Burns to join Iran nuclear talks in Vienna

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US Deputy Secretary of State Williams Burns will join talks between Iran, the U.S. and European Union in Vienna on Monday, US officials said.

Burns was seen on the plane Sunday traveling with the US delegation, led by Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, to Vienna. He and Sherman are expected to meet Monday with Iranian and European Union negotiators. Sherman will stay on for nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 expected to go til Friday, as efforts intensify to reach a final nuclear accord by July 20.

“We’re at a critical point in these negotiations, and we’re going to work as hard as we possibly can to see if we can get to an agreement here,” a senior U.S. Administration official told Al-Monitor Monday. “Deputy Burns will be joining for meetings on the 16th, including an expected trilateral with Iran and the EU.”

“We’ve always said our diplomatic efforts would continue to intensify, and they have,” the US official said. “This is another example of that effort. And we’ve been clear that various members of our negotiating team – especially the Deputy, given his history working on this issue with the Iranians – will participate in various meetings throughout this process.”

Burns previously led secret US bilateral talks with Iran last fall. But last week the State Department announced that he and Sherman were co-leading the US team to bilateral talks with Iran in Geneva in order to break what reportedly has been a deadlock in the negotiations.

As negotiators intensify efforts to reach a final nuclear accord by July 20, the US bilateral and P5+1 nuclear negotiating teams seem to have merged, and the US Iran contacts on a nuclear deal become less secret. The US will also this week open contacts with Iran about the security crisis in Iraq, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday.

Burns, when he traveled to Oman for secret nuclear talks with Iran last year, reportedly traveled on an unmarked US government plane. But he, Sherman and their team were seen Sunday at the Washington Dulles airport business lounge awaiting their flight to Vienna, with no apparent attempt at hiding his presence.

Saudi Dep. DM meets Burns, Hagel on U.S. visit


Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan, on his debut trip to Washington in the post, met with Deputy Secretary of State William Burns at the State Department on Wednesday.

He will hold meetings at the Pentagon on Thursday, beginning with an honor cordon hosted by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, the Defense Department said.

Deputy Secretary Burns and Prince Salman discussed “our shared commitment to further strengthening our security relationship,” the State Department said. They also “discussed regional challenges, such as Syria, and the importance of regional cooperation in addressing common political and security challenges.’

A former senior US official who works on the region, speaking not for attribution, said Prince Salman was making the rounds on his first official trip to Washington in the Deputy Defense Minister job, and that it was thought he was also purchasing more big-ticket defense equipment, including F-15 aircraft, and Apache helicopters. Prince Salman, the younger half-brother of longtime former Saudi envoy to the U.S. Prince Bandar, assumed the deputy defense minister post in the Saudi Kingdom last August. In his late 30s, Prince Salman has past experience in Washington, however, having worked in the embassy here for nearly a decade.

Prince Sultan’s visit “is a getting-to-know-you occasion,” Simon Henderson, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor Wednesday. “The contrived substance will probably be details of the overall arms package agreed a couple of years ago.”

“On Salman bin Sultan, don’t forget he was Bandar’s deputy at [the Saudi intelligence service] GID and deeply involved in Syria,” Henderson said.

Prince Salman’s visit comes ahead of President Obama’s trip to Riyadh next week. The White House announced last month that Obama would add a trip to the Saudi Kingdom to the end of his trip next week to the Netherlands for the nuclear security summit, Belgium (NATO and US/EU summit), and the Vatican.

Obama, in Saudi Arabia, will meet King Abdullah, as well as other GCC leaders, Tamara Coffman Wittes said Wednesday. Items to be discussed on the visit include Syria, Iran, and the Middle East peace process, she said.

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P5+1 turns focus to implementing Iran nuclear deal

Western diplomats expressed confidence about Iran sticking to the terms of an interim nuclear accord signed in Geneva last month as they met to discuss implementing the agreement and the process going forward for negotiating an end state deal.

The diplomatic consultations come ahead of a technical meeting between diplomats from Iran and six world powers in Vienna next week that will focus on implementing the November 24th accord.

“I think it will hold, because it’s in Iran’s interest for it to hold,” Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman told the PBS News Hour Wednesday (Dec. 4). “Iran is looking for some economic relief. There’s very little in this agreement, but it is the first step to a comprehensive agreement which will give them the economic relief they are looking for.”

“We are discussing 6 or 7 parameters that have to be crystallized into the common position of the P5+1,” a senior western official, speaking not for attribution, said Thursday, of the diplomatic consultations among the six world powers. The current priority is “implementation of the Nov. 24 agreement and deciding on a process.”

In terms of implementing the Phase 1 deal, “there are obvious facts to be confirmed by the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA – stopping 20 percent, converting half the stockpile… enhanced monitoring,” the senior western official said.

Secretary of State John Kerry and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton discussed that process for implementing the Iran deal when they met in Brussels earlier this week. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Under Secretary Sherman were scheduled to meet with French political director Jacques Audibert  on Thursday, the State Department schedule indicated. The British non-resident charge to Iran Ajay Sharma, until recently the UK’s deputy political director, was also in Washington for consultations Thursday, after traveling to Iran earlier this week, diplomatic sources said.

Burns has been leading a bilateral channel with Iran that gained momentum after the August inauguration of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani,  Al-Monitor first reported last month (November 24). Sherman leads the US negotiations between the P5+1 and  Iran. The bilateral discussions between Iran and the United States have focused almost exclusively on the nuclear issue and fed back into the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, US officials stressed, though the issue of Americans held in Iran has also been raised.

“All of the issues that arose in that private bilateral conversation also arose in the P5+1,” Sherman told PBS. “And I think very effectively the P5+1 used our bilateral channel and other bilateral discussions that were going on with other partners to get to this agreement.”

European Union foreign ministers are scheduled to meet on December 16 to discuss possibly suspending some EU sanctions against Iran for a period of six months as part of the first phase agreement reached in Geneva on November 24th.

The US administration has urged Congress to hold off on passing new sanctions on Iran–even if the sanctions would not come into effect until after six months if an end state deal is not reached. Continue reading

Shortlists: Higginbottom mulled for 2nd DepSecState; Tom Shannon after Brazil

The White House and Secretary of State John Kerry are considering nominating State Department counselor and former OMB deputy director Heather Higginbottom as the next Deputy Secretary of State for management and resources, several current and former U.S. officials say. The second Deputy Secretary slot, currently vacant, was previously held by Tom Nides and Jack Lew, now Treasury Secretary.

“Kerry recruited Heather from OMB with an eye towards putting her in a confirm-able position soon, but he didn’t want to delay her arrival by several months during his transition period,” an administration official, speaking not for attribution, told the Back Channel Wednesday.

“She started out with the confidence of the Secretary and the President and hit the ground running as Counselor, engaging with senior leaders at the State Department,” the official said. “I think it’s safe to say that this would be a hit across the board given her budget experience and relationships and her understanding now of the Department.”

Higginbottom served in the Obama White House as deputy director of OMB from 2011 to 2013, and as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 2009-2010. She previously served as legislative director for then Senator Kerry from 1999 until 2007, and on Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. She didn’t respond to a query Wednesday.

Tom Shannon After Brazil

With his successor nominated, US Ambassador to Brazil Tom Shannon is heading back to Washington soon. While his next interim assignment is unclear, some current and former U.S. officials tell the Back Channel that the Obama administration is considering nominating Shannon to be the next U.S. ambassador to Turkey, possibly in the fall or in 2014. Sources cautioned however that plans could change depending on other moves afoot in the upper ranks of the State Department bureaucracy.

Shannon said he expects to head next to Washington, but couldn’t comment beyond that. President Obama recently nominated Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Liliana Ayalde, a former ambassador to Paraguay and senior USAID official, to succeed him in Brazil.

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US, Israel isolated as UN votes to upgrade Palestine status (Updated)


The United States and Israel appeared headed for a crushing defeat Thursday, as a vast majority of the world’s countries signaled they would vote in favor of the Palestinian bid to receive upgraded non-member observer status at the United Nations General Assembly. But some American diplomats and Israeli politicians said the diplomatic setback could be an opportunity for the Obama administration to rethink the politically cautious approach to the peace process it has taken over the past year.

The United States-Israeli position opposing the resolution appeared to be overwhelmingly isolated, with only around 10 countries expected to vote against the Palestinian measure, compared with some 150 expected to vote in favor.

(Update: As expected, the UN voted to upgrade Palestine’s status, with 138 nations voting in favor, 41 abstentions, and 9 votes against the measure. The no votes were: the US, Israel, Canada, Czech Republic, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, and Panama.)

Most strikingly, every country in Europe save for one signaled they were likely to abstain or vote in favor of the Palestinian statehood bid, including two of Israel’s closet allies. Germany, which had been expected to vote against the measure, abstained, and Italy, expected to abstain, said Thursday it would vote for the Palestinian status upgrade, along with France, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, Ireland, and Austria. Britain abstained. S(o did Australia, following an uproar in the ruling party against Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s original intention to vote against the resolution.)

(Watch the vote at the UN General Assembly live here:)

The US diplomatic defeat could push the Obama administration to reconsider its recent hands-off approach to the peace process, following Israeli resistance to Obama’s first term efforts to bring the parties to the peace table, some American diplomats said. However, they acknowledged, Israel’s leadership showed few signs that it was prepared to reconsider its campaign to portray the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership as recalcitrant, even following the Gaza conflict this month, and Hamas’ growing political clout in the region.

“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States cause we tried very hard to postpone [this vote] and push it off the agenda altogether,” former US Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right.”

Such a review “may lead the President to conclude that what we thought was right thing to do last year in 2011 may not be right thing in 2012,” Kurtzer continued. “The circumstances are different—especially after what happened last week in Gaza, (when) the entire attention of the world was only focused on Hamas…the PLO was not just feeling marginalized, but the built-up frustration of kind of being the good boys.”

“Abbas gets his victory today at the UN. And that is where I think there is some diplomatic opportunity for the United States to help …persuade Abbas to have a timetable favorable to the President in terms of his next moves or non moves,” former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Florida), a close ally of the Obama White House, told Al-Monitor in an interview Thursday, adding he saw signs that the rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah may next move towards a unity government.

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in New York Wednesday in an apparent last ditch effort to try to dissuade him from the move. (The photo above suggests the tone of their meeting was rather grim.) Burns “made a personal appeal to … Abbas promising that President Barack Obama would re-engage as a mediator in 2013 if Abbas abandoned the effort to seek statehood,” the Associated Press reported. “The Palestinian leader refused, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.”

Meantime, several key Israeli politicians, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, urged Israel and the US to support the Palestinian measure, noting it was headed for certain victory anyway, and that the resolution’s text essentially supports the vision for a two state solution that was once the consensus position of the Israeli (and American) mainstream. Continue reading

Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading