Posted by Joshua on Sunday, February 1st, 2009
WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama has already used experts within the last few months to hold high-level but discreet talks with both Iran and Syria, organizers of the meetings told AFP.
Officially, Obama’s overtures toward both Tehran and Damascus have remained limited.
In an interview broadcast Monday, Obama said the United States would offer arch-foe Iran an extended hand of diplomacy if the Islamic Republic’s leaders “unclenched their fist.”
Meanwhile, his secretary of state Hillary Clinton warned that the Israeli-Syrian track of the Middle East peace negotiations took a back seat to the Israeli-Palestinian track, especially because of the recent war in Gaza.
However, even before winning the November 4 election, Obama unofficially used what experts call “track two” discussions to approach America’s two foes in the region.
Nuclear non-proliferation experts had several “very, very high-level” contacts in the last few months with Iranian leaders, said Jeffrey Boutwell, executive director for the US branch of the Pugwash group, an international organization of scientists which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995.
Former defense secretary William Perry, who served in Obama’s election campaign, participated in some of these meetings focused on “a wide range of issues that separate Iran from the West: not only their nuclear program but the Middle East peace process, Persian Gulf issues,” Boutwell told AFP.
The Pugwash official declined to name the other participants, except to say they had considerable clout.
“We had very, very senior figures from both the Iranian policy establishment and from the US; people who have very close, good access to the top leaders in both countries,” Boutwell said.
“The Cable,” the blog of the specialist magazine Foreign Policy, said Iran’s permanent representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (AIEA), Ali Asghar Soltanieh, was “among the Iranian officials who attended the Pugwash dialogues.”
Meanwhile, a group of experts under the auspices of the think tank, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), announced Thursday that they met for more than two hours in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The experts included Ellen Laipson, a former White House adviser under president Bill Clinton and a member of the Obama transition team.
Assad struck positive notes, the participants in the meeting said during a press conference at the Washington headquarters of USIP, a bipartisan think tank financed by Congress.
“His phrasing was 70 percent of our interests are potentially shared and 30 percent are not. And he said: let’s work on the 70 percent,” said Bruce Jentleson, who was the disarmament advisor to former vice president Al Gore.
The Syrian president himself revealed on Monday that “dialogue started some weeks ago in a serious manner through personalities who are close to the administration and who were dispatched by the administration.”
The United States accuses Syria of supporting “terrorist” groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, of destabilizing Lebanon and of allowing armed men to transit its territory to fight US-led forces in Iraq.
Washington and Tehran, which have had no diplomatic ties for nearly 30 years, differ sharply over Iran’s nuclear program. Washington charges the program is a covert military one, but Tehran says it is for nuclear energy.
Elbaradei: Israel violated international law in Syria
Published: 02.01.09 / Israel News
IAEA chief says that instead of using unilateral force, Jewish state should have provided nuclear watchdog with intelligence on alleged Syrian reactor
WASHINGTON – Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Saturday that Israel “violated the rules of international law” by bombing an alleged Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007.
Speaking to the Newsweek magazine, ElBaradei said that instead of using unilateral force, Israel should have provided the nuclear watchdog with the intelligence it had.
Stick and Carrot
US demands Syria cooperate on nuke plan / Roee Nahmias
American ambassador to UN nuclear watchdog says Damascus must decide whether it plans to follow in Iran’s footsteps or cooperate on its alleged atomic program. A failure to do so, he warns, would lead to punishment measures.
“I have been very harsh on Israel because they violated the rules of international law on the use of unilateral force, and they did not provide us with the information before the bombing (with) which we could have established whether Syria was building a nuclear reactor,” the IAEA chief said.
In a sarcastic remark directed at the United States, ElBaradei said that the US was also to blame for “sitting on the information” for a year and a half after the bombing.
“Now we are doing our best to try to see what Syria was doing, but it’s like Iran. I cannot jump the gun and say Syria was building a nuclear facility because what we are doing now is trying to verify what was there,” he added.
During the interview, which was held at the margins of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, ElBaradei also referred to the Iranian nuclear program, noting that Japan was also advancing a nuclear technology like Tehran.
The interviewer reminded the IAEA chief that Japan was not threatening to destroy Israel. ElBaradei replied that there had been a lot of offensive statements made by Iran, but that as far as he understood, Iran was interested in a one-state solution rather than in seeing Israel wiped off the map.
Direct dialogue without preconditions
ElBaradei went on to say that the world was facing a problem because the Middle East had become more extreme and Iran was very popular in the Muslim world. We must bolster the moderates and find a solution, and Tehran could be a very positive element in finding such a solution, he added.
He said the nuclear issue covered a lot of security-related, diplomatic and economic issue, and that what was needed was a “major deal” like the one US President Barack Obama has been talking about.
“You’re not going to have trust unless you have a direct dialogue. President Obama right now is saying he’s ready to have a direct dialogue without preconditions, based on mutual respect. I say this is absolutely overdue,” he said.
“You cannot treat Iran like a donkey, with carrots and sticks. This is a competition for power in the Middle East… It’s a competition between Iran and the West … Iran wants to have its role as a regional security power recognized.”
A report issued by nuclear monitors in Vienna last November determined that the building destroyed in an Israel Air Force strike in Syria had characteristics similar to those of a nuclear reactor. It also ruled that uranium had been found near the facility, which could have been used for enrichment.
The report stressed, however, that the findings were preliminary and that additional inspections should be held and Syrian documents should be probed before reaching clear conclusions.
A week after the report was released, ElBaradei told the Los Angeles Times that Damascus’ request for help in building a nuclear power station did not constitute a threat, and that the West’s efforts to hinder the project threatened to hurt the agency’s reliability.
The nuclear watchdog chief added that it was too early to judge the Syrian plan, noting that the American claims on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had turned out to be wrong.
A Conversation with Mohamed ElBaradei, Sunday, February 1, 2009; B03, Washington Post
I have said for the past six years that the policy of building trust between the West (and the United States in particular) and Iran has failed completely. We haven’t moved one iota.
Do you think it is possible?
I think it is possible. I have been counseling privately and publicly that this is not going to happen unless there is a direct dialogue.
Cyprus stops Iranian arms ship to Syria-report
Fri Jan 30, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan 30 (Reuters) – Cypriot authorities have detained an Iranian ship en route to Syria with a cargo of weapons, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported on Friday.
Quoting a European Union diplomatic source, it said Cyprus had acted after Israel and the United States requested that the Cypriot-flagged vessel be stopped.
Authorities contacted the ship and demanded that it dock in Limassol for inspection. Customs officials had unloaded part of the cargo and a large amount of weaponry, including artillery rounds and rockets, the paper said.
Cypriot authorities declined comment.
Israel believes the weapons were destined for the Lebanese Islamist guerrilla group Hezbollah or for Islamist Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, Haaretz quoted Israeli sources as saying.
On Wednesday, U.S. military officials said personnel from the U.S. Navy vessel San Antonio last week boarded the Cypriot-flagged “Monchegorsk”, a cargo vessel travelling from Iran to Syria, and found a weapons shipment but for legal reasons did not confiscate the cargo.
The officials declined to say what kind of weapons were found or how many. They also would not be specific about where or when the incident occurred.
It was unclear whether this was the same ship which Haaretz reported had been apprehended by the Cypriot authorities.
Officials in Washington said the search was conducted as part of the U.S. Navy’s normal maritime security role in regional waters that stretch from the Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean.
The U.S. officials said the arms could not be shown to violate U.N. weapons sanctions against Iran and the vessel was allowed to continue on to Syria.
The incident came to light amid media reports that the U.S. navy has been ordered to intercept suspected Iranian shipments to rearm Hamas following Israel’s 22-day Gaza offensive against the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas
2009, une « année très difficile » pour l’économie syrienne
De Jihad Yazigi, En coopération avec : The Syria report, firstname.lastname@example.org
L’économie syrienne passera par « une année très difficile » en 2009, a affirmé le ministre syrien des Finances. Il s’agit de la première déclaration d’un officiel syrien sur l’impact négatif de la crise économique mondiale sur l’économie locale.
« La crise mondiale combinée à la sécheresse qui sévit dans le pays pour la troisième année consécutive me rend très inquiet » pour les perspectives de l’économie syrienne en 2009, a souligné Mohammad Hussein lors d’une réunion au ministère des Finances.
Le ministre a évoqué certains facteurs à risques, comme la baisse des transferts des expatriés syriens, la chute du prix du brut qui creusera le déficit public, le recul des investissements étrangers, notamment de la région du Golfe, la baisse du tourisme, le repli des exportations syriennes, et la baisse des intérêts sur les fonds gouvernementaux déposés à l’étranger. M. Hussein n’a toutefois pas donné d’estimations chiffrées.
L’autre source d’inquiétude est la situation difficile des entreprises publiques qui drainent les finances publiques, a-t-il ajouté. Sur environ 260 compagnies publiques, seule une vingtaine génèrent des revenus pour le Trésor, dont la compagnie pétrolière syrienne, la compagnie de télécommunications, la banque commerciale de Syrie et l’Organisation générale du tabac. Toutes les autres sociétés enregistrent des pertes ou des bénéfices nuls.
Le manque de données et l’absence de communication de la part du gouvernement sur le sujet empêchent les analystes de mesurer précisément l’impact de la crise sur l’économie syrienne.
Les grands projets de développement immobiliers, dont plusieurs sont menés par des investisseurs du Golfe, semblent se poursuivre. D’autres événements, comme la fermeture de certaines usines à Alep, suggèrent toutefois que les craintes de M. Hussein ne sont pas infondées.
Obama’s Long Shot for Peace
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF, Published: January 31, 2009, The New York Times
In any discussion of the Middle East at the World Economic Forum here in Davos, the central figure is a man who isn’t even here: President Obama.
Mr. Obama’s first moves are being greeted with vast relief by a broad range of players in the region. There’s also a whisper of hope that a serious American peace effort by Mr. Obama just might transform the Middle East, with the most promising route passing through Syria.
President Bush’s problem was that he loved Israel too much. He embraced Israeli leaders even when they responded to provocations by killing more than 1,300 people in Gaza, according to Gaza health officials – in retaliation for shelling that had killed fewer than 30 Israelis since it began in 2001.
This tilted policy was catastrophic for Israelis as well as Palestinians, for it undermined any chance of a peace agreement that is Israel’s best hope for long-term security. Now we’re starting over.
The way Gaza has raised tensions was evident in a panel discussion in Davos on Thursday when the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, complained furiously that he wasn’t given enough time to respond to Israel’s president, Shimon Peres. Mr. Erdogan then stormed off the stage and threatened never to return to Davos.
Those pyrotechnics overshadowed a much more positive undercurrent here – enthusiasm for more American engagement in the region, in a more evenhanded way.
Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary general, told me he was “very encouraged” by Mr. Obama’s first moves, like appointing George Mitchell as special envoy. “It’s high time for the Americans to take a bold initiative,” he said.
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, praised Mr. Obama’s “good start” on the Middle East. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, joined the praise and added: “There is an opportunity. I hope this opportunity will be exploited to the limit.”
Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, declared, “There are prospects of the U.S. returning to the role of honest broker, which we missed.” That view seems widespread here, and is shared by many in Israel as well.
“You have a complete breakdown of trust: ‘It’s my toy!’ ‘No, it’s my toy!’ ” said David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland, now based in Jerusalem as head of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “We need someone who can move the parties beyond their own pain and vulnerability.”
There are two major ways in which the Obama administration can do that.
First, it must push to reduce the misery in Palestinian territories. A peace deal with the Palestinians is not possible today, partly because the Palestinians themselves are bitterly divided between Fatah and Hamas. But nothing can be done anywhere as long as scenes of Gaza suffering are unfolding on television screens.
That means that Israel must lift the siege of Gaza, completely opening the crossings. If Hamas resumes its unconscionable rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, then bomb the tunnels or strike Hamas targets in a proportional way, but don’t escalate.
Mr. Obama should also insist on a complete halt of settlement activity on the West Bank, and on an easing of the West Bank checkpoints that make life wretched for Palestinians. All that would also bolster moderates in the Palestinian Authority, making an eventual deal more likely.
Second, the United States should focus on a peace deal between Syria and Israel. With a Palestinian deal impossible for the time being, the path forward is to try to peel Syria away from Iran. If that strategy succeeded, Iran’s subversive influence would be reduced, Hamas might be moderated, and there would be momentum for further gains.
Turkey has been mediating talks between Syria and Israel, and Prime Minister Erdogan said those talks had been making great progress. “We were very close until the Gaza events,” added the Turkish foreign minister, Ali Babacan. That peace effort must be revived with strong American participation.
Most of the elements of the Israel-Syria deal were agreed upon years ago, and one of Syria’s main aims is better relations with the United States. That is something that the Obama administration can provide.
Mr. Ban has been conducting his own relentless shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East, and he said he was hopeful after recent conversations with Syria’s president and Israel’s prime minister.
All this is a long shot, of course. But Mr. Obama knows something about long odds coming home, and few people have made money betting against him.
Is an Israeli Jewish sense of victimization perpetuating the conflict with Palestinians?
By Akiva Eldar
A new study of Jewish Israelis shows that most accept the ‘official version’ of the history of the conflict with the Palestinians. Is it any wonder, then, that the same public also buys the establishment explanation of the operation in Gaza?
A pioneering research study dealing with Israeli Jews’ memory of the conflict with the Arabs, from its inception to the present, came into the world together with the war in Gaza. The sweeping support for Operation Cast Lead confirmed the main diagnosis that arises from the study, conducted by Daniel Bar-Tal, one of the world’s leading political psychologists, and Rafi Nets-Zehngut, a doctoral student: Israeli Jews’ consciousness is characterized by a sense of victimization, a siege mentality, blind patriotism, belligerence, self-righteousness, dehumanization of the Palestinians and insensitivity to their suffering……
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has lost all credibility as an honest broker in peace discussions,” a senior Israeli diplomatic official told The Jerusalem Post Saturday night, citing Erdogan’s recent anti-Israel rhetoric.
“As long as he is the prime minister of the country, Turkey has no place in peace negotiations or discussions,” the official added. “It is not a trustworthy diplomatic partner anymore.”
Until recently, Turkey had played a key role in quiet discussions between Israel, Syria, and other regional players.
The loss of the Turkish diplomatic channel was a serious blow to these discussions, said Foreign Ministry officials.
“The only parties that could reasonably play that mediating role now are the Americans under Obama, or, in theory, a European party,” the diplomatic official surmised.
At the Davos World Economic Forum on Thursday night, Erdogan launched a blistering attack on Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s offensive against Hamas infrastructure in Gaza.
This was followed by an impassioned defense of Israel’s actions by President Shimon Peres, Erdogan’s fellow panel member at the prestigious conference.
When Erdogan tried to respond, he was cut off by the moderator, and quickly stormed off the stage, accusing Peres of lying.
“It’s not that he criticized Israel,” said the Israeli official. “Other countries, such as the French, criticize Israel whenever they see fit. But Erdogan launched accusation after accusation and did everything possible to be disrespectful, including telling outright lies. He went as far as to publicly shame the president of the state of Israel,” the official said.
The Davos incident was the culmination of a month of angry tirades against Israel by the Turkish prime minister. Throughout the Gaza fighting, Erdogan blamed Israel alone for the escalation and called for it to be barred from the UN.
He accused Israel of “inhuman actions which would bring it to self-destruction. Allah will sooner or later punish those who transgress the rights of innocents,” he said.
In a January 13 speech to Turkey’s parliament, he accused “media outlets supported by Jews” of “disseminating false reports on what happens in Gaza, finding unfounded excuses to justify targeting of schools, mosques, and hospitals.
The recent visit to Israel of George Mitchell, the former Senator returning for another turn as special U.S. envoy to the Middle East, was described in Israel as having been ‘not too bad.’