Negotiators at halfway point, move to drafting phase of Iran deal talks

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Iran and six world powers have advanced through the first phase of comprehensive nuclear talks and are preparing to shift into the next phase of drafting a final deal accord starting at the next meeting in May, negotiators said in Vienna Wednesday.

“We have now held substantive and detailed discussions covering all the issues which will need to be part of a Comprehensive Agreement,” European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a joint statement with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the conclusion of the third round of talks in Vienna Wednesday.

“A lot of intensive work will be required to overcome the differences which naturally still exist at this stage in the process,” Ashton said, in a statement subsequently delivered by Zarif in Persian.

“We will now move to the next phase in the negotiations in which we will aim to bridge the gaps in all the key areas.”

“I can say we agree on 50 to 60 percent of issues, but the remainders are important ones and diverse,” Iran’s Zarif said in a subsequent briefing to Iranian journalists Wednesday.

The next meeting, to be held in Vienna starting May 13th, will be open-ended, diplomats said. The U.S. delegation plans to be there at least a week, a senior U.S. official said, and Zarif suggested it could last up to ten days.

“For all of us involved in this between now and July 20th, we understand that there is no higher priority,” the senior U.S. official said. “Everyone in the room has explicitly said they are ready to do whatever they need to do and change their schedules and their life to do what is necessary.”

“I think…both Zarif and Ashton are trying to manage expectations, because in the past few days, there have been rumors about the parties starting the drafting of the final agreement as of May, and this created the illusion of agreement,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran researcher at the International Crisis Group, told Al-Monitor from Vienna Wednesday.

The parties “wanted to make sure [to explain that there remain] central differences,” Vaez said. “Although progress has been made on some issues, there are still some sticky points.”

Until this round, the parties “have not got into the bargaining stage that much,” Vaez said. “Mostly they have been focused on providing justifications for each side’s positions and learning more about why each side takes their particular position.”

“From this point on, [they] get into the real bargaining part of this process,” Vaez said.

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to the Senate foreign relations panel Tuesday, described the final deal negotiations as at the “halfway” point, and said he remained “agnostic” about whether they would result in an agreement.

“I’m not expressing optimism, one side or the other,” Kerry said in response to a question from Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ). “I remain agnostic and questioning, even as we are just about halfway through.”

“I talked with our team on the ground in Vienna yesterday,” Kerry said. “They are having serious, expert, in-depth, detailed conversations about what it takes to achieve our goal. I mean, of proving that this is a peaceful program.”

The recent rounds of negotiations “were substantive and useful,” a western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, said Wednesday. “But needless to say, there is still a long way to go. We are working hard.”

(Photo: Final round of Iran comprehensive deal talks in Vienna Wednesday April 9, posted by State Department spokesperson Marie Harf to Twitter.)

Sen. Kaine says Russia can do more to resolve Syria crisis

Senator Tim Kaine (Democrat-Virginia), speaking to Al-Monitor Friday before he embarked on a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, said while there is cautious optimism about current U.S. efforts to advance a diplomatic resolution with Iran and an Israeli Palestinian peace agreement, U.S. Syria policy is not going well. And Russia is partly to blame, he said.

“I think Secretary [of State John] Kerry is pretty candid about it,” Kaine told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview Feb. 14th, before traveling with Sen. Angus King (Independent, Maine) to Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt. “Discussions, with all appropriate skepticism about Iran and [an] Israel Palestinian [peace agreement]– while elusive so far– those discussions are going well. Results will prove later if we can get there. But the Syrian situation is not going well. He’s been pretty candid about that. One of the main reasons is Russia continues to be an apologist for unacceptable behavior” by the Syrian regime.

“It’s one thing for Assad to do what he is doing to his people; we have known from the beginning what he is,” said Kaine, who was elected to the Senate in 2012 and became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Near East and South Asia subcommittee last summer. But Russia is a “country that pretends to aspire to world leadership, that it could get him to change his behavior when it wants to.”

The U.S. “was able to change Russia calculations with regard to Syria’s chemical weapons,” Kaine noted. But on stalled peace talks in Geneva it’s “not going well.“

What leverage, though, does the U.S. have to get Russia to put more pressure on the Syrian regime? After all, it took the prospect of imminent US military action last fall to get Russia to propose getting Syria to give up its chemical weapons.

Russia does “have pride,” the Virginia Democrat said. “They do want to be a global leader.” Last fall, it was both the prospect of U.S. military action in Syria, as well as the “global spotlight [on] Syria’s use of chemical weapons against women and kids,’ that affected Russia’s calculations on a chemical weapons deal, Kaine said. Continue reading

Senate Egypt bill could ease US aid after coup

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to introduce an Egypt aid bill Wednesday that if passed could set a precedent for loosening current restrictions on US assistance to post-coup countries, Congressional sources tell Al-Monitor.

Sen. Robert Menendez  (D-NJ), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is expected to introduce the bill, called the Egypt Assistance Reform Act of 2013, at a SFRC business meeting or Wednesday.  The bill is listed as the first item on the published agenda  for the committee meeting.

A senior US administration official, speaking not for attribution Tuesday, said the bill is expected to pass, but it isn’t clear that Menendez has a vehicle to bring it to the floor before the end of the week, after which Congress is expected to go on break. The real test will be the continuing resolution or the omnibus in early January, the official said.

The bill, while geared to Egypt, could have wider implications for US defense/security and economic assistance to post coup countries universally, one Congressional staffer, speaking not for attribution, said. If passed, it would virtually eliminate the restrictions of Section 7008, which currently prevents aid to post coup countries, by offering a framework for a waiver, which could be renewed. The Congressional staffer suggested the Obama White House had been closely involved in drafting the text of the legislation with the SFRC.

“We are continuing to work with the Congress to ensure we obtain the funding and authorities necessary to provide assistance for Egypt, consistent with the approach we outlined earlier this year,” Bernadette Meehan, spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

A spokesman for the SFRC majority staff contacted by Al-Monitor Tuesday evening said he may not be able to get guidance on the matter before Wednesday.  A spokesman for ranking SFRC Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee could not immediately be reached Tuesday.

The proposed bill would provide “the administration a legislative roadmap forward for U.S. assistance to continue to Egypt despite current legal restrictions on aid to countries where a military coup d’état has taken place,” a summary of the draft bill provided to Al-Monitor states. 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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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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HFAC staff moves


Several recent changes and promotions underway among the House Foreign Affairs Committee minority staff.

Daniel Silverberg, formerly deputy general counsel and a former Pentagon official, has been named general counsel of the committee minority staff, following the departure of Shanna Winters for the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Janice Kaguyutan was promoted to chief counsel from deputy chief counsel.

Long time HFAC top Middle East advisor Alan Makovsky has left the committee staff, with plans to go teach in Turkey, according to two Hill staffers. His deputy Robert Marcus is expected to succeed him as top Middle East advisor upon his return from paternity leave, staffers say.

Daniel Harsha, recently back from paternity leave, has been made communications director.

Jason Steinbaum was named as staff director in January, after former Rep. Howard Berman’s staff director went over to Senate Homeland Security.

Meantime, two HFAC staffers have joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) staff: arms sales and non proliferation advisor David Fite, and former communications director Adam Sharon.

Staffers are overall upbeat about the committee, and say relations between chair Ed Royce (R-California) and ranking Democrat Eliot Engel (D-New York), are relatively smooth and professional.

Engel, in a letter Monday, critiqued the military options for Syria presented by top army officer Gen. Martin Dempsey, suggesting the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff may have overstated the costs and risks of limited air strikes.

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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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More RUMINT: NSS, NEA, CT

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

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

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

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

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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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