Kerry staff shifts as State appointments gather pace

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One of John Kerry’s most experienced advisors has had to step back from his job as deputy chief of staff, but is staying on for now at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

William Danvers, former Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director and a former Clinton and Obama administration national security official, had some medical concerns, but is apparently cleared to ease back into work. His role appears to have shifted however from deputy chief of staff to other assignments, officials said. Danvers declined to comment.

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State RUMINT: Malinowski for State DRL, Sewall for CT or PM

Updated: Two more Clinton administration alums may be tapped for senior State Department posts.

The Obama administration may name Human Rights Watch's Tom Malinowski to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL), sources tell the Back Channel. Harvard's Sarah Sewall is also rumored to be up for a top State Department job, with some sources saying the White House has picked her for Counterterrorism Coordinator, others hearing Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs.

Sewall, a lecturer at  the Harvard Kennedy School and expert in the field of protecting civilians in wartime, did not respond to queries from the Back Channel. The State Department and White House declined to comment on whether the appointment was in the works.

The Back Channel previously heard that the bureau's Deputy Coordinator Anne Witkowsky was also under consideration for the Counterterrorism Coordinator post, which was formerly held by Daniel Benjamin, who left in January to head Dartmouth's Dickey Center for International Understanding.

Sewall, a member of the Obama/Biden transition team, previously served in the Clinton administration as the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Peacekeeping and as the foreign policy advisor to then Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell.

Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, is expected to be nominated to succeed Michael Posner as Assistant Secretary of State for DRL. He did not respond to a query from the Back Channel Friday.

Malinowski previously served as a foreign policy speechwriter for President Bill Clinton and Secretaries of State Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, and as a member of the State Department policy planning staff. Continue reading

Associates say National Security Advisor Tom Donilon may leave this summer

Several associates tell the Back Channel they believe that National Security Advisor Tom Donilon is planning to leave this summer—several months earlier than previous reports had suggested, and even as the White House said Donilon has no plans to depart.

On the one hand he doesn’t seem to want to leave, but he’s been doing this five long years, one associate, speaking not for attribution, said Friday.

Noting several of Donilon’s recent and upcoming foreign trips and high-profile speeches on Asia and energy, the White House said Donilon’s calendar remains booked into June, including with a late May trip to China.

“Tom has no plans to depart,” NSS spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said by email late Friday. “As you’ve probably seen, he’s fully engaged in managing our national security agenda, from his recent trip to Moscow and major address on global energy, to planning for a trip to China in late May and more upcoming speaking events.”

President Obama recently nominated Donilon’s wife Catherine M. Russell, chief of staff to Jill Biden, to be the next US Ambassador at large for Global Women’s Issues. Some associates suggested a family health issue may be a factor in Donilon’s thinking on how long to stay, but declined to elaborate. The couple have high school age children.

US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice is expected to succeed Donilon as National Security Advisor.

It’s not clear who will be nominated to succeed Rice at the UN—the name the Back Channel has consistently heard is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, but one official wasn’t certain that Burns wanted to stay. Secretary of State John Kerry would also like to keep Burns, another official said, noting there are too many vacant seats at State for another hole.

Neither Burns, nor Donilon, nor Rice’s office, responded to queries Friday.

While the transition of such a central player in Obama’s national security team as Donilon–-and the resulting shuffle—on the nearer term horizon could seem like one explanation for why several other anticipated senior foreign policy appointments have not yet been announced, foreign policy sources said they did not believe that to be a key factor.

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Appointment RUMINT


The White House is expected to notify Congress as soon as tonight that it is re-nominating Carlos Pascual to be Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources, sources tell the Back Channel.

Probably not coincidentally, Pascual is due to join National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at the launch Wednesday of a new Columbia University Center on Global Energy Policy.

A former US ambassador to Mexico and Ukraine, Pascual has been in the acting job for over a year, and the young bureau is eager to get the assistant secretary in place. His nomination last year was put on hold, rumored to be by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), and it’s unclear as yet whether he or others plan to maintain it. Pascual recently married the daughter of Francisco Rojas, the head of Mexico’s CFE electricity company and PRI politician, officials said.

Near East: Two US officials say they now believe that Stuart Jones, the U.S. Ambassador to Jordan and former Deputy Ambassador to Iraq, may be leading the pack of candidates to succeed Beth Jones as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs. Other possibilities mentioned are US Ambassador to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft, as well Ambassador to Egypt Anne Patterson, Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, and Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone.

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Appointments: Philip Gordon to White House, Jake Sullivan to OVP

As the Back Channel first reported, Assistant Secretary of State for Europe Philip Gordon will be taking over the former Dennis Ross “Central Region” portfolio on Obama’s National Security Staff, the Back Channel has confirmed.

Gordon will have the title of NSS senior director for the Central Region–roughly but not entirely parallel to the military's Central Command region–with senior directors for the Middle East/North Africa, Persian Gulf, and part of South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, but not India) reporting to him.

Still unclear is if NSS Senior Director for Europe and Eurasia Liz Sherwood-Randall will be named to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator for WMD, or if the post will go to Samore’s deputy Laura Holgate. Sources had previously suggested the post may shift in Obama's second term from a “czar”/coordinator role to that of a deputy national security advisor.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, a former US ambassador to NATO, may succeed Gordon as Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, officials told the Back Channel. Jen Psaki is heading to State as spokeswoman, Al Kamen reported.

Hillary Clinton’s State Department policy planning director Jake Sullivan will succeed Antony Blinken as national security advisor to Vice President Biden, multiple officials said. (H/T @NatSecWonk.) Blinken was made the new principal deputy National Security Advisor, succeeding Denis McDonough, who President Obama last month named his new White House chief of staff.
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Dave McKeon, a former Senate Foreign Relations Committee chief of staff, will head State Policy Planning, a former State Department official told the Back Channel Friday.

Under Secretary of State for Policy Wendy Sherman is staying on, as is Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, officials told the Back Channel this week. Continue reading

EU: Iran talks officially set

Iran will resume nuclear talks with six world powers on Feb. 26 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, European Union diplomats said Tuesday.

“Helga Schmid, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, agreed today with Dr Ali Bagheri, Deputy Secretary of the supreme national security council of Iran, that the next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran on Iran's nuclear programme will take place in Almaty, Kazakhstan on 26th February,” a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement Tuesday.

Ashton thanked Kazakhstan for agreeing to host the meeting. (A US official noted that “Kazakhstan is a country that had a nuclear weapons program and voluntarily gave it up in the ‘90s,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday.  “So it sets a powerful example.”)

Talks have been on hiatus since last summer, after three rounds of talks failed to narrow agreement on a deal under which Iran would stop its 20% enrichment activities.

Iran notified the IAEA last week that it intends to install as many as 3,000 more advanced IR-2M centrifuges at its enrichment plant at Natanz.

Iran has been giving mixed signals about returning to the negotiating table, as well as whether it would take up an offer for direct talks with the United States.

Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for his part, expressed optimism on Monday. Continue reading

Israeli military intel chief traveling to Washington

IDF intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is traveling to Washington for consultations with American officials, defense sources told Al-Monitor.

Israeli officials declined to confirm the focus of his visit, but it comes amid signs of heightened Israeli concern about Syria.

“Hezbollah has set up several bases in Syria, near known locations where Syrian President Bashar Assad is holding parts of his chemical warfare arsenal,” Ynet’s Ron Ben-Yishai reported Monday.

Netanyahu “recently held a number of security assessments focusing on the developments in the war-torn country,” the Ynet report said. “Israel’s defense establishment has been holding similar assessments, focused on the potential shift in the balance of power between the IDF and Hezbollah, in the event that the latter would get hold of Assad’s WMDs.”

Netanyahu spoke by phone with President Obama on Monday, following a meeting Sunday with US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.

Netanyahu also dispatched his National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror to Moscow, reportedly to seek Russian help in averting various Syrian contingencies.

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Iran nuclear talks still up in the air

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There’s still no agreement on a new meeting between Iran and six world powers, a western diplomat said Friday.

“No change. Contacts are ongoing,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told the Back Channel Friday.

As to what accounts for the hold up, a former Iran nuclear negotiator said Iran had been seeking to learn what was in the updated P5+1 package in advance of the meeting, but been refused. “Tehran was very much afraid that again [it] would receive a weak package similar to previous ones, talks would fail, and as always Tehran would be blamed,” Hossein Mousavian told the Back Channel Thursday.

But western officials might be forgiven for wondering if Iran may just be giving them the run-around. And some Iranian analysts acknowledge that may not be too far off the mark, though they think Iran will eventually agree to a meeting date.

“Why rush into talks that everyone agrees will not get them anything substantial,” Hossein Shahbazi, a US-based Iran analyst, translated Iranian thinking to the Back Channel Friday.

From Tehran’s perspective, the “Iranians are not actually playing a terribly bad game now,” Shahbazi continued. They don’t think military action is in the offing. And though Congress continues to pile on sanctions, Iran believes they can withstand them for some time, he said.

Ultimately, “the talks will take place, as Iran doesn’t want to be blamed for their failure,” Shahbazi said. “But, addressing Iran’s important need for sanctions relief will be necessary for having Iranians to act constructively towards the talks going forward.”

Several national security experts have been urging the Obama administration to pursue bolder diplomacy on Iran, and offer more generous sanctions relief in exchange for greater Iranian transparency and monitoring.

However, if a 20% deal can’t be reached in the next few months, and if Iran continues to grow its 20% stockpile, President Obama is likely to come under increasing  pressure to demonstrate to Iran that the threat of force is credible.

Columbia University scholar Robert Jervis, who analyzed coercive diplomacy options in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, said while negotiating with Iran is incredibly difficult, there are some grounds to believe an interim nuclear deal is achievable.

“What we want from the Iranians is what they say they want,” Jervis told the Back Channel in an interview Friday. “The Iranian say, ‘we do not want a bomb.’  And what we say is… we want assurances, openness and assurances” that Iran is not producing a bomb.

“It’s not Jerusalem,” he added, referring to both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute holding positions that are hard to reconcile with the other. Continue reading

Good cop, bad cop: Iran nuclear chief defiant on key demand

Iran’s hardline nuclear chief vowed Tuesday that Iran would continue to produce 20% enriched uranium as long as it needs, in defiance of a key international demand in negotiations expected to resume in the coming weeks.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will not suspend 20 percent uranium enrichment because of the demands of others,” Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation (AEOI), was cited Tuesday by Iranian news agencies, Reuters reported.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will produce 20 percent enriched uranium to meet its needs and for however long it is required,” he said.

Iran has said it needs to domestically enrich the 20% fuel to provide isotopes to treat Iranian cancer patients.

Abbasi’s comments came a day after Iran’s foreign minister struck a conciliatory tone, expressing optimism about prospects for progress at upcoming nuclear talks. “Both sides … have concluded that they have to exit the current impasse,” Salehi said Monday (Dec 17). “Iran wants its legitimate and legal right and no more.”

Diplomats are still uncertain when a new round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 will be held, though the working assumption is that it will come together next month. A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton told Al-Monitor Tuesday they had still not heard back from Iran on dates they had proposed last week.

“We did make an offer with regard to venue and timing for another round, but we have yet to hear from the Iranians on this,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at a press conference Monday. “So really, the ball is in the Iranians’ court.”

Amid the uncertainty on the P5+1 track,  Iran expressed interest in moving forward with talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A senior IAEA team visited Iran this month, pronouncing it a useful visit, and is due to return January 16th. Continue reading

US, Israel low key as France announces support for Palestinian UN bid

The United States, in consultations with Israeli negotiator Yitzhak Molho in Washington in recent days, has urged Israel not to overreact to Palestinian plans to seek upgraded status at the United Nations on Thursday, advice Israel seemed inclined to take.

France on Tuesday said it would support the Palestinians’ bid to seek non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday.

British diplomats indicated Tuesday that Britain is still undecided how it will vote.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke with British Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday about the issue, the State Department said, adding it agreed to disagree with France over its decision to back the Palestinian bid.

“With regard to France and any other countries, we obviously disagree with our oldest ally on this issue,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists at the State Department Tuesday. “They know that we disagree with them, but it’s their sovereign decision to make how to proceed.”

The United States, France and UK have urged the Palestinians to modify language in the draft resolution concerning whether Israel could be brought before the International Court of Justice or International Criminal Court.

But western diplomats told Al Monitor Tuesday that the Palestinians think they have enough votes for the measure to pass at the UNGA without modifying the language and did not seem likely to change it. The key imperative is for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume soon, a European diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sees pursuing the UN bid “as an act of [political] survival,” Rob Malley, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group, told a panel at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Monday. His UN bid “is the most moderate expression of his frustration. Politically, he has no choice.”

“The smart answer for Israel would be … to say ‘fine by us,’ and not react in a harsh way,” Malley continued. “Taking harsh retaliatory measures [would risk promoting] the image of punishing Abbas for going to the UN when [Israel] rewarded Hamas with a ceasefire” after the Gaza conflict this month.

Israeli diplomats indicated that is the approach Israel was likely to take for now, though they complained the timing of the UN bid being just before Israeli elections was particularly unhelpful.

“At least for now, we’re going to go low profile on the whole deal,” an Israeli diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “Just another day of ‘let’s be horrible to Israel.’. We’re used to it and aren’t getting excited, even if it is completely unhelpful to the pursuit of conflict resolution and a violation of all agreements between us, etc.” Continue reading