Saturday, July 19, 2008

News roundup: Signs of Mideast Shift

Talks Signal Mideast Shift
BEIRUT, Lebanon — After years of escalating tensions and bloodshed, the talk in the Middle East is suddenly about talking. The shift is still relatively subtle, but hints of a new approach in the waning months of the Bush administration are fueling hopes of at least short-term stability for the first time since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Much is happening, adding up not to any great diplomatic breakthrough, but to a distinct change in direction. Syria is being welcomed out of isolation by Europe and is holding indirect talks with Israel. Lebanon has formed a new government. Israel has cut deals with Hamas (a cease-fire) and Hezbollah (a prisoner exchange).
On Wednesday, the United States agreed to send a high-ranking diplomat to attend talks with Iran over its nuclear program, and was considering establishing a diplomatic presence in Tehran for the first time since the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis.
“The overall picture is moving in the direction of cooling the political atmosphere,” said Muhammad al-Rumaihi, a former government adviser in Kuwait and the editor of Awan, an independent daily newspaper there.
Many underlying problems, including the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, are not on the verge of resolution. Afghanistan has recently seen a sharp spike in violence. In the Middle East, optimism can fill the void left by even a temporary lull in violence, like the recent — and still fragile — stability gains in Iraq. Nevertheless, not long ago, the fear was that Lebanon would descend into civil war and that either Israel or the United States, or both, would attack Iran. That seems less likely at the moment.
The United States, Israel and some of their European allies have begun to recognize that their policy of trying to defeat their enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed.
The West’s opponents — Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas — also appear to recognize that the cost of ratcheting up tensions may be too high. Syria and Iran are suffering serious economic problems and could benefit from better relations with the United States and Europe. “We are seeing the outlines of a general thaw in the region,” said Osama Safa, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies in Beirut.
This is not necessarily good news for Washington’s traditional Arab allies, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Leaders there were content to have the United States keep pressure on Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, which threaten their own power.
But it represents a pragmatic recognition among Western nations, analysts said, that those deemed rogues in the West have often generated popular support in the region. Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood have repeatedly shown nimble political instincts that have allowed them to exploit democratic openings urged by Washington to enhance their influence.
There is also recognition that the players who can deliver in hot spots like Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza are the same ones that Washington had shunned — Syria, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
“You may have to deal with governments on political issues, but when it comes to security, they have to deal with nonstate actors like Hezbollah and Hamas,” Mr. Safa said.
Simon Karam, a former Lebanese ambassador to Washington, said Hezbollah and Hamas also seemed to have followed the path taken by Yasir Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, which was also condemned as a terrorist group before it found its place at the negotiating table.
“I witnessed a similar process with regard to P.L.O., Fatah and Arafat,” Mr. Karam said. “Both Americans and Israelis are more inclined to accept the status quo.”
Not long ago, for example, when Fatah leaders negotiated a cease-fire with Israel, it was Hamas that had to be pressed to abide by the truce. Now Hamas, having negotiated a cease-fire with Israel in Gaza, has tried to rein in groups like Islamic Jihad.
The United States and Israel may have failed to dislodge Hamas from Gaza, weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, stop Iran’s nuclear program or force any pronounced change of behavior in Syria. Yet, each of those players has now seen it is in its interests to deal, too. The process of talks confers on them new diplomatic and political status, but maintaining that status requires some moderation in their policies.
The emerging phase in Middle Eastern dynamics was on display on Wednesday. Emotions ran high when Israel and Hezbollah completed the deal to trade five Lebanese prisoners for two coffins with the remains of the Israeli soldiers captured two years ago. It was a clear Hezbollah victory, yet it was also seen in Lebanon as a deal to reduce the chances of a fresh cross-border conflict, analysts said.
On the same day, the United States announced that it would send William J. Burns, the under secretary for political affairs at the State Department, to attend talks with Iran over its nuclear program. The White House said there would be no negotiating. But that did little to mask the new approach, and was undermined by the talk of establishing limited diplomatic ties with Tehran.
“The presence of the representative is a move towards calm between Iran and the United States, especially within the Iraqi context,” said Mr. Rumaihi, the former Kuwaiti government adviser. “The Iraqi scene is also witnessing a political cooling through the announcement made by the Emirates, Bahrain and finally Kuwait about sending ambassadors to Iraq.”
Events in this part of the world can change quickly. Lebanon could erupt next spring, when parliamentary elections are scheduled. If diplomatic overtures to Iran fail to dissuade it from pursuing what the West fears is a nuclear weapons program, military options could again take center stage.
Some analysts suspect that Israel and the United States may be trying to placate their other enemies in advance of a military strike on Iran that they consider all but inevitable. But these days, for everyone who sees diplomacy as a cover for military action, someone else sees saber rattling as a cover for compromise.
“The Arab side is unable to grasp the speed with which the change is happening,” said Salama Ahmed Salama, a daily columnist in Al Ahram, Egypt’s largest state-controlled newspaper. “Newspapers in Egypt and Saudi are all talking about the coming war between the United States and Israel on the one hand and Iran on the other. They can’t understand that a compromise can happen at any time.”
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Cairo.

Report: U.S. to station diplomats in Iran for first time since 1979

By Barak Ravid, Haaretz Correspondent, and The Associated Press

The United States intends to station diplomats in Iran for the first time since the 1979 Islamic Revolution which saw a severence of ties between the two countries, The Guardian reported on Thursday.

The move would be a step in the direction of setting up a full embassy in Iran, a dramatic political shift for the Bush administration, which has spent the last few years guiding international pressure on Tehran over its contentious nuclear program.

The Guardian report comes a day after the U.S. announced plans to send a senior envoy to meet with a senior Iranian representative to discuss Iran's nuclear program, an announcement met with concern in Israel.

"There is a bad feeling in Israel and dissatisfaction with the U.S. move," Israel told senior Washington officials, according to a source in Jerusalem. "There can be no concession on the demand to end uranium enrichment as a precondition to negotiating with Iran," Israel added.

UN Security Council members, Germany and the European Union have been holding regular meetings with Iranian representatives, and U.S. Under Secretary of State William Burns, considered No. 3 in the State Department, will be participating for the first time.

The U.S. informed Israel of its plans to send Burns to the talks, emphasizing that this is a one-time meeting and not a change in policy.

The source said the Americans considered the talks "feelers" to test whether it should be speaking with Iran.

The U.S. also claims it is sending an envoy to the talks because it "doesn't trust" the reports from EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the liaison with the Iranians. The Americans said Solana "pulls the wool over our eyes," according to the source in Jerusalem.

Israel emphasized to the U.S. that "there is great importance in maintaining the international demand to suspend uranium enrichment, as mandated by the UN resolution, as a precondition to entering negotiations with Iran. We believe there can be no concession on this demand," the source said. The Americans responded that "the condition remains."

Iranian FM in Syria for talks with Assad
Iran's foreign minister arrived in Damascus on Thursday for talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that will likely cover Tehran's disputed nuclear program.

Manouchehr Mottaki said on arrival Thursday that he'll discuss the latest Mideast developments with Assad.

But the two are also expected to discuss a request by the French president that Assad help persuade Tehran to cooperate with the international community over its nuclear ambitions.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy met Assad at a Euro-Med summit last weekend in Paris. Assad promised to relay the request from France to Tehran.

Syria and Iran are close allies, but Assad has expressed doubt that his intervention can help in a fierce standoff between Iran and the West.

Iran and U.S. Signaling Chance of Deal
By Glenn Kessler_Washington Post Staff Writer_Thursday, July 17, 2008; A16

President Bush's decision to shift policy and send a senior U.S. envoy to nuclear talks with Iran this weekend was made after increasing signs that Iran was open to possible negotiations and that international sanctions were having an impact on the Islamic republic, U.S. officials said yesterday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed for the move in a meeting on Monday of Bush's top aides, and Bush's support suggests he increasingly is determined to put aside a possible military strike in an effort to reach a deal to end Iran's nuclear program in his final six months in office. In recent weeks, the White House already has approved a sweetened package of incentives to Iran that included a pledge to refrain from the use of force, supported a European gambit to begin preliminary talks with Iran and sent clear signals to Israel not to consider acting against Iran on its own.
For more than two years, the Bush administration has had the same bottom line: Iran must suspend its enrichment of uranium -- a route to a nuclear weapon -- before serious talks can begin. U.S. officials insisted yesterday that such a demand, also shared by European allies, had not changed, but the diplomatic lines have become sufficiently hazy that if negotiations start in earnest, Iran will also be able to claim a diplomatic victory.
Iran last week sent its own mixed signals, test-firing long-range missiles in the Persian Gulf while appearing conciliatory on possible negotiations.
With negotiations now a real possibility, the Bush administration, which had largely subcontracted the nuclear diplomacy with Iran to its European partners, also appears intent on making sure that Iran hears its voice directly, rather than having it filtered by other interlocutors. The international coalition seeking talks with Iran -- Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China and the United States -- is an unwieldy group with different interests and expectations in negotiations, and so U.S. officials wanted to ensure that the preliminary talks did not veer off course and lose sight of the suspension demand.
The chief negotiator is E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana. When he delivered the revised package of incentives to Iran last month, he was accompanied by senior foreign policy officials of the other five countries, but not the United States. Now, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns, the State Department's third-ranking official, will join the group meeting with Saeed Jalili, Iran's nuclear negotiator, in Geneva.
"The substance remains the same, but this is a new tactic," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. She added: "What this does show is how serious we are when we say that we want to try to solve this diplomatically."
Bush accepted Rice's recommendation at the closely held meeting, which also included Vice President Cheney, national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, White House chief of staff Joshua B. Bolten and Burns. The move infuriated the administration's conservative critics, who said it was yet another sign the White House has lost its moorings.
"This is a complete capitulation on the whole idea of suspending enrichment," said former U.N. ambassador John R. Bolton. "Just when the administration has no more U-turns to pull, it does another."
But former State Department counselor Philip D. Zelikow said the decision is a natural evolution. "For some time, we and our allies have been reflecting on ways to reinforce that basic approach while taking away some of the more superficial complaints about it. This move does that. But the substantive position remains unchanged," he said.
U.S. officials said they felt comfortable making this shift because there are increasing signs that sanctions are beginning to harm Tehran, such as the decision last week by France energy giant Total SA to abandon plans to develop a liquefied natural gas project in Iran.
At the same time, however, the administration has sufficiently moderated its own position on how to proceed with talks.
In 2006, the initial package of incentives offered by the six countries included only a vague reference to Iran's security concerns because the Bush administration insisted that section of the offer be largely gutted. The new package, by contrast, offers to negotiate extensive security commitments, including supporting Iran in "playing an important and constructive role in international affairs."
The administration has also supported Solana's concept of a "freeze for a freeze," a six-week interim period for preliminary talks that blurs the lines between suspension and discussion. Under Solana's plan, talks could begin as long as the allies halt efforts to increase sanctions and Iran does not expand its nuclear program. Then formal negotiations would begin as soon as Iran suspended enrichment.
Thus, Iran could say it only suspended its program in the midst of talks, while the United States could say talks did not begin until nuclear activities were suspended -- allowing both sides to save face.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is aimed at generating electricity, not weapons, and thus far its official response has disappointed U.S. and European officials.
Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, in a three-page letter responding to the June offer made public this week by a French magazine, did not directly address the demand to suspend enrichment.
Instead, he called for a comprehensive dialogue, saying, "The time for negotiating from the condescending position of inequality has come to an end."

July 16, 2008
So Popular and So Spineless
Much ink has been spilled lately decrying the decline in American popularity around the world under President Bush. Polls tell us how China is now more popular in Asia than America and how few Europeans say they identify with the United States. I am sure there is truth to these polls. We should have done better in Iraq. An America that presides over Abu Ghraib, torture and Guantánamo Bay deserves a thumbs-down.
But America is not and never has been just about those things, which is why I also find some of these poll results self-indulgent, knee-jerk and borderline silly. Friday’s vote at the U.N. on Zimbabwe reminded me why.
Maybe Asians, Europeans, Latin Americans and Africans don’t like a world of too much American power — “Mr. Big” got a little too big for them. But how would they like a world of too little American power? With America’s overextended military and overextended banks, that is the world into which we may be heading.
Welcome to a world of too much Russian and Chinese power.
I am neither a Russia-basher nor a China-basher. But there was something truly filthy about Russia’s and China’s vetoes of the American-led U.N. Security Council effort to impose targeted sanctions on Robert Mugabe’s ruling clique in Zimbabwe.
The U.S. put forward a simple Security Council resolution, calling for an arms embargo on Zimbabwe, the appointment of a U.N. mediator, plus travel and financial restrictions on the dictator Mugabe and 13 top military and government officials for stealing the Zimbabwe election and essentially mugging an entire country in broad daylight.
In the first round of Zimbabwe’s elections, on March 29, the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, won nearly 48 percent of the vote compared with 42 percent for Mugabe. This prompted Mugabe and his henchmen to begin a campaign of killing and intimidation against Tsvangirai supporters that eventually forced the opposition to pull out of the second-round runoff vote just to stay alive.
Even before the runoff, Mugabe declared that he would disregard the results if his ZANU-PF party lost. Or as he put it: “We are not going to give up our country because of a mere X” on some paper ballot.
And so, of course, Mugabe “won” in one of the most blatantly stolen elections ever — in a country already mired in misrule, unemployment, hunger and inflation. Some 25 percent of Zimbabwe’s people have now taken refuge in neighboring states. (I have close friends from Zimbabwe, and one of my daughters worked there in an H.I.V.-AIDS community center in January.) The Associated Press reported in May from Zimbabwe “that annual inflation rose this month to 1,063,572 percent, based on prices of a basket of basic foodstuffs.” Zimbabwe’s currency has become so devalued, the A.P. explained, that “a loaf of bread now costs what 12 new cars did a decade ago.”
No matter. Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, argued that the targeted sanctions that the U.S. and others wanted to impose on Mugabe’s clique exceeded the Security Council’s mandate. “We believe such practices to be illegitimate and dangerous,” he said, describing the resolution as one more obvious “attempt to take the Council beyond its charter prerogatives.” Veto!
Mugabe’s campaign of murder and intimidation didn’t strike Churkin as “illegitimate and dangerous” — only the U.N. resolution to bring a halt to it was “illegitimate and dangerous.” Shameful. Meanwhile, China is hosting the Olympics, a celebration of the human spirit, while defending Mugabe’s right to crush his own people’s spirit.
But when it comes to pure, rancid moral corruption, no one can top South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and his stooge at the U.N., Dumisani Kumalo. They have done everything they can to prevent any meaningful U.N. pressure on the Mugabe dictatorship.
As The Times reported, America’s U.N. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, “accused South Africa of protecting the ‘horrible regime in Zimbabwe,’ ” calling this particularly disturbing given that it was precisely international economic sanctions that brought down South Africa’s apartheid government, which had long oppressed that country’s blacks.
So let us now coin the Mbeki Rule: When whites persecute blacks, no amount of U.N. sanctions is too much. And when blacks persecute blacks, any amount of U.N. sanctions is too much.
Which brings me back to America. Perfect we are not, but America still has some moral backbone. There are travesties we will not tolerate. The U.N. vote on Zimbabwe demonstrates that this is not true for these “popular” countries — called Russia or China or South Africa — that have no problem siding with a man who is pulverizing his own people.
So, yes, we’re not so popular in Europe and Asia anymore. I guess they would prefer a world in which America was weaker, where leaders with the values of Vladimir Putin and Thabo Mbeki had a greater say, and where the desperate voices for change in Zimbabwe would, well, just shut up.

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