The Cable

Tauscher sworn in, "T" bureau takes shape

Just back from an 11-day trip to Africa and before meetings with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in her close ally, former Rep. Ellen Tauscher, as undersecretary of State for arms control and international security Monday in the State Department's eighth floor Ben Franklin room. In attendance were National Security Advisor Gen. Jim Jones and his wife, long-time friends of Tauscher (whose new groom, Jim Cieslak, is, like Jones, a former Marine), along with Clinton's special advisor on arms control and international security Robert Einhorn, Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance and Implementation Rose Gottemoeller, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Bill Burns, and Assistant Secretary of State for Political and Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro.

Now that Tauscher's in, she is expected to work closely with Clinton. "The fact that Secretary Clinton personally swore in the new Undersecretary is a testament to the very close relationship between these two veteran female politicians, a connection that goes beyond any formal bureaucratic lines of authority," a nonproliferation hand in attendance said. It's also "a reflection of the personal importance Secretary Clinton places on the broad issues of arms control and nonproliferation. Indeed, for all the recent musings over where Hillary Clinton can make her mark in this administration, forging progress on strengthening the global nonproliferation regime and securing Senate ratification of such key agreements like the START follow-on treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty can lay the foundation for a very strong [Clinton] legacy."

And indeed, by many accounts, Tauscher, who represented California's tenth district for thirteen years, was Clinton's personal, hand-picked choice for the job. Fellow House Democrats, Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, stepped in with their old House colleague Rahm Emanuel to alleviate the White House chief of staff's initial concerns about having to defend Tauscher's seat for the Democrats, and Tauscher returned the favor.  Though she was confirmed June 25 after a conservative critic of the Obama administration's arms control philosophy Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) lifted his hold on her nomination, Tauscher held off immediately resigning her seat because her fellow House Democrats might have needed her vote on a controversial climate change bill.

So, on Friday, June 26, Tauscher spent ten hours presiding over the climate change debate and a mini-filibuster by Minority Leader Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), who spoke for nearly an hour before allowing the House to vote. With the landmark bill approved, Tauscher resigned, sent formal resignation letters to Speaker Pelosi and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and went off the next day to get married to Cieslak, a former F-18 Marine Corps aviator and retired Delta pilot who played football at Northwestern where he tackled O.J. Simpson.

With the Ben Franklin room's soaring views of the Potomac, the grandeur of the swearing-in ceremony's setting was a far cry from the state of neglect Tauscher's staff found when they went to check out her new seventh floor "T" bureau digs early last month while she was on her honeymoon. "When I walked over here July 3, I was flabbergasted," one aide said. "I [was] calling Ellen: it was disgusting, run down, dark and dingy, in total neglect." The office's condition "is symbolic of how arms control had been treated the past eight years," the aide said. Moldy maroon carpeting was replaced with crisp blue, and moods improved.

When Tauscher spoke at a "T" bureau town hall last week, more than 200 people showed up. The former congresswoman has brought over Simon Limage from her Hill office to serve as her chief of staff, and spokesman Jonathan Kaplan, a former reporter for The Hill and Washington correspondent for The Portland Press Herald. Her front office includes Jim Timbie, who has worked on arms control issues since 1971, Vann Van Diepen, serving as acting Assistant Secretary at International Security and Nonproliferation, Shapiro and Gottemoeller. Frank Rose from the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee is working for Gottemoeller. Three new advisors are expected to come on board next month. Among them: Wade Boese, who served as a senior analyst for the Arms Control Association and more recently was Lee Hamilton's right-hand man on the Strategic Posture Commission; and Jofi Joseph, a long-time Senate foreign policy hand most recently for Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA). Joseph is expected to serve as Tauscher's point person on CTBT ratification, a subject he addressed this year in Washington Quarterly.

The Cable

Iran envoy says reports Iran ready for nuclear dialogue cite from letter (UPDATED)

In a seeming sign of continued turmoil inside the Iranian government, an Iranian diplomat tried to walk back an earlier statement carried by Iranian state television Tuesday that Iran was ready to enter into talks with the West about its nuclear program, insisting his earlier comments were drawn from a letter he had written to the United Nations.

"There have been no comments or interviews with TV networks on nuclear talks or conditions," Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency Ali Asghar Soltanieh told Iranian state television Tuesday, as reported by Iran's Press TV.

"Soltanieh added, however, that he had referred to a letter he sent to the United Nations calling for a ban on armed attacks against nuclear facilities around the world," the Press TV report continued. (UPDATE: Here's a copy of the letter to which Soltanieh was referring [.pdf]).

Earlier Tuesday, news wires monitoring Iranian state television reported: "Soltanieh announced Iran's readiness to take part in any negotiations with the West based on mutual respect."

"Talks without preconditions is Iran's main stance in negotiations on the nuclear issue," Soltanieh was earlier cited by Iranian state television, according to Reuters.

Soltanieh's seemingly equivocal denial, as it was reported, and the fact that both statements were carried by government-controlled Iranian state television, seem to demonstrate all that is fraught in efforts to try to get dialogue with Iran underway, especially in the wake of Iran's disputed June 12 elections.

Iran experts have described Soltanieh as a technocrat being directed in both of today's statements by political leadership in Tehran.

"He is a technocrat not considered to be part of any particular faction," Trita Parsi of the National Iranian American Council told Foreign Policy Tuesday. "Nor is he known to freelance foreign policy, on the contrary. So this statement represents what [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and indirectly [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei want to do."

"Two to one he said what he was quoted as saying, then got told to deny it," judged Washington Institute for Near East Policy Iran expert Patrick Clawson.

The administration did not immediately respond to queries about its reaction to the reports.

Senior Obama administration officials have recently telegraphed that Iran has roughly until the United Nations General Assembly opening in mid-September to positively respond to the Western offer for talks on its nuclear program, or face stepped up international sanctions and other pressure. "The president has been quite clear that this is not an open ended offer to engage," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a news conference in Israel last month. "I think that the president is certainly anticipating or hoping for some kind of a response this fall, perhaps, by the time of the U.N. General Assembly."

Parsi said while the Iranian response is in some ways predictable, and that some in Washington may interpret it as "stringing the West along," his concern is different: What if the Iranians show up to negotiations, and they simply can't make a decision because of continued post-elections political turmoil? "I don't think worst case is that they don't show up," Parsi said. "They'll show up. The worst case scenario is that they show up but they are incapable of making any big decisions because of political infighting in Iran."

But another nonproliferation expert experienced with Iran who asked to speak anonymously was more cautiously optimistic, while noting the Iranian negotiating tendency of saying yes, then no, then maybe.

"I think we all have clear in mind what an agreeement based on mutual respect could be," the expert told Foreign Policy by e-mail Tuesday, "recognizing Iran's right to enrichment, with additional international controls on Iran's nuclear activities including the additional protocol, combined with some constraints. If Iran is clear about this, then the situation can go forward."

The Washington Institute's Clawson was not convinced. "Ali Asghar Soltanieh is not a major player in Iranian nuclear policy," he said. "There is little reason to think that he would be the person to make any major announcement.  His usual role is to appear reasonable to Western audiences. ... His statement did not suggest that Iran was open to any compromise on the issues about which the West cares."

"Much ado about absolutely nothing, in my view," agreed Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nonproliferation expert George Perkovich. "And, if and when the Iranians show up for actual discussions, they won't put out anything that resembles a compromise or necessary moves.  Why would they unless and until they see that there will be consequences if they don't?"

Last year, as Foreign Policy previously reported, several nonproliferation experts who have since taken prominent positions in the Obama administration participated in a "track 2" dialogue on Iran's nuclear program at which Soltanieh was a participant. Among those who attended some of the four sessions convened by the Pugwash conference in Vienna and the Hague, Obama's top WMD coordinator Gary Samore, NSC senior director on Iran, Iraq and the Persian Gulf Puneet Talwar, and others.

"I think there's an advantage to have people in the administration who have some experience dealing with Iranian experts and officials," Samore told Foreign Policy in February, saying that he had attended one of the Pugwash-sponsored dialogues on Iran's nuclear program in the Hague last summer in his then private capacity as a nonproliferation expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "It gives you a stronger position to mount a diplomatic effort. Knowledge is better than ignorance."