The International Atomic Energy Agency has admitted that some of the material in the now-infamous "secret annex" about Iran's nuclear program exists, but claims it wasn't verifiable enough to release, according to the organization's Washington representative.
The classified information, which was collected as part of the IAEA's annual volume on Iran but never made the final cut, claims to prove that Iran "has sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device," according to reports.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research organization headed by former weapons inspector David Albright, published excerpts of the omitted section, which included claims that the agency believed Iran was working on placing nuclear warheads on its Shahab-3 missile.
Andrew Semmel, the IAEA's man in DC, told a group of congressional staffers Monday that he pressed IAEA leadership for answers on the "secret annex" at the general conference in Vienna last month.
"What they're telling me is that of course there's background material ... that you have to produce a report and that report can't include everything that's been collected and surmised, so the report itself is a distillation of all that background information."
IAEA leaders decided they weren't confident in the authenticity of the information contained in the extra document, and they couldn't verify what that research had found.
"They say there is no 'secret annex' but there is 'background information', however you want to characterize that," Semmel said.
"I likened it to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. That report too, does not include everything that was collected on background," said Semmel, "It's akin to that."
He alluded to reports that different parts of the IAEA bureaucracy have been at odds with each other about how to publicly present the collected information in Iran, but declined to get into specifics.
Some very specific reporting points to a long-running dispute between the IAEA's Department of Safeguards (which advocates a harder line) and its Department of External Relations and Policy Coordination (which is more skeptical).
Outgoing IAEA chief Mohamed Elbaradei, who will come to Washington later this month, is apparently in the risk-averse camp.
National Security Advisor Jim Jones spoke this weekend about the IAEA's secret information file.
"Whether they know how to do it or not is a matter of some conjecture, but what we are watching is what is their intent and we have been worried about that intent," he said.
But even the question of Iran's intent is clearly disputed at the top levels of the Obama administration.
Semmel also told his Capitol Hill audience that the IAEA's planned Oct. 25 visit to the newly revealed Qom facility was probably too late to catch Iran in any nefarious acts.
"One has to be somewhat suspicious. It gives three weeks for the Iranians to clean up anything they might want to hide," he said, "They've been known to do this in the past, whitewashing and so forth."
Greg Bruno at the Council on Foreign Relations snags an interview with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki during his visit to Washington and Mottaki lays out the Iranian thinking on a host of issues. Below are some excerpts.
Mottaki on the talks in Geneva:
By presenting a package of proposals, we wanted to show that Iran is serious for these negotiations. We have given three topics in the proposed package and that makes it possible for all parties to enter into discussions even about the nuclear program. That also includes political and security issues, economic matters, and international cooperation. And in the international part, some matters can be dedicated to the nuclear programs and nuclear issues. We are optimistic about the talks tomorrow. Because the negotiations are taking place after a long time, we should not have much expectation. Maybe that requires formation of some committees to continue the process.
On the Iran's rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty:
We are not going to compromise our legal rights under any circumstances toward the enjoyment of legal activities. And we have no plan at the moment to withdraw from the NPT.
On allowing access to the newly revealed facility near Qom:
The date will be discussed and coordinated within the Atomic Energy Agency of Iran and the IAEA later on. They would exchange letters. So from our side, there is no problem. Any date that is agreed between the two sides would be respected and the visit or access will be exercised.
On what happened during the G-20:
We think in Pittsburgh, President Obama was misled based on wrong information and wrong analysis. The wrong analysis was provided by the British. Wrong information by certain terrorist groups ... It seems to me that President Obama should be very mindful of these issues and statements.
One day ahead of talks between Iran and the Western powers, Congress is weighing in on the disclosure of Iran's newest secret nuclear facility near the city of Qom.
A bill was introduced Tuesday in the House that would call on Iran to allow "unfettered access" to the Qom enrichment facility and disclose the existence of any additional facilities under its control. The legislation is one of those non-binding items that doesn't actually force action, but its introduction with 33 cosponsors from both parties indicates the rising tide of congressional angst over the Iranian developments.
Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia was the original sponsor of the legislation. A spokesman said that a vote on the measure could come this week or next. Johnson decided to get involved in the Iran issue after hearing from constituents during a talk at the Ahavath Achim Jewish congregation in Atlanta, the spokesman said.
"My resolution... supports the administration's negotiating position in Geneva and evidences the unity of Congress and the President on this critical issue," Johnson wrote in a letter to House leadership today.
Meanwhile, Johnson had some interesting words for the Jews of Georgia's 4th district when he spoke to them on Sept. 12, pledging his support for Israel but doling out some tough love in the form of criticism of the Jewish state.
"The state of Israel makes mistakes, as does any state. It sometimes takes action that undermines its interests. Its leaders too often make policy to suit their short-term political priorities, rather than the long term interests of the Israeli people," Johnson said.
"Sometimes the ferocity with which it strikes its enemies demonstrates its tremendous capacity for self-defense; other times it undermines Israel's standing in the world and sews hatred among those who suffer at its hands."
In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of today's briefing by spokesman Ian Kelly:
There's a massive manhunt underway following a prison break in Iraq.
The White House is starting over with its strategy to close the Guantánamo Bay prison.
The United Nations moved to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
Allies will confront Iran about a secret nuclear fuel facility.
The new Japanese prime minister speaks English very good!
In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of today's briefing by spokesman Ian Kelly:
In which we scour the transcript of the State Department's daily presser so you don't have to. Here are the highlights of today's briefing by spokesman Ian Kelly:
There were several reports today characterizing the Obama administration's overhaul of the plan to deploy missile defense in Eastern Europe as a complete "scrapping" of the system, but the administration and arms control advocates are pushing back, trying to reframe the move as an adjustment, not a complete withdrawal.
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said today.
True, the long-range interceptors planned for Poland are not going to happen, but they will be replaced with shorter-range Standard Missile-3s (SM-3s), both on land and at sea, the administration detailed in a document distributed ahead of Obama's announcement.
"The plan provides for the defense of U.S. deployed forces, their families, and our Allies in Europe sooner and more comprehensively than the previous program, and involves more flexible and survivable systems," the document states.
Of course, that means the Eastern European system won't be able to defend the United States from long-range missiles fired from Iran, which was the whole idea in the first place.
But a senior administration official, speaking to The Cable on background basis before the announcement occurred, said that the missile interceptors currently in the ground at Fort Greely, Alaska, provide enough protection from that threat.
Nevertheless, senior Republican senators like John McCain (Ariz.), Jon Kyl, (Ariz.), and Jeff Sessions (Ala.) are sure to raise hell in the Senate, possibly complicating the pending passage of the defense authorization and appropriations bills.
McCain said in a statement: "I am disappointed with the administration's decision to cancel plans to develop missile defenses in Eastern Europe. This decision calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe."
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, is concerned that allies Poland and the Czech Republic are being hung out to dry, as reported in The Cable last night.
Senior administration officials are in Europe today, including defense undersecretary for policy Michèle Flournoy, state undersecretary for arms control Ellen Tauscher, and assistant defense secretary for international security affairs Alexander Vershbow.
Gates said that they are talking with the Poles and Czechs about hosting other missile-defense components, such as the SM-3 missiles. He argued that the shorter-range missile should mean the Russians can't "rationally" argue that the system threatens them.
Sources close to the Russian government told The Cable that Russia was viewing the decision favorably but were concerned about the perception that the decision was all about Russia.
"Although we can expect certain conservatives in Washington to excoriate the administration for 'caving' to Russian demands on this, that was never really an issue," the source said, adding "but they tried to leverage that decision diplomatically in terms of Russian help on Iran" (which apparently they didn't get).
One open question is, will the Russians be happy with the new location of the X-band radar site the Czechs thought they were getting?
"It's probably more likely to be in the Caucasus," Gates said.
Olaf Osica, a fellow at Warsaw's Natolin European Centre, a defense think tank, said that even this will be a political setback for Poland, which was trying to build its profile in Europe and also show strength vis-à-vis Russia.
"For Poland it's not a problem when it comes to security and defense; missile defese has nothing to do with our national security," he said. "However we tried to build a link between missile defense and Russia."
A senior GOP Senate aide tells The Cable that despite the many bellicose statements by Republicans today about Obama's new missile defense scheme, lawmakers have no concrete plans to take legislative steps to try to stall the initiative.
"In the end, there's probably nothing we can do about it," the aide said.
This morning, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hosted a secure video conference with 20 State Department officials worldwide, at about a half dozen locations.
Much of the substance of the 45-minute video conference is classified, but broad strokes were provided to Foreign Policy. Though the locations of the State Department officials participating in the call from abroad weren't disclosed, the United States has in recent years opened Iran "watching" stations at U.S. embassies in Dubai, Azerbaijan, Berlin, Turkey, and London, among key foreign locations with large Iranian expatriate populations and traffic.
Participating in the call from Washington, beyond Clinton as host, was acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman. (The State Department's point person on the international talks regarding Iran's nuclear program, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, was traveling and did not participate.) Also thought to participate from Washington was Jillian Burns, the former head of the Iran-watching post at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai, who is now an Iran advisor in the State Department Office of Policy Planning, and Todd Schwartz, the director of the State Department's Iran office, and other members of that office.
(Clinton's former special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia, Dennis Ross, who moved last month to the National Security Council to assume a job as the senior director for the central region, is taking four of his State Department staff with him to the NSC: Iran expert Ray Takeyh, assistant Ben Fishman, diplomat David Bame, and translator turned longtime Ross counselor Gamal Helal, officials said, while four former Ross aides will be absorbed elsewhere in the Department.)
Though Clinton has communicated with all of them before, getting everyone at State involved in the Iran effort together is something Clinton has wanted to do for a long time, an official said.
First, she thanked them for being the eyes and ears of the U.S. government on Iran, especially in the extraordinary weeks and months since the election.
The folks abroad gave her their take on the current situation. The consensus was that the administration's calibrated remarks on the election and its aftermath have been just the right tone, and right balance.
One participant called the election a "tectonic" shift in Iran. The consensus was also that the election and its aftermath have basically led Iran to focus on its internal politics rather than any of its bilateral or multilateral relationships, including with the United States.
Asked about Iran policy at a press appearance with the Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh Monday, Clinton said, "We've made it very clear that we wish to engage with the Iranians in accordance with President Obama's policy to discuss a broad range of issues. That would be a bilateral channel, which we have communicated to the Iranians. And we continue to engage in multilateral channels ... " including an invitation to participate conveyed by the European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana that Clinton said Iran has not yet responded to.
"I held a videoconference this morning with a number of our diplomats around the world who have expertise with respect to Iran," Clinton added. "And we discussed what they saw happening, what they thought would be the responses coming from the Iranian Government, what was going on inside Iran. So we're not prepared to talk about any specific steps, but I have said repeatedly that in the absence of some positive response from the Iranian Government, the international community will consult about next steps, and certainly next steps can include certain sanctions."
The remarks add to numerous recent signs that the Obama administration thinks prospects for Iran responding to its engagement offer in the near term have dimmed if not been entirely extinguished. Several U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Israel last week, have recently telegraphed the administration's envisaged timeline, which would give Iran roughly until the United Nations General Assembly in mid-September to respond positively to the offer to engage in multilateral or bilateral talks on its nuclear program, or be subjected to an effort to impose more severe sanctions, including a possible ban on Iran's import of refined petroleum products.
However, U.S. officials have indicated that they do not think Russia is likely to support tougher sanctions until after December (when the U.S. and Russia are supposed to sign a new strategic arms reductions treaty). Some outside administration Iran hands have indicated they are skeptical Russia will be helpful even then, and also that China, concerned about energy costs, can be persuaded to support a tougher sanctions route that targets Iran's energy sector. Legislation being debated in Congress proposes U.S. sanctions on international energy companies that would violate such a ban from selling petroleum to the U.S. strategic petroleum reserve. But some Iran experts are concerned that unilateral American sanctions could end up splitting up the international coalition, rather than bolstering the multilateral pressure on Iran. Nonetheless, the administration has recently reportedly expressed support for the more aggressive sanctions legislation, perhaps as a way to turn up the heat and try to prompt Iran to respond to the engagement offer, as well as to avert Israel from acting unilaterally against Iran.
It's not clear the administration's hopes for engagement have totally faded. In the New York Times Sunday Magazine, columnist Roger Cohen noted in a detailed article about U.S. Iran policy that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had allegedly responded in writing to a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama, the existence of which was first reported by the Washington Times. Cohen described the alleged response to Obama as being viewed as somewhat disappointing.
Foreign Policy has previously been told that Obama had received a letter from the Supreme Leader's office, and that it came into the United States government through unspecified but proper channels in May or early June before Iran's June 12 elections. The letter's translation from Farsi to English was said to have been arranged by the State Department. It was described as being not a definitive "yes" or "no" to the engagement offer. It was so closely held that no Iran hands contacted at the department acknowledged being aware of it. The Swiss embassy declined to comment about whether the Swiss foreign ministry had been the channel for any such letter.
Several White House officials, contacted by Foreign Policy last month about the alleged letter from Khamenei to Obama, said, "We do not comment on private correspondence," rather than confirming or denying its existence.
Hillary Clinton will give what one administration official familiar with the U.S. Secretary of State's preparations described as a "muscular" foreign-policy address this afternoon before the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
As The Cable reported last week, Clinton appears to be using the occasion to raise her profile amid Washington chatter that she has not yet seemed to fully dominate her turf as the nation's top diplomat. Six months into the job, it's a perception Clinton seems determined to challenge.
According to excerpts of her prepared remarks that were shared with Foreign Policy, Clinton plans to say that "the international agenda today is unforgiving," with the United States facing "two wars, conflict in the Middle East, ongoing threats of violent extremism and nuclear proliferation, global recession, climate change, hunger and disease, and a widening gap between rich and poor."
"All of these challenges affect America's security and prosperity," the excerpts say. "And all threaten global stability and progress."
But a key theme of Clinton's speech appears to be defending the administration's pursuit of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, despite widespread international outrage over the Iranian regime's violent crackdown on demonstrators protesting against alleged vote-rigging in the June 14 presidential election. Conservatives in particular have said that Obama was slow to condemn the Iranian government's conduct, a charge the White House and its defenders deny.
All the administration's special envoys, including Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell and special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, are expected to attend the speech.
An administration official said Clinton consulted closely with the White House, including Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Denis McDonough, and President Barack Obama's speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, and has been talking to the president and National Security Advisor James L. Jones about the speech. The secretary is meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Jones and other NSC officials this morning before her 1 p.m. address. She's also due to meet with Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden at 4:30 p.m. Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus left an Iran conference he was cohosting with the Brookings Institution this morning to go to the State Department, apparently to consult with Clinton on the speech as well.
(But for all the collaboration with the White House over her remarks, Obama is scheduled to give Rose Garden remarks on health care five minutes into Clinton's big speech. Asked about the scheduling overlap, a White House official said it's an entirely different set of issues and reporters, and Obama's remarks are not expected to last for more than a few minutes.)
The address will lay out an ambitious and wide-ranging foreign-policy agenda, from reversing the spread of nuclear weapons, to isolating and defeating terrorism "while reaching out to Muslims around the world," to encouraging and facilitating a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, to pursuing a global economy recovery and expanding "free and fair" trade, to combating climate change and laying the foundation for a "prosperous clean energy future," according to the official familiar with Clinton's preparations.
Notably, the secretary plans to "stand up for human rights everywhere." Clinton was criticized after her February trip to China, when she said that U.S. concerns about human rights "can't interfere" with other pressing bilateral issues, such as "the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis." Some activists have also accused the administration of downgrading the promotion of human rights and democracy.
"Smart power counsels that we lead with diplomacy, even in the case of nations with whom we disagree," Clinton is expected to say, in a clear reference to Iran. "We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Yet some suggest that this is a sign of weakness or naiveté -- or acquiescence to these countries' repression of their own people. That is wrong. The president and I believe that refusing to talk to countries rarely punishes them. And as long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table."
Citing the case of Libya, which abandoned its unconventional weapons programs under U.S. pressure, Clinton plans to suggest that engagement can yield tangible benefits, even if Iran does not reciprocate U.S. overtures. "Negotiations can provide insight into regimes' calculations and the possibility -- even if it seems remote -- that a regime will, eventually, alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community." And she will issue what appears to be a pointed warning of the potential consequences for Tehran of rebuffing U.S. demands. "Exhausting the option for dialogue is also more likely to make our partners more willing to exert more pressure should persuasion fail."
In a direct message to "foes and would-be foes," Clinton plans to say: "You should know that our focus on diplomacy and development is not an alternative to our national security arsenal. You should never see America's willingness to talk as a sign of weakness to be exploited. We will not hesitate to defend our friends and ourselves vigorously when necessary with the world's strongest military."
Clinton's prepared remarks underscore Obama's recent suggestion that Iran has a limited amount of time to respond to U.S. offers to negotiate. Administration officials have suggested in numerous recent venues that they will pursue the attempted engagement track with Iran until the end of the year, but with diminished expectations that it will succeed. After December, they believe that they have increased likelihood of international support, in particular from Russia, for a more aggressive international sanctions regime.
"We know very well what we inherited with Iran," the secretary plans to say. "We know how far its nuclear program has advanced -- and we know that refusing to deal with the Islamic Republic has not succeeded in altering the Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon, reducing Iranian support for terror, or improving Iran's treatment of its citizens. Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success. But we also understand the importance of trying to engage Iran and offering its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation."
"Direct talks provide the best vehicle for presenting and explaining that choice. That is why we offered Iran's leaders an unmistakable opportunity: Iran does not have a right to nuclear military capacity, but it does have a right to civil nuclear power if it re-establishes the confidence of the international community that it will use its programs exclusively for peaceful purposes. Iran can become a constructive actor in the region if it stops threatening its neighbors and supporting terrorism. It can assume a responsible position in the international community if it fulfills its obligations on human rights. The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain indefinitely."
As White House and Office of the Vice President aides formed a united front against widespread media speculation about a change in policy signaled by Vice President Joseph Biden's statement on a Sunday news show that Israel is a "sovereign nation" that could "determine for itself" how to deal with threats from Iran, analysts said that Israel may be wary of any such green light in any case.
In e-mails and phone calls today, administration officials insisted that Biden's comments were neither a signal of any change in policy, nor any sort of freelancing. Asked if Biden's remarks might have been part of an intentional messaging campaign to step up pressure on Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, officials gave an emphatic "no." But for all that, the remarks were widely seen both in Washington and abroad as a message intended less for Jerusalem than for Tehran.
Israel's "biggest nightmare" is that one day the U.S. government "‘would call it and say 'OK guys, take care of it,'" said Tel Aviv University Iran expert David Menashri in a call Monday arranged by the Israeli Policy Forum, a U.S. nonprofit organization that supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to give Obama until the end of the year to see if engagement with Iran was succeeding before taking matters into his own hands, Biden said, "Look, Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else." Repeated follow-up questions from Stephanopoulos elicited similar responses.
"Some in the [Israeli] media are portraying [Biden's comments] as a 180-degree switch and as an indication that the administration is beginning to realize that 'engagement' may not work," said former Israeli Consul General to the United Nations Alon Pinkas. "That it is absolutely NOT a change, and if anything, it should be interpreted as a bad sign rather than a positive encouragement."
Biden's message "is the absolute worst-case scenario from Israel's policy-planning perspective," Pinkas elaborated. "'We will not prevent' means the U.S. will neither support nor encourage [Israeli attacks on Iran] or in other words, 'Do what you think is appropriate, but bear the consequences.'"
Although Israeli officials have expressed unending skepticism about the Obama administration's intentions to try to engage with Iran, and are often seen as chafing against Washington, Israel has conducted an intensive campaign over the past several years to make Iran's nuclear program an international rather than just an Israeli problem.
The reason, explains Georgetown University's Daniel Byman, is that Israel doesn't want to take on Iran by itself. "Militarily, this is a difficult operation," Byman said Monday, noting that Iran's nuclear program is widely dispersed, compared with Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, which Israel struck in 1981. "This is much farther geographically, and that means planes can't loiter as long. They would [presumably] be flying over air space [in Iraq] controlled by the United States. You have to put together a strike package that's much more difficult. It also requires superb intelligence that may be lacking."
"There was no intention to change the position, and nothing the vice president said in any way indicates a change in U.S. position," said a White House official of Biden's remarks Sunday. "What he said and what [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael] Mullen said taken together reflect our position: Israel is a sovereign nation, Israel is an ally and Israel has a right to defend itself and other countries cannot dictate how it defends itself. That being said, it would not be helpful if Israel were to act against Iran." Any interpretation that Biden's remarks signaled a change in U.S. policy is "spin," he added.
Biden did, however, strike a different tone when answering a similar question back on April 7. Asked if he were concerned that Netanyahu might strike Iranian nuclear facilities, Biden told CNN: "I don't believe Prime Minister Netanyahu would do that. I think he would be ill advised to do that."
How to account for the seeming discrepancy? "Any tonal difference is not intentional at all," the White House official said.
Did Biden coordinate with the White House to pressure Iran to respond to the still-outstanding offer of talks with Washington? Again, the answer from the White House was no.
Washington foreign-policy hands, however, were skeptical that the message was not quite deliberate.
"It's crazy to think the principal audience of this comment was in Jerusalem and not in Tehran," said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I think the principal goal ... is to diminish the comfort level that people in the Iranian leadership may have that their actions don't have consequences."
Deliberate or not, Biden's comments could increase the uncertainty in Tehran about U.S. intentions. "When the Iranians are confident the U.S. is going to sit on the Israelis, that creates one set of plans," Alterman continued. "And when they can't be sure of that," that creates another.
Pinkas, the former Israeli diplomat, agreed that Biden's intended audience may have been Iran. "There is a case to be made for the U.S. to pressure Iran through an implicit Israeli pending attack," he said.
The vice president is not trying to rattle sabers through Israel, one Washington foreign-policy hand said on condition of anonymity. "But if Iran feels further isolated, it's a not unwelcome result," of what Biden said, he added.
"There may be something to the effect that the White House planned Biden's comments on Iran yesterday, to keep the Iranians off balance and honest," one Hill foreign-policy aide said Monday. "What I found interesting was the juxtaposition of Biden's comments with those of Admiral Mullen, who continue to take the cautious perspective of the U.S. military that any preemptive strike would be destabilizing and not helpful to the cause of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Asked about Biden's comments during his own appearance on CBS's Face the Nation, Admiral Mullen cautioned that "any strike on Iran ... could be very destabilizing."
An Israeli strike would be risky for Israel and its U.S. ally, Georgetown's Byman stressed. "Diplomatically," said Byman, it means that "Israel is acting alone." Meanwhile, Iran "can retaliate through Hezbollah among other options" against Israeli and possibly U.S. targets, including in Iraq -- said to be a chief concern of the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno. "Israel would pay that price if it was sure that the operation would succeed," Byman said. "But given military limits, that is uncertain."
Although the vice president is frequently portrayed as lacking message discipline, current and former aides that say on foreign policy, the three-decade veteran of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is deeply knowledgeable. "He knows his brief," one aide said.
Biden's reputation "for not having an internal editor means people give him more slack," the Hill foreign-policy aide said. "It's part of his charm as well as a liability. You get the straight-up deal with him. He's not a good liar. He says what's on his mind. In some cases, that's helpful, particularly with foreign leaders."
Biden was recently asked by President Obama to lead administration efforts on Iraq, where he made a surprise visit last week. The vice president is scheduled to travel to Georgia and Ukraine later this month to signal the U.S. commitment to their independence from Moscow.
Aides say that Biden and Obama have different styles, but share highly compatible views on foreign policy and national security.
"Here is the thing," one White House official said. "While polar opposites stylistically, there were no two candidates in Democratic primary who were closer on the issues. That speech -- 'I don't oppose all wars, just [dumb] wars' -- that's Biden. He has no problem with going to war," when necessary, the official said.
Biden is seen as a "muscular Democrat, because he was a leading proponent of taking action in the Balkans," a person familiar with his thinking said on condition of anonymity. "Which is ironic, because he originally ran for his Senate office against the Vietnam war." He does not consider himself a "Scoop Jackson Democrat," as some in Democratic foreign-policy circles locate him.
At times in recent weeks, the vice president was reported to have been more forward-leaning in internal discussions about how much support the administration should express for Iranians protesting disputed elections results. In a Meet the Press interview two days after Iran's disputed elections, Biden went further than the administration had previously and said he "had doubts" that the vote count was fair. But as events moved quickly on the ground in Iran, the White House began to use increasingly strong language to condemn the Iranian regime's crackdown on demonstrators, while trying to preserve its efforts to pursue engagement with Iran.
Biden downplayed any such rift in the interview with Stephanopoulos Sunday, while reiterating the administration's singular message to Iran. "Look, the Iranian government has a choice," Biden said. "They either choose greater isolation ...or they decide to take a rightful place in the civilized, big, great nations ... And so the ball's in their court."
"They are still working to engage," CSIS's Alterman said of the Obama administration. "But the Iranians are concerned that any engagement will expose how much weaker Iran is than the United States."
Khalid Mohammed-Pool/Getty Images
As the Obama White House has recalibrated and toughened its daily talking points on Iran in response to the violence of the post-elections dispute, the impression has emerged in some quarters that Washington is flustered by recent events, and indeed, that a wrench has been thrown in President Obama's hopes for engaging Tehran.
But recent administration assessments and conversations with outside government Iran watchers and nonproliferation experts offer a different view -- one in which Obama's hand may actually have been strengthened and Iran's weakened by some overlooked recent events. Among the factors they cite: the outcome of recent elections in Lebanon, in which a pro-Western coalition won a majority over a coalition that includes the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the eagerness of Iran's leading regional ally Syria to engage with Washington, Arab states' generally positive response to the Obama administration's strong push to negotiate Middle East peace and the creation of a Palestinian state. Beyond the Middle East, Obama's aggressive non-proliferation initiatives and "reset" with Moscow could also end up increasing pressure on Iran, they said.
"From 2003 to 2009, Iran was on a roll," one senior administration official said Friday. "Expanding its sphere of influence, benefiting from a changed balance of power in the region, and generally optimistic about its world. Many said it was not possible to engage because Iran was so strong and thus disincented to do so."
"I do not think any credible analyst would say now that Iran feels that way anymore," the official continued. "And I do not think any credible analyst would suggest the changes we have put on the table - from [Middle East peace envoy George] Mitchell to [Obama's Iranian New Year's] Nowruz [greeting] to Iraq to Cairo -- did not have an impact in the region generally or in Iran particularly. "
"The chessboard is moving demonstrably in the U.S. direction." That is the takeaway, said Congressional Research Service Middle East analyst Kenneth Katzman, from recent assessments by administration officials. "What I heard them saying is, 'Let's take advantage of that now, while we have the chessboard, and try to get a nuclear deal and get that resolved, rather than the whole ball of wax.'"
Added Katzman, of the perceived trend: "The strategic picture in the Middle East has moved to the U.S. advantage. The Lebanon elections, reengagement with Syria, stability in Iraq, have added up to a shifting chessboard against Iran."
But he added, while there is some optimism that regional and global trends are working to the United States' advantage on Iran, there is also diminished expectation that near-term engagement is likely to occur. At the earliest, it's not expected -- if at all -- until the fall.
Obama reiterated in an appearance with German Prime Minister Angela Merkel Friday that the U.S. goal remains to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapons capability, not just a nuclear weapon. "Working with Germany, our other European partners, as well as Russia and China, we're working to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity and unleashing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East," he said.
Recent U.S. assessments judge it would take a full year for Tehran to produce enough weapons grade highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon at its facility at Natanz, and that should it choose to do so, it would require technological retrofitting that the international community would be able to detect and have time to respond. They also take seriously the prospect of the regional chaos that could unspool if Israel chooses to strike Iran against Obama's wishes which might draw the United States in.
And indeed, not everyone is feeling optimistic. "My understanding is the president has had a much larger vision," said one Washington Iran analyst on condition of anonymity. "He wanted a strategic dialogue with the Iranians, he gave them a pathway into the western camp that benefits the west, the people of Iran, and the larger picture: peace and stability in the Middle East."
"It's very tough for the president to engage in a serious manner within the next three-to six months because of how the Iranian government has been conducting itself," said the National Iranian American Council's Trita Parsi. "It's politically far more difficult for him to pull this off," than before the Iranian government crackdown on opposition supporters. "I'm not saying it's impossible."
"Some people are more optimistic, some are less," said Georgetown Middle East expert Daniel Byman. "To me, we can hope to have more leverage, but we could have less. My impression is, we were going to try [engagement]. If it didn't work, we'd move on. We would not be naïve that it would work."
Byman did think Iran would be feeling uncomfortable about some regional trends, including renewed Washington engagement with Syria, as well as the U.S. drawdown in Iraq. "The Syria thing is real in terms of pressure on Iran. Iran has only one strategic ally in the Middle East: Syria. The U.S. drawdown from Iraq is real. It reduces the vulnerability of America."
"The Obama administration's approach to nonproliferation matters has quite changed the tone of discussion about Iran's claims that the U.S. was being hypocritical," said the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Patrick Clawson. Meantime, Iraq's "Maliki government is working out quite nicely, the Syrians are eager to engage, Hezbollah is not throwing its weight around in Lebanon, and the situation in Pakistan has gotten to look more stable."
Given such trends, would Iran be tempted to try to make a deal? Not necessarily, said Clawson. Recent events, he said, show that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is becoming "more of a risk taker and a gambler."
But Parsi offered an alternative theory. That a possible motive for the alleged vote fix was to preserve a united hard-line regime that could engage with the United States, without the internal rifts that plagued Iran the last time it had a reformist president split from the harder-line clerical establishment.
What a difference a month makes. In May, Barack Obama's administration reportedly sent a letter to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterating the U.S. president's public offer of talks with Iran. Then in early June, the State Department said it had instructed U.S. embassies to invite Iranian diplomats to attend official American Independence Day festivities around the world.
But the "hotdog diplomacy" is off, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs announced today: The United States has rescinded its July 4 invitations to Iranian diplomats. Granted, no Iranian officials had actually RSVP'd to the invites, he acknowledged. "I don't think it's surprising that nobody's signed up to come given the events of the past days," Gibbs said. "Those invitations will no longer be extended."
And there are other potential indications that Western efforts to reach out to Iran are being put temporarily on ice. Gibbs's announcement comes a day after Italy said that it too is rescinding invitations to Iran to participate in multilateral talks going on in Trieste Italy later this week, which Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns will attend. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been scheduled to go but is recovering from surgery to repair a broken elbow.) Iran hadn't responded to that invitation, either, before it was revoked, reports said.
Obama said at a news conference yesterday that he believes prospects for near-term engagement with Iran were not high. "What we have been seeing over past couple weeks is not encouraging in terms of the path this regime may try to take," the U.S. president said.
"The international community is bearing witness to what is taking place," Obama continued. "And the Iranian government should understand that how they handle the dissent within their own country generated indigenously, internally from the Iranian people will help shape the tone not only for Iran's future, but also its relationship to other countries."
Indeed, some Middle East watchers believe the timing of news last night that the United States would send an ambassador back to Damascus Syria after a four-year absence is no coincidence, and may be related to the new Obama administration tone on Iran.
Asked about that theory, a U.S. official said: "You're warm." Syrian Embassy and Middle East expert sources noted that news reports on the envoy to Damascus seemed to have originated with the White House -- which has been in the midst of daily meetings about Iran for several days -- not the State Department.
"I think the Obama administration strategy -- while not fully formed -- was always that it wanted to engage with both Iran and Syria, and it wanted to play one side off the other," said Syria expert Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "This does have to do with that. I don't think we fully understand all of their reasoning on this ... but by announcing that it will send an ambassador to Damascus, it sends a message both to Damascus and Tehran."
"As for engagement at this point, the focus is necessarily on the events in Iran," a senior administration official emailed The Cable Wednesday of current thinking. "How could it be otherwise?"
Asked about a report in the Washington Times on the Obama administration's letter to Khamenei, the senior official said, "We have indicated a willingness to talk for a long time and have sought to communicate with the Iranians in a variety of ways. We have made it clear that any real dialogue -- multilateral or bilateral -- needed to be authoritative."
"[I'm] not gonna get into the specifics of our different ways of communicating," the official added, "but there is an outstanding direct request from the [permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany] that was made on April 8th. The Iranians have yet to respond to that."
The apparent cooling of Obama's outreach efforts to Iran represents a tactical shift, not a change in the goal of eventually getting to engagement, Iran analysts said.
"At the end of the day, the necessity of diplomacy has not changed by this," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, referring to the post-elections violence in Iran. "The political feasibility [of engagement] has changed."
"When the dust has settled, the U.S. has an interest in dealing with whoever is in charge," Parsi added. "What I don't think should be done prematurely is to determine who is standing before the dust has settled. That is the difference."
UPDATE: A State Department spokesman e-mails the following:
Since so many of you have asked us what the WH was referencing in this afternoon’s briefing, here is part of the ‘ALDAC’ cable that went out today from Secretary Clinton to posts worldwide directing them to rescind all invitations that have been extended to Iranian diplomats for July 4th events:
“Unfortunately, circumstances have changed, and participation by Iranian diplomats would not be appropriate in light of the unjust actions that the President and I have condemned. For invitations which have been extended, posts should make clear that Iranian participation is no longer appropriate in the current circumstances. For invitations which have not been extended, no further action is needed.” – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, ALDAC, 6/24/09
Since news reports surfaced over a week ago saying that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's Special Advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross would be moving to the National Security Council, questions have swirled around the opaque appointment shuffle, which has not yet been officially announced.
How much continuity, for instance, would there be in Ross's portfolio? What does the anticipated move signal about Obama's policy toward Iran? Or about Obama's other ambitions for achieving comprehensive peace in the Middle East, given Ross's role as the Clinton administration point man on failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks? Was the timing -- the reported move came in the midst of Iran's protracted post-election dispute - anything other than coincidence?
The confusion has been matched inside the administration, where the decision is also being treated with a high degree of secrecy. Members of Ross's team at the State Department are being assured they will be taken care of, but it isn't clear if some or all of them will be moved from State to the NSC as well. And of course, people at the NSC already working the Middle East and Iran portfolios have been perplexed at what the decision means for their turf too.
Now Iraq hands are concerned, as word from reports and multiple sources has it that Ross will take over the Iraq portfolio as well. What's going on?
The Cable has learned that deputy national security advisor Thomas Donilon, among others, is positioning Ross to assume an uber-senior NSC position overseeing Iran, Iraq, and the Middle East. The Iraq portfolio formerly assigned to holdover war czar Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute will be shifted to Ross, leaving Lute to focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Puneet Talwar, the NSC's senior director for the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Iran, will report to Ross, as will Daniel Shapiro, the NSC's senior director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Under the new NSC structure, there will be no dedicated senior director for Iraq and there will be only two or three directors for Iraq, reporting to Talwar.
In January, when the new administration took office, Lute supervised two senior directors just for Iraq and six Iraq directors. Over the past few months, the size of the group has been reduced, and it now appears it will be further downsized as the Iraq portfolio shifts from Lute to Ross.
Sources worry that with the drop in manpower, and with Talwar and Ross both more focused on Iran, Iraq policy will suffer at a delicate transition time when Washington plans to draw down combat forces over the coming year.
National security advisor Jim Jones is said to be sensitive to the concerns, while Donilon is said to be pushing for the move. (Donilon didn't respond to a query. Other officials declined to speak on the matter. Wait for the announcement before interpreting the Ross move, suggested one.)
Ross's team at State includes Iran expert Ray Takeyh, Special Assistant Ben Fishman, State Department Senior Policy Advisor Elisa Catalano, and State Department Senior Science Advisor Alex Deghan.
The other group said to be concerned by Ross's perceived takeover of Middle East turf is the team of Middle East Peace special envoy George Mitchell, which now has to contend not only with resistance from all quarters of the region, but also a rival power center in the NSC that hasn't tended to see Middle East peace issues the same way.
In the week before the Iranian elections, the White House's message was simple: We are prepared to engage whatever government emerges. The logic was equally straightforward: Washington's biggest strategic interest regarding Iran is its nuclear program, not its internal governance. Once the country chose its next president, the thinking went, the Obama administration would be hoping for a response to its outreach efforts. Hard-nosed, direct diplomacy might then get underway.
At least, that was the plan.
As the dramatic events have unfolded in Iran in the wake of its disputed vote count, the White House has had to not just recalibrate its messaging on a daily basis, but rethink the fundamental underpinnings of its policy toward the Islamic Republic and the region.
Numerous outside Iran experts have been asked to meet with the White House, NSC, and State Department in recent days, The Cable has learned, to advise the administration on messaging, language, their analysis of what's underway, and how the situation might develop.
Conversations with some of them and with sources in government indicate that Obama's bedrock commitment to diplomacy with Iran remains firm, even as the White House -- like much of the world -- is inspired, shaken, and amazed by events unfolding in the Persian Gulf country.
"Obama is dedicated to diplomacy in a manner that is almost ideological," one Iran hand in touch with the administration said. Obama has a longer term vision, he continued. "He wants to do some stuff in the Middle East over the next eight years. He may not be able to achieve half of them unless he gets this huge piece of the puzzle [Iran] right."
Obama recognizes the "interconnectedness" between the different conflicts in the Middle East, the Iran hand continued, which makes calibrating what he wants to say or do on Iran at this dizzying moment even more fraught. "He probably has the strength and posture not to let himself get shaken by stuff like this. ... If he lets himself get distracted too much by this, then the larger strategic objective [gets muddled], only four months into his presidency, and it will not be easy to succeed."
In recent days, U.S. conservatives in Congress and the media have urged Obama to speak out more openly in favor of the demonstrators and condemn the Iranian government. Washington Post columnist Robert Kagan, for instance, even accused the president of "siding with the regime." Arizona Sen. John McCain said his erstwhile rival should "speak out that this is a corrupt, flawed sham of an election, and that the Iranian people have been deprived of their rights," adding, "We support them in their struggle against a repressive, oppressive regime and they should not be subjected to four more years of Ahmadinejad and the radical Muslim clerics."
According to multiple sources, the U.S. president believes Washington has a limited ability to influence events inside Iran for the good, despite -- and even because of -- the strength of his podium. Many Iran experts agree, cautioning that more strident statements would be counterproductive, and the Iranian government today complained of U.S. "meddling" in its internal affairs and has attempted to paint opposition supporters as foreign stooges. "It's very difficult to accept that maybe there are things one cannot affect," the Iran hand said.
Even before Iran's elections, people familiar with the administration's Iran policy outreach efforts say, there was growing uncertainty in the Obama administration about whether the United States and Iran would actually get to direct engagement in the coming months. The administration has sent several quiet, diplomatic missives to Iran, and Obama has made repeated public overtures inviting direct engagement, but has apparently received no response, according to administration sources. Obama strongly feels that he has to keeping trying, they say, but thinks it will be very hard. His thinking is not just to have a compartmentalized negotatiation about Iran's nuclear program and support for terrorism, people familiar with his thinking said, but a dialogue that recognizes at some level Iran's legitimate strategic interests in the region.
Amid the coverage of Iran's demonstrations, few noticed this week when Israel's intelligence service publicly stated that it thinks Iran could have a deployable nuclear weapon in 2014 -- an assessment almost identical to that of the much-maligned 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear program. Up to now, Israel has repeatedly predicted that Iran would have breakout capability for a bomb in the one-two year range.
Several sources viewed Israel's apparent shift in emphasis as significant, for two reasons: First, Israel may worry that scaring its public about the Iran threat could lead to emigration. Second, the focus on the less immediate threat in terms of the estimate of a deployable nuclear weapon might signal that the Obama administration has more time to let its complex engagement strategy play out.
One of two chief architects of that strategy is Dennis Ross, currently a special advisor for the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But Ross's position is said to be in flux, though the administration has been even more than typically opaque about the staffing decision. While Ross is reportedly being promoted to a senior advisor position at the NSC, some sources say the anticipated move was also intended to make him a less front-line player on Iran policy, as engagement is run out of the State Department, even as it brings him closer to the president and the White House policy nerve center. And there is still confusion over what job exactly Ross is being promoted to: Some sources say Ross will be working above the two Near East/Persian Gulf senior directors, Daniel Shapiro and Puneet Talwar, whereas FP colleague Peter Feaver writes that he understands Ross will become the NSC senior advisor on strategic planning, the post Feaver held in the Bush administration. Iran hands are completely mum and perhaps somewhat in the dark about the Ross move, and it's all being handled with a high degree of secrecy.
The biggest uncertainty, of course, is the outcome of events underway in Iran: who will emerge as its president and how the protest movement affects the status of the clerical regime itself, especially Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; and how that outcome will affect Washington's efforts to negotiate with the Iranian government about its nuclear program.
One way it might go, one Iran hand said, is that Ahmadinejad emerges the declared winner in the midst of domestic repression, and chooses to engage as a way to ease domestic pressure. An alternative and perhaps more likely development, he said, is that Ahmadinejad emerges the official winner and rejects international talks on any compromise altogether.
But the landscape of possible scenarios is even more uncertain than that. "Today the nominal leader of the opposition forces is a reformed radical, Mir Hossein Mousavi, who is notably lacking in personal charisma," former veteran NSC Iran official Gary Sick wrote asking if Iran is experiencing another full-scale revolution. "On the other side is the constitutional Leader, Ayatollah Khamene`i, who is widely perceived as a cautious political animal ... who compensates for his own lack of charisma by manipulation of the political system and the institutions most loyal to him ... Neither of these men seems to be fully in control of their own forces, let alone the situation."
Official Washington is laying low and saying little as tectonic plates appear to be shifting in the run-up to Iran's presidential elections, to be held Friday.
Despite dramatic images this week of the largest campaign demonstrations taking place in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, including a human chain of as many as a million supporters for former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, the leading opposition candidate, the Obama administration has remained largely silent. The last thing officials want to do is say anything to jinx a process underway in Iran whose outcome is entirely outside of their control -- and yet may ease one of their most pressing challenges.
A Mousavi win would not mean smooth sailing for Washington's efforts to engage Iran, analysts caution. It could deepen fissures in the Iranian leadership or even prompt a hard-line backlash or crackdown that could further paralyze U.S. efforts to engage Iran, they say. But the voting out of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would undoubtedly be seen in Washington and the West as a welcome sign that the Iranian public supports greater liberalization and a less hostile attitude toward the West.
"We are committed to direct diplomacy with whatever government emerges," a U.S. official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity. The administration is "being tight-lipped on this one," he acknowledged, noting that some planned interviews on the issue had been shut down out of apparent sensitivity to concerns that Iranian hard-liners could portray them as evidence of U.S. meddling, a sensitive issue in Iran.
"We take what we get," a White House official said Monday, seeking to downplay the import of the outcome of Iran's polls. "It's clear the Iranian president has limited influence, either for better or for worse," he said. "So even were Ahmadinejad to lose, there will not suddenly be flowers blooming" in Washington's efforts to engage Iran.
"They have nothing to gain by suggesting that they favor any outcome," explained Brookings Institution Iran expert Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department policy planning official, referring to the U.S. government. "One can't plan for what the outcome will be," Maloney added. "It will be decided for us. What impact it has on the process for negotiations [between Washington and Tehran] will play out for weeks, if not months."
"It's not simply that the outcome is unpredictable," Maloney continued. "It's that the impact is not wholly straightforward. You could have a reformist win that revives a power struggle that returns the Iranian position on engagement to one dominated by paralysis."
Asked if the political status quo in Iran has already led to paralysis on reciprocating U.S. outreach, Maloney responded, "You don't have factions really battling each other over America right now. Because [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei has endorsed the idea of talks, even Ahmadinejad has advanced the idea of talks. [The issue is] not the same kind of political football as during the Khatami presidency." (Moderate cleric's Mohammed Khatami's surprise win in Iran's 1997 presidential elections initially ushered in a period of reforms, liberalization and civil liberties in Iran but was soon overshadowed by assassination of regime critics and crackdowns on student protests as hard-liners pushed back against what they saw as threats to the system.)
Four presidential candidates are running in Iran's presidential elections, scheduled for Friday June 12 (read FP's primer on the candidates here). If no clear winner gains a simple majority, then it would go to a second-round runoff between the top two candidates on June 19.
Some analysts are now saying events seem to be moving so quickly that Mousavi might win in a first round. "Something is happening, without a doubt," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council Tuesday. "I promised myself not to get excited, and I really don't want to overstate it. But it may just be one round, with Ahmadinejad losing, which was unthinkable two weeks ago."
The turning point, analysts say, was a series of unprecedented televised presidential debates, the first ever in Iran, that began June 3 and were watched by an estimated 40 million Iranians. But there have been other remarkable events as well, including the mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of supporters for rival candidates and the human chain on Tehran's main freeway, Ahmadinejad pulling out an intelligence file during his presidential debate with Mousavi, accusing Mousavi's wife of having bypassed entrance exams to get into a Ph.D. program, and a stunning letter yesterday from former Iranian President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani imploring the supreme leader for clean elections and to muzzle Ahmadinejad's attacks. Ahmadinejad has accused Rafsanjani and his sons of corruption, as well as of being behind efforts to mobilize opposition against his reelection.
"[I]t would be a mistake to read [Rafsanjani's letter] as an act of a man defending himself against accusations by a reckless candidate who wants to be reelected at all costs," wrote Mehdi Semati, an Iran expert at Eastern Illinois University to a Gulf-oriented listserv. "Rafsanjani is saying what many people in Iran are thinking: Ahmadinejad, in effect, has questioned the entire 30-year history of the revolution, since he has depicted Mousavi's era, Rafsanjani's era, and then Khatami's era as corrupt to the core. For most educated observers in Iran, this has caused a crisis of legitimacy for the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran]. It has caused many religious and conservative folks with commitments to the revolution to express concern.
"It is possible that Rafsanjani is subtly reminding the supreme leader and others that there is such a thing as Assembly of Experts, a body headed by Rafsanjani, whose job it is to appoint the supreme leader," Semati added.
Although it's the economy -- and not foreign policy - that dominates Iran's campaign debates, Semati told Foreign Policy, "The nice thing about the complaints against Ahmadinejad -- that he is reckless, adventurist, incompetent, angry, etc. -- is that the voters then see why his performance in the foreign policy arena is, by implication even when it is not explicitly stated, jeopardizing the IRI," Semati said. "Rafsanjani has tapped into this anxiety with his letter, and I believe it is shared by many across the political spectrum. The Holocaust denial is widely believed to have damaged Iranian nation's dignity, respect, and standing in the world. It is one thing Mousavi and [fellow candidate Mehdi] Karroubi mentioned early on."
Semati said that a campaign video by another presidential candidate, former Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Mohsen Rezai, "was a blistering attack on Ahmadinejad's style, competence, and wisdom ... One of the statement's that struck me in this video was that Rezai, through years of his military experience, knows war is hell ... and he will do all that he can to avoid it. .... I think the ball is in the supreme leader's corner." Rezai is expected to drain some votes away from Ahmadinejad among hawkish voters.
Maloney cautioned not to underestimate Ahmadinejad's sophistication and the appeal to his core constituency -- the Revolutionary Guard, elements of the rural poor, who he has doled money out to, and some conservative Islamist traditionalists -- as well as the obvious benefits of running as the incumbent. "He controls the elections headquarters," Maloney said. "He doles money out in ways that help his chances. And he's not as much of a rube as outside analysts tend to believe. He's very sophisticated. His rhetoric appeals to his core constituency. The roadblock for him is if he can play around the edges of that."
Other Washington Iran watchers said they were already anticipating a Mousavi victory -- as well as the complications of a power struggle within the regime over a reformist win. "People are anxiously hopeful because they don't want to repeat the Khatami experience," said Mariam Memarsadeghi, an Iranian American who has advised Washington NGOs on Middle East civil society programs. But she observed differences with the Khatami era too. "Reading the vibes from the demonstrations, I would think people are getting this excited because they hope and plan and think that this level of mobilization will be there post-election. Unlike the Khatami era, they are not so much behind the person [of Mousavi], as behind their own demands."
Demands for what? "Liberalization, a more forward thinking government, they want civil liberties -- they want the whole gamut," Memarsadeghi said. "But they can't have the whole gamut in ... the system as it is. That's the Catch 22. That would be the real change: If the mobilization of the people and the elections causes internal fissures within the regime to grow deeper."
But such internal fissures could paralyze a political system that needs a certain level of consensus to function, according to Parsi. "[The Iranian leadership] may simply be too divided and involved in trying to heal rifts to be able to deal with the United States," he said.
The campaign itself may have already made returning to the Ahmadinejad-era status quo untenable. "It will be very difficult for the hard-liners to put this genie back in the bottle I think," one U.S. Iran hand said on condition of anonymity Tuesday.
"There is every evidence that Ahmadinejad has now dug himself in so deeply that he won't be able to crawl out," said veteran former NSC Iran hand Gary Sick, who writes a blog on Iran issues and teaches at Columbia University. "Rafsanjani's letter ... is unique in the history of the IRI. I have no idea how all of this will play out, but I think it is a turning point in the revolution, since it really goes to the heart of the role of the leader."
HAMID FOROUTAN/AFP/Getty Images
"What do we do when diplomacy fails?" a State Department official working on the team of U.S. Iran policy architect Dennis Ross recently asked at the outset of a meeting on Iran, to the dismay of some of the members of outside groups in attendance.
That possibility is just one of several questions U.S. officials inside the interagency Iran policy process say they are considering. But they insist there is hardly a prevailng assumption the effort will fail, and they are doing everything in their power to make it succeed.
Just over four months into its time in office, the Obama administration is finding the Iran issue a hard slog. Its efforts to engage Tehran or develop leverage to convince it to curtail its nuclear program have yet to bear fruit. Some Washington Iran hands say there is a debate within the Obama administration over whether it's adequately seizing opportunities to get diplomacy with Iran underway, or adopting too cautious a diplomatic approach in the face of conflicting signals from Iran about whether it is even interested in coming to the table.
According to some Iran experts outside the administration, the NSC's senior director for Iran, Puneet Talwar, and U.S. Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke are pushing for more engagement, while the Ross camp expresses the most discouragement, including by what they have described to sources as a lack of response to various communiqués sent by the U.S. government to Tehran. The Ross team is said to have been anxious to get negotiations with Iran underway even before that country's presidential elections later this month, in order to give Tehran an accelerated deadline for responding to U.S. overtures -- an approach that the White House appears to have rejected.
People in the interagency process caution that there is far less division between any of the key players in U.S. Iran policy than such talk of a "battle royale" over Iran policy would imply. And they dispute criticism the policy is not sufficiently bold or comprehensive, as former U.S. government Mideast hands Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argued in a recent New York Times op-ed that was widely read -- and hotly debated -- among Iran watchers.
During the campaign, "Obama was using the Nixon-Kissinger type rapprochement with China analogy," regarding Iran, said Mann Leverett, an Iran expert formerly at the State Department and the NSC, in an interview. Mann Leverett favors a "grand bargain" that would put the full range of bilateral issues on the table all at once, but says Obama "has stepped back from that kind of policy" and is "falling into line" with an incrementalist, carrots and sticks approach that she believes Iran may very well reject.
Admittedly, Iran is a challenging policy puzzle. The administration is confronting a high degree of anxiety from pro-American Arab regimes and Persian Gulf states, not to mention Israel, about possible U.S.-Iran talks and even a possible U.S.-Iran deal, which they fear could come at their expense. Just getting Iran to agree to talks, especially in the runup to the country's presidential elections, scheduled for June 12, is far from assured (one Western diplomat said he rated the odds of the United States and Iran actually getting to the negotiating table at one in five). How to respond to the U.S. offer and overcome Iran's international isolation has become a topic of debate in the Iranian campaign -- a fact some credit Obama's outreach messages with helping generate.
Then there is the time factor. Some within the administration have argued it's a mistake to push for productive talks with Iran before the outcome of its presidential elections, and favor giving Iran more time to deal with the prospect of engagement with the United States, a subject that is ideologically fraught for its leadership. The Obama administration also finds itself under tremendous pressure from Israel and some domestic constituencies -- who fear Iran will use the time to get closer to a nuclear weapon -- not to let talks drag on beyond this coming fall. Although Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month that he thought he would be able to make a determination by the end of the year whether his efforts to engage Iran were succeeding, Israel has made clear in meetings with U.S. officials that it reserves the right to act unilaterally.
Administration officials point to Obama's April nonproliferation speech in Prague, and his Iranian New Year's video message to Iran in March as evidence that the president does have a grand strategic vision in mind. And there is less incrementalism to the policy than some critics charge, one official said on condition of anonymity. The administration won't know if there is a bold deal to be had before it actually starts talking to the Iranians, he added -- a prospect that requires Iran to say yes to talks.
"It's rather foolish to assume that the Iranians can't handle negotiations," said influential former NSC Iran hand Gary Sick, now a professor at Columbia University. "I just disagree with the whole business that the grand bargain is the only way to make progress."
Sick argues that Obama should resist pressure from different camps to set up hard deadlines and overly rigid benchmarks that will doom the effort prematurely.
"If they try to get the other countries to agree that if Iran doesn't agree to do this but this specific date, we are going to do xyz -- that is exactly what the Bush administration did and it failed," Sick said. "If you have a deadline that is too short, sanctions that are too strong, all telegraphed in advance," it will fail, he cautioned.
So far, Sick thinks Obama is resisting such overly rigid formulations. "Obama [told Netanyahu] he would decide by the end of the year [if engagement was working]," he observed. "He's not saying ‘The nuclear issue will be solved by the end of the year, or we're out of here.' He didn't say that. ... The Iranians understood that perfectly well."
Former Pentagon official and Harvard nonproliferation expert Graham Allison says the Obama administration and U.S. allies have yet to face the real dilemma: the fact that Iran mastered the technology to enrich uranium during the Bush years means that no policy option can ever take that ability away. "Everyone is trying to get their head around the challenges they face as they turn over one rock after another and find that they are left with a really horrible inheritance," Allison told The Cable. "The big takeaway from all this on both Iran and North Korea is what a lousy hand Bush left Obama."
U.S. special advisor on the Gulf and Southwest Asia Dennis Ross is beefing up his team. He's being assisted by Ben Fishman, his former researcher and special assistant at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as well as by Iran expert Ray Takeyh, who has recently left the Council on Foreign Relations for the State Department. Neither could be reached for comment.
As American audiences tuned into his appearance on the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno," President Obama tonight issued a notable video message aimed at the Iranian people and their leaders on the occasion of Nowruz, the traditional New Year's celebration in Iran and across much of Central Asia.
"In this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders," Obama says in the English-language recording, which is subtitled in Farsi. "We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community."
"This process will not be advanced by threats," Obama continues. "We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect."
"This is huge," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a group that supports U.S. engagement with Tehran. "First of all, he is addressing the people and the government, which has not been done before. At one point he talks about the Islamic Republic. He's signaling he’s not looking for regime change; he’s recognizing Iran’s system.
"You always heard Rice and Bush say 'Iranian regime,'" Parsi noted. “It's a big difference.” That doesn't mean Obama doesn’t support Iranian democratization, Parsi said. "But he recognizes the government that exists in Iran right now."
Parsi also found remarkable Obama's comments that he recognized Iran has a "rightful role among nations."
"When he is saying the U.S. seeks constructive ties between the U.S., Iran, and international community," Parsi added, "that is signaling strategic intent. He is making it clear is that where he wants to end up through diplomacy which he supports is a constructive, positive relationship with Iran, to put aside our enmity. That is huge."
Asked if Obama's message to Iran signals a concerted public diplomacy effort related to the Iran policy review underway, the White House official responded: "He's making clear to the Iranian people and government the future that he sees for the two countries and that we're prepared to engage in direct diplomacy."
Full text below:
Today I want to extend my very best wishes to all who are celebrating Nowruz around the world.
This holiday is both an ancient ritual and a moment of renewal, and I hope that you enjoy this special time of year with friends and family.
In particular, I would like to speak directly to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nowruz is just one part of your great and celebrated culture. Over many centuries your art, your music, literature and innovation have made the world a better and more beautiful place.
Here in the United States our own communities have been enhanced by the contributions of Iranian Americans. We know that you are a great civilization, and your accomplishments have earned the respect of the United States and the world.
For nearly three decades relations between our nations have been strained. But at this holiday we are reminded of the common humanity that binds us together. Indeed, you will be celebrating your New Year in much the same way that we Americans mark our holidays -- by gathering with friends and family, exchanging gifts and stories, and looking to the future with a renewed sense of hope.
Within these celebrations lies the promise of a new day, the promise of opportunity for our children, security for our families, progress for our communities, and peace between nations. Those are shared hopes, those are common dreams.
So in this season of new beginnings I would like to speak clearly to Iran's leaders. We have serious differences that have grown over time. My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us, and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran and the international community. This process will not be advanced by threats. We seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.
You, too, have a choice. The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations. You have that right -- but it comes with real responsibilities, and that place cannot be reached through terror or arms, but rather through peaceful actions that demonstrate the true greatness of the Iranian people and civilization. And the measure of that greatness is not the capacity to destroy, it is your demonstrated ability to build and create.
So on the occasion of your New Year, I want you, the people and leaders of Iran, to understand the future that we seek. It's a future with renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It's a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbors and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace.
I know that this won't be reached easily. There are those who insist that we be defined by our differences. But let us remember the words that were written by the poet Saadi, so many years ago: "The children of Adam are limbs to each other, having been created of one essence."
With the coming of a new season, we're reminded of this precious humanity that we all share. And we can once again call upon this spirit as we seek the promise of a new beginning.
Thank you, and Eid-eh Shoma Mobarak.
UPDATE: More reaction and analysis from University of Hawaii Iran expert Farideh Farhi and the Carnegie Endowment's Karim Sadjadpour: "With Obama having clearly expressed his support for reconciliation with Iran, this becomes an internal Iranian battle, and unfortunately, it won’t be resolved anytime soon. But Obama shows in this video that instead of tipping the scales in favor of the radicals, as the Bush administration did, he will pursue diplomacy to undermine their narrative that a hostile U.S. government is bent on oppressing Iran."
Farhi analyzes Khamenei's response: "The bottom line is: 'Our nation dislikes it when you again proclaim 'talks with pressure'; we talk to Iran while we pressure them as well - threat and inducement. You cannot talk to our nation this way.'"
Amid reports that U.S. President Barack Obama last month offered in a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to reconsider plans for U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russia withholding assistance to Iran’s long range missile program, sources tell The Cable that the U.S. missile defense program is currently under review.
Among those involved in the U.S. missile defense policy review is Barry Pavel, the NSC senior director on defense who was brought over in the fall from the Defense Department, a source said. Obama administration officials sought to downplay the review.
"What is being reviewed relates to questions of the effectiveness of the system, the cost, which will impact its deployability going forward," said an NSC official. "It's not a big policy review. There are elements that need to be examined, for good governance."
Whereas the Obama administration has publicly discussed that reviews of U.S. policy regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran are underway, review of U.S. missile defense policy may be more sensitive given that the issue is subject to international negotations at various levels, as Obama's letter to Moscow suggests.
Obama spoke of the letter sent to Moscow in an Oval Office question and answer session following his meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Tuesday. Obama said that the U.S. missile defense program in Eastern Europe is directed not towards Russia, but Iran.
“What we had was a very lengthy letter talking about a whole range of issues from nuclear proliferation to how are we going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border and terrorism,” Obama said. “And what I said in the letter was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for a missile defense system.”
The administration "has framed this up exactly the right way,” said a senior U.S. official. “Missile defense is a means to deal with the growing Iranian threat. If that threat is dealt with, obviously the rationale for missile defense” is reduced. “If the threat is attenuated, there’s added pressure to develop it.”
Arms control advocates such as Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, who contributed advice to the Obama campaign on nonproliferation issues, said the U.S. missile defense program is in great need of review. “On the issues of cost, threat, and effectiveness: this system has not been reliably tested and we have no idea if it will work in the real world,” Cirincione said. “On the threat, the review needs to ask: What is the actual ballistic missile threat that missile defense is needed to counter, what is the future threat, and when will it appear?"
“Thirdly on cost: the [proposed] European system alone costs $14 billion,” Cirincione continued, citing a Congressional Budget Office study released last month. “The overall missile defense program is running at $13 billion a year. Obama all during the campaign said that he’s in favor of missile defense as long as it can be operationally tested, affordable and addresses a real threat.”
Given the shortcomings of the missile defense program on those terms, Cirincione believes the Obama administration is mistaken to try to trade an offer to scrap or delay it in exchange for getting greater cooperation from Moscow on the Iran issue.
Other officials more supportive of the program said that delay in deploying the installations in Eastern Europe was warranted if it bolstered international diplomatic will against the potential Iranian threat that the missile defenses are meant to address.
“We have to have defenses there by the time of the threat,” a senior U.S. official said. “We can wait some time to do this, provided we do not wait too long, to give diplomacy a chance."
White House officials confirmed news reports that the Obama letter was delivered on a visit to Moscow last month by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns.
Administration officials will continue discussions of issues it raised in upcoming face-to-face meetings with Russian leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to meet her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Switzerland on Friday, where the Iran issue, as well as upcoming arms control treaty talks, are expected to top the agenda. Next month, Obama is expected to meet Medvedev in London, where they will both be for the G20 summit.
We knew he was working in Foggy Bottom for weeks. Finally, State Department spokesman Robert Wood has revealed what Dennis Ross's title is: special advisor to the secretary of state for the Gulf and Southwest Asia.
Wood's full statement, via Politico's Ben Smith:
The Secretary is pleased to announce the appointment of Dennis B. Ross to the position of Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for The Gulf and Southwest Asia. This is a region in which America is fighting two wars and facing challenges of ongoing conflict, terror, proliferation, access to energy, economic development and strengthening democracy and the rule of law. In this area, we must strive to build support for U.S. goals and policies. To be successful, we will need to be able to integrate our policy development and implementation across a broad range of offices and senior officials in the State Department, and, in his role as Special Advisor to the Secretary, Ambassador Ross will be asked to play that role.
Specifically, as Special Advisor, he will provide to the Secretary and senior State Department officials strategic advice and perspective on the region; offer assessments and also act to ensure effective policy integration throughout the region; coordinate with senior officials in the development and formulation of new policy approaches; and participate, at the request of the Secretary, in inter-agency activities related to the region.
Ambassador Ross brings a wealth of experience not just to issues within the region but also to larger political-military challenges that flow from the area and have an impact outside of the Gulf and Southwest Asia, and the Secretary looks forward to drawing on that experience and diplomatic perspective.
Notice a country Wood seems to go out of his way to not explicitly mention in the job description?
Noting recent statements by President Barack Obama about Iran's "pursuit" of nuclear weapons capability in his news conference, and recently confirmed CIA director Leon Panetta's comment in his confirmation hearing that "From all the information I've seen, I think there is no question that they are seeking that capability," the Los Angeles Times reports that the language "reflects the extent to which senior U.S. officials now discount a National Intelligence Estimate issued in November 2007 that was instrumental in derailing U.S. and European efforts to pressure Iran to shut down its nuclear program."
Intelligence and nonproliferation hands said don't go off the deep end.
"The 2007 NIE ... very narrowly defined weaponization in terms of warhead design and evidence that Iran had pursued R&D in that direction; concluded it stopped in 2003 (likely correctly) and left it at that," says Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department non proliferation official now with the ISIS. "It ignored the broader development of the fuel cycle, in particular enrichment, as supporting a weapons capability. It also may have ignored the possibility that the weaponization R&D was halted in 2003 simply because Iran learned what it needed to know at the time and had no reason to risk discovery etc by continuing with the work.
"We also can't forget ...that the 2007 NIE was written when the wounds of the Iraq NIE debacle were still fresh and analysts were working double time to prove that they and their intel could not/would not be politicized," Shire said. "So now we have reverted to norm-[new Director of National Intelligence Dennis] Blair's statements I think are perfectly sound. Iran has in fact rapidly increased and improved upon its centrifuges and their performance. It's not complicated really. Iran has mastered the part of the fuel cycle that provides nuclear material either for a reactor or a weapon. Problem is they don't have near enough in terms of infrastructure to support a commercial power reactor but a tidily-sized effort for a breakout capability."
"This is another reflection of the grossly mistaken reaction to the intelligence estimate on this subject in late 2007, a reaction that stemmed in large part from some infelicitous and misleading formulations in the estimate itself," says former senior CIA official Paul Pillar. "The only thing reportedly halted in 2003 was weapons design work. More important is what [the LAT] mentions in the latter half of his piece, the continuation of uranium enrichment -- which, as the Bush administration correctly pointed out, is the long pole in the tent that will determine when Iran would have the capability to build a nuclear weapon.
"With regard to Iranian intentions, the intelligence community, both in 2007 and earlier, essentially said that while Iran is putting itself closer to being able to build a bomb if it decides to, whether it actually will build one will depend on decisions not yet taken and cost-benefit calculations not yet made," Pillar continued. "To the extent that the current administration is careful to use language like ‘pursuing' or 'seeking' a 'capability,' this is not inconsistent with the intelligence community's judgments."
He wrote more on this here.
Gary Samore, the former Clinton NSC nonproliferation hand who has been tapped by the Obama White House to serve as the new U.S. government-wide coordinator on the prevention of WMD terrorism and proliferation, has told The Cable that he attended one meeting of a high-level, track-two dialogue on Iran's nuclear program that was conducted on an unofficial basis in Europe this past year.
As The Cable reported Thursday, the track-two meetings between former U.S. officials, including Samore and former Defense Secretary William J. Perry, and current Iranian officials, including Iranian ambassador to the IAEA Ali Asghar Soltanieh, were convened by the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and were comprised of four meetings over the past year in Europe, three in The Hague and one in Vienna.
"Just to set the record straight, I now remember that I did attend one of the Pugwash meetings with Iran, I think it was last year in The Hague," Samore said. "As I understand the ground rules, we're not supposed to disclose who was there or what was said."
In the absence of normal diplomatic relations, unofficial meetings between Iranian and U.S. figures, often conducted with a degree of secrecy, can take on a sense of magnified, even distorted importance. Public reports on the Pugwash meetings appear to have led Iranian officials to deny that "back channel" official dialogue with the Untied States was underway.
But the Pugwash dialogue was not a government-to-government dialogue, people involved make clear, and was neither initiated by the Bush or Obama administrations, nor the Iranian government, although it did involve at least two currently serving Iranian officials: Iran's ambassador and permanent representative to the IAEA, Soltanieh, and Mojtaba Samareh-Hashemi, a senior aide to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
"All the reports that say ‘Obama talks secretly with Iran' are wrong," Paolo Cotta-Ramusino, the secretary general of Pugwash and the key mover behind the dialogue told The Cable Monday. "These were not official negotiations. First of all, the dates of all our meetings were in 2008," when the Bush administration was still in power.
"I think that we have had very good representation on the Iranian side," Cotta-Ramusino, an Italian physicist who traveled many times to Iran to develop relationships of trust with Iranian players to help initiate the dialogue, continued.
He said that the dialogue brought many technical specialists to the table and that the topic of uranium enrichment was one of the main issues discussed.
"The basic point of the Iranians is they have the right as a matter of principle to uranium enrichment under the NPT," Cotta-Ramusino continued, referring to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. "So how can we deal with this and on the other side, be absolutely reassured on nonproliferation concerns?"
Samore, who said he attended one of the Pugwash sponsored meetings in The Hague, said that he attended in his private capacity as a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Asked about what it means when participants in an unofficial track-two dialogue end up taking "track one" government positions, Samore said there is no connection. As a private individual, he said, one can say whatever one thinks about the matter. As a government official, one must represent one's government's positions.
Asked if the fact that he had participated in such a dialogue might help reduce the conceptual obstacles to possible future official U.S. negotiations with Iran, Samore said, "I think there's an advantage to have people in the administration who have some experience dealing with Iranian experts and officials. It gives you a stronger position to mount a diplomatic effort.
"Knowledge is better than ignorance," Samore added.
He said it had not yet been determined to what extent he, as the incoming White House "WMD czar," will deal with the Iran issue.
"Such [track-two] meetings, when they work, they are extremely useful for developing options for the governments involved," said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. "And for giving officials a road map towards resolution of the problem. [B]ecause these meetings are private and off the record, [participants are] much more candid in explaining their real positions and what compromises might be possible in ways they could never do as part of a formal" negotiation.One person who would speak of the dialogue only on condition of anonymity said it was his belief it was leaked to the Iranian media last week by Iranian forces trying to counter Iranian conservatives arguing for rejecting the prospect of U.S.-Iran negotiations.
U.S. intelligence analysts are to brief the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a closed/Top Secret/Codeword briefing on Iran Thursday afternoon, Feb. 5.
Among those scheduled to testify at the closed briefing, entitled "Iran status report: nuclear and political": Norman Roule, Iran Mission Manager, Office of the Director of National Intelligence; Alan Pino, National Intelligence Officer for the Near East, National Intelligence Council, and Vann H. Van Diepen, National Intelligence Officer for Weapons of Mass Destruction, National Intelligence Council.
As Barack Obama settles into the Oval Office and begins his stated mission of reorienting U.S. foreign policy, there's been a flurry of attention to exactly when and how Obama will open a direct dialogue with Iran, as he promised in his campaign. No question that will mark a break from the stinging rhetoric and halting, inconsistent diplomacy of the Bush years. But several sources told The Cable that the informal dialogue between senior Americans and the Iranians was much more robust in recent months than has been previously reported.
Over the past year, our sources confirmed, former Defense Secretary William Perry and a group of high-level U.S. nuclear nonproliferation specialists and U.S. experts on Iran held a series of meetings in European cities with Iranian officials under the auspices of the Pugwash group. (Pugwash, a group founded in 1957 by an international group of scientists, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 for advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons.) Perry served as a member of the Obama campaign's national security working group.
Sources familiar with the meetings suggest they may be coming to light now via deliberate leaks to the Iranian media, by jockeying Iranian political power players trying to maneuver for advantage amid a shifting Washington-Tehran dynamic and their own upcoming elections in June. Among the Iranian officials who attended the Pugwash dialogues, The Cable has learned, was Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador and permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Patrick Clawson, director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described Soltanieh as a technocrat whose presence at the Pugwash dialogue was significant. "He matters because when he writes these reports back to the regime, they will not be thrown in the trash," Clawson said. "They will be looked at."
Adding to the intrigue, one expert said to participate in the meetings was Robert J. Einhorn, sources told The Cable. Einhorn, who was a former assistant secretary of state and top nonproliferation advisor to the Hillary Clinton campaign (and later for Obama) and is currently at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is expected to be named undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Einhorn did not immediately respond to a request for comment. [UPDATE: Einhorn later e-mailed that he "did not participate in the Pugwash dialogue on Iran." Asked further if he'd participated in the series of meetings being described, Einhorn said, "I have participated in no Pugwash meetings on Iran, nor any other meetings with Bill Perry on Iran. This is my last response."]
Another source informed about the Pugwash dialogue said it was spearheaded by Pugwash's General Secretary Paolo Cotta Ramassino, and consisted of four meetings over the past year, including an August meeting in The Hague and a two-day December meeting, the last one, in Vienna.
The Pugwash-sponsored meetings, which focused on nuclear issues, are one series of what sources say are several "Track Two" discussions that have taken place between the two countries.
According to Jacqueline Shire, a former State Department nonproliferation expert who did not participate in the Pugwash forum, such Track Two dialogues typically work as follows: a think tank hand acting in an individual or institutional capacity initiates a project to hold discussions with Iranian government officials. In the process, he or she is likely to brief and be debriefed by the State Department in a quasi-official way. "He or she would check in before going and when he/she returns, to make sure the discussions don't go too far afield," Shire said. "One is acting in a private capacity, but not completely freelancing."
While Iran and the United States have not had official relations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, they have had some limited diplomatic interactions and plenty of back-channel contacts. Relations between the two countries were further strained by the 2003 discovery that Iran had been pursuing a nuclear program and by elements within the Bush administration which supported, at least for a time, a "regime change" policy toward Iran, as well as by Iran's alleged support for militants in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian group Hamas.
Although the U.S. goal of persuading the Iranian regime to curtail its nuclear program and its support for militant groups in the region remains largely the same as during the Bush years, the new Obama administration has made clear that it intends to pursue a different approach to Tehran, including direct government-to-government talks.
"I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress," Obama told Al Arabiya television in the first interview he granted since becoming president earlier this week. "And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us."
Along with reports that the State Department is drafting a letter to the Iranian leadership and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice's comments this week that the United States will pursue direct diplomacy with Iran, the Obama administration is undertaking an intensive policy review toward Iran even as it gets its new team members into place.
"I am seeing actions that seem to be really quite different," says Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington group that promotes U.S. engagement with Iran. "Obama was not president for even 20 minutes when he said ‘mutual respect.' That is an Iranian buzz word. No one in the Middle East uses that more than Iran."
"By [Obama] speaking directly to the Iranian leadership and the Iranian people the way he has," says Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, "and the way he may be answering Ahmadinejad's letter, it presents his views unfiltered and it shows his respect for the Iranian nation. That's very important."
Meanwhile, the diplomatic calendar marches on. Most immediately, the Obama administration will send a representative, most likely Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, to next week's meeting in Berlin of the group of U.N. Security Council permanent five members plus Germany. The P5+1, as it's known, has been the nucleus of recent international efforts to pressure Iran to abandon its uranium enrichment program in exchange for fuller international recognition and engagement and other incentives.
Contacted about an Iranian media report about alleged "secret" meetings involving Perry and Iranian officials, a U.S. government official working the Iran issue responded with a hint of rolled eyes: "This is just more of the same 'Track II' activities that so many of the participants love to think of as secret talks. There are a number of these things going on and it's hard to keep them straight. This particular one would appear to be merely another in a series of meetings under Pugwash auspices, and there have been many of them. Absolutely nothing to do with government to government."
A person familiar with the Pugwash U.S.-Iran meetings declined to speak on the record or provide many details, except to confirm Perry's participation and say that they involved four meetings in different cities in Europe over the past year. They were among the most interesting and most valuable of such meetings that have occurred, The Cable was told. (Another discreet, high-level Track Two dialogue series between the U.S. and Iran has been conducted by Thomas Pickering, the former undersecretary of state for political affairs and United Nations Association-USA cochair, who has cowritten about his experience with fellow participants William Luers, the former UNA-USA president and U.S. ambassador to Czech Republic, and Jim Walsh for the New York Review of Books.)
Messages left for Pugwash's executive director in Washington and an e-mail to Perry were not immediately returned.
"There is one constant in U.S.-Iranian relations," one former official who dealt on Iran said. "The U.S. side is always looking for a way to speak directly to Iran. There are always ‘hints' from the Iranian side that the best way to do that is to have quiet talks between intermediaries. Any attempt to have such a discussion ...immediately devolves into publicity designed to make the U.S side look foolish."
"If I were doing the negotiations [for the U.S. government], I would really press at a principals meeting [about] whether at the end of the day, we are going to accept" if Iran can enrich uranium to low grade or not, says former ambassador-at-large Robert Gallucci, now president of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. "I don't think we have enough folks to [make a determination] actually yet in place" -- not just assistant secretaries, but the principals, and deputies.
The kind of intensive policy review and decisions being undertaken now, Gallucci says, "are not going to be hammered out for a month or six weeks." In the meantime, "what you have got to do now is set up your willingness to engage. Short of getting the outcome you want ... you let it be known that we're willing to talk right now, that we're going to talk, not just as a reward for good behavior."
Gallucci said that he himself has participated in various recent Track Two meetings on Iran, including one led by Luers in New York, although he thought there were no currently serving Iranian officials at any of those he attended.
"I had one contribution to this, and it was entirely unwelcome," Gallucci said. "I said, ‘I don't think we can have Iran producing highly enriched uranium. Therefore, I don't believe we can have Iran produce low enriched uranium. That was very unwelcome, in the sense that it means, if all else [fails], we will have to act unilaterally."
He also said that he had been asked to take a job in the Obama administration, but declined, preferring to contribute in a more project-based or advisory panel capacity (he previously served on a national security advisory board panel for CIA, he mentioned). He declined to say what the job he turned down was.
UPDATE: Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, offered more perspective in a call Friday morning. He confirmed Pugwash was the sponsoring organization for the Track Two "Resuming constructive U.S.-Iranian dialogue" that occurred, as we reported, in four meetings in Europe throughout 2008 (three meetings in The Hague, and one in Vienna).
They were, he said, "wide-ranging, atmospheric discussions: how to move beyond the 1953 coup and the 1979 revolution; how to move beyond the historical baggage that is holding back U.S.-Iranian relations."
"Then," he added, "getting into the larger issues of US-Iran relations: security and the entire Middle East .... Iran's wish to be integrated in the wider world ......Then a specific discussion about Iranian nuclear program: concerns about the motivation for Iran's program, how to increase transparency ...how to have its program be totally transparent and no misgivings about any military uses ...how to achieve that last aim ... and establish a constructive dialogue."
Boutwell said there were currently serving senior Iranian officials participating in the discussions of equal or greater seniority than Ambassador Soltanieh, but declined to identify them.
He said that members of the group met in 2008 with several key members of Obama's circle of advisors, "people now moving into positions of influence."
He confirmed Perry's participation, but would not comment on whether Einhorn participated or attended.
Boutwell added that it is his belief that it would be a "huge mistake for the administration to delay talking to Iran until after the June Presidential election, in the (mistaken) belief that somehow this will improve Ahmedinejad's re-election chances. Iranians will vote mainly on domestic economic issues. More important, waiting until June sends the wrong signal... that the US is not serious about re-establishing dialogue, and the various issues that need discussion (enrichment, Iraq, Afghanistan) will only get more complicated over the next six months."
Photo: File; TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images
The Cable, Monday:
He wasn't unveiled at the Obama/Biden/Hillary Clinton envoy roll-out event at Foggy Bottom last week, but State Department sources tell The Cable that former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross has indeed been tapped as the U.S. envoy to Iran..."
The New York Times, today:
The administration is expected to name Dennis B. Ross, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator, to a senior post handling Iran, according to State Department officials. That Mr. Ross was not at the same meeting as Mr. Mitchell surprised some people who follow Iranian issues, given how long his appointment had been rumored. But officials said Mr. Ross was at the State Department on Monday."
Presumably they might soon make it official?
UPDATE: Politico's Ben Smith notes another sign: "United Against Nuclear Iran thanks Ambassadors Holbrooke and Ross for their commitment, service, and leadership and we congratulate them on their recent appointments to the Department of State." (Jim Lobe noted the United congratulations a few days ago.)
UPDATE II: Maybe not? A contact says that CSIS's Jon Alterman told listeners to a BBC radio talk show Thursday that his sources within the administration indicate that Ross is NOT going to be named special envoy to Iran.
TGIF/Just-Appoint-Somebody-Already UPDATE: The mothership paper's WhoRunsGov Plum Line's Greg Sargent reports that Ross Iran appointment still on track. And you thought the Iranian power centers were complicated!
U.S. Afghanistan/Pakistan envoy Amb. Richard Holbrooke has asked Middle East and Islamic world scholar Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School, to serve as his senior advisor, Nasr confirms. Though best known perhaps for his scholarship on Iran and the Sunni-Shia divide, Nasr has also written about Pakistan and ethnic violence in South Asia. Asked if the move might signal that Holbrooke intends to take a regional approach that includes Afghanistan's neighbors, among them Iran, Nasr says not necessarily: "I have long running expertise on South Asia as well and was involved in campaigns as advisor on Pakistan." But it does lend that perception.
"This is good," said one Washington South Asia expert about the Nasr hire. "Vali did some work in the past on Pakistan, including a short book on [Jama 'at-i Islami] JI - Islamist party in the region. So in addition to his understanding of the wider middle east and Sunni/shi'a stuff, he has a familiarity with South Asia. Obviously Vali has spent more recent time on Iran, and that could pay off when it comes to Afghanistan regional approaches."
"I don't know about regional," another Washington South Asia expert said, "but it signals that [Holbrooke] has identified a very knowledgeable person."
Who will represent the United States at the next meeting of the P5+1, scheduled to be held Feb. 4 in Germany?
But a State Department spokesman reached Monday said the answer remains unclear. "The answer is: we don't yet know. Obviously Under Secretary Burns has attended these in the past, and I've put in requests with his office and our NEA bureau to see if we can confirm who will attend, but we simply don't have a definite answer at this point. As soon as I hear anything, I can certainly let you know."
That was the answer going into the State Department press briefing as of this morning, and the State Department press office did not see anything in the prepared remarks that would indicate otherwise.
Will Dennis Ross, who some sources say will be appointed U.S. envoy on Iran, make a late-breaking appearance on the schedule?
Stay tuned. And let us know what you're hearing.
UPDATE: A colleague notes that Clinton kept the suspense alive in her remarks today, saying: "The P5+1 talks, which will reconvene next week, I believe, are an already existing vehicle that we will again monitor. And there's just a lot that we are considering that I'm not prepared to discuss."
UPDATE II: A friend in the know comments, "There is no one else but Burns until and unless someone else is appointed, and they aren't going to acknowledge the possibility of someone else until that person is actually appointed. From the minute someone is appointed, it will be like they were always there.
"As to whatever the latest meeting of this or that group is on this issue, the U.S. government will decide on its position on all of this, and whoever goes to these meetings will have their instructions."
Photo: File; MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images
He wasn't unveiled at the Obama/Biden/Hillary Clinton envoy roll-out event at Foggy Bottom last week, but State Department sources tell The Cable that former Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross has indeed been tapped as the U.S. envoy to Iran, with the possible title "ambassador at large."
Ross, who did not respond to a query, laid out his recommendations for "how to stop Iran from getting nukes," in this November 2008 Newsweek piece.
UPDATE: A former State Department official heard but can't confirm that Ross may get the title of "counselor" at State, "and then could do anything the Secretary wanted him to do."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.