US sees opportunity in Iran election for progress in nuclear talks

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The United States, encouraged by the signals sent by Iran’s election of Hassan Rouhani, hopes Iran engages seriously and gives a substantive response when nuclear talks resume in the fall, a senior U.S. administration official said Friday.

“We have all noted Rouhani’s positive tone and remarks post-election,” the senior U.S. administration official said in a small background conference call briefing Friday.

“We are glad for the positive words,” the official continued. “But what we are looking for are actions that indicate a desire to deal seriously with the P5+1. Words are not enough. We need a concrete response.”

The American official spoke ahead of a meeting of political directors from the P5+1–the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia and China–in Brussels next week (July 16th ) to discuss preparations for a new meeting with Iran in the fall. Talks between the P5+1 and Iran are likely to resume at the earliest in September, following the inauguration next month of Rouhani, and depending on the logistics of arranging a meeting around the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September.

The U.S. official said the six powers are inclined to ask the Iran nuclear negotiating team assembled under Rouhani’s administration to give a concrete response to a confidence building proposal they put forward at nuclear talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February, rather than modify or expand it before meeting with the Iranians. But she stressed that it’s not a take it or leave it offer, but open for negotiation.

“We all believe that the proposal put on the table [in Almaty] is a good one, and there is still time and space to achieve a diplomatic solution over Iran’s nuclear program,” the official said.

“In terms of a more comprehensive proposal, if Iran says the confidence building measure is fine, but asks, where are we headed?” the official said, referring to some recent calls for the P5+1 to spell out a more detailed roadmap. “We already said to them…we do believe that Iran has the right to a peaceful nuclear energy program under the NPT once it meets its responsibilities. And all sanctions will be lifted if and when it has met its responsibilities.”

“If Iran says, yes, we are interested in the CBM, but let’s talk about something larger. Alright,” the official continued. “If they say they are interested in all three measures on 20% [in the proposal], but are looking for more sanctions relief. ‘What are you looking for?” the official said, demonstrating how a negotiation over a serious Iranian counter-offer may go. “’Here’s what we want in return.’ This is a negotiation.”

“What this is really about is, the onus is on Iran, to give us some substantive, concrete response,” the official said.

The US official said the United States remains interested in bilateral talks with Iran, but didn’t indicate whether Washington was preparing a new message offering direct talks, perhaps on the occasion of Rouhani’s inauguration August 4th.

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Israel names Ron Dermer next envoy to Washington

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday named his longtime political advisor Ron Dermer Israel's next ambassador to the United States.

“Ron Dermer has all the qualities necessary to successfully fill this important post,” Netanyahu said in a press release posted at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

The American-born Dermer, 42, has served as Netanyahu's senior adviser the past four years, and previously served as an economic attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington.

An Israeli diplomat said it's useful, given the importance of the US-Israel  relationship, for the Prime Minister to appoint a Washington envoy whom he trusts.

“It has always been the Prime Minister 's prerogative to appoint our ambassador to the USA, partially because of the importance of the position and the need for it to be someone the PM trusts and who has the PM's ear,” he said, speaking not for attribution. “Israel's professional diplomats work well with any appointment.”

Dermer will succeed diplomat and historian Michael Oren, who announced last week that he plans to step down in the fall after representing Israel in Washington since 2009.

(Photo of Israeli  Prime Minister and advisor Ron Dermer, Israel Government Press  Office.)

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Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–“the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

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Israel's US envoy Michael Oren to step down

img class=”alignright” alt=”” src=”https://profile-a.xx.fbcdn.net/hprofile-frc1/c44.44.553.553/s160x160/68747_115428941854182_4636361_n.jpg” width=”160″ height=”160″ />Israel's ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said Friday he will step down in the fall, after serving in the post for four years.

“After more than four years, during which I had the honor of serving as Israel's ambassador to our most important ally, the United States of America, I will conclude my term this fall,” Oren said in a statement sent out by the Israeli embassy Friday.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to represent the State of Israel and its Government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to the United States, President Barack Obama, the Congress, and the American people,” he said.

Oren, a US-born historian, previously told Al-Monitor in an interview he was interested to write another book. A spokesperson at the embassy said he did not immediately know what his next plans are.

Israeli media reported in recent days that Netanyahu political advisor Ron Dermer may be named the next Israeli envoy to the US. The US-born Dermer emigrated to Israel from Florida in 1998, and has previously served as an economics advisor in Israel's US embassy, the Times of Israel said.

(Top photo: Ambassador Michael Oren, from his Facebook page. Bottom photo: Amb. Oren, playing the Irish drums, joined Iranian-Israeli singer Rita Jahanforuz and her band in a performance at a dinner at his residence November 12, 2013. Photo Credit: Shmulik Almany, courtesy of the Embassy of Israel in Washington.

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White House: US not ‘urging’ Morsi to hold early elections

The White House on Tuesday pushed back on a report that American officials are urging Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi to call early elections, in response to the largest anti-government demonstrations Egypt has ever witnessed. The comments seem intended to reduce any perception that Washington is trying to dictate a course of action to the Egyptian leadership.

“It is not accurate that the United States is 'urging' President Morsy to call early elections,” National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said in an e-mail Tuesday to Al-Monitor.

“President Obama has encouraged President Morsy to take steps to show that he is responsive to the concerns of the Egyptian people and underscored that the current crisis can only be resolved through a political process,” Meehan continued.  “As the President has made clear since the revolution, only Egyptians can make the decisions that will determine their future.”

The White House comment, responding to a CNN report Tuesday, didn't rule out that US officials may be discussing the option of early elections with Egyptian officials behind closed doors.

“We are saying to him, 'Figure out a way to go for new elections,'” a senior US official told CNN. “That may be the only way that this confrontation can be resolved.”

President Obama, in a call with Morsi Monday, said the United States does not favor any particular group in Egypt, and stressed only Egyptians can determine their future.

The comments are widely seen in Egypt as a step back from Washington’s past, at least-perceived support for Morsi’s elected, Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government, Egyptian journalist and Al-Monitor contributor Mohannad Sabry said.

(Protesters opposing Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi shout slogans against him and members of the Muslim Brotherhood during a demonstration in Tahrir square in Cairo June 30, 2013. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters.)

Obama tells Morsi: US does not favor any Egypt group

US President Obama told Egypt's President Morsi in a phone call Monday that the United States does not support any particular group, and that only Egyptians can determine their future.

The comments are widely seen in Egypt as a step back from Washington's past, at least-perceived support for Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government, Egyptian journalist and Al-Monitor contributor Mohannad Sabry said.

The White House read-out of the July 1 call below:

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Envoy: US ‘appalled’ by reported killing of priest in Syria

A top US diplomat has strongly condemned the reported killing by rebels of a Catholic priest at a monastery in Syria's northwestern Idlib province earlier this week.

“We are appalled by reports that extremist rebels killed Father François Mourad earlier this week when they looted a monastery in Idlib province,” US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said in a statement posted Saturday to the US Embassy in Syria’s Facebook page. “This unprovoked violence against civilians is completely unacceptable, and we condemn it in the strongest possible terms.”

“We call on all Syrians to protect and respect the rights of all civilians, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or religion,” Ford’s statement said.  “No matter how depraved the Asad regime is, committing atrocities under the guise of fighting is unjustifiable.”

Father François Mourad died June 24th at the Franciscan monastery of St. Anthony of Padua, in Ghassanieh, Syria, “where he had sought refuge some time ago,” the Pro Terra Sancta website, affiliated with his Franciscan of the Holy Land order, wrote June 25th.

The circumstances of his death are still not very clear,” the website said. “According to one version a bullet entered the monastery and struck the priest, while other sources maintain that the homicide took place while the monastery was being looted by rebels.” Continue reading

Rouhani proposes nuclear transparency, easing US-Iran tensions

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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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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The P5+1 nuclear proposal to Iran in Almaty: Document

Six world powers presented an updated nuclear proposal to Iran at a meeting in Almaty, Kazakhstan in February.

Here follows the P5+1’s Almaty confidence building proposal that was further discussed with Iran nuclear experts at technical talks in Istanbul on March 18th, and which remains on the table today.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson first reported on the details of the proposal, which he obtained from one of the negotiating parties, in April.

A western official, speaking not for attribution Sunday, confirmed to Al-Monitor the proposal is authentic.

The P5+1 confidence building proposal calls on Iran to suspend 20% enrichment; ship out the 20% stockpile it doesn’t require for medical use; agree to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring; and suspend operations at, but not dismantle the cascades, at the fortified Fordow enrichment facility; for a period of six months. In return, it offers relief from United States and European Union sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals and petrochemical sales; the licensing of US repairs to Iran civilian aircraft; as well as to impose no new United Nations or EU proliferation sanctions.

If Iran agreed to the CBM proposal, “during the six months, negotiations would proceed on further steps, including a comprehensive long-term agreement that would restore the international community’s confidence that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful, respect’s Iran’s rights to peaceful nuclear energy, and terminate sanctions,” the proposal states. “In return for further significant action by Iran to address concerns about its nuclear program, the U.S. and the EU would be prepared to take comparable action, including proportionate relief of oil sanctions.”

Al-Monitor previously reported (March 26) that Iran expressed willingness at the Istanbul technical talks to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its 20% stockpile to oxide. But it raised objections to other requested measures, including suspending lower level enrichment at Fordow, shipping out its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium, and increased IAEA monitoring.

Iran issued a counter-proposal at the second day of Almaty2 talks April 6th, in which it said it would agree to suspend 20% enrichment and continue converting its stockpile of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas to oxide, in exchange for recognition of its right to enrich and a lifting of some banking sanctions, nonproliferation expert sources told Al-Monitor last month. Western officials characterized the Iranian counter-offer as asking for a lot, and offering very little.

Iran’s presidential candidates sharply challenged Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili at a televised campaign debate last week on why there had been no progress in nuclear talks. Notably, Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei and former Iranian foreign minister, derided Jalili as ineffective and pedantic, saying negotiating involves more than lecturing the other side about one’s positions, but getting results.

“You want to take three steps and you expect the other side to take 100 steps, this means that you don’t want to make progress,” Velayati chided Jalili in the June 7 debate, the Christian Science Monitor reported. “This is not diplomacy…. We can’t expect everything and give nothing.”

“What people are seeing, Mr. Jalili, is that you have not gone forward even one step, and the pressure of sanctions still exists,” Velayati added.

Jalili, who has served as Iran’s nuclear negotiator since 2007, refuted the criticism, saying that the Supreme Leader, briefed on the Almaty discussions, had approved of his negotiating stance.

The Almaty Confidence Building Proposal below the jump:

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