US, Iran to hold bilateral nuclear talks in Geneva

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US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will lead a US delegation to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Geneva on June 9-10, US and Iranian officials said Saturday.

The bilateral meetings come as negotiators intensify efforts to see if they can reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, when a six month interim deal expires, or if they will need to extend the talks for another six months.

“We believe we need to engage in as much active diplomacy as we can to test whether we can reach a diplomatic solution with Iran on its nuclear program,” a senior U.S. administration official said Saturday, noting that the US-Iran consultations “come at an important juncture” of the negotiations, as the “talks are intensifying.”

The meetings are taking place “in the context of the intensified E3/EU+3 negotiating process,” and are coordinated by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her spokesman Michael Mann said Saturday. Ashton’s deputy, EU political director Helga Schmid will join the US Iran consultations in Geneva, he said, and other bilaterals will follow in the next days.

The US delegation will include, in addition to Burns and Sherman, Vice President Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan, deputy US negotiator Amb. Brooke Amderson, senior arms control advisor Jim Timbie, and NSC senior Middle East advisor Rob Malley, among others, a State Department official told Al-Monitor.

Iran will hold separate meetings with Russian negotiators in Rome on June 11-12, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Saturday.

20140607-102130.jpgIranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday announced that Iran would hold bilateral meetings at the deputy foreign minister level ahead of the next P5+1 Iran nuclear talks, due to be held in Vienna June 16-20.

Burns led a secret US diplomatic “back channel” to Iran last year that culminated in the signing of the interim nuclear deal, known as the Joint Plan of Action, in Geneva last November. Burns’ secret team included Sullivan as well as then NSC Persian Gulf advisor Puneet Talwar, now assistant secretary of state for political military affairs, who has been succeeded by Malley. Burns has announced he will retire in October. The EU’s Ashton, the lead international negotiator for the six world powers, is also due to finish her term in October, adding impetus to complete the negotiations by then.

20140607-104205.jpgUntil now, the US and Iran have not pursued the bilateral channel to advance final deal talks this year, outside of meetings on the sidelines of the P5+1 Iran negotiations in Vienna, US and Iranian officials have said. Notably, unlike the secret US-Iran meetings held in Oman, Geneva and New York last year, the US-Iran meeting in Geneva Monday was announced by both sides.

US officials said Saturday it made sense to bring the bilateral channel negotiators involved in advancing the interim deal last fall into the discussions at this critical time.

“It’s natural for Bill and Jake to join the delegation for this meeting given their history of negotiating with Iran during the Joint Plan of Action talks,” the US official said, referring to Burns and Sullivan. “The elements now under discussion in our negotiations over a comprehensive solution were part of the JPOA. So it just makes sense.”

“If a deal is going to be possible by July 20, the Americans and Iranians have to get down to real, no-kidding bottom lines now, and then go back to the P5+1 with the broad outlines of the deal,” former top Pentagon Middle East advisor Colin Kahl told Al-Monitor Saturday. “These bilateral talks will probably determine whether a July 20 agreement is possible or whether we need to work out an extension.”

“The Iranians, in particular, need to come back with much more flexibility on enrichment, and the U.S. team will also need some creative ideas to address Iran’s ‘practical needs’ argument,” Kahl, now a professor at Georgetown University and senior fellow at the Center for New American Security (CNAS), said, referring to the amount of enrichment capacity Iran will need to fuel power reactors and produce medical isotopes.

Iran, in turn, is concerned about the pace of sanctions relief in a final deal, and has balked at a P5+1 proposal that would unwind sanctions on a phased, step by step basis, over as long as a decade or two. Iran also wants to limit the amount of time it would be required to submit to highly intrusive inspections and transparency measures that it fears could be abused by adversaries to snoop on its defense capabilities.

“The addition of Burns and Sullivan, who were essential to the success of behind-the-scenes diplomacy last year, and the bilateral nature of the talks suggests something may be up,” a former senior U.S. official told Al-Monitor Saturday.

“Together with recent news that [Iran Supreme Leader] Khameini is telling hardline critics to get in line behind Iran’s negotiating team, it seems to suggest that negotiations are entering a very serious phase,” the former American official said.

(Top photo of US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns in Wiesbadden in February, 2009 by Reuters. Second photo of US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi in Geneva in November, 2013. Third photo: Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi at a P5+1 Iran meeting at the United Nations in New York September 24, 2013.)

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.)

Appointments: Beers may go to White House, Kaidanow for State CT

With the White House nomination of Jeh Johnson to be Secretary of Homeland Security, multiple administration sources say they expect acting DHS Secretary Rand Beers to join the National Security/White House staff as a senior advisor on counterterrorism issues to National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Beers, confirmed as DHS Undersecretary for the National Protection and Programs Directorate in 2009, has served since September as acting DHS Secretary since the departure of Janet Napolitano to head the University of California, and before that, as acting deputy Secretary, after the departure of Jane Holl Lute last May. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel.

Beers worked closely with Rice as a foreign policy and intelligence advisor to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, and served as co-chair of the Obama/Biden DHS Transition team. He previously served in the NSC of four presidential administrations, and in multiple senior roles in the State Department, including as assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement and counter-terrorism coordinator. A former Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam, Beers resigned from the Bush NSC in March 2003, coinciding with the US invasion of Iraq, and later served as foreign policy advisor to John Kerry’s unsuccessful 2004 presidential campaign.

The White House declined to comment, saying they have no new appointments to announce at this time. White House sources previously said they expected Lisa Monaco to remain as the top White House advisor on counter-terrorism and intelligence issues, and it’s unclear exactly what Beers’ title will be. Associates said Beers was one of the few people in Washington who didn’t care about his title.

“When Rand was my boss, he always said there is no limit to what you can accomplish [in Washington] if you are willing to let someone else get the credit,” Heather Hurlburt, who worked with Beers at the progressive National Security Network, said Tuesday.

As the Back Channel previously reported, Rice is also bringing on Rob Malley to advise her and the NSS on Iran and Syria, sources said. The appointment, also not yet announced, is a “done deal,” but may await some final administrative work, one former official told the Back Channel Monday. Malley did not respond to queries.

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Deputy US Ambassador to Afghanistan Tina Kaidanow is expected to be nominated to be the next State Department Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, multiple officials tell the Back Channel.

Kaidanow, a former US Ambassador to Kosovo, previously served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bosnia and in Kosovo, and as a special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. She did not respond to a query from the Back Channel. If confirmed, Kaidanow, a career foreign service officer, will head the State CT bureau that includes senior advisors Eric Rosand and Michael Jacobson.

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Kurt Kessler, deputy counselor to the US mission to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, is expected to join the White House WMD coordinator shop as an Iran non-proliferation expert. Kessler, a former Middle East and Iran analyst in the State Department’s International Security and Nonproliferation Bureau and before that at the Agency, is considered one of the most knowledgeable experts on Iran’s nuclear program in the US government, associates said. He did not respond to a query.

(Photo of Rand Beers, acting Homeland Security Secretary, from his DHS biography.)

US Iran team shuffles as nuclear talks set to resume


President Obama this week nominated top White House Iran advisor Puneet Talwar to be Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs, as the Back Channel reported in July was expected.

The promotion for Talwar, who has served since 2009 as the National Security Council Senior Director for Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf affairs, would mark the latest departure of a key member of the U.S. Iran negotiating team as the U.S. prepares to resume P5+1 nuclear talks with the new Iranian Hassan Rouhani administration in the coming weeks, after a five month hiatus.

Rob Malley, a former Clinton administration NSC Middle East advisor, is expected to join the NSC, succeeding Talwar after his confirmation, as the Back Channel previously reported was under consideration. The White House declined to comment. Malley didn’t respond to a query.

But several sources suggested that Malley may not play the same role on Iran issues as Talwar, and that National Security Advisor Susan Rice would like to bring Malley to the White House to help rethink how the National Security Staff Middle East work is organized. Malley has already been informally advising the State Department on Syria from the outside, officials tell the Back Channel.

Also expected to join the NSC as a director on Gulf affairs is Elisa Catalano, Rice’s former Iran/Gulf advisor at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in New York, and a former special assistant to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sources said they were still uncertain who from the White House might be part of the U.S. delegation to the P5+1 talks with Iran, led by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman. Talwar has accompanied Sherman as the +1 to most of the political directors meetings with the Europeans and P5+1 for the past few years. Former White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore, who left the administration early this year for Harvard, was also a key member of the U.S. delegation to both the P5+1 political and technical talks with Iran, along with former State Department Iran arms control envoy Robert Einhorn, who left the administration this summer for Brookings. Sherman has selected longtime State Department nonproliferation advisor Jim Timbie to be her top Iran arms control deputy, succeeding Einhorn, officials said.

Beyond their formal functions, Talwar, Samore and Einhorn have served as key points of contact for informal consultations among the foreign diplomatic, arms control and Iran expert communities seeking to confer with the administration.

American officials are preparing with their P5+1 counterparts to meet on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later this month to agree on arrangements for resuming nuclear talks with Iran. Western officials are still waiting to see what kind of response to the P5+1’s offer new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif may bring to the table, when nuclear talks finally resume.

Iranian sources suggested this week that Iran might be willing to limit the number of its centrifuges, but not the quality of them; cap enrichment at 5%; accept a more intrusive IAEA inspection and safeguards regime; and sign the Additional Protocol, in return for significant sanctions relief, recognition of its legal right to enrich to 5%, and additional, unspecified incentives put forward by three European powers in a past proposal.

(Photo: President Barack Obama is briefed by Puneet Talwar, Senior Director for Iraq, Iran and the Gulf States, in the Oval Office, Saturday, Feb. 5, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Appointments: Econ, Syria, NEA

Who will oversee US Syria diplomacy, if Robert Ford, as we first reported, is tapped to succeed Anne Patterson as US Ambassador to Cairo?

US officials told us, as far as they know, the decision on that has not yet been finalized. Ford, in any case, “will do Syria for a few more months,” as he prepares to go to Egypt, one official, speaking not for attribution, said Tuesday.

“I think serious thought should be given to moving the position out of the Department and to the field, along with 'team Syria' currently cloistered in NEA”–the State Department Near East Affairs bureau, one former senior U.S. official told us. “A difference can be made in Turkey and Jordan with the opposition and in interacting with partners. Hard to do anything useful in Washington from inside the NEA bureaucracy.”

Syria needs a US government point of contact, who can “manage the whole inter-agency Syria process,” another current official said. That, in addition to “a seasoned diplomat who speaks Arabic and knows the region and could engage the Syrians.”

Meantime, US officials told the Back Channel that former Clinton White House Middle East advisor Rob Malley has been offered the job of National Security Staff Senior Director for Persian Gulf Affairs, but as yet has not agreed to take it. (The Back Channel previously reported that the current NSS Senior Director for Iran/Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar may be nominated to become Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.)

One possibility is that Malley may instead become a senior advisor on Syria to Secretary of State John Kerry, working out of the front office, a US diplomatic source told the Back Channel. Malley did not respond to numerous queries. He is said to be very close with Frank Lowenstein, Kerry’s deputy Middle East envoy.

Meantime, the Back Channel has learned of several other diplomatic appointments in the works:

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs (NEA) Elizabeth Jones may move to become the deputy to US Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) James Dobbins, after her successor Patterson is in place, officials, speaking not for attribution, said. Secretary of State John Kerry last week named deputy SRAP James Warlick, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria, the next US envoy to the OSCE Minsk Group.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Elizabeth Dibble will become Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in London, US officials tell us. (She didn’t respond to a query.)

US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald Feierstein is expected to become the next PDAS in the NEA bureau, officials said. Feierstein, who met with Yemen’s president in Sanaa on Tuesday, the State Department said, is expected to serve a few more months there before returning to Washington.

US Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin is expected to be nominated Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy and the Environment, succeeding Robert Hormats, officials tell the Back Channel. “It’s a done deal,” one official said Tuesday, adding the nomination is expected to be announced the first week of September.

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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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Kerry may tap Indyk as peace envoy

Former US ambassador to Israel and Clinton Near East envoy Martin Indyk may take a lead role in helping US Secretary of State John Kerry conduct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, although an official cautioned that a decision has not been finalized.

Indyk, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, did not respond to a query Saturday. Gail Chalef, a spokesperson for Brookings, said Sunday that Indyk was away for the weekend and they declined to comment.

The decision on an envoy or negotiator has not been finalized, an official said Sunday, suggesting that a team of people would be assembled.

“No decision on a negotiator or envoy has been made,” a person familiar with the deliberations said. “The first step was getting the parties back to the table, and now Kerry will determine the right combination of players to work with the parties, knowing it's going to be a slog and that he can't carry it on his own shoulders day in and day out.”

The Back Channel previously reported that former Bill Clinton Middle East advisor Rob Malley may join the State Department Near East bureau, and may also play a role in Kerry's negotiating team.

Kerry announced Friday that Israeli and Palestinian negotiators would come to Washington in the next week or so after he was able to reach agreement with the parties on a basis to resume negotiations.

The details on the talks would be kept under wraps, Kerry said, given the fragility and political sensitivities of the process. “We know that the challenges require some very tough choices in the days ahead,” he said.

The parties had agreed to stay in negotiations for a minimum of six months, the New York Times reported Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday that he believes it is a vital strategic interest of Israel to pursue negotiations at this time, given the threat posed by Iran and to counter the prospect of a bi-national single state.

Resumed diplomacy “is important in and of itself in order to try and bring about the conclusion of the conflict between us and the Palestinians,” Netanyahu said in a statement Saturday. “And it is important in light of the strategic challenges that are before us, mainly from Iran and Syria.”

(Photo: Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat and Martin Indyk, vice president for foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, at the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar in June 2013. From the Brookings Foreign Policy program Facebook page.)

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Clinton Middle East advisor may join State team

Rob Malley, a former Middle East advisor to President Bill Clinton, may join the State Department Middle East team, diplomatic sources tell the Back Channel.

Malley, currently the Middle East director of the International Crisis Group, may come on with the title of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, sources said. It’s not clear or decided yet, however, if his portfolio would focus on the peace process (Israel Palestinian Affairs) or possibly Syria, sources said. (Current DAS for Israel Palestinian Affairs David Hale, the acting Middle East peace special envoy, is expected to be nominated US envoy to Lebanon, The Back Channel previously reported, while US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been technically filling a DAS slot since the US embassy in Damascus closed in 2011, would like to step down this summer.)

Malley did not immediately respond to a query from the Back Channel Thursday. A former Clinton NSC official and aide to National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, Malley served as an informal Middle East advisor to the Obama campaign in 2008. He is also a frequent contributor of highly thoughtful analysis at The New York Review of Books. (See This is Not a Revolution, on the Arab awakening; and How Not to Make Peace in the Middle East, from 2009, both co-written with Hussein Agha.)

Earlier this month, Malley told National Public Radio’s Terry Gross the Syria conflict was becoming a regional, sectarian war that was seeping into Lebanon and Iraq.

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US, Israel low key as France announces support for Palestinian UN bid

The United States, in consultations with Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho in Washington in recent days, has urged Israel not to overreact to Palestinian plans to seek upgraded status at the United Nations on Thursday, advice Israel seemed inclined to take.

France on Tuesday said it would support the Palestinians’ bid to seek non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

British diplomats indicated Tuesday that Britain is still undecided how it will vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday about the issue, the State Department said, adding it agreed to disagree with France over its decision to back the Palestinian bid.

“With regard to France and any other countries, we obviously disagree with our oldest ally on this issue,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Tuesday. “They know that we disagree with them, but it’s their sovereign decision to make how to proceed.”

The United States, France and UK have urged the Palestinians to modify language in the draft resolution concerning whether Israel could be brought before the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court.

But western diplomats told Al Monitor Tuesday that the Palestinians think they have enough votes for the measure to pass at the UNGA without modifying the language and did not seem likely to change it. The key imperative is for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume soon, a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees pursuing the UN bid “as an act of [political] survival,” Rob Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, told a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday. His UN bid “is the most moderate expression of his frustration. Politically, he has no choice.”

“The smart answer for Israel would be … to say ‘fine by us,’ and not react in a harsh way,” Malley continued. “Taking harsh retaliatory measures [would risk promoting] the image of punishing Abbas for going to the UN when [Israel] rewarded Hamas with a ceasefire” after the Gaza conflict this month.

Israeli diplomats indicated that is the approach Israel was likely to take for now, though they complained the timing of the UN bid being just before Israeli elections was particularly unhelpful.

“At least for now, we’re going to go low profile on the whole deal,” an Israeli diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Just another day of ‘let’s be horrible to Israel.’. We’re used to it and aren’t getting excited, even if it is completely unhelpful to the pursuit of conflict resolution and a violation of all agreements between us, etc.” Continue reading