Ex envoy Ford says could not defend US Syria policy

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Recently retired US Syria envoy Robert Ford told CNN Tuesday that he resigned because he could not defend US policy on Syria.

“I was no longer in a position where I felt I could defend American policy,” former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour Tuesday.

“We have been unable to address either the root causes of the conflict in terms of the fighting…and the balance on the ground, and we have a growing extremism threat,” said Ford, who resigned in March from the State Department after a three decade diplomatic career.

There is “nothing we can point to that has been very successful to in our policy except the removal of about 93% of some of Assad’s chemicals, but now he is using chlorine gas against his opponents,” Ford said. “The regime simply has no credibility, and our policy is not addressing the Syrian crisis as it needs to.”

Of the growing extremism threat from Syria, Ford said that he and unspecified colleagues had warned more than two years ago that Syria would prove fertile ground for terrorists.

“We warned even as long as two years ago that terrorist groups would go into that vacuum, as we had seen in places like Afghanistan and Somalia and Yemen and Mali,” Ford said. “This is not rocket science.”

Ford said Tuesday that increased US support earlier on in the conflict to moderate Syrian opposition forces could have helped prevent extremists from getting such a big foothold in Syria. And he cast doubt on whether the increased efforts President Obama seemed to be considering ahead of his foreign policy speech at West Point last week would be enough.

“It’s not clear to me yet if they are prepared to ramp up (assistance) in a such a way that would be meaningful on the ground and that’s what matters,” Ford told PBS’s Margaret Warner in a separate interview Tuesday.

Ford, until his retirement one of the State Department’s top Arabists who previously served as US Ambassador to Algeria and deputy US Ambassador to Iraq, is slated to join the Middle East Institute as a senior fellow. He could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

Ford is hardly the first Syria mediator to quit in frustration. UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi resigned last month, as did his predecessor Kofi Annan before him. Former US envoy on Syria transition issues Frederic Hof, who quit in 2012, has also become an outspoken critic of US Syria policy.

As to why Ford had not previously voiced such criticisms in the three months since he resigned, Hof noted in March that Ford was still on the government payroll and required to adhere to official policy and talking points. Ford “will likely speak out when he is free to do so,” Hof, now at the Atlantic Council, wrote.

“For quite some time, the only things keeping Robert in harness were Secretary Kerry’s pleas and Robert’s hope that Kerry could change the policy,” a former diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Tuesday. “In the end he concluded he could no longer serve as apologist-in-chief for a rhetoric-based policy fundamentally unaligned with ground truth in Syria.”

Meantime, in Syria Tuesday, Bashar al-Assad was expected to be declared the winner in presidential polls being run in government-held parts of the country, in elections that the US and western nations have condemned as farcical and illegitimate. Iran, Russia and North Korea have reportedly sent observers to the polls to try to bolster the appearance of legitimacy.

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

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.

Enrichment capacity seen as key hurdle to Iran deal


Washington, DC__ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday offered upbeat reassurances about prospects for reaching a nuclear deal, even as negotiators from Iran and six world powers reported no progress from “sticker shock” nuclear talks in Vienna last week, and urged each other to return to the table next time with more “realism.”

With the “positive trend of talks, we are on threshold of solving [the] nuclear issue,” Rouhani said in China Wednesday.

Despite the intentions of both sides, Iran and world powers will not be able to reach a final nuclear accord unless Iran lowers its expectations for the size of its enrichment program, non-proliferation experts in consultation with the parties warned.

“I think Iran genuinely wants a deal,” former State Department Iran non-proliferation advisor Robert Einhorn told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

“But it may not yet realize that it can’t get one unless it is prepared to lower its sights on the enrichment capacity it will be allowed to have under an agreement,” Einhorn said.

“If a deal is to happen, Iran must make the strategic decision to forego a near-term breakout capability in the form of a sizable enrichment program,” Jofi Joseph, a former White House Iran non-proliferation advisor, said Wednesday. “If it is prepared to do so, a deal can come together quickly this summer. If not, then an impasse will occur.”

Iran was frustrated by the P5+1 proposal in Vienna for a decade or more time-frame for phased sanctions relief, and wants sanctions relief in a deal to be more front-loaded for steps it’s also willing to take on the front end.

The P5+1 “say that after the agreement, we have to prove our goodwill. They will then remove sanctions one by one,” over a period of ten years, Seyed Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for the Iranian Parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran’s Tasnim News Agency, Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse reported Wednesday.

Iran also rejects that its ballistic missile program should be a subject for discussion with the P5+1, Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said.

The largest gap that has Iran deal watchers concerned, however, is between the expectations of Iran and the West over the size of Iran’s enrichment program.

“What matters most is whether the two sides can agree on a much more limited uranium enrichment program for near term,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, told Al-Monitor.

“Only if Iran meets its obligations, builds confidence its program not being used for military purposes, and Iran demonstrates it has legitimate nuclear fuel needs will the international community agree to relaxing those constraints,” Kimball said.

“The brinkmanship will continue until the last minute,” one Iranian analyst, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “My problem is the incompatibility of the two sides’ end objectives…maintaining nuclear capability vs. rolling it back.”

Sources suggest the Iranians would like to initially maintain the number of centrifuges they are currently operating under the six month interim deal–about 9,000 IR-1s – to be the starting amount in the near term of a final deal, that would be allowed to increase after some duration. At the end of an as yet to be agreed period in which it would agree to restrictions and extensive inspections, monitoring and safeguards, Iran wants to have its status as a member of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) normalized, so that it could in theory have no restrictions on the size of its enrichment program.

“I understand that Iran has indicated willingness to consider short term constraints on the size of its enrichment program, such as freezing at the current level of 9,000 operating IR-1s for a few years before gradually expanding to an industrial scale of 50,000 or more IR-1 centrifuge machines,” former Obama White House non-proliferation advisor Gary Samore said in a speech posted at the Harvard Belfer Center website this week.

Meantime, Congressional sources and Israeli officials would find a deal under which Iran operated 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges while maintaining a small stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium, allowing a one year “breakout” period, “politically defensible,” Samore wrote.

Getting Iran to agree to restrict the size of its enrichment program in the near and medium term is probably more important than how many centrifuges it says it wants after a decade or two, some non-proliferation experts said.

“I actually think if you could get to a near term agreement, that would make us feel comfortable over the next ten years, it would take care of itself,” Greg Thielmann, a former US intelligence analyst with the Arms Control Association, said Tuesday.

Sources expect Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to meet as early as this weekend to discuss how to bridge wide gaps in positions, ahead of the next round of talks in Vienna June 16th. US and Iranian sources did not immediately respond if U.S. officials would participate in the meeting or might meet separately.

(Photo of EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attending a banquet in Vienna May 14 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

Former US officials detect shift in Israel on Iran nuclear deal

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.)

Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Burns to retire, led back channel to Iran

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the veteran U.S. diplomat who helped President Obama open a back channel to Iran last year, will retire from the Foreign Service in October, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

“It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy,” Kerry said in a press statement Friday.

“With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues,” Kerry said. “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Like so many others who worked with him, I have seen Bill Burns as a mentor– [and] have learned so much by watching how he does his job,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter.

Burns, in a letter informing Kerry of his decision to retire in October after 32 years serving 10 US Secretaries of State, wrote that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President….You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.”

Burns, in an interview with Al-Monitor in January, said while reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would be very challenging, it should be achievable.

“The truth is, at the end of the day … if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon … we’ve made clear…we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” Burns said.

“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” he added. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”

Burns is only the second career Foreign Service officer to be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State. He has previously served as US Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, among many other positions in his 32 year diplomatic career.

Sources told Al-Monitor that Burns considered retiring last year, but President Obama personally asked him to stay to pursue the Iran diplomatic channel at a critical moment, which he did.

Diplomatic sources previously considered State Department counselor Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken to be possible contenders to succeed Burns as Deputy Secretary.

(Bottom photo of President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

Iran nuclear diplomat known to U.S. as tough, professional

When lead US negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi and their teams met on the sidelines of nuclear talks in Vienna this week, US officials described the now commonplace encounter between the U.S. and Iranian delegations as “useful and professional.”

“It’s now normal,” a senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution, described the bilateral meeting with Araghchi to journalists at a briefing in Vienna on April 9. “We met for about an hour and a half. … We make sure that Iran understands our perspective on all of the issues under discussion, and they’re able to tell us directly their views about our views.”

“Mr. Araghchi is a very professional negotiator and also a tough negotiator,” Sherman told Al-Monitor by email on April 11.

Araghchi, 53, the lone holdover from Saeed Jalili’s nuclear negotiating team, has previously served as Iran’s envoy to Japan, Asian affairs deputy and, briefly during Iran’s presidential campaign and transition last summer, as the spokesman for Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since Hassan Rouhani tapped Mohammad Javad Zarif as Iran’s foreign minister and lead nuclear negotiator last August, Araghchi has been a key player in the nuclear talks that produced an interim deal last November, and a principal interlocutor in bilateral discussions with the United States aimed at advancing a comprehensive nuclear accord.

While Zarif’s willingness to engage with US officials was perhaps not surprising — the affable Iranian diplomat spent almost 20 years in the United States, earning graduate degrees and serving as Iran’s UN envoy in New York during the moderate Mohammad Khatami administration — his deputy Araghchi is less well-known to Western audiences.

Though Araghchi earned a doctoral degree at Kent University in the United Kingdom and speaks fluent English, he is not one of Zarif’s so-called “New York gang” or “New Yorkers,” as the Iranian diplomats who studied in the United States and served with Zarif in New York have been dubbed at home. A career diplomat who ascended under then-Iran Foreign Ministers Ali Akbar Velayati and Kamal Kharazi, Araghchi is “not political,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. But it turns out that Araghchi was not entirely unknown to US officials before he was tapped as Zarif’s deputy last August and became part of the Iranian delegation that secretly met with U.S. officials a half dozen times in Oman, New York and Geneva last fall to try to advance a nuclear deal.

Interviews with former officials by Al-Monitor and US diplomatic cables indicate that Araghchi had a previous engagement with the Americans, at a regional summit in Iraq in March 2007, in which he impressed one observer as “extremely professional,” and constructive in the proceedings, in a rare departure from what were otherwise frustrating and unproductive US-Iranian encounters on Iraq at the time.

Araghchi subsequently appeared on the Americans’ radar as a highly effective and press-savvy Iran ambassador to Japan in 2008, in a move some US diplomatic interlocutors read as an effort by the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki to “protect” Araghchi from Iran’s hard-line then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, US diplomatic cables show. Other US cables suggest that Araghchi played a quietly helpful background role in urging for the release of an Iranian-American reporter acquaintance, Roxana Saberi, who was arrested in Iran in January 2009.

“Araghchi is a young, personable, polished and accomplished diplomat who presents well, argues his case calmly and rationally and who is clearly at ease making public presentations and dealing with the press,” then-US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer wrote in a March 2008 diplomatic cable to Washington about his newly arrived Iranian diplomatic counterpart in Tokyo.

One Japanese diplomat “told Embassy Tokyo,” Schieffer’s cable continued, that then-former “Foreign Minister Taro Aso speculated after meeting him … that if the US and Iran were to resume diplomatic relations, Araghchi would be a likely candidate to become ambassador to Washington.”

Araghchi, then — as now — Iran’s deputy foreign minister for international and legal affairs, led Iran’s delegation to a summit of Iraq’s neighbors in Baghdad in March 2007, attended as well by then-US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and then-State Department Iraq coordinator David Satterfield. The meeting came amid growing US frustration at Iran’s support for Iraq “special groups” conducting attacks against US-led coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran denied providing such support, while at the time making repeated overtures to the Americans that it would be interested to engage on Iraq, US cables show. The United States pursued several trilateral meetings with the Iranians on Iraq during 2007, but ultimately determined they were fruitless and counterproductive. But not so at the first meeting attended by Araghchi in March 2007.

“That recollection stays with me … the wholly professional conduct of the Iranian delegation, but particularly the Deputy Foreign Minister [Araghchi], which was quite striking,” a firsthand observer of the meeting, who requested to speak anonymously, told Al-Monitor in an interview on April 10. Continue reading

U.S. would find Iran UN candidate ‘extremely troubling’

The State Department said Wednesday that it has notified Iran that it would have “serious concerns” about the choice of Hamid Aboutalebi to be Iran’s next UN envoy.

“We think this nomination would be extremely troubling,” State Department deputy spokesperson Marie Harf told journalists at the State Department press briefing Wednesday, Reuters reported.

“We are taking a close look at the case now and we have raised our serious concerns about this possible nomination with the government of Iran,” Harf said.

Aboutalebi, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasion to serve as a translator during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis, but had otherwise not been 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 some former US hostages and members of Congress, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should pick someone else for the important, New York-based ambassadorial post.

Iranian officials suggested this week that the nomination of Aboutalebi for the UN post was not yet official, and that it would only formally nominate someone for diplomatic posts who could receive the necessary approval from the hosting government.

“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.

Mr. Hamid Babaei, Iran’s spokesman at the UN mission in New York, repeated a variation of that line when contacted by Al-Monitor Wednesday to ask about the State Department’s comments on Aboutalebi. He said it was up to one’s own interpretation if that means Iran will nominate someone else if US approval is not forthcoming for Dr. Aboutalebi.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said. His alleged, peripheral connection to the 1979 crisis apparently did not come up when vetted for a visa for the short visit back then, former US officials surmised.

Aboutalebi, a former Iranian envoy to Italy, Belgium and Australia who currently works as an advisor in Rouhani’s presidential office, “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.

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

The State Department comments Wednesday “and the movements in the [Congress] yesterday seemed to finally press Iranians to leak that he was not officially nominated and hopefully end the whole saga,” an Iranian scholar told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Ambassador Shuffle: Iraq, Jordan, Turkey

State Department executive secretary John R. Bass, a former US ambassador to Georgia, is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, U.S. officials told the Back Channel.

Bass, a career member of the Foreign Service, previously headed the Baghdad Reconstruction team, and served as the director of the State Department operations Center from 2005-2008, during which time he led the State Department response to 25 crises, including Hurricane Katrina. He served as a special advisor to then Vice President Dick Cheney from 2004-2005 on Europe and Eurasia.

Bass, who currently serves as executive secretary and special assistant to Secretary of State John Kerry, was double hatted as deputy chief of staff last year, before the appointment of Jon Finer. His potential nomination has not yet been formally sent from the White House to Ankara for agreement, diplomatic souces said.

US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart E. Jones is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Iraq, US officials tell Al-Monitor.

It won’t be Jones’ first tour in Iraq. Jones previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Iraq, as the Governate Coordinator in Anbar province; as well as the National Security Council Country Director for Iraq. Jones, who has served as the US envoy to Jordan since 2011, previously served from 2008-2010 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Europe Bureau; and from 2005-2008 as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt.

Alice Wells, the Special Assistant to President Obama and National Security Council Senior Director for Russia affairs and Eurasia, is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Jordan, to succeed jones, US officials told the Back Channel.

Wells, before assuming the top NSC Russia advisor job in 2012, previously served as the Executive Assistant to then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Before that, Well served as chief of staff to then Under Secretary of State William J. Burns from 2009 to 2011.  She served as political minister counselor at the US embassy in Moscow from 2006-2009; as Director of the Office of Maghreb Affairs at the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2006; and as Deputy Director of the Office of Egypt and North African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2004 to 2005. Earlier in her career, she served in diplomatic posts in India, Islamabad, Riyadh, and Tajikistan.

(First photo: State Department photo of John R. Bass; Second photo: State Department photo of Stuart E. Jones. Third photo: President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President-elect Vladimir Putin of Russia March 9, 2012. Alice Wells, Senior Director for Russian Affairs, is seated at right. Photo by Pete Souza.)

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


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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Former Obama officials propose talking with Iran on Syria aid

Amid deepening US-Russia strains over Ukraine, two former Obama administration officials say it may be time for the US to explore trying to develop a channel with Iran to discuss Syria, beginning with humanitarian relief.

While Iran, like Russia, doesn’t want to see Bashar al-Assad forced out, “its broader attitude toward the United States is cautiously warming,” and its leverage on Assad is far greater than Russia’s, Jonathan Stevenson, a former Obama National Security Council official, wrote in the New York Times this week (March 12, 2014). “This puts America and Iran somewhat closer on Syria than they may appear.”

“My bottom line sense with the Iranians is there’s hope for a US-Iran conversation [on Syria humanitarian aid] that is a serious and potentially productive one,” Frederic Hof, a former senior US diplomat advising the Obama administration on Syria and the Levant, told Al-Monitor.in an interview last week.

In track 2 conversations with Iranians that Hof has been involved in, “the people I talk to are blunt:  they are not interested in talking about a [Syria] political transition,” Hof, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, said. “They need Assad and regime support to Hezbollah in Lebanon as Iran’s first line of defense against Israel and the possibility of an Israeli air assault on their nuclear facilities.”

“Humanitarian aid is where to start—establishing localized ceasefires, facilitating aid access,” Stevenson, a former director for political-military affairs for the Middle East and North Africa in the Obama administration, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Friday. Focusing on humanitarian issues initially makes sense, he said, especially given reluctance by both sides to hold “major political discussions,” and with both the US and Iran focused in the near term on the imperative of trying to reach a nuclear deal.

When Secretary of State John Kerry raised Syria at a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a meeting on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference last month, Zarif told Kerry that he was not authorized to discuss Syria, the State Department said. That may not be a feint, some Iran analysts suggest.  While Iran’s Supreme Leader has authorized Iran President Hassan Rouhani and Zarif to try to negotiate a nuclear deal, “I think it’s been clear from day one that Khamenei does not want to put all his cards on the table,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran research at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor in an interview last month. “From his standpoint, if Iran puts all the issues on the table, it will be interpreted by the United States as Iran being in a position of weakness. .. The general policy of the Iran government is not to engage on these [other] issues, lest the US have the impression Iran is seeking a broader compromise.”

That may be the case, Stevenson acknowledged. “The point, though, is to tease out just how resistant they are to putting Syria on the table,” said Stevenson, who left the NSC last May and is now a professor of strategy studies at the Naval War College. “That is why it doesn’t make sense to try to do this through Geneva.”

Stevenson recommended that the US and Iran “keep strictly separate tracks”  between the nuclear talks and any prospective Syria discussions. “It should be made clear by our side, and reciprocated, that there can’t be any linkage,” he said. “For optics, you would want to keep the nuclear track the top priority, and to designate for the Syria conversation a senior State Department official not involved in the nuclear talks.”

“On Syria, the challenge on our side is always bureaucratic stove-piping,” Hof agreed. Those “in charge of the US role in the P5+1 will absolutely oppose any kind of cross -pollination or discussion about Syria. So it takes a decision almost at the highest level,” at the Kerry-Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns level, to try to pursue a Syria channel with Iran.

One official who might make sense to tap for such exploratory US Iran talks on Syria, a former official suggested, would be Puneet Talwar, who until recently served as the Obama NSC Senior Director for Gulf affairs, and who has been involved in US-Iran back channel talks to establish a bilateral diplomatic channel to advance a nuclear deal. Talwar was confirmed on Thursday as Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs, and is no longer expected to be part of the US team involved in the P5+1 Iran nuclear negotiations.

Other possible officials to consider include Salman Ahmed, a counselor to National Security Advisor Susan Rice involved in the recent Syria talks in Geneva, who previously advised Rice at the UN, and before that served as a senior official in the UN Department of Political Affairs; or Rob Malley, Talwar’s successor as the NSC Senior Director for Gulf Affairs, who previously served in the Clinton White House and as Middle East director for the International Crisis Group; or Daniel Rubenstein, the former US Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan who will be tapped to succeed Robert Ford as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor reported..

Hof said he raised with Iranian interlocutors in track 2 talks the prospect of a scenario in which a “Srebrenica-style moment” occurred in Syria, as the Iran and the P5+1 were advancing a nuclear deal. A scenario in which “your client does something so outrageous, that it inspires POTUS to do what he declined to do in August or September,” Hof said. “To the extent you guys are serious on the nuclear front, what does that do to that progress?” Hof asked his Iranian interlocutors. “And they looked at one another and shrugged, because their attitude is, Assad is not the most reliable guy in the world.”

Iranians in the track 2 discussions have also expressed some problems with the UN role in Syria, Hof said, suggesting that any US-Iran channel on Syria not be through UN auspices.

Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, writing at Al-Monitor March 5, 2014, proposed a four-part plan for resolving the Syria crisis. In it, Amir-Abdollahian wrote that the “the provision of immediate humanitarian aid is a religious and humanitarian duty,” and that the “UN’s neutral role is significant,” perhaps hinting that Iran found the UN’s role on Syria to be less than neutral.

Amir-Abdollahian, a former Iranian ambassador to Bahrain, was among the Iranian officials who in 2007 met with US diplomats in Iraq. The trilateral US-Iran-Iraq talks on Iraq were led on the US side by then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who found them unproductive. Was Amir-Abdollahian’s piece this month a signal of Iran interest in discussing Syria?

“Reinforcing the political track and facilitating comprehensive talks is the most appropriate method to achieve a political solution,” Amir-Abdollahian wrote. “Alongside national talks inside Syria, boosting genuine talks at both the regional and the international level is very important.”

(Photo of then US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker meeting with Iranian and Iraqi officials in Iraq in 2007 posted by the Iranian Supreme Leader’s official website March 14, 2013.)