Iran’s UN envoy pick questioned over ties to hostage crisis

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U.S. and Iranian officials were saying little Tuesday about a controversy that has erupted over Iran’s choice to be its next envoy to the United Nations, as a member of the House Foreign Affairs committee said the Obama administration should not grant the Iranian diplomat a visa.

Hamid Aboutalebi, 56, a career Iranian diplomat close to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, told Iranian media in interviews last month that he had been summoned on occasions during the 1979 US Iran hostage crisis to serve as a translator, but was otherwise not 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 former US hostages, and some US Iran watchers say Iran should probably pick someone else.

Congress also got involved on Tuesday, further complicating the administration’s calculus. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel on the Middle East and North Africa, began drafting a letter requesting that the State Department deny Aboutalebi’s application, Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet has learned. The letter is expected to address other issues as well.

US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power may be asked about the issue when she testifies before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday.

The irony, some Iran watchers say, is that Aboutalebi, a former Iranian ambassador in Australia, Brussels and Italy who currently serves as Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, is actually a reformist with strong ties to Rouhani who could have been an empowered envoy for advancing Iran’s international engagement at the all-important UN/New York post, much as Iran’s current Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did when he served at the UN over a decade ago.

Aboutalebi “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. “And for some reason, he is considered to be very strong within the system, and would have had greater room for maneuver to get his way.”

“But to be frank, it doesn’t matter,” the Iranian analyst added. “It’s already become such an issue…Once [the controversy] hit the media, I think the Iranians should have withdrawn him much earlier.”

While Aboutalebi does not hold expertise in UN and US affairs, “he reportedly enjoys a very close working relationship with President Rouhani,” Suzanne DiMaggio, the director of the Iran and Southwest Asia program at the New America Foundation, told Al-Monitor. “Given the role that the UN Ambassador plays as an intermediary between Tehran and Washington, having a representative in the U.S. who has direct access to Iran’s President could be viewed as trumping expertise.”

“On the visa matter, I’m not optimistic mainly because it is an allegation that is as difficult to disprove as it is to prove,” DiMaggio added.

The U.S. has apparently not decided what it will do on the matter, sources suggested.

Iranian officials were circumspect about whether they expected the appointment to proceed.

“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.

Aboutalebi visited the United States as a member of Iran’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in the mid-1990s, without incident, but was never previously full-time posted to the US, the Iranian official said.

Hamid Babaei, the spokesperson for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, told Al-Monitor Tuesday that he had no comment.

Aboutalebi, who joined the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1981 and who earned his masters at the Sorbonne and PhD in France, told Iran’s Khabar News online last month that he was not in Tehran when the US embassy was seized in November 1979, but was summoned later to translate on some occasions, including when the Pope sent an envoy to Iran to try to mediate in the hostage crisis.

“On November 4 of [1979]… at the time of the occupation [of the US Embassy in Tehran], I was not in Tehran to be aware of this development or take part in it,” Aboutalebi told Khabar News online Mach 14. “When I heard of that incident, I was in [the southwestern Iranian city of] Ahvaz. Later on, when I came to Tehran, one day the late Martyr Dadman send a message to me… He told me they needed somebody to do French translation for them. I accepted and went from my home to the airport. Therefore, accompanied with the special representative of the Pope…who had already arrived in Tehran, I entered the [US] Embassy for the first time. On few other occasions, when they needed to translate something in relation with their contacts with other countries, I translated their material into English or French. For example, I did the translation during a press conference when the female and black staffers of the embassy were released and it was purely based on humanitarian motivations.”

“As far as I know, [Aboutalebi] is not associated or does not have a close relationship with the central figures in the hostage crisis,” an Iranian scholar, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “I think his nomination came from Rouhani himself. During Ahmadinejad’s time, he did not have any position [in the Iran foreign ministry]…but was at [Rouhani’s think tank, the Center for Strategic Research], and is close to Rouhani and was active in [his presidential] campaign.”

“I think that is one of the pluses, that he is close to Rouhani, [and serves as] political director of Rouhani’s presidential office,” the Iranian scholar said. Aboutalebi “is also very close to [former Iranian President] Khatami.” During Khatami’s administration, Aboutalebi served as a top advisor to then Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

Aboutalebi “was despised by Ahmadienjad,” the Iranian scholar said. “I am not sure he knows the US as much as [some of] the others [in Zarif's team], but he is a good diplomat. In terms of his political leanings, he is a reformist.”

“I am surprised” Iran chose a UN envoy with even a remote link to the hostage crisis, “because if Obama accepts [him], he will be under pressure from opponents to rapprochement,” said Mohsen Milani, an Iran scholar at the University of South Florida. “But if he says no, [Rouhani] will be pressured by right-wingers in Iran.”

–Al-Monitor’s Julian Pecquet contributed to this report.

(Photo of Iran’s then ambassador to Australia Hamid Aboutalebi in Australia in August 2006, by Fairfax media’s Simon Dallinger.)

U.S. says willing to join Russia in Syria peace talks

As a new round of Syria peace talks got underway in Geneva Monday, the United States said it was open to a Russian proposal that American and Russian diplomats join the UN and Syrian parties in a joint meeting.

“We have always supported full implementation of the Geneva  communique, and if additional meetings under UN auspices will help the negotiations move forward, we are very ready to consider these,” a U.S. official in Geneva, speaking not for attribution, told journalists in an emailed statement Monday.

Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, speaking to Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, proposed “that Russian, American and U.N. officials meet the Syrian government and opposition delegations at peace talks in Geneva,” Reuters reported.

“Russia diplomats are approaching the organization of the negotiating process as creatively as possible,” Bogdanov said.

US officials said the focus of this week’s meetings should be on “having the Syrian delegations start the detailed discussions” on establishing a transition governing body with full executive authority.

US Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman is due to hold a three-way meeting with UN/Arab League joint Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov in Geneva on Friday, the State Department confirmed.

“Moving forward, we will continue to do what we can to help JSR Brahimi’s efforts succeed, including through our regular engagement in Geneva with the UN, Russia, the London 11, and the opposition delegation,” the US official said, regarding the Russian proposal.

The proposal for bringing the major powers into the meeting with the Syrian parties came as the United Nations and Syrian Red Crescent evacuated over 1000 people from the besieged old city of Homs over the weekend and managed to deliver emergency food and medical supplies in harrowing conditions, including sporadic shelling, mortar and rifle fire. At least eleven Syrians waiting to be rescued were killed in Homs over the weekend, a UN spokesman said Monday, and a Syrian Red Crescent driver was wounded when the group’s convoy came under attack trying to bring food aid into Homs on Saturday, the group said.

The Syrian Red Crescent and two affiliated Red Cross organizations expressed alarm about the targeting of the relief convoys to Homs and pleaded for a halt to the violence against humanitarian aid workers in Syria.

The groups “join in calling for immediate steps to be taken to protect healthcare and humanitarian personnel,” they said in a joint statement Monday. “Without respect for the emblems and protection of those bearing them, crossing front lines to save lives is all but impossible.”

The Syrian regime agreed to the Homs aid operation after weeks of negotiations under heavy pressure from Russia and Iran, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher reported from Homs Sunday.

But despite Russian efforts to facilitate the humanitarian operation in Homs, Russia has said it would likely oppose a UN Security Council resolution on Syria humanitarian aid access being circulated in New York by Jordan, Australia and Luxembourg, saying it is not the right time and the draft proposal is too far reaching. China and Russia did not show up for a UN Security Council meeting on Monday to discuss the measure, the New York Times reported. Itar-Tass cited Russia’s UN envoy Vitaly Churkin: “This text would not have any practical, positive impact on the situation.”

The UK and France have said they will try to push for such a measure this week.

“The Security Council should require full and unimpeded humanitarian access, including to those areas being besieged by the regime,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague wrote in an oped Tuesday. “It should demand an immediate end to the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and to impunity for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. And it should call for the regime to stop using barrel bombs and other kinds of weaponry against innocent civilians.”

(Photo: Syrian families being evacuated from the besieged old city of Homs by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent society and UN on Sunday, February 9, 2014.  Photo by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Homs Media Committee.)

What Iran’s Foreign Minister told German TV about Israel, Iran

Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave a long interview to Germany’s Phoenix TV on Sunday (February 2) in Berlin, following his attendance at the Munich Security Summit.

Al-Monitor has transcribed portions of the interview, conducted in English by ZDF journalist Elmar Theveßen, concerning Zarif’s comnents on Israel.

Israeli media reports over the weekend said that Zarif in the interview suggested that if the Israelis and Palestinians reached a peace settlement, then Iranian recognition of Israel might be possible.

But as we listened to the interview, the video of which was released in the original English on Tuesday, it was the interviewer who asked Zarif if Israel and Palestine reached a resolution, would Iran then be prepared to recognize the state of Israel. And Zarif’s answer was more equivocal. While not explicitly ruling it out, Zarif said it was up to the Palestinians to determine if they were satisfied with the agreement, and that Iran would not interfere:

Phoenix TV: So let me turn this around, sir. Would it be fair to say then, would you agree, that If the Palestinian issue can be solved between Israel and the Palestinians, would then Iran be willing to recognize the state of Israel?

Zarif: You see, that is a sovereign decision that Iran will make. But it will have no consequences on the situation on the ground in the Middle East. If the Palestinians are happy with the solution, then nobody, nobody outside Palestine, could prevent that from taking place. The problem for the past 60 years is that the Palestinians have not been happy. The Palestinians have not been satisfied. And they have every right not to be satisfied, because their most basic rights continue to be violated and people are not ready to redress those.

Here is the transcript of the relevant portion of the interview, from about 20 to 30 minutes in, below the jump: Continue reading

Syria parties to meet in same room, ‘understand what is at stake': Brahimi

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Geneva, Switzerland__ The United Nations’ Syria envoy announced that Syria’s two bitterly divided parties have agreed to sit down together in the same room Saturday for the first time, after refusing to do so today, and that he was cautiously encouraged by the discussions he had with the two sides separately over the past two days.

“Tomorrow, [the two sides] have agreed to meet in the same room,” Lakhdar Brahimi, the Algerian diplomat who serves as the joint UN/Arab League envoy for Syria, told journalists at a press conference at the Palais des Nations Friday.

“We never expected it to be easy, but I think the two parties understand what is at stake,” Brahimi said. “Their country is in very bad shape.”

Brahimi said both the Syrian government and opposition delegations had agreed to endorse an effort to seek a UN Security Council resolution, that would call for the international community to support the implementation of the Geneva 1 communique. The consenses document, reached at a July 2012 meeting of world powers, called for the formation of a transitional governing body to be formed, by mutual consent between the Syrian parties, and which would have full executive authority.

Brahimi downplayed, however, the daunting task of clarifying ‘ambiguities’, as he put it, in the parties’ differing interpretations of provisions of the Geneva 1 document. But he made no pretense of what a long, tough road it will be to try to bring the parties to a political resolution of the conflict that has killed over 100,000 people.

“We knew it would be difficult, …. complicated,” he said. “In our business, certainty is a very rare commodity. ”

He said the negotiators will discuss humanitarian issues such as localized ceasefires and detainee releases, but in parallel, not in place of, the thornier issue of a political transition and formation of a transition governing body, Brahimi stressed.

Western diplomats later said the two sides are expected to discuss as early as Saturday a possible agreement that would allow for rapid humanitarian access to the besieged Syrian city of Homs. “We are going for a quick win, ” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution Friday, said. Talk about a transitional body could be on the agenda in as soon as two days time. Brahimi is mindful that he had to move on the transition, a diplomat said.

Brahimi, speaking to journalists Friday, said he envisioned that the parties might continue talking here in Geneva through the end of next week, before returning to the region for consultations, and hopefully later resuming negotiations in the weeks ahead.

The United States said it welcomed Brahimi’s announcement that the two sides will meet Saturday in the same room. “Such a meeting is a positive step forward in what we expect will be a long and complicated process, ” a senior US official said, adding “you should not perceive every obstacle or challenge that arises throughout the process as a deal-breaker or a collapse.”

Exclusive: Burns led secret US back channel to Iran


Geneva, Switzerland __ Deputy Secretary of State William Burns has led a secret U.S. back channel to Iran going back to before the June election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials told Al-Monitor.

Burns was tapped to lead the US diplomatic effort to establish a bilateral channel with Iran, which gained momentum after the exchange of letters between US President Barack Obama and Iranian President Rouhani in early August, US officials said. Led by Burns, the US’s second highest ranking diplomat and a former lead US Iran nuclear negotiator, the US effort to form direct contacts with Iran also includes two officials from the Obama White House: Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Staff senior director for Iran, Iraq, and Persian Gulf affairs, US officials confirmed. Talwar’s role in back channel discussions with Iran was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Following the exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani in August, “Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts,” several times over the past few months, starting before the UN General Assembly opening session in September and in Geneva this month, a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor in an interview late Friday.

President Obama referred obliquely to the establishment of a direct U.S.-Iranian channel in a statement from the White House after negotiators for six world powers and Iran reached a nuclear deal here in Geneva tonight.

“We have pursued intensive diplomacy – bilaterally with the Iranians, and together with our P5+1 partners: the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union,” Obama said from the White House Saturday. “Today, that diplomacy opened up a new path toward a world that is more secure – a future in which we can verify that Iran’s nuclear program is peaceful, and that it cannot build a nuclear weapon.”

Al-Monitor learned that Burns was in Geneva during the second round of nuclear talks between the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, UK, France, Russia, China) plus Germany (P5+1) and Iran held here November 7-9, and subsequently learned additional details about the bilateral channel, but agreed to hold the story at the administration’s request until the conclusion of the third round of nuclear talks that ended here in a breakthrough tonight.

Al-Monitor also learned that Burns is currently in Geneva during this round of Iran nuclear negotiations. Both times, he did not stay at the main diplomatic hotel, the Intercontinental, where many of the negotiations have taken place, but at another site, the US official said. Talwar has been seen by journalists at bus stops in the city and running towards the hotel at various times during the last three rounds of talks here; it could not be confirmed if he was relaying messages between the discussions taking place on site at the hotel, where the US, European and Iranian delegations stay, to Burns at another site.

US officials did not confirm by name which Iranian officials participated in the meetings with Burns. Al-Monitor has learned that they involved two of his diplomatic counterparts, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Ravanchi and Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, the top deputies on the Iranian nuclear negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. Iranian officials did not respond to previous queries from Al-Monitor about alleged meetings with Burns.

“You know we have always said that we are open to bilateral discussions with Iran, in addition to the P5+1,” the senior US administration official told al-Monitor in an interview. “But this was always with the understanding that the nuclear negotiations were going to be resolved through the P5+1 even if other bilateral channels were going on.”

Burns’ first sit-down with the Iranians occurred before the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, the US official said, and helped bring about the 30-minute meeting between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the sidelines of the UN September 26, 2013, as well as the historic Obama-Rouhani phone call on September 27th, the first conversation between the presidents of the two countries in over thirty years. The US official declined to say where the two Burns-led meetings with the Iranians occurred before UNGA; there have, in all, been “several,” the US official said.

“Bill [Burns] knows the Iranians, and he knows the issue really well,” the senior US administration official told Al-Monitor to explain why he was tapped for the sensitive mission.

Burns, only the second career US foreign service officer to be confirmed as deputy secretary of state, previously served as the lead US negotiator at P5+1 talks with Iran from 2008-2011, including at October 2009 talks in Geneva at which then Iranian nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili agreed to a nuclear fuel swap deal that Iran later backed away from amid domestic political criticism. In July 2011, when Burns was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, he turned over the Iran/P5+1 nuclear negotiating file to his successor, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who has led the US negotiating team to the last eight rounds of P5+1 talks with Iran that culminated in an agreememt here.

Burns also previously served as US Ambassador to Russia from 2005 until 2008, and as Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 2001 until 2005. Zarif, tapped by Rouhani as foreign minister and top nuclear negotiator in August, previously served as the Iranian ambassador to the UN in New York in the early 2000s, during a brief period of testing for more constructive US-Iranian relations, including on Afghanistan in 2001.

“Running up to the [June] 2013 Iranian election, there was a sense that we had to wait and see if the Iranians under the new administration were serious about negotiations,” the US official said. “And it became clear after the Rouhani election, that they seem serious.”

“Following the election, as has been reported, Obama sent Rouhani a letter that was delivered in early August,” the official said. “Following the exchange of letters between the two presidents, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns met bilaterally with Iranian counterparts before UNGA.”

“In those conversations, Burns and his team began to develop ideas that could be fed into the P5+1 process,” the US official said. “All of our bilateral discussions are designed to support and advance the P5+1 process; they have never been designed as a substitute. “

“As the P5+1 negotiations started picking up, Burns was joined as needed by [Under Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman,” the US official said. “They worked together to develop ideas that could be further negotiated with the P5+1. The goal, everything in the bilateral channel, was to be fed into the P5+1 channel,” the official stressed.

The US has notified P5+1 partners about the bilateral channel, the US official said, but would not disclose when. “We briefed them on the bilateral channel at the appropriate time,” the US official said. There are signs that at least some P5+1 partners were not aware of it at the second round of nuclear talks in Geneva Nov 7-9, during which the six world powers spent much of the meeting agreeing on their own text which they finally presented to Zarif late November 9.

“At the second and third rounds [of P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva], Burns was present on the margins, to be available to the P5+1 and the Iranians, and to make sure the ideas discussed were integrated back into the P5+1,” the US official said.

“Given that so much of the economic pressure on Iran comes from the United States among other reasons, that is one reason it was important to establish this direct channel,” the official said. “Our P5+1 partners all encouraged us to have a bilateral channel, and they all have their own. And they told us, eventually to get an agreement…these discussions would be necessary.”

“None of the substance in the bilateral channel differed from the P5+1,” the US official stressed. “New issues weren’t raised. It enabled more detailed discussions [to occur] in the P5+1. It’s not like any of the issues are a secret.”

Talwar has served as the top Iran advisor to the Obama White House since 2009, and previously served as a professional staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when it was chaired by then Senator, now Vice President Biden.

Sullivan, previously deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during Obama’s first term, became Vice President Biden’s national security advisor early this year, after Clinton stepped down from the job.

White House press officials have previously deflected queries from Al-Monitor about possible, rumored meetings involving US and Iranian officials. An NSC official suggested to Al-Monitor last week, for instance, in response to a query, that Sullivan could not be part of a meeting with Iranians because he was last week traveling with Biden in Texas and Panama. Sullivan did not respond to a query from Al-Monitor Saturday.

Similarly, the State Department’s official public schedules have regularly dissembled about Burns’ whereabouts. During both the second and current round of P5+1 Iran nuclear talks in Geneva this month, the State Department schedule said Burns was attending meetings at the White House and State Department, when Al-Monitor has confirmed that he was in fact in Geneva, even in advance of the rest of the US negotiating team. That was apparently at the direction of Burns’ office to the State Department press officer who puts together the schedules, the official said.

“We thought it important to have these discussions [with the Iranians] discreetly, given the amount of ground we had to cover, lots of it very complicated,” the US official said Friday. However, the official added, “while in some respects” the US-Iran channel “had to be secretive, it is not a surprise.”

(Photo: Deputy Secretary Burns leads the U.S. delegation at the UNHCR High-Level Segment on Syrian Refugees in Geneva, Switzerland. State Dept Image / Sep 30, 2013.)

Kerry says 'indiscriminate' Syria chemical attack 'undeniable'

Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday began laying out the US case for limited international military action in Syria, saying it is “undeniable” that chemical weapons were used in a mass casualty attack last week that he described as a “moral obscenity” that shocks “the conscience of the world.”

“Anyone who can claim that an attack of this staggering scale could be contrived or fabricated needs to check their conscience and their own moral compass,” Kerry said at a news conference at the State Department on Monday. “What is before us today is real, and it is compelling.”

“Make no mistake:  President Obama believes there must be accountability for those who would use the world’s most heinous weapons against the world’s most vulnerable people,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s unusually forceful comments came as a United Nations chemical weapons inspection team got its first access to the site of the alleged chemical attack, in the outskirts of Damascus, five days after it occurred.

Kerry said the fact that the Syrian government did not agree to grant access to the site before Sunday and carried on shelling and attacking the area was an attempt to destroy evidence.

“I spoke on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister [Walid] Muallim and I made it very clear to him that if the regime, as he argued, had nothing to hide, then their response should be immediate – immediate transparency, immediate access – not shelling,” Kerry said.  “Failure to permit that, I told him, would tell its own story.”

“Instead, for five days, the Syrian regime refused to allow the UN investigators access to the site of the attack that would allegedly exonerate them,” Kerry said.  “Instead, it attacked the area further, shelling it and systematically destroying evidence.  That is not the behavior of a government that has nothing to hide.”

“The regime’s belated decision to allow access is too late, and it’s too late to be credible,” Kerry said.

Kerry said the US has additional intelligence attributing the attack to Syrian forces including from partners that it was reviewing with allies and would start presenting to the public in the coming days.

Even as the U.S. began laying out its case for action, Moscow was ratcheting up arguments against any sort of Syria intervention, and casting doubt on western assessments of Syrian culpability. Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a phone call with British Prime Minister David Cameron Monday, reportedly insisted that there had been no chemical weapons attack in Syria at all.

His Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a news conference Monday, expressed doubts about the veracity of amateur videos of the alleged attack in Ghouta, and railed against the U.S.-led interventions in Iraq and Libya.

But Lavrov also signaled Moscow wasn’t planning to become involved in hostilities against western action in Syria. “Of course, we're not going to war with anyone,” Lavrov told the news conference. Continue reading

White House: UN needs immediate access to Syria site

The White House on Wednesday demanded that United Nations inspectors be given immediate access to a site near Damascus where Syrian opposition activists claimed hundreds were killed in an overnight nerve gas attack.

“If the Syrian government has nothing to hide and is truly committed to an impartial and credible investigation of chemical weapons use in Syria, it will facilitate the UN team’s immediate and unfettered access to this site,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are working urgently to gather additional information,” Earnest said.

The allegations of a new chemical attack in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, came just two days after a UN chemical weapons inspection team arrived in Syria, after months of protracted negotiations. The White House on Wednesday joined the United Kingdom, France and Saudi Arabia in demanding that the inspectors be allowed immesiate, unfettered access to the site.

The United Nations Security Council was also expected to hold an emergency session on the new Syrian chemical claims on Wednesday.

The latest grim allegations came as the top US military officer said Syria’s divided rebels are not ready for U.S. military intervention to hasten the fall of Bashar al-Assad.

“Syria today is not about choosing between sides, but rather about choosing one among many sides,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a letter (.pdf) to House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking Democrat Elliot Engel.

“It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor,” Dempsey continued in the letter, which is dated August 19th. “Today, they are not. … Violent struggles for power will continue after Assad’s rule ends. We should evaluate the effectiveness of limited military options in this context.”

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Top Iran, EU diplomats agree to meet to plan new nuclear talks

Top European diplomat Catherine Ashton has agreed to meet soon with Iran’s new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, to advance preparations for resumed nuclear negotiations. The meeting plans come amid unconfirmed Iranian media speculation about Zarif possibly playing a key role in the negotiations–speculation that may be linked to new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's expressed interest in having the nuclear negotiations conducted at higher level representation, Iran analysts suggested.

Ashton, in a congratulatory phone call to Zarif on Saturday August 17th, said six world powers “were ready to work with the new Iranian negotiating team as soon as they were appointed,” a press statement (.pdf) from the office of the European Union foreign policy chief said. Ashton and Zarif also agreed “to meet soon.”

Western officials said Sunday that Ashton's proposed meeting with Zarif did not indicate in any way whether Zarif was expected to be Iran’s chief interlocutor in the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1, succeeding Saeed Jalili, Iran’s former Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council.

A spokesman for Iran's foreign ministry said Sunday that no such decision has yet been made, Iranian media reports said.

American officials, speaking not for attribution Sunday, said they were awaiting the appointment of Iran's new nuclear team, and indicated they were aware of unconfirmed Iranian rumors and media reports that Rouhani was studying transferring Iran’s nuclear file from the Supreme National Security Council to the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, a former Iranian envoy to the United Nations who earned his PhD at the University of Denver, forged ties with many US national security experts when he served in New York, and his appointment as foreign minister has been seen in the West as an encouraging sign. So too has that of outgoing foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi to become Iran's next chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI).

Zarif, for his part, demurred in an interview Saturday on whether the nuclear dossier was being moved to his purview, while noting that Iranian President Rouhani had the authority to make such a decision.

“I have not heard anything about this issue,” Zarif told Iran's IRDiplomacy August 17th. “This is a decision that is within the domain of the President’s authority. Nevertheless, considering my experiences in this case, I will make efforts to help in the advancement of this issue no matter what responsibility I might have. But decisions with regard to how we should pursue the nuclear dossier and the form and framework of negotiations are made at the higher levels of our political system.”

Zarif “is a smooth operator, a very clever and successful diplomat,” Gary Samore, former Obama White House WMD czar, told Al-Monitor in an interview earlier this month. “When I knew him, [after Iran indicated it was going to resume enriching uranium after a suspension in] 2005, I engaged in a number of discussions about the nuclear program; he was a very forceful advocate… but that’s fine. He’s more pleasant to deal with.”

“I have seen no indication of a change of substance” in Iran’s nuclear negotiating stance as yet, Samore, now with Harvard's Belfer Center, continued. “The next couple of months are all about process. Will there be some kind of bilateral [US-Iran] channel established, which I think everybody agrees is a necessary condition for achieving an agreement.” Continue reading

Kerry meets Syria opposition

Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking ahead of a meeting with Syrian opposition leaders Thursday, said the United States and Russia remain committed to holding a Syria peace conference “as soon as possible.”

“There is no military solution to Syria,” Kerry said in remarks with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on the Great Lakes region Thursday. “There is only a political solution, and that will require leadership in order to bring people to the table.”

Kerry said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, and they reaffirmed their agreement to bring Syrian regime and opposition representatives together for transition talks in Geneva when feasible. “We remain committed to the effort to bring the parties to a Geneva 2 to implement Geneva 1, and we will try our hardest to make that happen as soon as is possible.”

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are delaying the Geneva conference, as well as differences between Washington and Moscow including over who should attend.

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Brahimi on Syria: 'We need to get out of this vicious circle'

UN Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said Monday that divisions in the Syrian opposition are a key factor delaying a planned peace conference, as well as remaining differences between Washington and Moscow over who should attend.

“The opposition is divided, that is no secret,” Brahimi, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Monday, in response to a question from Al-Monitor about why the Geneva II conference has been pushed back until at least the fall.

“They are trying to get their act together, [and] work their way to a truly representative delegation,” he said. “So that is one of the problems.”

Praising the May 7th agreement reached by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to hold a peace conference as a “huge step,” Brahimi however acknowledged that the two powers still have disagreements, including over whether Iran should be invited.

“No doubt there are differences about who should come,” Brahimi said. “That is not worked out yet.” Kerry and Lavrov are expected to meet in the next couple weeks, when Lavrov travels to New York and Washington, Brahimi said.

“The UN has made very clear that [it thinks]… all countries with interests and/or influence [in Syria] should attend Geneva,” he said.

Brahimi was in Washington Monday as a member of a group of retired world leaders involved in peace-making work called the Elders, that includes former US President Jimmy Carter, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Finnish Nobel Laureate Martti Ahtisaari, Ireland’s Mary Robinson, and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who preceded Brahimi as the joint UN/Arab League special envoy on Syria. Brahimi, Carter, Ahtisaari and Robinson met Monday with US Secretary of State John Kerry and US National Security Advisor Susan Rice to discuss Kerry’s Middle East peace efforts and Syria.

“There is no military solution,” Brahimi, 79, said. “We are still working [out] accumulated differences amongst ourselves. But I think we’re moving forward. The opposition is working its way slowly… If it gets [its representation worked out], it’s not time wasted, but time gained.”

He responded obliquely to a question about whether he believes Syrian President Bashar Assad will have to leave power – a key demand of the Syrian opposition. The 30 June 2012 Geneva declaration, approved by both Washington and Moscow, calls for the creation of a governing body that would have full executive power, and that would govern the country until elections take place, he said. Continue reading