Iraq advisor eyed for State DAS for Iraq and Iran

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Brett McGurk, President Obama’s former nominee for Iraq ambassador, will likely be tapped as the next State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, current and former US officials tell the Back Channel. The State Department plans to fuse the two offices, officials say.

McGurk has been serving as a senior Iraq advisor at the State Department since withdrawing from consideration to be US ambassador to Iraq last summer. McGurk did not immediately respond to a request for guidance from the Back Channel.

The McGurk appointment, which several officials said is a done deal, is expected to be announced after Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Barbara Leaf is announced for her next assignment, which sources suggested may be deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Turkey. Former acting DAS for Iran Henry Wooster was made special Iran advisor to JSOC late last year, after he assumed helm of the office following the death of Philo Dibble.

McGurk, a trained lawyer who advised the last several US ambassadors to Iraq, developed a strong working relationship with Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki while negotiating the Status of Forces Agreement on behalf of Bush White House and later the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq for the Obama administration. He is said by sources to have particularly won the admiration of Antony Blinken, President Obama’s new deputy national security advisor and former national security advisor to Vice President Biden, who oversaw US Iraq policy in Obama’s first term. 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

Iran diplomat offers tentatively positive take on Almaty talks


Almaty, Kazakhstan__An Iranian diplomat, in an interview with Al-Monitor, offered a cautiously positive take on the nuclear talks that got underway in Kazakhstan Tuesday, though he said Iran still considers that a new international proposal asks more of Iran than it offers.

“We think in Almaty the whole frame is positive, because we are going to discuss the principles [and] specifics,” the Iranian official, who did not wish to be named, told Al-Monitor shortly after nuclear talks got underway here Tuesday. “We believe that until now, there has not really been a negotiation.”

“I can’t say what will be the outcome,” the official continued. “But we think the outcome should be some technical meetings.” That would seem to correspond with what Western diplomats said Monday, that they were hoping to have a follow up meeting, or a series of follow up meetings, with the Iranians at the technical experts level, ideally beginning before Iran’s Nowruz New Year’s holiday in March.

Both Iran and the P5+1 agree that a comprehensive deal “is not possible right now, so both sides are trying to solve one part of it,” the Iranian diplomat said. “Both sides agree on which part to solve right now,” as a first step, focused on Iran’s 20% enrichment activities, he said.

From Iran’s perspective, he continued, however, “the problem is, what the P5+1 wants to give us is not [balanced with] their requests.”

The updated P5+1 proposal formally presented to Iran Tuesday includes some sanctions relief on the gold trade, petrochemical industry, and some small scale banking sanctions, according to a source close to the talks who received a copy of it late Monday from a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Al-Monitor first reported earlier Tuesday.

“We have come here with a revised offer and we have come to engage with Iran in a meaningful way, our purpose being to make sure that we’ve had a good and detailed conversation, with the ambition that we see progress by the end of the meeting,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said ahead of the first round of talks Tuesday.

The revised international offer is “balanced” and “responsive” to what the six powers heard from the Iranians in three rounds of talks last year, Michael Mann, spokesman for Ashton, told journalists at a press briefing in Almaty Tuesday.

Talks got underway Tuesday at 1:30pm and broke off at about 4:30pm. Western officials later confirmed that there had been further consultations among the parties, including Iranian bilateral meetings with the Germans, British, Chinese and Russians, a diplomat said.

Talks will resume for a second day Wednesday, starting with a bilateral meeting between Ashton and Jalili, followed by a plenary session at 11am.

“We had a useful meeting today, discussions took place this evening, we are meeting again tomorrow,” a western official said late Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and includes National Security Staff Senior Director for the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, State Department arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, another State Department arms control advisor Jim Timbie, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, and a veteran Farsi-speaking US diplomat who specializes in Iranian affairs Alan Eyre.

Iran’s delegation includes the Secretary of Supreme National Security Council Dr. Saeed Jalili, his deputy Ali Bagheri, legal/nonproliferation advisor Hamid-Reza Asgari,, the head of the Iranian foreign ministry IPIS think tank Mostafa Dolatyar, Iran deputy foreign minister Seyed Abbas Araghchi, and former Iranian ambassador to the UK Rasoul Movahedian-Atar.

(Photo: Participants sit at a table during talks on Iran's nuclear programme in Almaty February 26, 2013. REUTERS/Stanislav Filippov/Pool.)

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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