Iran, EU negotiators meet in Istanbul

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Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif met with European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in Istanbul on Monday, along with their aides, Iran’s Foreign Ministry said Monday, even as the EU stayed mum on the meeting, first reported by Al-Monitor.

The meeting started around 4pm Monday and continued over a dinner at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul, Iranian media said. It is expected to continue Tuesday morning.

“The two sides will discuss [the] latest developments on [the] nuclear dispute and positive steps are expected to be taken to this effect,” the Iran foreign ministry website said.

Zarif, upon arrival in Istanbul, told reporters that it is a meeting between his team and Ashton and her aides, and is not a meeting of the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the foreign ministry website noted.

A spokesman for Ashton told Al-Monitor Monday that he had no comment on and could not confirm any meeting. It was not clear why the EU has been unwilling so far to acknowledge the meeting.

U.S. officials were not expected to attend, Al-Monitor was told.

Update: EU High Representative Ashton “held very long and useful discussions” with Iran Foreign Minister Zarif, EU foreign policy spokesperson Michael Mann said in a statement Tuesday. “They explored different possibilities as part of an ongoing process.”

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks will be held June 16-20 in Vienna, Mann said, adding that Ashton and Zarif are recommending a round of experts level talks be held before that. “Other political discussions will happen as and when needed.”

Zarif held over eight hours of discussions with Ashton over the past two days, Iranian media cited Iranian officials Tuesday.

(Photo of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif speaking to reporters upon arrival in Istanbul May 26 from the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.)

Iran, EU negotiators expected to meet (Updated)


Top Iran and European Union nuclear negotiators are expected to meet in Istanbul on Monday, Al-Monitor has learned, though representatives of neither side would confirm the meeting date or venue.

“They will meet in Istanbul on Monday and perhaps Tuesday,” a diplomatic source, speaking not for attribution, told Al- Monitor Sunday., referring to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

The Zarif Ashton meeting is expected to start Monday afternoon in Istanbul, the diplomatic source said.

After Al-Monitor’s report on the unannounced meeting Sunday, Iran’s IRNA news agency reported that Zarif and Ashton were to meet in Istanbul this afternoon and continue the next day.

The meeting comes as negotiators from Iran and six world powers are regrouping after sobering final deal talks in Vienna this month at which both sides seemed taken aback by the others’ positions, and urged their counterparts to return to the talks with more “realism.”

It is unclear why there seemed to be unusual secrecy about the Zarif-Ashton meeting, or why, if it’s to take place, it hasn’t been announced. No American officials are expected to participate in the meeting, Al-Monitor understood.

“I can’t confirm anything. i have no comment,” a spokesperson for Ashton told Al-Monitor early Monday, after Iranian media reported Zarif’s plane had departed for Istanbul to meet Ashton there. Ashton was thought to be returning from South Korea on Sunday, an EU official earlier said.

Zarif met with his Turkish counterpart Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu last week on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Shanghai, China, but no visit was announced. Zarif is expected to attend a conference of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) in Algeria later in the week.

At the first real comprehensive nuclear deal negotiating round in Vienna earlier this month, the Iranians were said to be shaken by a P5+1 proposal for a ten-year (or by one account, 20-year) plan for phased sanctions relief in a final deal, that Iran found much too slow. The Iranians were also described as having felt the U.S. position in particular had hardened in the most recent Vienna meeting, sources said. (US officials deny the US position has hardened or changed). The US also reportedly raised the ballistic missile issue with the Iranians, which Iran’s negotiators have repeatedly said they refuse to discuss as they consider the missile program a sovereign defense issue outside of the P5+1’s nuclear purview.

Meantime, former US officials close to the US negotiating team have repeatedly implored Iranian negotiators to recognize that Iran’s expectations for the size of its uranium enrichment program have got to be lowered to reach a final deal.

The next round of P5+1 Iran final deal talks is expected to be held in Vienna starting on June 16th. But US, Iranian and EU officials have said there will be additional consultations in different forms and at different levels in advance of those, as the parties aim to try to close a deal by the July 20th expiration of a six month interim deal.

Separately, the US-Iran bilateral channel that helped advance an interim nuclear deal last fall has not yet restarted during the final deal talks this year, outside of bilateral meetings that have taken place on the sidelines of the P5+1/Iran talks, US and Iranian sources told Al-Monitor.

(Photo of European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a dinner in Vienna May 14, 2014 by Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.)

US expected to tap Iraq envoy for Cairo

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft is expected to be nominated to be the next US envoy to Egypt, U.S. officials and diplomatic sources tell Al-Monitor, after the Cairo embassy has been without a full-time U.S. ambassador for several months.

Beecroft, who has served as the top American diplomat in Baghdad since 2012, is a career foreign service officer who previously served as executive assistant to both then-Secretary of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, as well as former US Ambassador to Jordan. He has also served at US embassies in Riyadh, Damascus and in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and Executive Secretariat.

Al-Monitor previously reported that current US envoy to Jordan Stuart Jones is expected to be nominated to succeed Beecroft as US ambassador to Iraq.

Neither Beecroft nor Jones responded to queries.

The anticipated nominations come as Secretary of State John Kerry informed Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy Tuesday that he will certify to Congress that Egypt is complying with its strategic commitments to the US to counter terrorism and proliferation as well as with the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the State Department said in a read-out of the phone call Tuesday. The certification is expected to make way for the US to release Apache helicopters to Egypt.

Kerry, in the call, however, “noted that he is not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement.

Fahmy is due to travel to Washington next week, after a stop in San Francisco. Kerry is also scheduled to meet with Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate Mohamed Farid El-Tohamy at the State Department Wednesday.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson left Cairo last August, and was confirmed as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs in December. Then-US Syria envoy Robert Ford had been expected to succeed her, but the nomination did not proceed, amid lingering Egyptian suspicions that the US was sympathetic to Egypt’s ousted, elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and associated Islamist factions in Syria’s rebel movement. Ford retired from the State Department at the end of February.

Separately, the Atlantic Council announced Wednesday that US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone Jr., will become its vice president and director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Continue reading

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.)

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

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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Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

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Istanbul __ Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday he believes Iran and six world powers should accept each other’s chief objectives as their own in order to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others,” Zarif told an audience of Middle East nonproliferation specialists convened in Istanbul Friday by the Pugwash conference on nuclear disarmament.

“The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000,” Zarif, speaking in English, said. While ten years ago, “Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.”

Zarif said he proposed, at meetings with the P5+1 in New York and Geneva the past two months, a new approach: that Iran accepts the West’s objective that Iran never have a nuclear weapon, and that the West accept Iran’s objective that it have a peaceful nuclear energy program that includes domestic enrichment, with mechanisms to verify it not be used for military purposes.

Iran’s nuclear know-how and technology are now “homegrown,” Zarif said, to explain why he thinks it in the West’s interest to accept Iranian enrichment. You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Asked whether he believes President Obama would be able to sell Congress on an Iran nuclear deal that includes sanctions relief, Zarif said he would leave American domestic politics to the Americans to sort out: “I do not interfere in American domestic politics.” Both sides have public opinion on their side to pursue a negotiated settlement, he said he believes, but formidable hardline constituencies to contend with at home as well.

“I believe leaders need to show leadership,” Zarif said. “I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the US president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”

Zarif spoke here, at a presidential palace overlooking the Bosporous on the Asian side of the city, on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming the post of foreign minister in the Hassan Rouhani administration in August. While Zarif and Davutoglu had warm words for each other, the two nations’ differences on Syria were apparent. However, they agreed that the US-Russian agreement that led to Syria’s decision to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and join the chemical weapons ban was a positive development, and urged that it be a first step towards a broader agreement towards ridding the entire Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

“I agree with my good friend and brother, Javad-bey,” Davutoglu said. “Something good happens with the Syria chemical weapons ban, at least the process has started.”

Zarif, whose back seemed much improved from when he appeared at a press conference in Geneva last month in a wheel chair, was due to travel on to Ankara Friday for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. He is slated to travel to Paris next week, ahead of leading the Iranian delegation to the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, in Geneva on November 7-8th.

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Istanbul on Friday, November 1, 2013. Associated Press.)

NPR's Deborah Amos reports on Syria from front lines


We are “two and a half years into” the Syria war, “and not even half way” through, says Deborah Amos, veteran National Public Radio Middle East correspondent, who has covered the brutal conflict that has killed 100,000 Syrians, and made almost 2 million refugees. “Everyone has to get used to that.”

The conflict’s battle lines have shifted in recent months, suggesting Syrian regime forces are moving to carve out a “little Syria,” and ensure its access to supply lines in Lebanon, Amos said in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor Friday (August 2) during a break in the United States.

“What you've got now” is a battle between regime and rebel forces “for roads and access,” Amos said.  “It used to be for checkpoints and military installations. But now, the regime has to be sure it has access from Lebanon into Syria.” The rebels, meantime, “focus on access to Jordan and Turkey.”

“This is what the war’s about now,” Amos said, describing the virtual four “walls” of Little Syria as including Homs to the north, Palmyra to the east, the Lebanese border and coast to the West.

The road to the Geneva 2 peace conference may be long, Amos said, observing neither side wants to go to talks when the other side has the upper hand, but is unlikely to negotiate when strong. “So nobody is willing to negotiate.”

“I think Bashar [Assad] has changed his definition of winning,” Amos mused, noting his recent proclamations of the past weeks, joining of Instagram, and visit to Dariya, which his forces have not been entirely able to take from rebels. Continue reading

Counselor

utgoing US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is likely to get tapped to become Counselor to Secretary of State John Kerry, senior US officials tell the Back Channel.

The job, currently held by Heather Higginbottom, is expected to open up if she is nominated to become Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources. The Back Channel previously reported that Higginbottom, former deputy OMB chief and White House deputy domestic policy advisor, is being strongly considered for the second Deputy Secretary post, previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, and she appears to be the lead candidate.

Shannon declined to comment. The Back Channel previously reported that he was under consideration to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey, but plans have since changed, officials said this week.

US Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, Jr. is expected to stay on in Ankara for another year.

Secretary Kerry is expected to travel to Brazil this month

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Shortlists: Higginbottom mulled for 2nd DepSecState; Tom Shannon after Brazil

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry are considering nominating State Department counselor and former OMB deputy director Heather Higginbottom as the next Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, several current and former U.S. officials say. The second Deputy Secretary slot, currently vacant, was previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, now Treasury Secretary.

“Kerry recruited Heather from OMB with an eye towards putting her in a confirm-able position soon, but he didn’t want to delay her arrival by several months during his transition period,” an administration official, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Wednesday.

“She started out with the confidence of the Secretary and the President and hit the ground running as Counselor, engaging with senior leaders at the State Department,” the official said. “I think it’s safe to say that this would be a hit across the board given her budget experience and relationships and her understanding now of the Department.”

Higginbottom served in the Obama White House as deputy director of OMB from 2011 to 2013, and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 2009-2010. She previously served as legislative director for then Senator Kerry from 1999 until 2007, and on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She didn’t respond to a query Wednesday.

Tom Shannon After Brazil

With his successor nominated, US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is heading back to Washington soon. While his next interim assignment is unclear, some current and former U.S. officials tell the Back Channel that the Obama administration is considering nominating Shannon to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, possibly in the fall or in 2014. Sources cautioned however that plans could change depending on other moves afoot in the upper ranks of the State Department bureaucracy.

Shannon said he expects to head next to Washington, but couldn’t comment beyond that. President Obama recently nominated Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Liliana Ayalde, a former ambassador to Paraguay and senior USAID official, to succeed him in Brazil.

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