White House denies report that US and Iran agreed to direct talks

Share

The White House on Saturday denied a report in the New York Times that the United States and Iran had agreed to hold one–on-one talks on Iran’s nuclear program after the US presidential elections next month. But the White House reiterated that the Obama administration has “said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

And a Washington Iran analyst told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding that a senior US arms control official has held authorized talks with an Iranian official posted to Turkey.

“It’s not true that the United States and Iran have agreed to one-on-one talks or any meeting after the American elections,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement Saturday. “We continue to work with the P5+1 on a diplomatic solution and have said from the outset that we would be prepared to meet bilaterally.”

Iran’s Foreign Minister also issued a statement Sunday denying direct talks with the United States. “Talks are ongoing with the P5+1 group of nations,” Ali Akbar Salehi said at a press conference Sunday. “Other than that, we have no discussions with the United States.”

The Iran analyst, who asked not to be named, told Al-Monitor that it is his understanding White House WMD coordinator Gary Samore has had talks with an Iranian official posted as a diplomat to Turkey. The Iranian official was not identified.

US officials did not respond to requests for guidance from Al-Monitor late Saturday on the allegation a US official has had talks with an Iranian official or in what capacity.

Continue reading

Clinton in Israel: Iran nuclear proposals “non-starters”

Iran’s proposals to date in three rounds of nuclear talks with the P5+1 are “non-starters,” and suggest Iran’s leadership has not yet made the decision to compromise on its nuclear program, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday in Israel.

“I made very clear that the proposals that we have seen from Iran thus far within the P5+1 negotiations are non-starters,” Clinton told reporters after a news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday, CNN reported.

“Despite three rounds of talks, Iran has yet to make a strategic decision to address the international community’s concerns and fulfill their obligations under the IAEA and the UN Security Council,” Clinton said. “The choice is ultimately Iran’s to make.”

Iran is willing to discuss halting its 20% enrichment, but has balked to date at doing so without getting upfront recognition of its right to enrich for energy purposes.

“The issue of the 20% enrichment …is an issue that could be discussed and decided,” Iran’s UN envoy Mohammad Khazaee told Al Monitor in an interview July 12. “It is not off the table. … It is possible to close the gap.”

Clinton conducted the most high-profile visit of a recent “cavalcade” of high-ranking American officials traveling to Israel to huddle on Iran. Among the parade of senior US visitors: National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Assistant Secretary of Defense Derek Chollet, and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in the coming weeks.

The intense US-Israel consultations are aimed, from Washington’s perspective, at trying to reassure Israel’s leadership not to conduct strikes on Iran, likely in the fall. Despite Clinton’s assertion Monday that the United States and Israel are currently “on the same page” on Iran, Israeli leaders have apparently not eased American concerns about their intentions.

“For the first time on the agenda are serious crippling sanctions,” former Israeli Knesset Defense and Security Committee member Ephraim Sneh said at a July 12th round-table hosted by the Israel Policy Forum in New York, referring to tough new European Union sanctions on the import of Iranian oil, which went into effect July 1. “We have hardly two months to implement them. I advise those who can implement them, ‘Don’t put Israel in a corner.'”

Asked what specifically is in two months–i.e., September, Sneh said that Israel’s more limited military capabilities constrain its timetable and calendar for action. Continue reading

Former Israeli nat’l security advisor: “Right way to deal with Iran was through diplomacy”

My colleague Barbara Slavin writes:

Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, interviewing former IDF planning chief and National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, has come up with the most substantive list yet of the pros and cons for Israeli military action against Iran. The bottom line: Eiland joins numerous other Israeli intelligence and defense experts in giving greater weight to the cons in the process.

Eiland, who also served as Israeli National Security Advisor from 2003-2006, calls the prospect of facing either Iran with a bomb vs. bombing Iran, “a choice between the plague and cholera.”

For each choice, he says, there are four main risks. An Iran with nuclear weapons could launch one against Israel, a prospect he says is extremely unlikely but not nonexistent. Risk two is sparking a Middle East arms race, three is worsening Israel’s strategic position with regard to conventional conflict and four is spurring “a radical tidal wave in the Muslim world.”

Eiland’s candid enumeration of the risks of Israeli military action, however, suggests that “cholera” is worse than the plague. Risk one, he says, is that the operation could fail because of the dispersed and hardened nature of the Iranian nuclear program. If that happens, risk two is “a terrible erosion of our regional deterrent capability, which will encourage all sorts of sharks to attack the Israel that issued a threat and failed to carry through and is now bleeding in the water.” Continue reading

Senior Obama officials travel to Israel for consultations

A “cavalcade” of high-ranking Obama administration officials will travel to Israel over the next two weeks for strategic consultations, diplomatic sources told The Back Channel. Among them, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, who will participate in the US-Israel strategic dialogue.

While the high-level American-Israeli consultations will cover the range of security issues, the most pressing focus of the consultations will be Iran. Israel is skeptical of the prospects of achieving a near-term diplomatic solution, and is pressing for tougher sanctions to be imposed and for the U.S. to issue a credible military threat against Iran over its nuclear program. It has not ruled out taking military action on its own if Iran does not agree to curb its most sensitive nuclear work, particularly its 20% enrichment activities at the fortified Fordo enrichment site.

Clinton will travel to Israel July 16-17, “where she will be meeting with the Israeli leadership to discuss peace efforts and a range of regional and bilateral issues of mutual concern,” the State Department previously announced. Clinton, who met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Paris Friday and will visit Egypt July 14-15, will also discuss with her Israeli counterparts prospects for resumed Israeli-Palestinian contacts, if not full fledged peace talks, Egyptian-Israeli relations after the election of Islamist president Mohammed Morsy, and the Syrian conflict and its impact on Jordanian stability.

Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns will lead the U.S. delegation traveling to Israel this week for meetings of the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue, a State Department official told Al Monitor Monday. The semi-annual dialogue, involving days of intense, inter-agency meetings among senior officials from both countries, is formally co-chaired on the U.S. side by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, and on the Israeli side by National Security Advisor Gen. Yaakov Amidror.

Several high-ranking U.S. officials from other agencies will also participate in the consultations, the diplomatic sources said. The White House, which has not yet announced nor confirmed the trip, did not respond to a query on who from the National Security Council may travel from the American side. Diplomatic sources told Al Monitor it would include senior officials below the president and vice president.

Continue reading

In shift, Obama’s National Security Council staff step up public case for president’s policies

Exercising the White House prerogative to operate mostly in the dark, President Obama’s National Security Council staff have tended to be seldom heard and seen; but in recent weeks, that’s changed, and the Obama national security staff (NSS) have been making the rounds.

Recent appearances include: top White House counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan discussing drone strikes at the Wilson Center Monday, top NSS Europe hand Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall talking the upcoming NATO summit at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); a trio of NSC aides led by Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes addressed the Chicago Council on World Affairs on the summit last week; White House WMD czar Gary Samore talked Iran and North Korea nukes to a Hill audience last week; Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough is due to address a Washington Institute for Near East Policy conference Sunday. And somewhat unusually, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon’s travel to Moscow was announced in advance by NSC spokesman Tommy Vietor Wednesday rather than after he got back, as has mostly been the pattern previously.

It’s not clear what exactly accounts for these new and welcome stirrings of openness from the White House–the anniversary of the killing of Osama bin Laden? the US presidential campaign?

Brennan, for his part, told the Woodrow Wilson Center Monday that Obama himself had instructed his aides to be more open about U.S. counter-terrorism policies, including the previously universally known, but not officially acknowledged, U.S. use of drone strikes.

“President Obama believes that—done carefully, deliberately and responsibly—we can be more transparent and still ensure our nation’s security,” Brennan said, continuing:

So let me say it as simply as I can.  Yes, in full accordance with the law—and in order to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States and to save American lives—the United States Government conducts targeted strikes against specific al-Qa’ida terrorists, sometimes using remotely piloted aircraft, often referred to publicly as drones.  And I’m here today because President Obama has instructed us to be more open with the American people about these efforts.

Whatever accounts for the NSC’s new spirit of glasnost, however, it has apparently come at a cost. Namely, putting the NSC’s usually low-profile top dog Tom Donilon in the cross-hairs of the parody newspaper the Onion, which cites “White House sources” Thursday to report that Donilon has apparently been feeling a bit left out:

According to White House sources, President Obama gently urged his staff Monday to try to include national security adviser Thomas Donilon a little more in the operation of the U.S. government’s executive branch, having observed the senior aide is still struggling to fit in. … Continue reading