NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: June 24

Bet on Neda’s side

We are watching the first innings of what will be a long game in Iran. President Obama has recognized that with his gradually escalating rhetoric. Yesterday, he was using powerful language to describe the “timeless dignity” of the protesters and the “heartbreaking” images of Neda. He suggested that the mullahs cannot win a war of repression against their own people. “In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests,” he said.

Behind Obama’s cool but confident talk is a judgment that, as one senior White House official puts it, the mullahs “can’t put the genie back in the bottle.” The official explained: “Iran will never be the same again. You don’t have to know how this will end to know that. The regime has been challenged. They are now back on their heels.”

A weakened Iran may seek the validation and legitimacy that would come from negotiations with the United States, presenting a diplomatic dilemma for Obama. Several American officials have told me that before the June 12 election, Tehran signaled Washington that it was ready for talks. Obama has tried to keep this door open, stressing at his news conference yesterday: “We have provided a path whereby Iran can reach out to the international community, engage and become part of international norms.” But as long as the Basijs are clubbing and shooting protesters in the streets, negotiation will be a nonstarter.

As the mullahs’ grip on power weakens, there are new opportunities to peel away some of their allies. The United States is moving quickly to normalize relations with Syria, and there’s talk of working with the Saudis to draw elements of the radical Palestinian group Hamas away from its Iranian patrons, toward a coalition government that would be prepared to negotiate with Israel. Observes a White House official: “Iran’s allies in the region have to be wondering, ‘Why should we hitch our wagon to their starship?’ ” [continued…]

The Arabs’ forlorn envy of Iranians

Most Arab governments dislike the current Iranian regime, so you would think they would be pleased to see it toppled, or tempered by its own people. Yet, if such change were to occur through street demonstrations choreographed via a web of digital communications, whispered messages, and rooftop religious chants in the middle of the night, Arab leaders of autocratic regimes would be unhappy — because they would sense their own vulnerability to similar mass political challenges. The fact is not lost on anyone that the Iranian regime effectively withstood and defied American-Israeli-European-UN pressure, threats and sanctions for years, but found itself much more vulnerable to the spontaneous rebellion of many of its own citizens who felt degraded by the falsification of election results by the government. [continued…]

Iran’s crisis: The opposition weighs its options

Despite fantasies of insurrection in some of the more fevered Western media assessments of the confrontation, the balance of forces appears to militate against a knockout blow by either side. U.S.-based Iran scholar Farideh Farhi, speaking to the Council on Foreign Relations, stressed that Ahmadinejad and the Supreme leader may not have the majority of the people behind them, “but they do have support. They also have the resources of the state — both financial and military. So that makes them quite robust.”

At the same time, Farhi notes, the opposition coalition includes some very powerful figures from within the regime, who together command the support of a large section of the population. Thus, she warns, “To assume that this will lead ultimately to a victory of one over the other is unrealistic as well as dangerous because it may come at the cost of tremendous violence.” More likely, she argues, is the pursuit of some sort of compromise that allows the regime to back down to some extent, without necessarily surrendering. [continued…]

The end of the beginning

Iran’s 1979 revolution took a full year to gestate. The uprising of 2009 has now ended its first phase. But the volatility ushered in by the June 12 ballot-box putsch of Iran’s New Right is certain to endure over the coming year. The Islamic Republic has been weakened.

During one of the violent clashes here in recent days, I saw a member of the riot police confront a protester holding a cell phone. “Don’t take a photograph of me!” he yelled at the young man.

“Why?” the man shouted back. “You’re not naked.”

But the Islamic Republic is. Everyone knows where everyone stands; it isn’t pretty. All the fudge that allowed a modern society to coexist with a theocracy inspired by an imam occulted in the 9th century has been swept away, leaving two Irans at war. [continued…]

Diplomatic relations begin to show strain

Iran’s Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, called on European countries to refrain from holding talks with Iran until it ends violence against protesters and fresh elections are held.

The call came as Iran’s relations with Europe soured considerably yesterday.

“I don’t believe in economic sanctions because they will hurt the people, not the government,” Ms Ebadi told the BBC Persian television. “I believe in political sanctions. European countries can reduce their relations with Iran to charge d’ affaires level.” [continued…]

Clerics join Iran’s anti-government protests

A photo showing Iranian clerics prominently participating in an anti-government protest speaks volumes about the new face of Iran’s opposition movement.

In a blatant act of defiance, a group of Mullahs took to the streets of Tehran, to protest election results that returned incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. [continued…]

The “Neda video,” torture, and the truth-revealing power of images

The single most significant event in shaping worldwide revulsion towards the violence of the Iranian government has been the video of the young Iranian woman bleeding to death, the so-called “Neda video.” Like so many iconic visual images before it — from My Lai, fire hoses and dogs unleashed at civil rights protesters, Abu Ghraib — that single image has done more than the tens of thousands of words to dramatize the violence and underscore the brutality of the state response.

For the last question at his press conference yesterday, Obama was asked by CNN’s Suzanne Malveaux about his reaction to that video and to reports that Iranians are refraining from protesting due to fear of such violence. As Obama was answering — attesting to how “heartbreaking” he found the video; how “anybody who sees it knows that there’s something fundamentally unjust” about the violence; and paying homage to “certain international norms of freedom of speech, freedom of expression” — Helen Thomas, who hadn’t been called on, interrupted to ask Obama to reconcile those statements about the Iranian images with his efforts at home to suppress America’s own torture photos (“Then why won’t you allow the photos –“). [continued…]

U.S. remains firm on settlements

The ongoing dispute between Prime Minister Netanyahu and the US administration over construction in the settlements resulted in the cancellation of the meeting that had been scheduled to be held tomorrow in Paris between the prime minister and US special envoy George Mitchell.

Yitzhak Molcho, the prime minister’s special adviser, held secret talks this past weekend with senior US officials in Washington in an attempt to bridge the gaps that have had such an inimical impact on Israeli-American relations. Molcho’s interlocutors in Washington said once again that the United States was opposed to continued construction in the settlements and in the settlement blocs, even if the rationale for that construction was to meet the needs of “natural growth.”

Given that situation, Molcho and his American interlocutors agreed that there was no point holding a meeting between Mitchell and Netanyahu, and that talks needed to be pursued in an attempt to find a compromise solution.

A high-ranking political source said that the White House sent Netanyahu the following stern message: “Once you’ve finished the homework we gave you on stopping construction in the settlements, let us know. Until then, there’s no point in having Mitchell fly to Paris to meet you.” [continued…]

Barak authorizes construction of 300 new homes in West Bank

Defense Minister Ehud Barak has authorized the building of 300 new homes in the West Bank, defying U.S. calls for a halt to settlement growth.

Activists for Bimkom association, which works for justice and human rights in planning and knows a thing or two about the situation in the territories, have discovered that Barak recently authorized the Civil Administration to submit a plan for the construction of 300 housing units in the unauthorized outpost of Givat Habrecha, near the community of Talmon. [continued…]

Netanyahu: Settlements debate is a waste of time

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that international “arguing” over Israel’s stance on settlements was impeding progress on the Middle East peace progress.

In an interview with Italy’s RAI TV, Netanyahu insisted that settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank must be viewed as separate issues, as Jerusalem is an inseparable part of Israel.

He also said that Israel has been forthcoming with its intentions to halt construction while still allowing for natural growth in existing communities, which he called “an equitable position which reflexes our willingness to enter immediately in peace negotiations and get on with peace.” [continued…]

Ross’s expanded portfolio riles Iraq, Middle East teams

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. [continued…]

Israel frees a top Hamas figure

Israel freed the most senior Hamas leader in its prisons Tuesday after prosecutors failed to persuade a military court to prolong his three-year sentence.

The release of Aziz Dweik, speaker of the Palestinian Authority parliament, fed speculation that Israel was on the verge of a deal to secure the return of a captured soldier in exchange for hundreds of Hamas prisoners. Such a swap has been the aim of sporadic negotiations mediated by Egypt, but Israeli and Hamas officials said they had no information about a breakthrough. [continued…]

U.S. drone strike said to kill 60 in Pakistan

An airstrike believed to have been carried out by a United States drone killed at least 60 people at a funeral for a Taliban fighter in South Waziristan on Tuesday, residents of the area and local news reports said.

Details of the attack, which occurred in Makeen, remained unclear, but the reported death toll was exceptionally high. If the reports are indeed accurate and if the attack was carried out by a drone, the strike could be the deadliest since the United States began using the aircraft to fire remotely guided missiles at members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The United States carried out 22 previous drone strikes this year, as the Obama administration has intensified a policy inherited from the Bush administration.

Before the attack on Tuesday, the Pakistani Army and Air Force had begun operations in South Waziristan against the forces of the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud. The group’s suicide bombings in major cities have terrorized Pakistanis for years. [continued…]

Documents back Saudi link to extremists

Documents gathered by lawyers for the families of Sept. 11 victims provide new evidence of extensive financial support for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups by members of the Saudi royal family, but the material may never find its way into court because of legal and diplomatic obstacles.

The case has put the Obama administration in the middle of a political and legal dispute, with the Justice Department siding with the Saudis in court last month in seeking to kill further legal action. Adding to the intrigue, classified American intelligence documents related to Saudi finances were leaked anonymously to lawyers for the families. The Justice Department had the lawyers’ copies destroyed and now wants to prevent a judge from even looking at the material.

The Saudis and their defenders in Washington have long denied links to terrorists, and they have mounted an aggressive and, so far, successful campaign to beat back the allegations in federal court based on a claim of sovereign immunity. [continued…]

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