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

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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.

In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

Khamenei aide Velayati takes helm of Iran think tank


Little noticed in the flurry of high profile diplomacy that produced a breakthrough nuclear accord in Geneva last month, Ali Akbar Velayati, the longtime top foreign policy advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, has been appointed the head of the Center for Strategic Research, the Iranian think tank formerly helmed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Velayati was tapped to succeed Rouhani as head of the Center for Strategic Research, a subsidiary of Iran’s Expediency Council, in November, IRNA reported.

Velayati, who did post-graduate medical studies at Johns Hopkins University, served as Iranian foreign minister from 1981-1997 and as Khamenei’s top foreign policy advisor since then. He has appointed Dr. Abbas Maleki, a former Iranian diplomat and scholar, as his deputy of international studies at CSR, Iranian sources told Al-Monitor Sunday.

Maleki, who served as Iran’s deputy foreign minister under Velayati from 1980-1997 and as a professor and dean at Sharif University, has in recent years been based in Boston as a senior fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2011-2012) before his return to Iran in 2012.

Iranian sources also said that Dr. Mostafa T. Zahrani, a former Iranian diplomat at the Iran mission to the United Nations in New York when Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif served as Iran’s UN envoy, has been appointed director general of the Iranian Foreign Ministry-linked think tank, the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS), succeeding Mostafa Dolatyar. Al-Monitor could not reach officials at IPIS Monday to confirm.

Velayati, notably, has twice in recent days vigorously endorsed direct one-on-one nuclear talks with the United States and other members of the P5+1.

“Talks can be held separately (with every members of the P5+1),” Velayati told reporters in Tehran Sunday, Khabar Online reported.

“We aren’t on the right path if we don’t have one-on-one talks with the six countries,” Velayati previously told Iranian television last week December 27th. “We have to talks with the countries separately. … It would be wrong if we bring the countries into unity against us, since there are rifts among them over various international issues.”

The United States and Iran have held at least five rounds of secret talks in Oman, Geneva and New York since Rouhani’s inauguration in August to advance a nuclear accord, Al-Monitor first reported last month.

Meantime, in Israel, Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, has joined the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a senior advisor, an official at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs confirmed to Al-Monitor Monday.

Gold, a former Israeli advisor at the Madrid and Wye River peace talks, previously served as a foreign policy advisor to Netanyahu (1996-1997) and then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (2002-2004), and as Israeli ambassador to the UN (1997-1999). Born in Connecticut, Gold has headed the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs since 2000, and has written several books, including The Rise of Nuclear Iran.

(Photo: In this June 3, 2013 photo, Iranian presidential candidate Ali Akbar Velayati, a former Foreign Minister, attends a press conference in Tehran. The 11th presidential election after Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution will be held on June 14.)

Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran


Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

From cold war to cold peace? Ex Mossad chief sees possible opening

20131104-180456.jpgIstanbul__ Even as Iranians on Monday demonstrated outside the old US embassy on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy seizure and hostage crisis that led to the severing of US-Iranian diplomatic ties, one former Israeli intelligence chief said he saw signs of a potential opportunity emerging from recently intensified US-Iran nuclear diplomacy.

If the US and Iran are able to reach a nuclear deal, will they move next to implement a broader rapprochement? And if so, would the prospect of a thaw in US-Iran ties lead Iran to consider reducing hostilities against Israel? Or is that a bridge too far?

“I come away from this with a sense of possibility, by no means a certainty, that there might be an opening, in which one can turn around the thorniest problem of all: the deep-seated rejection of Israel by the current regime in Iran,” Efraim Halevy, former head of the Israeli intelligence service the Mossad, told Al-Monitor in interviews on the sidelines of a conference on Middle East security issues in Istanbul this week convened by the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. “This will not be obtained overnight.”

“If the Iranians think straight, ..they must realize it is inconceivable that they [would be] able to change the basics of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. whilst maintaining the level of denial and enmity they now have to Israel,” said Halevy, who conducted secret negotiations with Jordan’s King Hussein that led to the historic 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

To be sure, there were few signs from Tehran in recent days that it was prepared to abandon its anti-Israel or anti-American enmity, even as a debate has opened up in recent weeks about “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers and after the Tehran municipality last week removed anti-US billboards, describing the posters as put up illegally.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in a speech Sunday after a conspicuous three week absence from the public scene, firmly backed his Iran nuclear negotiating team, and warned hardliners to stop attacking their patriotism and trying to undermine their “difficult mission.” But Khamenei also made clear that he had endorsed negotiations with six world powers on the nuclear issue alone, and not yet a broader rapprochement with the United States, which he described as duplicitous, and its ally Israel as the “bastard and illegitimate…Zionist regime.”

“We should not trust an enemy who smiles,” Khamenei said. “From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another they immediately say all options are on the table.”

Iran Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to Istanbul October 31st, proposed an exit from “zero sum” thinking on global security matters, and abandoning the calculus that one nation’s security is a factor of the insecurity of its adversary.

Halevy, analyzing the speech, said he found elements of it “exhilarating.”

Zarif “said security is no longer a zero sum game, but a global issue….in which all of the players emerge with their interests intact,” Halevy said. “Therefore ultimately what he is saying, it will not be able to reach an understanding which will satisfy Iran”s security problems, without addressing Israel’s security concerns.”

It “could be that what we are seeing here is a deception, that there is a campaign of smiles which is designed to delude us-both the world and Israel into a false reading of the situation,” Halevy cautioned.

Zarif said there was no place in Iran’s security doctrine for nuclear weapons, and that both security interests as well as religious edicts forbid Iran from ever pursuing a weapon. “Certainly there’s enough evidence to show he knows what he is saying for public consumption is not consistent with the facts,” Halevy said, disputing the assertion that Iran had never pursued a weapons program. “But you cannot ignore the fact that the tone and the reasoning being presented…is different.”

“It’s too early in the game to say what will happen here,” Halevy said. “If the dynamism that leads to a resolution of the nuclear issue, leads to a thaw between Iran and the US, it’s very difficult for the Iranians to envisage an ‘American spring’ at the same time they pursue a confrontation with Israel.”

“America is signaling very clearly it wants to reach a conclusion, it wants to be able to close the nuclear file,” Halevy said. “If the Iranians want to close the nuclear file, let’s imagine, what then? Will it resume diplomatic relations, trade, the flow of academicians… What do you do?”

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Breaking: Iran, US hold direct talks in Geneva

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Geneva__ The U.S. and Iranian nuclear negotiating teams met here for one hour this evening, Iranian and American officials confirmed to Al-Monitor, in an exchange American officials described as “useful.”

“As had been expected, Under Secretary [Wendy] Sherman and members of the US delegation held a bilateral meeting with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister [Abbas] Araqchi and members of the Iranian delegation tonight, as the Iranians are doing with a number of delegations during these talks,” a senior State Department official said.

“The meeting took place at the UN Palais des Nations and lasted for approximately one hour,” the U.S. official said. “The discussion was useful, and we look forward to continuing our discussions in tomorrow's meetings with the full P5+1 and Iran.”

Deputy Iranian negotiator Abbas Araghchi told Al-Monitor late Tuesday that the meeting with the Americans was good, and helped them further clarify positions.

Iran's deputy foreign minister for European and American Affairs, Majid Takht Ravanchi, speaking briefly to Al-Monitor after the talks Tuesday, described the bilateral meeting with the Americans as 'no big deal,' and 'useful.' Ravanchi, who said he was educated in Lawrence, Kansas, before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, told Al-Monitor that after the meeting with the Americans, the Iranians held a bilateral meeting with the Russians.

Iran's Fars News first reported the two teams were set to meet shortly. An Iranian official, asked about the report, confirmed it, saying the Iran side in the meeting with the Americans was led by deputy foreign minister Araghchi.

US Secretary of State John Kerry met for thirty minutes with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York last month. Noting the meeting, and the historic phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama, a senior U.S. Administration official told journalists Monday that “rubicon” had been crossed.

“This is a direct consequence of Rouhani and Obama breaking the taboo,” Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said of the US-Iranian meeting here Tuesday.

The senior State Department official agreed Tueaday's meeting was built on those previous two exchanges, and said it “demonstrates our continued commitment to bilateral engagement within the context of the P5+1.”

Western officials praised Iran's presentation of its nuclear proposal to six world powers Tuesday as 'very useful' and very detailed, but have so far relayed few of its contents.

Talks are due to continue here on Wednesday.

Diplomatic sources suggested there was likely to be a follow on meeting in Geneva in a couple weeks. The Iranians would like Kerry and other Foreign Ministers to attend, and he would like to, sources said.

(Top photo: Iran presented a new nuclear proposal to six world powers in Geneva Tuesday. Second photo, Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, deputy Iranian negotiators Majid Ravanchi and Abbas Araghchi seated between them against the wall at a meeting in New York September 24, 2013.)

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