Possible Arak compromise seen bolstering confidence in Iran talks

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Iran and six world powers are closer to agreement on possible technical modifications for the uncompleted Arak reactor that would greatly reduce proliferation concerns, bolstering negotiators’ confidence as they try to reach a final nuclear deal by July 20th, Iranian and US non-proliferation experts briefed on the discussions said.

The Arak issue “is almost solved,” Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator now at Princeton University, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“I think Arak has been the big area where there has been a narrowing” of differences between Iran and the P5+1, Mark Fitzpatrick, a former State Department nonproliferation official, now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

“Both sides are being positive in their remarks,” Fitzpatrick said. “Part of this positive spin [is that] they are reaching a solution to Arak.”

The possible compromise framework, Mousavian said, is “almost the same” as a plan proposed by a team of Princeton University nuclear experts led by Frank von Hippel in an article entitled ‘A Win-Win Solution on Iran’s Arak reactor,’ that was published this month by Arms Control Today.

“I believe Tehran and the US both agree this framework can work to resolve” the matter, Mousavian said.

Under the plan proposed by von Hippel and colleagues, “the amount of plutonium produced in the Arak reactor could be reduced drastically” by converting “the reactor from using natural uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium fuel,” they write. “With low-enriched fuel, the power could be reduced to 20 or even 10 MWt,” from the reactor’s currently-planned 40-Mwt design, “further reducing plutonium production,” they write.

Their redesign proposals “would reduce plutonium production to less than 1 kilogram per year, comparable to the reduction that would be accomplished by replacing the Arak reactor with a light-water research reactor,” the authors write.

“At the same time, these redesigns would not reduce the usefulness of the reactor for making radioisotopes and conducting research,” they wrote. “Thus, this approach would meet Iran’s needs and would address the concerns of the international community.”

Such modifications, that would “reduce the overall power level of the reactor, and thus decrease the amount of plutonium available in the spent fuel it yields, would indeed significantly reduce the proliferation threat,” Jofi Joseph, a former US government Iran non-proliferation expert said.

“However, this compromise could still run into political opposition from Israel, Gulf States, and the U.S. Congress,” Joseph added, because it still “allows Arak to remain a heavy water moderated reactor. …[which] is not necessary for the production of medical isotopes.”

Mousavian estimated that about 60-70% of the issues for a final nuclear deal may be tentatively agreed or nearly agreed–a slightly more upbeat estimate than the 50-60% offered by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at nuclear talks in Vienna earlier this month.

US negotiators have previously said that no issue is agreed until all of the issues are agreed, and have compared the complex negotiations to a Rubik’s cube.

Among the outstanding issues still to be resolved are Fordo and the overall size of Iran’s enrichment program and the duration of limitations on its size, experts said.

Former State Department arms control advisor Robert Einhorn, in a paper published by the Brookings Institution last month, proposed that Fordo be converted into a Research & Development facility. He also proposed that Iran and the P5+1 could arrive at a compromise on the size of Iran’s enrichment program by defining its practical needs, which are limited in the medium term.

(Photo: This Aug. 26, 2006 file photo shows an aerial view of a heavy-water production plant in the central Iranian town of Arak. AP Photo/ ISNA, Arash Khamoushi, File)

Appointments: Political-Military Affairs

The National Security Council's top advisor on Iran and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar is expected to be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, two US officials tell Al-Monitor, although a third official said the nomination announcement is not imminent.

Talwar did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Tuesday.

A former Professional Staff Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee responsible for the Middle East under then Chairman Joseph Biden, and one of Biden’s closets foreign policy advisors, Talwar has served as the NSS senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Gulf states since the beginning of Obama’s first term, during which time Vice President Biden has served as the Obama administration’s point-man on Iraq.

Talwar has also been deeply engaged on US Iran policy and participated in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program as a senior member of the U.S. negotiating team.

The State Department political military affairs chief job, currently headed by acting Assistant Secretary Tom Kelly since the departure of Andrew Shapiro, involves decisions on U.S. arms sales and security assistance issues. Talwar has long worked on the region that accounts for the lion’s share of US arms sales and military assistance, especially in recent years, one official noted.

It’s not entirely clear who might succeed Talwar as NSS senior director for Iran and the Gulf if the nomination proceeds. But sources say new US National Security Advisor Susan Rice has been a bit frustrated that several appointments were made by her predecessor Tom Donilon shortly before he left, and she would like to bring in some people who have more NSC experience.

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New report outlines containment strategy if efforts to prevent Iran nuclear weapon fail

President Obama has repeatedly declared that his policy is preventing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. A new report by a former Obama Pentagon official, to be released Monday by the Center for New American Security, argues prevention should be the US policy, but that the United States needs to develop a containment strategy if prevention fails.

Among the key points the report makes is that resort to force in the event diplomacy is deemed to fail could itself trigger Iran’s determination to produce a nuclear weapon—a decision that the US intelligence community this year assessed Iran’s leadership had not yet made.

“Even an operationally effective strike would not, in and of itself, permanently end Iran’s program,” the report’s lead author, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Colin Kahl, told Al-Monitor in an interview Saturday.  “A strike might substantially degrade Iran’s near-term capability to produce nuclear weapons, but it would almost certainly increase Tehran’s motivation to eventually acquire nuclear weapons to deter future attacks.”

Iran might respond to an attack by leaving the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and substantially decreasing cooperation with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. “Such a move would complicate the international community’s ability to detect Iran’s efforts to rebuild its program,” Kahl said.

For these reasons, Kahl argues, force should only be used if other options for halting Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions fail, if there is clear evidence that Iran is moving toward a bomb, and if every effort has been made to build international support for military action by seeking a diplomatic solution.

Outlining a Plan B containment strategy in the event prevention fails is not without political risks, however, Kahl acknowledged, while emphasizing he is no longer a member of the Obama administration. (Kahl, who served as DASD for the Middle East from 2009 until 2011, is now a professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at CNAS. He co-authored the new report If All Else Fails: The Challenges of Containing a Nuclear Armed Iran, with Georgetown graduate student Raj Pattani and CNAS researcher Jacob Stokes.) But the strategic risks of failing to prepare contingency plans would be more dangerous, Kahl said.

“If the administration were seen to be exploring a Plan B in the event that prevention fails, it might create the false impression that they were secretly planning to ‘accept’ a nuclear-armed Iran,” Kahl said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“At the same time, there are also substantial risks associated with sticking our collective heads in the sand,” he continued. “The failure to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons would be bad, but the failure to be prepared for that possibility would be even worse.”

“One of the most important roles a think tank can play is to ask the questions that cannot be asked inside the government,” Kahl said. “I believe, in general, that it is important to plan for the things we don’t want to happen, not just the outcomes we desire.”

Asked to explain why the new report is not in essence arguing the US can live with a nuclear Iran, Kahl responded: “‘Live with’ makes it sound like it would be ‘no big deal’ to simply accommodate a nuclear-armed Iran. That is not the right way to think about it, and it is definitely not what the report argues.” Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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The rise and fall of Mossad agent Ben Zygier


A month after Australian media first identified “Prisoner X” as Australian-born Mossad recruit Ben Zygier, the Australian journalist who first reported on the Zygier case and his partner have published a joint investigation into how Zygier’s dream-career with the Israeli intelligence service unravelled, culminating with his suicide in an isolated Israeli prison cell in December 2010.

According to the report Monday by Jason Koutsoukis in Australia’s Fairfax media, Melbourne-born Zygier was a passionate Zionist who was recruited into the Mossad in 2003, a few years after he had moved to Israel and had started working at an Israeli law firm. It ended with his 2010 arrest and suicide after Zygier embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized attempt to recruit a Hezbollah source in Eastern Europe and ended up instead allegedly betraying two claimed Mossad assets in Lebanon, according to Koutsoukis’ report.

Zygier’s career with the Mossad began in late 2003, after he responded to a Mossad advertisement that proclaimed “the Mossad is open – not for everyone, but for a few. Maybe for you,” Koutsoukis reported.

By early 2005, after a year of training, Zygier “was ready for his first mission,” Koutsoukis wrote. “He was sent to Europe, where he was instructed to infiltrate companies that had business relationships with countries including Iran and Syria.

“One chief executive of a mid-sized European company with extensive business interests across the Middle East and Persian Gulf – including Iran – confirmed that he had hired Zygier for an accounting position,” the report continues. Zygier worked for the unidentified firm for 18 months.

But apparently his Mossad supervisors were not overly impressed with his performance, and in 2007, to his great disappointment, they ordered Zygier back to a desk job in Israel.

(While Koutsoukis doesn’t identify the firm in Europe where Zygier took a cover job—apparently unbeknownst to the firm–he later reports that Zygier, upon returning to Australia in 2009 to pursue a masters degree, told fellow students that he had worked for PriceWaterhouseCoopers management consulting firm in Geneva.)

Zygier, apparently in an attempt to impress his Mossad superiors and salvage his intelligence career, embarked in 2008 on an unauthorized, freelance mission to try to recruit an East European man known to be sympathetic to Lebanon’s Hezbollah as a double agent, Koutsoukis writes. But it all went terribly wrong, when the unidentified Eastern European/Balkan man asked Zygier to prove his bona fides by providing Mossad intelligence on Lebanon. Continue reading

White House names Philip Gordon new coordinator for Middle East, Persian Gulf

The White House on Saturday named Philip Gordon Special Assistant to the President and Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, as the Back Channel first reported was in the works.

“Today, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon announced that Philip Gordon will be joining the National Security Staff as Special Assistant to the President and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf Region,” the White House said in a press statement Saturday. “He will take up his duties beginning on March 11.”

“Phil has been a key member of President Obama’s foreign policy team for the past four years and his work with our European Allies and partners has been indispensable in helping us to formulate policy and address issues around the globe, including Libya, Syria and Iran,” Donilon said in the statement.  “His appointment further strengthens a superb team that includes Puneet Talwar, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the Gulf States, Iran and Iraq, and Prem Kumar, Acting Senior Director for the Middle East and North Africa.”

Gordon has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs since 2009. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland is rumored to be in the mix to succeed Gordon as A/S for Europe.
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Gordon takes up his duties as President Obama heads to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan later this month, and days after Iran and six world powers agreed to hold two more rounds of nuclear talks in Istanbul and Kazakhstan in the next few weeks. Continue reading

More RUMINT: NSS, NEA, CT

No final decision has been made, one official cautioned. But the Obama National Security Staff’s Prem Kumar, the NSS director for Israel and Palestinian affairs who has served as acting Senior Director for the Middle East North Africa since the departure of Steve Simon, may be promoted to keep the job, officials tell the Back Channel.
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Simon has moved to become the head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-US. Kumar didn’t immediately respond to a query.

Kumar seems to be something of the internal favorite, with several colleagues saying they hope he's chosen to move up. The administration had been mulling a few candidates for the post, however, and may be looking for someone more senior, one source suggested. It's not clear if that thinking has shifted, with the  decision to bring over Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon to take over the former Dennis Ross NSS Central Region portfolio, with Senior Directors for MENA, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia (minus India) reporting to him.

US Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson is in the running to be the next Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, sources said. The well regarded career diplomat previously served as US Ambassador to Pakistan. “Anne is very good,” a former diplomatic colleague said, adding the administration is “leaving no stone unturned” in candidates having been reached out to about the post. Others previously rumored in the mix include US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and NSS Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, but Patterson may have the edge.

Sources suggested that the State Counter-Terrorism coordinator may be hired from within. Among the possibilities, Eric Rosand or Michael Jacobson, two senior advisors in the office, experts in the field suggested. The post was previously headed by Dan Benjamin, who has moved on to Dartmouth. Continue reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pentagon plans mine-sweeping exercise in Persian Gulf

The United States will lead its largest ever mine-sweeping exercise with some 20 other nations in the Persian Gulf in September, the Pentagon said Tuesday. The multi-national exercises, to be held Sept. 16-27, are “defensive,” it stressed, and aimed at preserving freedom of the seas and deterring any potential threat to close the Strait of Hormuz.

“This is not an exercise that’s aimed to deliver a message to Iran,” Pentagon spokesman George Little stressed in a press briefing with Pentagon reporters, Defense News reported.

This is a ‘”defensive exercise” that is “aimed at preserving freedom of navigation in international waterways in the Middle East,” Little said.

“The Pentagon is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in Qatar and organizing its biggest-ever minesweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf, as preparations accelerate for a possible flare-up with Iran, according to U.S. officials,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday. Continue reading

US Navy fires on “rapidly approaching” boat near Dubai

A US Navy security team fired on a small motor boat off the coast of Dubai, United Arab Emirates Monday, after the small vessel “disregarded warnings and rapidly approached”  the US Navy ship, the Rappahonnock, the Pentagon said Monday.

“The U.S. crew repeatedly attempted to warn the vessel’s operators to turn away from their deliberate approach,” the US Navy/Centrall Command said in a press statement sent to Pentagon reporters Monday. “When those efforts failed to deter the approaching vessel, the security team on the Rappahannock fired rounds from a .50-caliber machine gun.”

The incident, near Jebel Ali, UAE,  is under investigation. The nationality of those aboard the motor boat is not yet known or being released, a spokesman for the U.S. Navy Central Command told Al Monitor. “At this time I don’t have that information, the incident is still under investigation,” US Navy spokesman Ltn. Greg Raelson told Al Monitor by email.

ABC News reported that the small motor boat was not from Iran. “I can’t emphasize enough that this has nothing to do with Iran,” an unnamed Navy official told ABC News.

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