White House meets Jewish leaders to press for delay in new Iran sanctions

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The White House on Tuesday met with a small group of Jewish leaders as part of an intensifying effort to press for a delay in new Iran sanctions it fears could derail negotiations with Iran on a possible nuclear deal.

National Security Advisor Susan Rice, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, Deputy National Security Advisors Antony Blinken and Ben Rhodes briefed leaders from the Jewish groups on the Iran negotiations to date.

“Following on the recent P5+1 talks with Iran, and in advance of the next round of talks November 7-8, Senior Administration Officials today briefed the leaders of several Jewish organizations on our progress,” National Security Staff spokesperson Bernadette Meehan told A-Monitor Tuesday.  “The administration officials made clear that the United States will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, and that our preference is to resolve the issue peacefully through diplomacy.  The meeting was constructive and we look forward to continuing these discussions going forward.”

“We had a constructive and open exchange and agreed to continue the consultation to enhance the prospect of achieving a transparent and effective diplomatic resolution,” a statement from the Jewish leaders who attended the meeting Tuesday said. “We welcome the reaffirmation of the President’s commitment to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear capability and that all options remain viable to assure that end.”

Participants in the off record discussion, which was first reported by JTA, included leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, and AIPAC, the statement said.

The Obama administration has been waging a more vigorous effort to try to push back against new Iran sanctions legislation under consideration by the Senate Banking committee, arguing there should be a pause in new sanctions through the fall, while maintaining existing major oil and banking sanctions, to give momentum to negotiations and test if Iran is serious about making a nuclear compromise. The administration wants a “pause” on new sanctions until January to try to come to closure on a possible confidence building measure, and they feel new sanctions now could derail that effort, sources briefed on the discussions said.

As part of that effort, Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and Sherman, the lead US negotiator, have been doing classified briefings on the Hill this week, sources said. Lew and Secretary of State John Kerry are due to brief Senators on Iran in closed session on Thursday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently argued that the only acceptable deal with Iran is one that would permit no enrichment and zero centrifuges. Current and former American officials and even some former Israeli officials contend that a zero enrichment deal is unachievable, and wonder if Netanyahu intends to try to spoil a possible deal that could increase the amount of time it would take for Iran to have potential nuclear breakout capability.

A good if imperfect negotiated solution is superior to the alternative options available, former top State Department Iran nonproliferation official Robert Einhorn argued in a paper delivered in Israel last week, noting increased pressure from the US now could fracture the international community and push Iran to escalate by increasing its enrichment activities.

“At a minimum, the Israelis want us to bargain very hard,” Einhorn, now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday. “And I think they see their tough position as a way of strengthening our resolve. But whether at the end of the day they would be content with less than [the] maximalist approach is hard to tell at this point.”

The Obama “administration wants to test Iranian willingness to accept significant constraints on its nuclear program in order to get relief from sanctions,” Einhorn said. “And so it’s prepared to [see]… how far they are prepared to go to meet US concerns.”

President Obama “has welcomed an opportunity to try to put to the test whether or not Iran really desires to pursue only a peaceful program,” Secretary Kerry told the Ploughshares Fund  Monday.   Continue reading

Indyk staffs up to intensify Israeli Palestinian peace push


US Middle East peace envoy Martin Indyk is expanding his team as the U.S. prepares to intensify its role facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“We've agreed that those talks should now be intensified and American involvement should be increased to facilitate these discussions,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. (Sept. 30). “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

To that end, he has grown his office's ranks.

Julie Sawyer, a career civil service officer who most recently served as Persian Gulf director on the National Security Staff, has joined Indyk’s team as his traveling senior aide. Sawyer previously served as a Middle East advisor to Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.

Sawyer joins a team that already includes deputy envoy and longtime Kerry confidante Frank Lowenstein. Ilan Goldenberg, a former Middle East advisor at the Pentagon and Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff, has joined the office as chief of staff.

USAID deputy assistant Middle East administrator Hady Amr has joined the envoy’s team as an economics advisor.

Michael Yaffe, a career foreign service officer specializing in Middle East and arms control issues, has joined the envoy’s office to do international outreach with organizations such as the Arab League and the Quartet. Yaffe came to the envoy's office—next to the State Department’s Near East Affairs bureau—after serving as a professor and dean at the National Defense University’s Near East South Asia center for strategic studies.

The Pentagon has seconded an official to work with the team on security issues. David Wallsh, a Fletcher PhD candidate in Middle East and international security studies, joined Indyk's team last week to work on security issues related to the peace process. In addition, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jon Allen, the former Afghanistan and Centcom commander, has been leading a security dialogue with the Israel Defense Forces to help address Israel’s security requirements, Indyk told the J Street conference.

Indyk’s shop is expected to bring on someone to do outreach to the press, think tanks and the Hill, but sources would not yet disclose who that will be.

The growing ranks signal the seriousness of the negotiations effort, and the commitment to it by Secretary Kerry and President Obama, officials say.

“All core issues are on the table,” Indyk told the J Street conference last week. “Our common objective is a final status agreement, not an interim agreement.”

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking Sunday at Bar Ilan University, said negotiations were stuck over the Palestinian refusal to date to recognize Israel as a state of the Jewish people and to thereby give up the right of return, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly made reassuring comments in a meeting Monday with some members of the Israeli Knesset.

Relatively little has leaked from the talks to date, which have been conducted with little fanfare or publicity in the region since Kerry formally relaunched talks in Washington in July and named Indyk as envoy.

(Photo of US envoy Martin Indyk addressing the J Street Gala September 30, 2013, by J Street.)

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Top US Iran negotiator: Onus is on Iran to propose nuclear plan

The top US Iran negotiator told a Senate panel Thursday that “the onus is on Iran” to bring a credible and verifiable action plan to the table at nuclear talks in Geneva next month for the US to determine if the new Iranian leadership is serious about a nuclear deal. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman also urged Congress to hold off on new Iran sanctions until she and her counterparts hear from Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the P5+1 talks in Geneva October 15-16th.

“We will know in the next short period of time whether there is anything serious here or not,” Sherman told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.

“The onus is on Iran,” to bring a substantive plan to the Geneva talks, Sherman stressed. “We will not put ideas on the table until we hear from Iran.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, in a meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and other P5+1 foreign ministers in New York last week, said Iran would complete a comprehensive nuclear agreement within a year, Sherman told the committee. But a shorter term confidence building measure is desirable, Sherman said, to put time on the clock and reduce Iran’s nuclear capabilities while that longer negotiation would take place.

Under questioning by Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, Sherman declined to say whether the U.S. would rule out a final deal with Iran that would permit it to pursue domestic enrichment.

“You know, a negotiation begins with everyone having their maximalist positions,” Sherman said. “We have ours, too, that they have to meet all their obligations under the (Non-Proliferation Treaty) NPT and UN Security Council. They have theirs too. Then you begin a negotiation.”

Asked by Rubio if President Obama would ever agree to a final deal in which Iran would have some domestic enrichment capacity, Sherman responded: “I am not going to negotiate in public, with all due respect,” she said. “I can only repeat what the President of the United States has said.”

The committee chair, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said Iran’s actions would be critical for determining whether Congress would support future sanctions relief.

“What is important now is what Iran does, not what it says, [we don’t] need more words,” Menendez said. “I would like to see compliance and the suspension of uranium enrichment…I am also serious about relief from sanctions if Iran meets its UN Security Council responsibilities.”

(Photo: FILE U. S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman arrives for a meeting on Syria at the United Nations European headquarters in Geneva. Reuters.)

Obama tries to strike balance on Egypt after crackdown

20130815-122313.jpgPresident Obama interrupted his vacation Thursday to announce that the United States will cancel a planned joint military exercise with Egypt to protest the government crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood protesters yesterday that killed over 500 people. But, Obama said, broader American interests mitigated against canceling the over billion dollars in US aid to Egypt at this time.

“Given the depths of our partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this pivotal part of the world, and our belief that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically- elected civilian government, we’ve sustained our commitment to Egypt and its people,” Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts Thursday.

“Our traditional cooperation cannot continue as usual when civilians are being killed in the streets and rights are being rolled back,” Obama continued, saying the U.S. had notified the Egyptian government earlier Thursday that it was cancelling the military exercise, Bright Star, planned for next month. “The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days. The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop.”

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a phone call with Egypt’s defense minister and de facto military ruler Gen. Al-Sisi, “made it clear that the violence and inadequate steps towards reconciliation are putting important elements of our longstanding defense cooperation at risk,” he said in a statement Thursday.

Former US Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner deplored the violence, but said there were many warning signs that the protracted standoff between Egypt’s interim government and supporters of Egypt’s ousted president Morsi was heading towards confrontation.

“Without in any way leaving the impression that I think the bloodshed [is excused], this has been about the least surprising outcome,” Wisner, who served as Obama’s special envoy to Egypt in 2011, told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“It has been warned for the longest time,” he continued. “These negotiations were not going to go anywhere, because [the Muslim] Brothers had a view about what they were trying to accomplish.”

“The Brothers thought they could defy the odds, and … drive a wedge between the international community and the government, and in that sense they have hardly succeeded,” Wisner said. “Second, they thought they could drive a wedge between” the Egyptian people and the military-led government. While they haven’t managed to do so to date, he assessed, “I can’t argue that they won’t eventually have some success.”

“The Muslim Brotherhood has reached a point where it sees this as the last battle — so, it’s either win it or die as a ‘martyr,’…victory or death,” Egyptian analyst Wael Nawara wrote for Al-Monitor Thursday, describing the expanding Muslim Brotherhood protests as “no longer a sit-in, but a sprawling town, even a city-state, with fortifications, internal police force…and border control officials.”

Wisner cautioned Washington against overreacting, stressing U.S. statements need to strike a balance, to keep ties with Cairo from further fraying and to try to urge the political transition back on track.

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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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Kerry staff shifts as State appointments gather pace


One of John Kerry’s most experienced advisors has had to step back from his job as deputy chief of staff, but is staying on for now at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

William Danvers, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director and a former Clinton and Obama administration national security official, had some medical concerns, but is apparently cleared to ease back into work. His role appears to have shifted however from deputy chief of staff to other assignments, officials said. Danvers declined to comment.

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US intelligence: Iran decision on nuclear weapon matter of 'political will'


The United States believes Iran has the technical capability to make nuclear weapons, but does not know if Iran will decide to do so, saying it's ultimately a matter of Iranian political will, the US intelligence community said in a worldwide threat assessment delivered to the Senate Tuesday. The United States would know in time if Iran attempted to break out to produce highly enriched uranium for a bomb, the assessment also said.

“We do not know if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” the US intelligence community’s annual worldwide threat assessment, delivered by the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to the Senate intelligence community Tuesday, states.

Given that Tehran “has developed technical expertise in a number of areas—including uranium enrichment, nuclear reactors, and ballistic missiles—from which it could draw if it decided to build missile-deliverable  nuclear weapons,” the assessment states, “this makes the central issue its political will to do so.”

Sanctions have had an impact on Iran's economy, but have so far not caused the Iranian leadership to change its course on the nuclear program, Clapper told the Senate panel during questioning.

“Sanctions have had a profound impact on Iran’s economy and the situation is getting worse,” Clapper said. “At the same time, at least publicly, overtly, it has not prompted a change in the Iranian leadership's decision, the Supreme Leader's approach,” to the nuclear program.

While the sanctions and the prospect of increased social unrest “do concern” the Iranian leadership, Clapper said, “at the same time, the Supreme Leader's standard is a level of privation that Iran suffered during the Iran-Iraq war. And I don’t think, he doesn’t believe they have reached that point yet.”

“Of course, as the Supreme Leader looks westward, at us, he can argue we are on decline, our influence in that part of the world,” is waning, Clapper continued. “And so, his view of the world may not necessarily be fact-based even when it comes to internal conditions in his country.”

Clapper said he would wait until closed briefing with the panel to discuss any classified intelligence on the leadership's thinking, as well as to address questions on alleged cooperation between Iran and North Korea. Continue reading

Big changes afoot in Obama Iran, arms control teams, as Samore departs

U.S. White House Coordinator for Weapons of Mass Destruction, Samore, talks during a meeting at the Itamaraty Palace in BrasiliaA key member of President Obama’s Iran negotiating team is leaving. White House WMD czar Gary Samore will depart the administration to become executive director of the Harvard University Belfer Center, the center said in a press release Tuesday.

The departure of Obama’s top nonproliferation advisor comes as the United States and five world powers are aiming for new nuclear talks with Iran the last week of February, possibly in Kazakhstan, diplomatic sources told the Back Channel Tuesday.

Samore’s exit, at the end of the week, is only one of several anticipated changes to the Obama Iran, arms control and Middle East teams expected to shake out over the new several months, even as the administration has vowed not to let the transition shuffle cause any distraction from its Iran policy efforts.

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Waiting games: Iran, world powers play chicken over talks impasse


As Iran continues to balk at scheduling new nuclear talks, six world powers are prepared to wait them out.

European diplomats said this week that Iran was giving them the run-around in scheduling a new round of talks.

In the latest salvo in the blame-game over the delay, Iran’s Supreme National Security Council claimed in a statement Friday that it is actually the P5+1 asking to push back the meeting. Deputy EU negotiator Helga Schmid called her Iranian counterpart Ali Bagheri Friday, to ask to delay the meeting ’til February “because the P5+1 isn’t ready,” Iran’s Fars News Agency reported Friday. “Bagheri…asked [the] P5+1 to be committed to the fixed dates in January,” the Iran NSC statement said, implying the six powers were the ones holding up resumed talks.

“Nonsense,” Michael Mann, spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, fired back. “The reason for the hold-up is not the 3+3. We are ready and have been for a long time.”

“We had at least five calls to push for a January 28-29 meeting in Istanbul – they did not accept,” a western diplomatic source told the Back Channel Friday. “Now we offered new dates in February (as Jan. 28 now too late from a logistical point of view) and we hope that they will finally accept so we can leave these games behind and focus on substance.”

Tehran’s procrastination is meant to show that the Western sanctions are not working and they are in no big hurry to get back to talks, Iran expert Trita Parsi wrote at the Huffington Post Thursday. But it may also be driven by Iranian fears that they will be blamed if the meeting fails, over what Iran sees as a paltry offer, he said in an interview Friday.

But the P5+1 is not going to improve the package to reward the Iranians for not coming, diplomats and analysts told the Back Channel, even as Iran is intent on showing the sanctions are not so devastating that they are desperate for a deal.

“In terms of why [the Iranians are] not coming, their objective is to hold out as long as possible, and draw as significant concessions as possible preemptively,” former State Department Iran advisor Suzanne Maloney told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “And I think they believe their leverage increases so long as they show they are not desperate for a deal.”

The Iranian calculation that delay favors their negotiating leverage is likely mistaken, Maloney said.

For the United States and P5 partners, “you sit and wait them out,” Maloney, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said.

“I don’t think we improve the prospects for a deal by signaling” we’re prepared to sweeten the deal, she added. “They don’t put a lot of credibility in any signals we send, anyhow.”

While Iranian sources have suggested they are trying to press the P5+1 to put discussion of sanctions relief on the agenda for a new meeting, western diplomats say it’s simply “not true at all” that the group has resisted discussing sanctions relief, a  European diplomat told the Back Channel Friday.

Former Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross said he expected Iran would likely show up for talks in February or so.

“They have no prospects of getting an improved deal if they don’t come,” Ross, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. And “they run the risk…that pressure will go up.”

The Iranians “want to show they are in no hurry,  that [the pressure] is not working,” Ross suggested. The Iranian calculus is that the longer the talks impasse drags on, and their program advances, “the pressure builds on us,” Ross said. “They believe we don’t really want to use force. …They are playing a very risky game.”

Iranian delay may also be the result of Iranian interest in seeing if Obama’s new national security team modifies US policy towards Iran, Ross said. Incoming Secretary of State John Kerry “in the past has signaled an interest in talking to them,” Ross said Iranian leaders may be thinking. “’Let the new team get on board.’ The truth is–and the Iranians will discover this as well–this is the same president and he is the one who makes the decisions.”

“I will give diplomacy every opportunity to succeed,” Kerry said at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat. …The president has made it definitive — we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”

“The Iranians need to understand that there is no other agenda here,” Kerry continued. “If their program is peaceful, they can prove it. That is what we are seeking.”

Maloney agreed Washington doesn’t need to go overboard to correct any Iranian misreading of Obama’s new national security team as being averse to the use of force if diplomacy with Iran fails.

“Ultimately, everyone knows that there’s a real military option,” Maloney said. “Sanctions are bleeding the country dry. … We don’t need to grandstand. We have far more leverage than the Iranians do.”

If and when negotiations resume, however, the United States will have to take a strategic decision “at what point are we prepared to pay to play,” Maloney said. “To put significant sanctions relaxation, even temporary relaxation, on the table.”

(Photo: U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-MA) testifies during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing to be secretary of state, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.)

Senators Schumer, Boxer say will vote for Hagel

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-New York) said Tuesday that he will vote to confirm Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, after meeting with the former Nebraska Republican and receiving assurances on his positions on Iran and Israel. The endorsement from Schumer, the third ranking Democrat in the Senate who commands wide respect in the pro-Israel community, is likely to significantly ease Hagel’s path to Senate confirmation.

“In a meeting Monday, Senator Hagel spent approximately 90 minutes addressing my concerns one by one,” Schumer said in a statement Tuesday. “It was a very constructive session. Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere.”

“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer continued, adding that he encourages his fellow Senate colleagues who shared such concerns to also support him.

Schumer’s public endorsement of Hagel came a day after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California) also announced that she would confirm Hagel, after receiving detailed assurances from him on Israel, Iran, fair treatment of gay troops, and efforts to combat sexual assault in the military. Continue reading