading

White House WMD czar short list

Gary Samore, who is heading to Harvard to become executive director of the Belfer Center,  had his last day at the White House on Friday, after serving four years as President Obama’s “WMD czar.”

The White House said no final decision has been made on who will succeed him. Arms control experts said there has been a closely-held short list of three or so prospective candidates under consideration, that narrowed further in recent weeks.

Among the names the Back Channel hears is on the short list is Samore's top deputy, Laura Holgate. Several diplomatic and arms control expert sources, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel they understood that Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State non-proliferation official now in London, may also have been under consideration. He declined to comment. A couple other people mentioned as prospective candidates, contacted by the Back Channel, denied they were in the running and said they were staying put in their current jobs.  Continue reading

Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

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Buzz on Obama 2.0 Middle East team

Turkey's President Gul attends a meeting with U.S. Congressmen and U.S. ambassador to Turkey Wilson in Ankara

With President Obama expected to name more cabinet picks next week, including Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, speculation has begun to turn to who will fill out senior and middle ranks of his second term Middle East team.

Among the questions affecting the transition shuffle is whether acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Elizabeth Jones will be formally nominated for the post under Secretary of State-nominee John Kerry, or, as seen as more likely, whether someone new will be tapped.

Jones, a career foreign service officer, is, like Kerry, the child of US Foreign Service parents, who spent much of her childhood abroad. A former Ambassador to Kazakhstan, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (2001-2005), Jones came out of retirement in the private sector (APCO Worldwide) to assist in the Near East bureau in 2011. She assumed the Acting Assistant Secretary job for the bureau after Jeff Feltman retired to take the number three job at the United Nations last May, but has not been formally nominated for the job.

Department sources said that some State rank and file officers are troubled that the Benghazi investigation resulted in the impending departure of Jones’ deputy, Raymond Maxwell. A career foreign service officer tapped as the DAS for Libya and the  Maghreb in 2011, Maxwell had been scheduled to retire this past September. He stayed on however after the Sept. 11 attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other US personnel to try to get the Maghreb shop, devastated about the loss of their friend and colleague, through. The perception among some in the rank and file is that Jones let Maxwell take the fall, while escaping blame herself, in part because of her long professional relationship with Tom Pickering, the veteran diplomat who chaired the Benghazi Accountability Review Board investigation, department sources who declined to speak for attribution said. Jones and Maxwell did not immediately return requests for comment. A former official subsequently told the Back Channel that Jones is definitely planning to leave.

If Jones moves on, among those rumored to be under consideration to helm the Near East bureau, officials said, is Puneet Talwar, who has served as the Obama administration National Security Council Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs. Talwar, the former top Iran and Iraq advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff under then SFRC chairman Joe Biden, is also said to be under consideration to become national security advisor to  Vice President Biden. (Current Biden national security advisor Antony Blinken is expected to get a promotion in the new term: among the posts he is discussed for, Deputy Secretary of State, Deputy National Security Advisor, or US Ambassador to the UN, if Susan Rice is named National Security Advisor.) Continue reading

Latest appointment chatter

The Back Channel hears that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter may be tapped for Secretary of Defense. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, a top foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, may not be interested in the top Defense job at this time, sources close to the administration, speaking not for attribution, suggested. They also expected that UN envoy Susan Rice would probably be tapped for Secretary of State, but were not certain of it.

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Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Why John Kerry may have to cool his heels on Secretary of State

Conventional wisdom has rapidly taken hold in the wake of President Obama’s reelection victory that Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) is first in line of candidates to succeed Hillary Clinton as US Secretary of State.

But Obama administration officials tell the Back Channel that there are several reasons Kerry may have to cool his heels a while–having nothing to do with Kerry not being held in high esteem by the White House. Among them:

1) Secretary Clinton, who met with Obama and Vice President Biden at the White House Friday, feels an obligation to see the Benghazi investigation through and not leave any taint from that investigation to be faced by her successor. This could have her staying on til February or March, one administration source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor Friday.

2) Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has told the White House that he will be “furious” if he loses Kerry from the Senate, to leave the Massachusetts Democratic Senate seat vulnerable in a special election race against Republican Scott Brown, who has millions of dollars in the bank left over from his unsuccessful Senate run against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The White House may feel especially obliged to listen to Reid, because he is a key reason the Democrats held onto their Senate majority, and because “they have to keep Reid happy as a clam” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, the official said. (Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and his wife are due to have a ‘social’ dinner with President and Michelle Obama at the White House Friday night. But while some thought Patrick might be in position to run against Brown if a Kerry nomination leaves the Senate seat open, other sources say Patrick has his eye on the AG job.)

3) While there are important constituencies in and out of his administration pushing for Kerry, including reportedly Vice President Biden, Kerry’s predecessor as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, “Obama loves” Susan Rice, his US Ambassador to the United Nations, the official noted. If Clinton stays on through the Benghazi investigation, that may blunt and defuse Congressional Republican wrath (and political opportunism) over the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks that has heretofore targeted Rice, among others, and that has raised concerns about whether a Rice confirmation hearing would become a huge, ugly partisan food fight. (There are also reports of CIA Director David Petraeus being at the White House Friday, and murmurs that some Hill Republicans believe the CIA has not been forthcoming about the CIA role in Benghazi. Update: Petraeus offered his resignation, citing an affair, which Obama accepted Friday. The affair, with his biographer Paula Broadwell, was uncovered by an FBI investigation, apparently of emails sent by Broadwell to a female friend of Petraeus‘ whom Broadwell perceived as a romantic rival.)

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White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

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