Israel criticizes Clinton no Iran ‘deadlines’ remark

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Unnamed Israeli officials on Monday complained about US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent statement that the United States is “not setting deadlines” for negotiations with Iran.

“We’re not setting deadlines” on Iran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Bloomberg News’ Indira Lakshmanan in an interview in Vladivostock, Russia Sunday.

“We have always said every option was on the table, but we believe in the negotiation, the diplomatic effort through the P-5+1, but also pressure …[are] by far, the best approach to take at this time,” Clinton said, according to a full transcript of the interview released by the State Department.

Clinton’s comments came as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Canada’s CBC that the United States and Israel are jointly discussing “red lines” on Iran.

“We’re discussing it right now with the United States,” Netanyahu told the CBC Sunday, Reuters reported.

Unnamed Israeli officials were quick to blast Clinton’s disavowal of a rapidly closing timetable for Iran diplomatic efforts.

“These kinds of statements won’t stop Iran’s centrifuges, and could have the opposite effect,” one unnamed top Israeli state official told Ynet’s Attila Somfalvi Monday. “Without a clear red line, Iran won’t stop its race towards a nuclear weapon,” the Israeli official added.

But the State Department did not back away from the remarks Monday despite the grumbling from Jerusalem. Continue reading

Former top US diplomat Jeff Feltman meets with Iran’s Supreme Leader


Jeff Feltman, the UN Under Secretary for Political Affairs who until May served as a top US diplomat, on Wednesday became the most senior current or former American official known to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in decades.

Feltman, the former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, met with Iran’s Supreme Leader as part of the entourage accompanying UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for meetings in Tehran. Ban traveled to Iran against the wishes of the US and Israel to attend the non-aligned movement summit.

American officials downplayed the rare meeting between even an ex-US official and Iran’s vehemently anti-American Supreme Leader, pointing out that Feltman doesn’t work for the US government anymore.

Feltman “is doin’ his new job,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told Al-Monitor Wednesday when asked about the meeting.

Asked if Ban or Feltman conveyed any message from the United States to Iran’s leadership, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Al-Monitor: “Nope.”

“Not sure that it means much in reality,” former senior Obama White House Iran strategist Dennis Ross told Al-Monitor by email Wednesday.

Feltman “is a UN official and he works for Ban,” Ross, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, continued. “The Iranians may be seeking to play up any imagery hoping it may support their desire to show how they are not isolated and make some of their neighbors wonder about what is going on.”

But former American diplomat Jim Dobbins told Al-Monitor that Feltman likely would have given the US government at least a courtesy ‘heads up’ about his trip, even if he would not take guidance from them. The meeting “is interesting,” Dobbins, now at the Rand Corporation, said.

And another former senior US official who asked not to be named acknowledged she was “shocked” to learn of the meeting, mostly because the Obama administration had publicly pressed Ban to forgo the trip. Feltman, who served as ambassador to Lebanon during the 2006 war, is thought to be fairly hardline on Iran.

The tone of the UN chief’s meeting with Iranian leaders Wednesday was reportedly fairly testy and combative, reports said, though the Supreme Leader’s website acknowledged Ban requesting that Iran take “concrete” steps to cooperate with the IAEA and P5+1 negotiating over its nuclear program. Continue reading

Obama defines his Syria red line

President Barack Obama said Monday that his “red line” for direct military intervention in the widening Syria conflict would be the use of chemical or biological weapons.

“The red line for us is if we start seeing a bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” Obama, speaking in a surprise appearance at the White House press conference Monday, said. “That would change my calculus.”

Obama said the United States is increasing humanitarian aid to help Syria’s exploding refugee population, as well as political and financial support to the Syrian opposition, in consultation with other countries. But he had not “at this point” ordered U.S. military engagement in the conflict.

“We are monitoring the situation very carefully, and have put together a range of contiengency plans and communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in  the region that is a red line for us,” Obama said.

He spoke as a US delegation is headed to Turkey for consultations on the widening crisis, amid growing US concerns about spill over from the Syrian conflict potentially destabilizing other countries in the region, including Lebanon and Iraq..

As Al Monitor  previously reported, acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones is headed to Turkey this week to confer on Syria.

Jones will be part of an inter-agency team that includes senior officials from the Pentagon and intelligence community who will meet Wednesday with their Turkish counterparts, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told journalists Monday. Continue reading

Turkey: NATO to consider Syria’s downing of Turkish jet

A senior Turkish official said Monday that Ankara has asked NATO to consider Syria’s shooting down of a Turkish military reconnaissance plane last week an attack on the entire alliance.

“There is no doubt that Syrians deliberately targeted our plane in international airspace,” Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said Monday, the Associated Press reported. “It was an extremely hostile action.”

NATO’s governing board, the North Atlantic Council, is due to meet Tuesday to discuss the incident. Turkey says Syria on Friday (June 22) shot down with no warning an unarmed Turkish RF Phantom reconnaissance jet, whose pilots have yet to be found. Syria later fired on a Turkish rescue plane sent to try to recover the pilots, Turkey said Monday.

(Syria claims it was acting in self-defense and that it did not know the plane’s national origins–charges Turkish officials bitterly refute.)

“No doubt, Turkey has made necessary applications with NATO regarding Article 4 and Article 5,” Turkey’s deputy premier Arinc said Monday, according to the AP. Continue reading

U.S. expels Syrian charge d’affaires over Houla massacre

The United States announced Tuesday it is expelling Syria’s charge d’affaires in response to the May 25 massacre in the village of Houla that killed more than 90 people, including 30 children under 10 years old.

Zuheir Jabbour, currently the most senior Syrian diplomat in Washington, has 72 hours to leave the country, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday. Jabbour was informed of the expulsion order Tuesday.

“We hold the Syrian government responsible for this slaughter of innocent lives,” Nuland said in a statement Tuesday. “This massacre is the most unambiguous indictment to date of the Syrian government’s flagrant violations of its UN Security Council obligations under Resolutions 2042 and 2043 along with the regime’s ongoing threat to peace and security.”

“United Nations observers confirmed the deaths of more than 90 people, including at least 30 children under the age of 10, after the vicious assault involving tanks and artillery – weapons that only the regime possesses,” Nuland said. “There are also reports that many families were summarily executed in their homes by regime forces.”

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Iran nuclear talks prep meetings to get underway–quietly

My colleague Barbara Slavin hears from a well-placed Iranian source that the EU’s deputy foreign policy chief Helga Schmid and Iran’s deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri are holding their first meeting this week to prepare for the next round of P5+1/Iran talks, which are due to take place in Baghdad on May 23rd.

A spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and deputy Schmid said that the office did not intend to announce such meetings or provide details, but also did not deny the meeting is taking place.

“Schmid and Bagheri are in regular contact to prepare for the next round of talks to be held on May 23 rd in Baghdad – as agreed in Istanbul,” a spokesperson for Ashton told me Monday.

Schmid and Bagheri are indeed meeting, but not in Brussels, another western diplomatic source who asked for anonymity indicated Monday.

Western negotiators have made clear that they believe more can be accomplished in the exceedingly hairy Iran nuclear talks process in such quiet meetings–out of the spotlight.

Meantime, Washington’s rep to the Iran P5+1 talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was traveling in Europe last weekend, to attend the Daimler US-European Forum on Global Issues conference, held in Berlin May 3-4.

While in Berlin, Sherman also participated in an unannounced political directors meeting on Iran with her counterparts from France, Germany, and the UK, a source at the conference said. But Schmid wasn’t there, he said.

A State Department spokeswoman said last week that Sherman may participate in some of the unannounced preparatory meetings ahead of Baghdad. Continue reading