Rouhani proposes nuclear transparency, easing US-Iran tensions

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Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani ushered in the post-Ahmadinejad era Monday with a sometimes extraordinary 90-minute press conference in which he stressed he would take a pragmatic and moderate approach to improve Iranian relations with the world and reduce tensions with the United States over Iran's nuclear program.

“The Iranian people…will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” if the US pledges to never interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs and to respect Iran’s rights, including for domestic enrichment, Rouhani told the packed press conference in Tehran.

“We don't want further tension” with the United States, Rouhani, 64, said. “Both nations need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

“My government will defend the rights of the Iranian nation,” the multilingual cleric, who earned his PhD in Glasgow, said. “We want to see less tension, and if we see goodwill” from the United States, then “confidence -building measures can be made.”

Asked how Iran could get out from crippling economic sanctions, Rouhani said his government would offer greater transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and take steps to restore international trust to get sanctions rolled back. “Our nuclear program is transparent but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” he said.

Rouhani said, however, that the time has passed for Iran to agree to suspend lower level enrichment, which it did in 2004-2005 when he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. “That era is behind us,” Rouhani said of the deal he negotiated a decade ago with three European powers to suspend Iran's 3.5% enrichment. “There are so many other ways to build international trust.”

Rouhani proposed that a deal he discussed in 2005 with then French President Jacques Chirac, which he said was rejected by the UK and the US, could be the model going forward.

Hossein Mousavian, who served as a member of the Rouhani negotiating team, said the Chirac idea that Rouhani referenced involved the highest level of transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for Iran having its rights under the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognized.

“We agreed with Chirac that: first, the EU-3 would respect the legitimate rights of Iran for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT, including enrichment,” Mousavian told Al-Monitor Monday. “Second, Iran would accept the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA's definition for objective guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program would remain peaceful and would not divert toward weaponization in the future.”

“It means that Iran would respect the maximum level of transparency that internationally exists,” Mousavian, a contributing writer to Al-Monitor, further explained. “In return, the P5+1 would not discriminate against Iran as a member of the NPT. It would respect Iran's rights under the NPT like other members.”

Mousavian, asked how Washington should try to realize the potential to advance a nuclear deal under the more moderate Rouhani presidency, recommended that US President Barack Obama write Rouhani, offer him congratulations, and reiterate US interest in direct talks.

“Confirm the willingness and intentions of the US for relations based on mutual respect and mutual interest, to depart from 30 years of hostility and tension,” Mousavian suggested. Reiterate Washington's “readiness for direct talks with no preconditions.”

“I think now is the time,” Mousavian said, adding that he too had been taken by surprise by Rouhani's victory.

A top advisor to President Obama said Sunday the White House sees Rouhani's election as a “potentially hopeful sign.”

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White House to step up aid to Syria rebels, after US confirms Assad chemical use

President Obama has decided to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after the U.S. intelligence community concluded with high confidence that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale numerous times, the White House announced Thursday.

“The President has said that the use of chemical weapons would change his calculus, and it has,” US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said in a statement Thursday.

“Put simply, the Assad regime should know that its actions have led us to increase the scope and scale of assistance that we provide to the opposition, including direct support to the SMC,” the Syrian rebel Supreme Military Council, the White House statement continued. “These efforts will increase going forward.”

The US assistance provided to the Syrian rebels “is going to be substantively different than what we were providing before our initial chemical weapons assessment in April,” Rhodes told journalists in a press call Thursday evening.

While declining to provide a full inventory of the assistance the US might provide to the rebels, Rhodes said the U.S. aim “is to be responsive to the needs of the SMC on the ground…There will be an increase in support to both the political and military side.”

Among the types of assistance the US was looking to provide, in coordination with allies, Rhodes said, was aid to enhance the Syrian rebels’ cohesion and effectiveness. “Communications equipment, transport, … medical assistance” [such as ambulances] “relevant to their effectiveness…to allow them to cohere as a unit that can challenge the regime.” The US would also provide small arms and ammunition, and would consider supplying anti-tank weapons, the New York Times reported late Thursday.

Representatives of the US, UK and France are expected to meet SMC military commander Gen. Salim Idriss in Turkey on Saturday, wire reports said Thursday.

The US announcement was made during a week of intensive, high level White House consultations on Syria, including a meeting Wednesday between US Secretary of State John Kerry and visiting UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. It also comes ahead of the first meeting between President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in the United Kingdom next week.

Notably, the United States has briefed Russia on its latest Syria chemical weapons assessment, Rhodes said in the call Thursday. It has also provided the information to the United Nations, which Rhodes said had been unable to get its Syria chemical weapons investigation team on the ground in Syria due to Assad’s obstruction.

The announcement came as the United Nations said Thursday that it assesses 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict to date.

“We’re at a tipping point” in Syria, Martin Indyk, Bill Clinton’s former top Middle East diplomat told Al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday.

Recent gains by Assad forces, backed by Hizbollah, on the ground have thrown plans for transition talks in Geneva into doubt.

“There can’t be any political solution on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution, said.“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room.”

Full White House statement below the jump:

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Martin Indyk: ‘We’re at a tipping point’ in Syria


Doha, Qatar__“We’re at a tipping point in Syria,” Martin Indyk, vice president of the Brookings Institution and one of the architects of Middle East policy under former President Bill Clinton, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Doha Tuesday.

“I don’t know what President Obama will decide,” Indyk, speaking at the conclusion of the US-Islamic World Forum in Doha, said, regarding reports the White House is meeting this week to consider possibly coming out in support of lethal aid to the Syria rebels.

“I think the objective now is to help the opposition stave off further defeats. The Iranians and Hezbollah have intervened in a dramatic way with troops and weapons and this has led to a total imbalance on the battlefield. This is external intervention to try to ensure Assad survives.

“There can’t be any political solution based on an agreement on a post-Assad transition if Assad thinks he is going to see victory,” Indyk, who served as the Clinton era envoy to Israel and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, said. “So we’re at a tipping point. We’ve got to tip the balance back the other way. […] Whether the British and French with our support, or our lead, it doesn’t matter, [if] that staves off defeat. That’s urgent.”

But any decision to provide lethal aid and organizational support to the Syrian rebels “has to be part of an overall strategy which begins with an effort to achieve a political solution,” Indyk continued. “Geneva provides a framework for that. We can’t get to Geneva if Assad thinks he’s winning on the battlefield.”

“What happens on the battlefield determines what happens in the conference room,” Indyk said. “If [the conflict is] stalemated, [it’s more likely] you can get a political agreement.”

Indyk said he doesn’t believe Russia gave a green light to the recent Hezbollah actions in Syria.

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White House meets on Syria as allies seek support for arming rebels

Doha, Qatar__ Secretary of State John Kerry has postponed a planned trip to the Middle East for urgent consultations on Syria at the White House and with US allies this week. The intense consultations come as the Obama administration, under pressure from the UK and France amid regime gains on the ground, could decide this week whether to approve sending lethal aid to the Syrian opposition, the Associated Press reports Monday.

President Obama on Monday will hold a principals committee meeting with his national security cabinet on Syria, a western diplomatic source tells Al-Monitor. Kerry is also scheduled to hold a video conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Monday, according to his State Department schedule.

The flurry of high-level meetings come as the UK and France, which pushed for the expiration last month of a European Union arms embargo on Syria, have been seeking Obama's vocal endorsement to arm and advise the Syrian opposition military. The UK plans to put the matter to a vote before British parliament.

The possible US pivot comes as the Syrian military, backed by Hezbollah, has been reversing opposition gains on the ground in Syria, and as the US has sought to see Assad's forces set back ahead of possible transition talks in Geneva next month, analysts said.

“There's developed an orthodoxy within key Washington circles that, in order to effect a political solution, you need to change the military balance on the ground,” Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha center, told Al-Monitor in an interview in Qatar Monday.

The core reasons for the turn are allied pressure, including the allegations of possible chemical weapons use; the fall of Qusair (see Ali Hashem's first-hand account) and the signs of setback for the opposition; and the Syrian opposition National Coalition saying it is not coming to Geneva without more support.

The US has also over the past few months had more time to vet Syrian rebel groups, analysts said, and has somewhat increased its comfort level with Syrian opposition military leader Salim Idriss.

When Iran's Saeed Jalili met one-on-one with US diplomat Bill Burns

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Even as Iran presidential candidate and presumed frontrunner Saeed Jalili has flaunted his anti-US hardliner credentials on the campaign trail, it’s worth noting a less remarked-upon aspect of his professional resume. In October 2009, Jalili became one of the only Iranian officials to meet one-on-one with a US diplomat in three decades.

The meeting, with then Under Secretary of State William Burns, now the US Deputy Secretary of State, took place October 1, 2009, at a villa outside Geneva, on the sidelines of Iran nuclear negotiations with six world powers.

Lead US negotiator Burns and Iran’s Jalili held a “one-on-one sidebar conversation,” a White House spokesman confirmed at the time. “The sidebar occurred at the Villa”–Villa Le Saugy, in the Swiss countryside village of Genthod–during a lunch break in the nuclear talks with the so-called P5+1.

Iran and six world powers announced tentative agreement at the Geneva meeting on a nuclear fuel swap deal that would provide fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for shipping out most of Iran’s stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium; but the deal later broke down at follow up technical talks in Vienna.

Iran also agreed at the Geneva talks to let IAEA inspectors visit the secret Fordo enrichment facility at Qom, whose discovery the leaders of the United States, UK and France had jointly announced just days before, at a G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.

“Iran is on notice that when we meet with them on Oct. 1 they are going to have to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” President Barack Obama, flanked by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said September 25, 2009.

In retrospect, it seems plausible that the Iranians agreed to the sit-down with the Americans in Geneva as a tactical gesture, out of concern over the western reaction to the discovery of the Qom enrichment facility, which Iran only hastily declared to the IAEA after it realized it had been discovered. But one Iranian source, speaking not for attribution, said the political decision in Tehran to hold the bilateral meeting with the Americans had already been taken.

Following the Geneva meeting, US envoys subsequently briefed foreign allies “that the U.S. sidebar meeting with Iranian representatives was direct and candid,” according to an October 5, 2009 US diplomatic cable from the US embassy in Manilla that was released by Wikileaks. While “the discussions were a constructive beginning,” the US envoys also relayed, “they must now be followed by positive action.”

“Iranian press gave considerable coverage to the bilateral meeting between [Under Secretary] Burns and Jalili,” another October 4, 2009 US diplomatic cable, sent from the U.S.'s Iran regional presence office in Dubai, noted. “While little coverage went beyond the Department's announcement that the meeting had taken place, Tabnak noted that unlike Iran's previous discussions on the nuclear issue, this time it was face-to-face with the US.” Another Iranian paper described the meeting as “unprecedented,” the US diplomatic cable continued.

Jalili’s deputy, Ali Bagheri–who has lately been accompanying Jalili on the campaign trail–acknowledged the Jalili-Burns sidebar meeting in an interview with Iran’s state television at the time, but stressed the meeting occurred only at the Americans’ insistence.

“The meeting of the US delegation with the Iranian delegation was held at the request of the Americans,” Bagheri, now deputy of the Iran Supreme National Security Council, told Iran’s state-run TV, Fars News reported at the time, adding: “Elaborating on the contents of sideline talks between the Iranian and American delegations, Baqeri said that the meeting was held merely within the framework of Iran's proposed package.”

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Report: UN to blacklist Syria’s Al-Nusra Front

The United Nations Security Council is expected to formally designate the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group next week, Agence-France Press reported Friday, amid intensified efforts to rally international consensus on a plan to halt Syria”s civil war.

The designation, expected to be finalized by the Security Council al-Qaeda sanctions committee on Tuesday, would make the group subject to a global asset freeze, the AFP report said.

The move, supported by France and Britain, comes days after the United States and Russia agreed to try to convene a Syria peace conference. The conference, expected to take place in Geneva as early as the end of this month, aims to bring representatives of the Syrian government and opposition together to try to negotiate the creation of a transition body.

The United States designated Al–Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in December.

Late last year, US intelligence officials encouraged moderate Syrian rebel forces at a meeting in Jordan to target Al-Nusra Front even at the cost of setbacks in their fight against Assad’s forces, Phil Sands reported in The National this week.

(Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo December 24, 2012. REUTERS.)

Obama administration calls for full investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria


The Obama administration notified Congress Thursday that the U.S. intelligence community has newly assessed that Syria probably used chemical weapons, but cautioned that further tests are necessary and said it is pressing for the United Nations to conduct a comprehensive investigation.

“Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” the White House said in a letter to Congress Thursday.

The new assessment, announced by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in the United Arab Emirates Thursday, was finalized in the past twenty four hours and received with evident reluctance by the Obama administration, which has expressed strong misgivings about the prospect of deeper entanglement in a new Middle Eastern conflict.

But the administration decided to publicly release the findings, which were contained in an assessment requested by some members of Congress, as several allied governments and foreign officials, including in Israel, the UK and Qatar, have made similar claims, to press for a comprehensive probe.

The US intelligence assessment “is based in part on physiological samples,” the White House letter said. But it cautioned that “the chain of custody” of the physiological samples it tested “is not clear, so we cannot confirm how the exposure occurred and under what conditions.” Blood samples and soil samples are the type of physiological material that would be tested for chemicals, a western diplomat said Thursday.

“Precisely because the President takes this issue so seriously, we have an obligation to fully investigate any and all evidence of chemical weapons use within Syria,” the White House letter said.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient,” the White House letter said, obliquely referring to past flawed US intelligence assessments that Iraq had WMD. Only “credible and corroborated” facts will guide US decision-making, it continued.

It’s important that any evidence be “air-tight,” a senior US official later echoed in a press call.

The White House said it was consulting closely with allies, particularly the UK and France, in considering possible next steps. Vice President Joe Biden was also meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Thursday. Hagel announced last week that the US was sending an additional 200 US troops there.

Earlier Thursday, a French official said the French government did not have conclusive evidence of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, but had strong concerns, and was also pressing for a broader UN probe.

“France does not have proof of the use of chemical weapons at this stage, but France is actively investigating with its partners,” the French official, speaking not for attribution, told journalists. Continue reading

US diplomat: Six powers to outline ‘clear path’ for Iran sanctions relief, nuclear power


Almaty, Kazakhstan — Western diplomats said Monday they will put an updated proposal with some sanctions relief on the table when they meet with Iranian negotiators in Kazakhstan Tuesday for the first time in almost eight months.

They also stressed that they are hoping to get some momentum for a higher tempo of meetings with the Iranians in the coming months, possibly to be held at the technical experts level, in order to try to advance prospects for a deal (or assess Iran’s willingness to make a deal). Notably, diplomats signaled they would offer the Iranians a “clear pathway” to further sanctions relief and a civilian nuclear program, hinting at possible recognition of what Iran considers its right to enrich at the end of a step by step process.

“The real message is for Iran to appreciate there is a path forward for them to get the relief they are seeking and have a peaceful nuclear [energy] program,” a senior US official told journalists in Almaty Monday.

“What we will try to do here is put a modified proposal on the table, that both takes into account changes in Iran’s [nuclear] program, and is responsive to Iran’s desire for the P5+1 to recognize Iran’s needs,” the US diplomat said.

The modified international proposal is a “real, serious, and substantive” offer, the American official said. “We are trying to outline a pathway for sanctions relief. The President has been clear if Iran keeps all its obligations… under the NPT and IAEA….there is absolutely a pathway for it to have peaceful nuclear power.”

While western diplomats said they did not expect a breakthrough at the talks in Almaty this week, they did express the clear hope that Iran would be willing to continue talks soon at the technical level–if possible, before the Iranian New Year’s holiday of Nowruz in March.

“What I’d like is for the Iranians to see that the proposal put on the table is a serious one, a confidence building measure, not the final act in the play,” another nation’s diplomat at the talks told a few journalists in Almaty earlier Monday. “To go and consider it and possibly follow up at the experts level, to see if there’s some common ground.”

“Having been through the process before, I would not predict a decisive breakthrough tomorrow, although I’d be delighted if it happened,” he said. “I know usually both sides need time to consider what is put on the table.”

The revised international offer, proposed higher tempo of experts level meetings–which diplomats described as more productive and involving more direct US-Iran interchanges–and outlining path to further sanctions relief could have another purpose: to test out over time if Iran can say yes, or is assessed to be either unwilling or incapable of agreeing to a deal.

The second diplomat somewhat downplayed what has recently been heard as a growing concern in Washington, that the Iranian leadership may be almost incapable of making a deal even if it wanted one, including because of political infighting and unrealistic expectations exacerbated by Iran’s diplomatic isolation.

The Iranians are “sophisticated operators,” the diplomat close to the talks countered.

“There are real challenges for them in reaching a deal,” he acknowledged. “Not least, how to present it in a way that is a win-win solution. We all really want this to be a win-win end state.”

However, sanctions imposed last year on Iran’s energy and banking sectors “can only get lighter in response to steps taken by the Iran side,” he added.

US officials said the modified proposal had not been shared with the Iranians in advance of the Almaty meeting, so that the six powers could present it fully and explain what each element is meant to address. They declined to confirm details of the modified proposal, except to say it offered “some changes and steps in the arena of sanctions relief,” as the US official put it.

An official close to the Iranian delegation told Al-Monitor Monday that the Iranians were coming to Almaty “to listen,” to see if there are “any new ideas.” Continue reading

Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

Did British intelligence also know about Mossad suspect Ben Zygier?

Did Ben Zygier, the Australian-Israeli identified by Australian media last week as the mysterious “Prisoner X” who died in Israeli prison in 2010, also have British citizenship?

Australian reporter Jason Koutsoukis broke the story in February 27, 2010 that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) had been investigating three Australian-Israelis suspected of links to Mossad. He confronted two of the (unnamed) men about the allegations, quoting one in his 2010 report:

“I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to,'' he said. ''I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

The same man is also believed to hold British citizenship, and is believed to have come to the attention of British intelligence after he had changed his name.

Now see what Koutsoukis told The Guardian last week, after the Australian Broadcasting Company aired an investigation suggesting that Prisoner X who had died in Israel's Ayalon prison in December 2010 was Ben Zygier :

At the time Zygier said: “I have never been to any of those countries that you say I have been to, I am not involved in any kind of spying. That is ridiculous.”

So we now know the man who told Koutsoukis in 2010 “I have never been to those countries” was Zygier. And that Koutsoukis indicated that he had been told at the time— presumably by Australian intelligence–that Zygier had also previously come on the radar of British intelligence for taking out a passport in a new name.

If Koutsoukis' original information was correct, that Zygier also had British citizenship and another British alias, it would be interesting to know what the British government and intelligence services might know about the case and how Israel came to suspect that Zygier was compromised.

Update: Why did Israel move to arrest Zygier in February 2010? One possible theory is also suggested by information in Koutsoukis's February 27, 2010 report. Continue reading