Veteran U.S. diplomat Bill Burns to retire, led back channel to Iran

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Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, the veteran U.S. diplomat who helped President Obama open a back channel to Iran last year, will retire from the Foreign Service in October, Secretary of State John Kerry announced Friday.

“It is hard to find words adequate to express who Bill Burns is, and what he means not just to the State Department, but to American foreign policy,” Kerry said in a press statement Friday.

“With characteristic humility, he has enormous impact and influence in untold ways and myriad issues,” Kerry said. “Bill is a statesman cut from the same cloth, caliber, and contribution as George Kennan and Chip Bohlen, and he has more than earned his place on a very short list of American diplomatic legends.”

“Like so many others who worked with him, I have seen Bill Burns as a mentor– [and] have learned so much by watching how he does his job,” Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes wrote on Twitter.

Burns, in a letter informing Kerry of his decision to retire in October after 32 years serving 10 US Secretaries of State, wrote that he was “deeply honored to have had the opportunity to serve you and the President….You and the President will always have my deepest respect and admiration.”

Burns, in an interview with Al-Monitor in January, said while reaching a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran would be very challenging, it should be achievable.

“The truth is, at the end of the day … if Iran wants to demonstrate that it is has no interest in pursuing a nuclear weapon … we’ve made clear…we accept a civil nuclear program for Iran, then it should not be impossible to reach an agreement,” Burns said.

“What the long-term possibilities are between the United States and Iran is very difficult to predict right now, given the range of differences between us,” he added. “But I do think it’s possible to make further progress on the nuclear issue, and I think that’s extremely important.”

Burns is only the second career Foreign Service officer to be confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State. He has previously served as US Ambassador to Russia, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, and Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, among many other positions in his 32 year diplomatic career.

Sources told Al-Monitor that Burns considered retiring last year, but President Obama personally asked him to stay to pursue the Iran diplomatic channel at a critical moment, which he did.

Diplomatic sources previously considered State Department counselor Tom Shannon, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, and Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken to be possible contenders to succeed Burns as Deputy Secretary.

(Bottom photo of President Obama and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

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

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.

Ambassador Shuffle: Iraq, Jordan, Turkey

State Department executive secretary John R. Bass, a former US ambassador to Georgia, is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, U.S. officials told the Back Channel.

Bass, a career member of the Foreign Service, previously headed the Baghdad Reconstruction team, and served as the director of the State Department operations Center from 2005-2008, during which time he led the State Department response to 25 crises, including Hurricane Katrina. He served as a special advisor to then Vice President Dick Cheney from 2004-2005 on Europe and Eurasia.

Bass, who currently serves as executive secretary and special assistant to Secretary of State John Kerry, was double hatted as deputy chief of staff last year, before the appointment of Jon Finer. His potential nomination has not yet been formally sent from the White House to Ankara for agreement, diplomatic souces said.

US Ambassador to Jordan Stuart E. Jones is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Iraq, US officials tell Al-Monitor.

It won’t be Jones’ first tour in Iraq. Jones previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Iraq, as the Governate Coordinator in Anbar province; as well as the National Security Council Country Director for Iraq. Jones, who has served as the US envoy to Jordan since 2011, previously served from 2008-2010 as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Europe Bureau; and from 2005-2008 as Deputy Chief of Mission at the US embassy in Cairo, Egypt.

Alice Wells, the Special Assistant to President Obama and National Security Council Senior Director for Russia affairs and Eurasia, is expected to be nominated to be the next US Ambassador to Jordan, to succeed jones, US officials told the Back Channel.

Wells, before assuming the top NSC Russia advisor job in 2012, previously served as the Executive Assistant to then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Before that, Well served as chief of staff to then Under Secretary of State William J. Burns from 2009 to 2011.  She served as political minister counselor at the US embassy in Moscow from 2006-2009; as Director of the Office of Maghreb Affairs at the U.S. State Department from 2005 to 2006; and as Deputy Director of the Office of Egypt and North African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State from 2004 to 2005. Earlier in her career, she served in diplomatic posts in India, Islamabad, Riyadh, and Tajikistan.

(First photo: State Department photo of John R. Bass; Second photo: State Department photo of Stuart E. Jones. Third photo: President Barack Obama talks on the phone with President-elect Vladimir Putin of Russia March 9, 2012. Alice Wells, Senior Director for Russian Affairs, is seated at right. Photo by Pete Souza.)

U.S. suspends Syria embassy operations

The United States announced Tuesday that it has ordered the Syrian government to immediately cease all operations at its embassy in Washington, D.C. and two honorary consulates in Houston, Texas and Troy, Michigan.

Personnel at the facilities who are not U.S. citizens or legal US residents have been ordered to depart the country.

“For three years, Bashar al-Asad has refused to heed the call of the Syrian people to step aside…and created a humanitarian catastrophe,” Daniel Rubinstein, the new US Special Envoy for Syria, said in a press statement.

“Following the announcement that the Syrian Embassy has suspended its provision of consular services, and in consideration of the atrocities the Asad regime has committed against the Syrian people, we have determined it is unacceptable for individuals appointed by that regime to conduct diplomatic or consular operations in the United States,”  Rubinstein said.

There are just two Syrian diplomats left at its embassy in Washington, a Syrian contact told Al-Monitor Tuesday, as well as 8 or 9 local employees. The Syrian diplomats in Washington do not have US residency and will have to leave, the contact said. The State Department gave them til the end of the month to depart..

Ayman Midani serves as the honorary consul general of Syria in Houston, Texas. The last Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, departed in December 2011, to become Syria’s envoy to China.

“The United States will continue to assist those seeking change in Syria, to help end the slaughter, and to resolve the crisis through negotiations,” Rubinstein said.

The chair and ranking members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee welcomed the expulsions of the Syrian government personnel, and urged the Obama administration to withdraw diplomatic recognition of, and increase pressure on, the Assad regime.

“I welcome this overdue action,” Rep. Ed Royce (R-California), said in a joint statement.  “But it would be withdrawal of our diplomatic recognition of the regime that would signal strong American support for the Syrian people.”

“After three years of brutality by Assad against his people, including the horrifying use of chemical weapons on civilians, it is crucial that we increase the pressure on his regime,” Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) said. “The longer this war goes on, the more dangerous and unstable the region will become.”

We feel that the illegitimacy of the Assad regime is overwhelming — 10,000 children killed, millions of refugees,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a State Department chat with university students on Tuesday.

Meantime, the Assad regime this week signaled that it “plans to hold presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday, citing Syria’s minister of information.

Syria conflict ‘incubator of extremism,’ Burns tells Senators

The Syrian civil war has become an “incubator of extremism” and a “magnet” for foreign fighters, and poses growing risks to U.S. interests and allies, U.S. officials told frustrated lawmakers Thursday. The three year old conflict is also likely to go on for a long time, they assessed, as it pulls in foreign fighters from both sides of the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, and both Bashar al-Assad and his opponents believe they can win.

“The hard reality is that the grinding Syrian civil war is now an incubator of extremism, on both sides of the sectarian divide.” Deputy Secretary of State William Burns told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, at a hearing on the Syrian civil war that led off with the deepening US-Russian rift over Ukraine.

“We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result,” Burns said. “The risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups…the risk to the stability of our regional partners….and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.”

That grim assessment may portend the U.S. deepening its support for Syrian opposition fighters now battling both Al Qaeda-linked groups and Assad, and stepped up U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, in coordination with regional partners and European allies alarmed by the threat posed by jihadi fighters returning from Syria.

Syria “has become the preeminent location for independent or al-Qaida-aligned groups to recruit, train, and equip a growing number of extremists, some of whom we assess may seek to conduct external attacks,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC), testified (.pdf).

US policy on Syria is to counter extremists, boost moderates, and shore up Syria’s embattled neighbors and population with aid to withstand the protracted conflict, Burns told lawmakers.

“First, we are working to isolate and degrade terrorist networks in Syria,” Burns said. “It also means stepping up efforts to strengthen the moderate opposition, without which progress toward a negotiated transition of leadership through the Geneva process or any other diplomatic effort is impossible.”

With the Syrian opposition battling a two-front war against Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), it has lost some ground, reducing pressure on Assad and his patrons to make concessions on a political transition at the Geneva talks, while  seemingly increasing US willingness to coordinate increased assistance to opposition forces.

“Strengthened moderate forces are critical both to accelerate the demise of the Asad regime, and to help Syrians build a counterweight to the extremists,” Burns said.

Lawmakers on the panel expressed frustration and exasperation that the situation in Syria has deteriorated so drastically over time, with some suggesting it was partly a result of over-cautiousness and inaction by the Obama administration.

“What does the administration expect to do to change the equation on the ground in Syria now that it’s become what it is,” Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), ranking Republican on the foreign relations panel, asked Burns. He said that Secretary of State John Kerry had suggested to him and other lawmakers at a meeting last month that the US was on the verge of announcing a more assertive US policy on Syria.

“We certainly are looking at a range of options, [some of which I] can’t discuss in this setting,” Burns said. “We are looking actively at other ways we can support the moderate opposition, [working in coordination with others]… All of us understand what’s at stake here, what we and our partners do.”

But administration statements that it is stepping up support to Syrian opposition fighters is something that some lawmakers said they had heard before, only for the conflict to intensify and the death toll to mount, while straining the fragile stability of neighboring Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan.

“100,000 people ago we were hearing this,” an exasperated Corker said, referring to the mounting death toll in Syria’s three year conflict, now estimated to be as high as 140,000 people.

The conflict is unlikely to end soon, the NCTC’s Olsen said, as both sides are digging in for a protracted fight.

With hostilities “between Sunni and Shia…intensifying in Syria and spilling into neighboring countries,” it increases “the likelihood of a protracted conflict in Syria, as both seek military advantage,” Olsen said. “Both the Syrian regime and the opposition believe that they can achieve a military victory in the ongoing conflict.”

“As long as Assad exists, the civil war will get worse,” Burns said. “This is going to require an ‘all of the above’ effort.”

UN Syria envoy Brahimi said to consider resigning


UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met with the Russians last week and threatened to resign if they did not get the Syrian regime to seriously negotiate.

Russian diplomats in the meeting said they would like to have another round of Syria peace talks in Geneva, a western official told Al-Monitor Wednesday.

Brahimi responded, what’s the point, if the Syrian regime delegation is only going to insult the opposition delegation, as it did at the last two rounds of talks, the western official, speaking not for attribution, said. The Russians said they did not have as much influence over the Syrian regime as some observers think, and Brahimi said that he thought they did have some, and that they should use it, the official described.

“I would not hold my breath for Geneva,” the western official said, referring to another round of Syria peace talks anytime soon.

The deadlocked Syria diplomatic process comes amid a deepening rift between its chief cosponsors, the US and Russia, over Russia’s de facto occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

Brahimi met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Wednesday. But Brahimi did not speak to reporters after the meeting, and the State Department said it did not yet have information on what was said. Update: Kerry and Brahimi discussed the status of the Geneva talks at their meeting Wednesday, a State Department official told Al-Monitor Thursday. “The talks are still on recess,” the official said. “We look forward to JSR Brahimi’s briefing to the Security Council in closed consultations on March 13.”

Kerry also met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris Wednesday to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, and they were due to meet again in Rome on Thursday.

“We agreed to continue intense discussions in the coming days with Russia, with the Ukrainians, in order to see how we can help normalize the situation, stabilize it, and overcome the crisis,” Kerry told reporters after his day of meetings in Paris.

“All parties agreed today that it is important to try to resolve these issues through dialogue,” Kerry said. “I don’t believe..any of us are served by greater or further confrontation.  And also, we met today to discuss these issues because we cannot and will not allow the integrity of the sovereignty of the country of Ukraine to be violated and for those violations to go unanswered.”

If Brahimi quits as the UN/Arab League special envoy, a possible candidate to succeed him is former Kuwaiti foreign minister Shaikh Mohammad Al Sabah, Gulf News reported Wednesday.

Brahimi is already the second joint UN/Arab League special Syria envoy to consider resigning. His predecessor Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary General, quit in frustration in the summer of 2012, shortly after the first round of Geneva talks was held.

“Yes, he has threatened to resign, but that isn’t new,” a U.S. official told Al-Monitor Wednesday of Brahimi. “But I suspect he will persist.”

“I don’t want to speak to what his intentions may or may not be,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists at the State Department Wednesday about whether Brahimi is resigning.  “Obviously, we have confidence in him and he has done a great job convening the beginning of the Geneva process.  There are many paths and many routes that we are pursuing at the same time as it relates to diplomacy in Syria.”

Separately, the United States informed Syria’s mission to the United Nations last month that Syrian diplomats posted there will be confined to within 25 miles of New York, the State Department said Wednesday. A U.S. official said the decision to restrict Syrian diplomats’ movement to the New York area had been in the works for several months, and was not related to the breakdown in talks in recent weeks.

Meantime, Brahimi’s deputy in Damascus, Mokhtar Lamani, resigned on Monday, Al-Arabiya reported.

US Syria envoy Robert Ford also retired last week after serving thirty years as a US diplomat, the State Department announced last Friday (February 28). Daniel Rubenstein, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Jordan and US Consul General in Jerusalem will be tapped to succeed him as the US envoy to the Syrian opposition, Al-Monitor previously reported.

“I am very, very sorry and I apologize to the Syrian people,” Brahimi told journalists in Geneva last month after the second round of Syria peace talks concluded with no future meeting set, as the Syrian regime side refused to discuss a political transition. The Syrian peoples’ “hopes .. were very, very high here, that something will happen here.”

(Photo of UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in January by Reuters.)

Syria envoy Robert Ford retires, Rubenstein to be named successor

US Syria envoy Robert Ford retired on Friday after 30 years distinguished service, the State Department announced Friday.

Ford’s “extraordinary leadership has guided our response to one of the most formidable foreign policy challenges in the region,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki told journalists Friday.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Lawrence Silverman will temporarily serve as his replacement until a permanent successor is named, Psaki said.

US officials tell Al-Monitor that US diplomat Daniel Rubenstein will be named as Ford’s permanent successor working with the Syrian opposition. Rubenstein, described by colleagues as an “outstanding Arabist,” currently serves as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the State Department Intelligence and Research bureau (INR).

Rubenstein previously served as the Deputy Chief of Mission at the US Embassy in Jordan (2005-2008), as the US Consul General  in Jerusalem (2009-2012), and as chief of the Civilian Observer Unit in the Multinational Force and Observers in Sinai, Egypt. Rubenstein, who is fluent in Arabic, Hebrew and Portuguese, also served in earlier postings in Damascus, Tunis, Tel Aviv, and Brasilia. He couldn’t immediately be reached Saturday for comment.

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

Iran, world powers may hold nuclear talks in New York

Iran and six world powers may hold the first round of negotiations to seek a comprehensive Iran nuclear deal in New York in mid-February, a U.S. official and Iranian media reports said Monday. However,an Iranian official said Monday that the parties are still working on both a place and the dates for the meeting.

“It is our understanding that the first round of comprehensive negotiations will be in New York in mid-February with dates still being confirmed on schedules,” Marie Harf, State Department deputy spokesperson, said by email Monday. 

“New York – agreed to by EU High Representative Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif – has a similar support infrastructure to Geneva,” Harf said.  “We believe that United Nations and international support is important for work on a comprehensive agreement.”

The last three rounds of high-level P5+1/Iran nuclear talks that secured a six-month interim nuclear deal on November 24th took place in Geneva.

But Syrian peace talks that got underway in Geneva last week may continue to be regularly convened for months at the UN headquarters in Geneva, diplomats earlier suggested.

It was understood that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s team suggested to P5+1 counterparts last fall that the nuclear negotiations take place in UN cities, such as Geneva, Vienna and New York.

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was reported to have met with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in Davos last week to confer on the upcoming negotiations for a comprehensive nuclear deal.

An EU spokesperson said Monday, however, that he did not yet have confirmation of the venue or dates for the next meeting. An Iranian official too, speaking not for attribution, said the venue and dates of the meeting are still being worked on.

Zarif, who previously served as Iran’s envoy to the UN in New York, met with Ashton and P5+1 foreign ministers on the sidelines of the opening of the UN General Assembly last September. US and Iranian diplomats also met quietly in New York in the run up to UNGA in  September, including to discuss arranging the September 26th one on one side-bar meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Zarif, and the historic phone call between US President Obama and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Al-Monitor previously reported.

Bill Burns on nuclear diplomacy with Iran

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, in an interview (Jan. 14) with the Back Channel posted on the front page, spoke about leading the U.S. effort to open direct talks with Iran, expectations for the upcoming Geneva  II Syria peace talks, and a three decade career in US diplomacy:

With negotiations set to begin in February between Iran and the P5+1 on a comprehensive nuclear accord, Burns said President Barack Obama’s estimate of 50-50 odds of reaching an agreement is not bad, considering the context.

“The truth is, against the backdrop of the tortuous history of the relationship between the United States and Iran, that’s actually not a bad opportunity to be tested,” Burns said. “And I think it’s very important for us to test it.”

Full report and interview here. Earlier reports on the US-Iran channel: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran (Nov. 24, 2013);  Three Days in March: New details on how US, Iran opened direct talks (January 8, 2014).