Trump embraces pillars of Obama’s foreign policy

The New York Times reports: President Trump, after promising a radical break with the foreign policy of Barack Obama, is embracing some key pillars of the former administration’s strategy, including warning Israel to curb settlement construction, demanding that Russia withdraw from Crimea and threatening Iran with sanctions for ballistic missile tests.

In the most startling shift, the White House issued an unexpected statement appealing to the Israeli government not to expand the construction of Jewish settlements beyond their current borders in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Such expansion, it said, “may not be helpful in achieving” the goal of peace.

At the United Nations, Ambassador Nikki R. Haley declared that the United States would not lift sanctions against Russia until it stopped destabilizing Ukraine and pulled troops out of Crimea.

On Iran, the administration is preparing economic sanctions similar to those the Obama administration imposed just over a year ago. The White House has also shown no indication that it plans to rip up Mr. Obama’s landmark nuclear deal, despite Mr. Trump’s withering criticism of it during the presidential campaign.

New administrations often fail to change the foreign policies of their predecessors as radically as they promised, in large part because statecraft is so different from campaigning. And of course, today’s positions could shift over time. There is no doubt the Trump administration has staked out new ground on trade and immigration, upending relations with Mexico and large parts of the Muslim world in the process.

But the administration’s reversals were particularly stark because they came after days of tempestuous phone calls between Mr. Trump and foreign leaders, in which he gleefully challenged diplomatic orthodoxy and appeared to jeopardize one relationship after another. [Continue reading…]

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Iran sanctions extended, but without Obama’s irrelevant signature

The Washington Post reports: Sanctions against Iran were officially extended for another decade Thursday, even though President Obama did not sign the legislation, a symbolic move intended to show the White House’s disapproval of the bill.

The sanctions renewal, which passed Congress with enough votes to be veto-proof, has triggered complaints from Tehran. The Iranian government views the nuclear agreement as entailing a promise of no new sanctions. The White House, by not signing the bill, is trying to alleviate Iran’s concerns.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry said the nuclear deal is still a “top strategic objective” for the United States. With or without the sanctions renewed, he said, the United States could snap sanctions back into place if Iran were to violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the formal name for the nuclear deal. Kerry said that even though he considers it unnecessary to renew the existing waivers, he had done so anyway “to ensure maximum clarity” that the United States will meet its obligations under the deal.

He also said he had contacted Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, and U.S. allies to reassure them that the United States remains committed to the deal that gave Iran sanctions relief once it pared back its nuclear program.

“As long as Iran adheres to its commitments under the JCPOA, we remain steadfastly committed to maintaining ours as well,” he said.

But with President-elect Donald Trump just five weeks away from taking office, Kerry’s guarantees may be short-lived if the new administration takes a tougher approach to Iran, as is expected. [Continue reading…]

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Iran says U.S. extension of sanctions act violates nuclear deal

Reuters reports: Iran threatened on Friday to retaliate against the U.S. Senate’s vote to extend the Iran Sanctions Act (ISA) for 10 years, saying it violated last year’s deal with six major powers that curbed its nuclear programme.

The ISA was first adopted in 1996 to punish investments in Iran’s energy industry and deter its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The extension was passed unanimously on Thursday.

U.S. officials said the ISA’s renewal would not infringe on the nuclear agreement, under which Iran agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear work in return for the lifting of financial sanctions that harmed the country’s economy.

But senior Iranian officials took odds with that view.

Iran’s nuclear chief, Ali Akbar Salehi, who played a key role in reaching the nuclear deal, described it as a “clear violation” of the 2015 deal if implemented.

“We are closely monitoring the developments,” state TV quoted Salehi as saying. “If they implement the ISA, Iran will take action accordingly.”

The extension risks deepening hostilities between Iran and the United States ahead of the inauguration of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who said during his election campaign that he would abandon the deal. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s defense secretary pick opposes scrapping Iran nuclear deal

Shortly before Donald Trump’s choice for defense secretary was announced, Jim Lobe wrote: Marine Gen. James “Mad Dog” Mattis is the odds-on favorite for Donald Trump’s choice for secretary of defense. It’s worth exploring his views on Iran particularly in light of the ultra-hawkish positions of both National Security Adviser-designate Gen. Michael Flynn and CIA director-designate Mike Pompeo, both of whom have made no secret of their desire to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Mattis’s most comprehensive public statement on these subjects came at an hour-long presentation he gave at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last April 22. It was entitled “The Middle East at an Inflection Point,” but it was really all about Iran. With the exception of the Military Times, the media entirely ignored his talk.

Recall that Mattis was essentially let go as chief of the U.S. Central Command, in which capacity he served from August 2010 to March 2013, largely because the Obama administration felt that he was too hawkish toward Iran. That hawkishness certainly comes through in his CSIS presentation. He sees Iran as the “single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” “the single most belligerent actor in the Middle East,” and as “not a nation state. Rather, he argues, it’s a revolutionary cause devoted to mayhem” that has not modified its hostility toward the U.S., Israel, and its Arab neighbors since the revolution. (It would be very hard to imagine Mattis supporting any effort to integrate Iran into a new regional security structure, although he didn’t explicitly address that issue in his talk.)

Nonetheless, unlike Flynn and Pompeo, Mattis makes clear that Washington should abide by the JCPOA, which he sees as an “imperfect arms control agreement,” because any withdrawal, especially in the absence of support from its allies, would put Washington and the region “on a road to perdition.” [Continue reading…]

The Forward reports: Late last month, when it first emerged that Trump was considering Mattis for the job, the Zionist Organization of America said it would oppose the pick, citing a 2013 appearance at the Aspen Security Forum shortly after he retired as chief of the U.S. Central Command.

“I paid a military-security price every day as the commander of CentCom because the Americans were seen as biased in support of Israel,” Mattis said then of his job, which involves interactions with America’s Arab allies.

He also warned that the United States urgently needed to press the Israelis and the Palestinians to advance to a two-state solution.

“Either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote — apartheid. That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country,” Mattis said. [Continue reading…]

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Powell acknowledges Israel’s nuclear arsenal

Eli Clifton reports: According to hacked emails reviewed by LobeLog, Former Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged Israel’s nuclear arsenal, an open secret that U.S. and Israeli politicians typically refuse to acknowledge as part of Israel’s strategy of “nuclear ambiguity.” Powell also rejected assessments that Iran, at the time, was “a year away” from a nuclear weapon.

The emails, released by the hacking group DCLeaks, show Powell discussing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial speech before a joint meeting of Congress with his business partner, Jeffrey Leeds.

Leeds summarizes Netanyahu as having “said all the right things about the president and all the things he has done to help Israel. But basically [he] said this deal sucks, and the implication is that you have to be an idiot not to see it.”

Powell responded that U.S. negotiators can’t get everything they want from a deal. But echoing a point that many Iran hawks have questioned, Powell said that Israel’s nuclear arsenal and rational self-interest make the construction and testing of an Iranian nuclear weapon a highly unlikely policy choice for Iran’s leaders. [Continue reading…]

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Iran deploys S-300 air defense around nuclear site

The Associated Press reports: Iran has deployed a Russian-made S-300 air defense system around its underground Fordo nuclear facility, state TV reported.

Video footage posted late Sunday on state TV’s website showed trucks arriving at the site and missile launchers being aimed skyward. It did not say whether the system was fully operational.

Gen. Farzad Esmaili, Iran’s head of air defense, declined to comment on the report in an interview with another website affiliated with state news. “Maybe if you go to Fordo now, the system is not there,” he was quoted as saying Monday. He added that the S-300 is a mobile system that should be relocated often.

Russia began delivering the S-300 system to Iran earlier this year under a contract signed in 2007. The delivery had been held up by international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, which were lifted this year under an agreement with world powers. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Iran said on Sunday that a person close to the government team that negotiated its nuclear agreement with foreign powers had been arrested on accusations of espionage and released on bail.

The disclosure, reported in the state news media, appeared to be the latest sign of the Iranian leadership’s frustration over the agreement, which has failed so far to yield the significant economic benefits for the country that its advocates had promised. Iranian officials have blamed the United States for that problem.

Despite the relaxations of many sanctions under the accord, which took effect in January, Iran faces enormous obstacles in attracting new investments and moving its own money through the global financial system.

The Iranians are still blocked from using American banks, an important transit point for international capital, because of non-nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Trump off base on Clinton and Iran payment

The Associated Press reports: The $400 million payment [to Iran reported by the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday] — plus $1.3 billion in interest to be paid later — is a separate issue from the Iran nuclear deal that Clinton initiated. The process that resulted in the payout started decades before she became secretary of state.

In the late 1970s the Iranian government, under the U.S.-backed shah, paid the United States $400 million for military equipment. The equipment was never delivered because in 1979, his government was overthrown, revolutionaries took American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran were severed.

In 1981, the United States and Iran agreed to set up a commission at The Hague that would rule on claims by each country for property and assets held by the other. Iran’s claim for return of the equipment payment was among many that had been tied up in litigation before the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal, and interest the U.S. owed for holding the money for so long was growing.

Litigation over these claims has continued intermittently for 35 years, with some being settled and others going to the tribunal for judgment. All private U.S. claims before the tribunal have been resolved, with Iran paying more than $2.5 billion to American people and businesses. Some claims remain unresolved.

As secretary of state, Clinton did initiate secret talks with Iran over its nuclear program. After John Kerry succeeded her on Feb. 1, 2013, those secret contacts grew into 18 months of formal negotiations that culminated in the July 2015 nuclear deal.

U.S. officials had expected a ruling on the Iranian claim from the tribunal any time, and feared a ruling that would have made the interest payments much higher. As the nuclear talks progressed, the separate, intermittent talks on the military-equipment claim continued.

On Jan. 17, a day after the nuclear deal was implemented, the United States and Iran announced they had settled the claim, with the U.S. agreeing to pay the $400 million principal along with $1.3 billion in interest. Administration statements at the time made clear that the principal and the interest would be paid separately, but did not specify how the money would be delivered.

Trump is correct that the $400 million was paid in cash and flown to Tehran on a cargo plane. But litigation on the Iranian claim preceded Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state by decades and heated up only after she left the job. [Continue reading…]

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It wasn’t a ‘glitch’: State Department deliberately cut embarrassing questions from press briefing video

The Washington Post reports: The State Department acknowledged Wednesday that someone in its public affairs bureau made a “deliberate” request that several minutes of tape be cut from the video of a 2013 press briefing in which a reporter asked if the administration had lied about secret talks with Iran.

The embarrassing admission by State Department spokesman John Kirby came three weeks after another spokesperson insisted that a “glitch” had caused the gap, discovered only last month by the reporter whose questioning had mysteriously disappeared.

“This wasn’t a technical glitch, this was a deliberate step to excise the video,” Kirby told reporters.

Kirby said he had not been able to learn who ordered the deletion, which appeared as a jarring, undisguised white flash on the archived video posted on the State Department’s website and in its YouTube video.

“The recipient of the call doesn’t remember anything other than the caller, the individual who called this technician, was passing on a request from someone else within the public affairs bureau,” Kirby said, explaining the faulty memory by adding, “This happened three years ago.”

The curious gap in an old video of a public briefing is not of the same ilk as the famous 18 1/2- minute gap in audio tapes of President Nixon’s Oval Office conversations during the Watergate coverup. The official written transcript of the State Department briefing always carried the full exchange.

But it is likely to further fuel controversy over the administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, coming amid allegations that the White House duped the press and misled Congress and foreign policy scholars about the Iran nuclear deal that was implemented in January. [Continue reading…]

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How the New York Times Magazine botched its Iran story

Joe Cirincione writes: A devious president and his top aides trick the nation into a dangerous foreign entanglement with the help of a gullible press corps and complicit experts. George W. Bush and war with Iraq? No, Barack Obama and diplomacy with Iran. At least according to David Samuels’ telling in an instantly controversial article for this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about White House adviser Ben Rhodes.

Rhodes, whom I know, is very talented, but he is no modern-day Rasputin casting a spell over Obama, the press and public. The truth is that Samuels used his access to Rhodes to attack a deal he never liked and publicly campaigned against.

In his article, Samuels claims Obama was “actively misleading” the public about Iran. He says the president made up a story of how the 2013 election of pragmatic Iranian President Hassan Rouhani created a new opening with Iran. This, so Obama could win “broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime.” This, in turn, claims Samuels, allowed Obama to avoid a “divisive but clarifying debate of the actual policy choices” and eliminate the “fuss about Iran’s nuclear program” so that Obama could pursue his real agenda: “a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

Every element of this thesis falls apart under scrutiny.

Obama did not mislead the public about negotiations with Iran. Most of the talks the United States held with Iran under the previous, hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were widely reported. Even the secret talks that opened up the engagement with the more pragmatic Rouhani government were disclosed by the dogged reporting of Laura Rozen and others well before the congressional vote last year. And the imagined plot to sell out our Middle East allies to Iran is a common talking point of the far right, without any supporting evidence.

But one of Samuels’ biggest fallacies is his claim that the world’s leading nuclear policy and national security experts were duped by Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser whom Samuels portrays as a digital Machiavelli spinning gullible reporters and compliant experts into accepting a bad deal.

Samuels says this is the only way to explain “the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal.” He claims that in the spring of 2015, “legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters.”

This is utter nonsense.

In London, Paris, Berlin and Washington the deal was evaluated on its merits, not on spin. Nor did we wait for the White House to fire the starting gun. Ploughshares Fund, the group I head, began our campaign to shut down Iran’s paths to a bomb six years ago. We helped fund a network of experts, advocates, faith leaders, military leaders and diplomats who trade views and coordinate efforts.

Samuels takes a swipe at our work directly, quoting Rhodes as saying, “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. … We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else.” [Continue reading…]

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Europe says U.S. regulations keeping it from trade with Iran

The New York Times reports: With the completion of the nuclear deal with Iran and the opening of its market, European businesses expected a trade bonanza.

But three months after the lifting of many sanctions against Iran, there is growing frustration among European politicians, diplomats and businesspeople over the inability to complete dozens of energy, aviation and construction deals with the Iranians.

The main obstacle, the Europeans say, is their ally, and the driving force behind the historic nuclear agreement, the United States. Wary of running afoul of new sanctions imposed by Washington over Iran’s missile program and accusations that Iran sponsors terrorism, European banks are refusing to finance any of the deals, effectively perpetuating Iran’s isolation from the global financial system.

Europeans also point to new American visa regulations that make it more difficult for them to enter the United States if they have traveled to Iran. Those financial and travel restrictions, they say, make it nearly impossible to reach agreements with their Iranian counterparts. [Continue reading…]

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How Saudi Arabia captured Washington

yemen-bombing

Max Fisher reports: There was a moment almost exactly one year ago, in March 2015, that revealed some uncomfortable truths about America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

That month, as Saudi Arabia prepared to launch what would become its disastrous war against Shia rebels in neighboring Yemen, the Saudi ambassador in Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, brought a list of “high-value targets” to CIA Director John Brennan. The Saudis were asking for American support in the war; the list was meant as a show of cooperation.

But when US intelligence agencies checked the list against their own information, they found that many of the targets had little or no military value, according to a report at the time by the Wall Street Journal’s Maria Abi-Habib and Adam Entous. Many were civilian structures in or near population centers.

The US warned Saudi Arabia off the targets, and Saudi officials said they complied. But when the air war began, Saudi bombs fell heavily on “hospitals, schools, a refugee camp, and neighborhoods,” according to the Journal.

The US initially held back from the war. But soon, in an apparent effort to purchase Saudi acquiescence to the nuclear deal with Iran, the US substantially increased support for the Saudi-led campaign, providing midair refueling, weapons and supplies, targeting information, and 45 dedicated intelligence analysts.

A year after the war began, it is now a disaster, as detailed in a New York Times account. Half of the 6,000 casualties are thought to be civilians; al-Qaeda’s hold in Yemen has strengthened; Saudi Arabia has failed in its objective to force the war’s end, instead only exacerbating the ongoing violence. The US has helped Saudi Arabia to accelerate the implosion of another Mideast state, with unknown but surely far-reaching implications.

You would think that Washington’s foreign policy community — a close-knit network of think tanks, academic outfits, and other institutions that heavily influence the media and whose members frequently rotate into and out of government positions — would be outraged. That community is overwhelmingly focused on the Middle East, prides itself on high-minded humanitarian ideals and far-thinking strategy, and is often critical of President Obama’s foreign policy.

But aside from a few dissident voices, the Washington foreign policy community has been relatively quiet on America’s involvement backing Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. Instead, this week, much of that community expressed outrage over a very different story about the US relationship with Saudi Arabia: Obama, in an interview, had seemed to deride the Saudi leadership and its influence in Washington. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s need for national reconciliation

Akbar Ganji writes: Hassan Rouhani was elected Iran’s president in June 2013 based on his promise of reaching a nuclear agreement and improving the relations with the West. He delivered on his promise, and in the process a close working relationship developed between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry. The two diplomats have been discussing various issues, including the cease-fire in Syria. On March 6, President Rouhani said, “We can authorize our negotiation team to discuss other issues [with the West] in the world [that are of mutual interest]. We are sure that we will reach agreement similar to the nuclear negotiations.”

The Iranian people support these efforts and wish for improved relations with the United States. Under the leadership of former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as Rouhani, Iran’s reformists and moderates want to pursue such goals. Leaders of the Green Movement who are under house arrest, namely former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi, his wife Zahra Rahnavard and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karroubi also support the policy of détente with the West.

Since the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 was signed in July 2015, the main problem in Iran has been national reconciliation. In other words, just as Iran and the P5+1 resolved their long-held and difficult differences diplomatically, Iranians from all walks of life also want to resolve the issues that are dividing their nation. Iranians call the nuclear agreement Barjam, the Farsi acronym for Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The reformists and moderates are now talking about the second Barjam, or Barjam 2, which they hope will lead to the release of all political prisoners, an end to the house arrest of the Green Movement’s leaders, freedom for political parties, independence for the universities and colleges and the resolution of other important issues.

These were also Rouhani’s promises during his campaign for the presidency, which have been opposed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who favors controlling cultural affairs as well as the universities. [Continue reading…]

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Iran still ranks as one of the most repressive states in the world

In an editorial, The Guardian says: The government was probably looking for a public relations bonus in the west when it recently released a number of journalists, but the statistics tell another story: in 2015 Iran executed at least 830 people, including juveniles, many for non-violent crimes. The security services continue to harass and detain activists, writers and journalists. The methods used by the regime to crush the pro-democracy Green movement in 2009 are still very much in use today.

Nor has Iran become in any way more “moderate” in its behaviour in the Middle East. In Syria, Iran’s militias and Republican Guards are direct participants in the war crimes that the Assad regime inflicts on its own population. Iran’s close ally Hezbollah played a key role in the siege of Madaya, where children died of hunger as a result, and it is part of similar operations elsewhere.

It is to be hoped that a sustained implementation of the nuclear agreement will improve international security. But to draw from that the notion that Iran must now be spared any reproach would be foolish. Iran’s hardliners sought economic relief through the nuclear deal because they desperately want to keep their hold on power, not because they want to pursue a more democratic path at home or more rational policies abroad. Diplomacy is important, but it must not come at the expense of clearsightedness, nor should it be accompanied by the kind of simplistic analysis that puts the sole onus on Saudi Arabia rather than on Iran as far as human rights are concerned. The records of both countries are equally dismal. [Continue reading…]

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Freed U.S. student: Now is not the time to go to Iran

Reuters reports: An American student detained in Iran who was freed this month under a prisoner swap said on Thursday he was accused of trying to overthrow the Iranian government and held for nearly a month in solitary confinement.

Matthew Trevithick, who had traveled to Iran to study Farsi, told CNN that interrogators at Iran’s Evin Prison also accused him of having access to millions of dollars and knowledge of secret weapons caches.

In his first television interview since his Jan. 16 release, he described his 41-day ordeal, including how he was captured and his treatment and conditions at the prison. [Continue reading…]

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Hardliners disqualify Khomeini’s grandson in Iran power struggle

Hassan-Khomeini

Financial Times reports: Hassan Khomeini may be the grandson of the founder of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but his religious and political credentials were deemed insufficient to qualify him for membership in the Assembly of Experts, the body that will determine Iran’s next supreme leader.

The Guardian Council, a constitutional watchdog that vets candidates standing for the council, disqualified Mr Khomeini despite “testimony by all those senior clerics” that he had reached a sufficiently high level of religious learning to interpret Islamic law or Ijtihad, Mr Khomeini’s son, Ahmad, said on his Instagram page on Tuesday.

“The reason for the disqualification is clear to all,” he added, implying that Mr Khomeini, whose candidacy outraged hardliners, was disqualified because of his alliance with reformists.

Mr Khomeini’s disqualification is a blow to centrist president Hassan Rouhani and comes amid a tense power struggle between moderate forces and hardliners. The implementation of the landmark nuclear agreement last week was seen as a big victory for pro-reform forces. But their conservative opponents are determined to maintain their hold on key institutions and say they will resist “infiltration” by western governments bent on “undermining the regime” through pro-reform forces. [Continue reading…]

IranWire reports: Reformists and moderates enthusiastically embraced Khomeini when he announced his candidacy, an excitement that Khomeini tried to quell in order to comply with electoral guidelines and to satisfy the Guardian Council — half of which are appointed by the Supreme Leader. Aware of the importance of pleasing the regime, Hassan Khomeini’s brother Ali spoke about his brother’s candidacy in a way that would meet the approval of Iran’s hardliners, particularly those on the Council.

Despite these overtures, the Council rejected Khomeini’s bid to join the Assembly of Experts.

Under Iranian law, disqualified Assembly candidates have the right to appeal the Council’s decision. The deadline for this is January 30. Khomeini has not stated whether he will launch an appeal.

Former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, currently the president of the Expediency Council, and Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi, as well as President Hassan Rouhani, were all successful in their bids to run as candidates for the Assembly. [Continue reading…]

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A nation of field mice where fear runs rampant

In an article titled, “One Nation Under Fear,” Mark Edmundson writes:

How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow.

In the latest wave of mass hysteria, the barriers of entry to the United States imposed on people with darker skins will once again be raised higher.

The Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015 does not make any mention of skin color, yet the officials who are responsible for enforcing this law will inevitably notice skin color when determining if it needs to be applied. Since the law will apply, for instance, to British citizens who are also Iranian nationals simply by virtue of having an Iranian father — such an individual might have been born in the UK, have never visited Iran and not possess an Iranian passport — the way in which they will get flagged for questioning will most likely be because they are Middle Eastern in appearance.

Ostensibly, the law was designed to block U.S. entry to Europeans who have joined ISIS.

Let’s imagine how that would work: A British citizen who fought with ISIS in Syria has now returned home and then decides to fly to New York. He shows up at the airline check-in desk, presents his passport and the clerk, seeing the stamp entered when he visited Syria, says: “Sorry mate, no trip to America for you!” The thwarted traveler responds: “Damn that Terrorist Travel Prevention Act!” … except, of course, such an individual would in reality neither declare nor present any evidence that they had been in Syria or belonged to ISIS. The terrorist would — surprise, surprise — break the rules.

In truth, this isn’t a serious piece of legislation. Those who drafted and passed this law were engaged in a piece of political theater. Indeed, anyone who can coin a phrase like “terrorist travel prevention” would be better employed at The Onion than in the U.S. Congress.

The only people who will be reliably prevented from travel are those innocently trying to do what most travelers do — visit relatives and friends; engage in tourism or business.

The terrorists are not so dumb that they would run afoul of such restrictions — just as no terrorist would subvert his own objectives by tangling himself in the vetting process imposed on asylum seekers. [Read more…]

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Iran’s elite Guards to gain regional, economic power in post-sanctions era

Reuters reports: Iran’s Revolutionary Guards did well under international sanctions, and the elite military force is destined to become still richer now they’ve been lifted.

Iran’s clerical rulers have supported economic growth of the Guards, rewarding the group for sanctions-busting as well as suppressing dissent at home and helping Tehran’s allies abroad – notably Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Now the country is expecting an economic boom in the post-sanctions era and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), will be a beneficiary. Likewise, the leadership will ensure it is well funded to continue the effort in the regional crisis, including the Syrian civil war.

The Guards aren’t entirely off the hook, even though the United States, European Union and United Nations lifted most sanctions on Saturday under a deal with world powers where Tehran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program. [Continue reading…]

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Gates: Don’t expect the nuclear agreement to lead to a more moderate Iran

Business Insider reports: Former US defense secretary Robert Gates isn’t optimistic that the landmark July 2015 nuclear deal with Iran will lead the country to halt any of its disruptive policies in the Middle East or its support for terrorist groups.

In an interview with Business Insider, Gates, who spent nearly 27 years in the CIA and was the only cabinet secretary to have served under Barack Obama and George W. Bush, said that he didn’t believe the nuclear deal would have a moderating impact on Iranian behavior or lead Tehran to become a more responsible international actor.

“The notion that betting that this regime is going to temper its behavior in the region because of this nuclear deal I think is mistaken,” Gates told Business Insider. “I think that will not happen.” [Continue reading…]

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The opening up of Iran will mean a return to barbarity as usual

Paul Mason writes: “This is a good day,” said Barack Obama, announcing the end of nuclear sanctions against Iran, “because, once again, we’re seeing what’s possible with strong American diplomacy.” The deal, accompanied by a prisoner swap and the release of frozen Iranian funds, signals the end of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

But it is not a triumph of “strong American diplomacy”. It is testimony to America’s weakness and incoherence, in the very region where it has concentrated its military and diplomatic force for decades. As for Iran, with the nuclear programme gone, and its iconic American prisoners released, normal levels of barbarity can now be resumed.

First, there is the ordinary repression: convicts – two-thirds of them drug dealers or drug users according to the UN – were being executed at the rate of three per day last year, the highest per-capita execution rate in the world. Then there’s the suppression of trade unions. Iran arrested 233 labour activists in the year to May 2015. All strikes and labour agitation are treated as threats to national security by the Revolutionary Guards, the hardline military force that enforces Islamic discipline at home while spearheading military operations abroad. Finally, there is the outright political repression that has left two presidential candidates from the “green” protests of 2009 – Mehdi Karroubi and Mir Hossein Mousavi – under house arrest, and hundreds of other human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and scientists detained.

As western businesses rub their hands at the prospect of renewed access to this market of 78 million consumers, it’s worth remembering what the purpose of all this repression is. Industry is militarised: huge swathes of the economy are owned by the Revolutionary Guards themselves. With their front companies de-listed and given new access to the international bank clearing system, many of the Guards’ leaders will now get very rich. The workforce, deprived of all basic rights to organise, their jobs totally precarious, and with 70% earning less than the official poverty level, will get the chance to be exploited by global capital, not just the Guards, the mullahs and their cronies.

You could lament all of the repression, yet still celebrate the Iran deal as a diplomatic achievement and de-escalation of conflict, if Washington was demonstrating any sign of a coherent regional policy. But it is not.

On the same day Obama lifted nuclear sanctions, he imposed a whole new set of sanctions on Iran for testing a long-range missile. At the same moment, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, was fighting alongside its ally President Assad in Syria – against both Islamic State and the moderate opposition backed by America. Soldiers from Iran’s Quds force continue to prop up the Shia dominated government in Iraq. And the west’s regional ally, Saudi Arabia, continues to escalate its standoff with Iran after failing to scupper the nuclear deal by executing a Shia cleric.

If your brain is struggling to impose coherence on this picture of half-alliances, provocations and incessant death, that is no accident. Even those with intricate knowledge of the region cannot fathom what the Obama administration is trying to achieve. [Continue reading…]

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