Emboldened by Rouhani’s win, Iranians seek further reforms

The New York Times reports: Iranians came out in force to dance in the streets this weekend, breaking Islamic rules, to celebrate the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani by a large margin.

Emboldened by the election results, others gathered in the capital, Tehran, to begin demanding what they hope a second term for Mr. Rouhani will bring: the release of opposition figures, more freedom of thought and fewer restrictions on daily life.

Mr. Rouhani’s supporters also expect the victory to bolster his outreach efforts to the West and the pursuit of more foreign investment in Iran’s ailing economy. His win, with 57 percent of the vote, came the same weekend that President Trump was meeting with Saudi and other Arab leaders to discuss, in part, a strengthened alliance against Iran.

For those who had voted for Mr. Rouhani, there was a feeling of tremendous relief that his challenger, the hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, who criticized the nuclear deal with the United States and other Western powers, had lost. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s proxy war in Syria, explained

 

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Israeli intelligence furious over Trump’s loose lips

Foreign Policy reports: Just days before President Donald Trump’s arrival in Tel Aviv, Israeli intelligence officials were shouting at their American counterparts in meetings, furious over news that the U.S. commander in chief may have compromised a vital source of information on the Islamic State and possibly Iran, according to a U.S. defense official in military planning.

“To them, it’s horrifying,” the official, who attended the meetings, told Foreign Policy. “Their first question was: ‘What is going on? What is this?’”

White House officials are touting Trump’s visit to Israel next week as a chance to show U.S. solidarity with its closest Middle East ally after eight years of friction between former President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But behind the public display of harmony, Israeli intelligence officers are angry and alarmed over the U.S. president revealing sensitive information in a May 10 meeting in the White House with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

Trump divulged classified information gathered by Israel about specific terrorist plotting by the Islamic State. The information reportedly revealed Islamic State advances in bomb-making that could be used to mask an explosive device inside a laptop, and also referenced the city where the unfolding plot was being hatched.

The details Trump spilled likely came from a source that was also useful on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Hezbollah proxies in Syria and Lebanon, which are much higher priorities for Israel, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“To the Israelis, ISIS is not that big of a concern,” the defense official said, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State. “We have a partner that has done us a favor. They went out of their way to support us in a campaign against ISIS, that they have no real skin in.”

In the first 48 hours after the news broke, the Israelis saw little engagement from the Trump administration on the issue. Instead, the administration remained focused on planning for the president’s visit next week.

“There’s been no collaboration on this issue or any outreach. But it’s like a [public relations] circus,” the official said. [Continue reading…]

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Rouhani wins re-election in Iran by a wide margin

The New York Times reports: Riding a large turnout from Iran’s urban middle classes, President Hassan Rouhani won re-election in a landslide on Saturday, giving him a mandate to continue his quest to expand personal freedoms and open Iran’s ailing economy to global investors.

Perhaps as important, analysts say, the resounding victory should enable him to strengthen the position of the moderate and reformist faction as the country prepares for the end of the rule of the 78-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Of the 41 million votes cast, the Interior Ministry said, Mr. Rouhani won 23 million (or 57 percent), soundly defeating his chief opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, who received 15.7 million (38.5 percent). Iranian state television congratulated Mr. Rouhani on his victory.

Turnout was heavy, with more than 70 percent of Iran’s 56 million voters casting ballots.

Despite the healthy margin of victory, Mr. Rouhani, 68, will face considerable headwinds, both at home and abroad, as he embarks on his second term.

He badly needs to demonstrate progress on overhauling the moribund economy. While he accomplished his goal of reaching a nuclear agreement with the United States and Western powers in his first term, that has not translated into the economic revival he predicted because of lingering American sanctions. [Continue reading…]

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Iran counts votes after big turnout in presidential election

Reuters reports: Vote counting began in Iran on Saturday after a high turnout in an unexpectedly tight presidential election pitting President Hassan Rouhani, who wants to normalize ties with the West, against a hardline judge who says he has already gone too far.

More than 40 million votes were cast, the interior ministry said, indicating a turnout of about 70 percent in Friday’s vote, roughly similar to the showing in 2013 elections when Rouhani swept into office in a landslide victory.

Voting was extended by six hours because many people were still waiting in line. Iranian newspapers praised the turnout, carrying headlines like “a historical victory for Iranians”.

Pro-reform news websites said Rouhani was the victor. They offered no evidence, but the big turnout could favor Rouhani, whose backers’ main worry has been apathy among reformist-leaning voters disappointed with the slow pace of change.

Rouhani, 68, who took office promising to open Iran to the world and give its citizens more freedom at home, faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from hardliner Ebrahim Raisi, a protege of supreme leader Ali Khamenei. [Continue reading…]

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Iran’s younger generation positioned to restore political roar

RFE/RL reports: When Mahmud Ahmadinejad was elected to a second term as president in 2009 as a result of what is widely regarded as vote-rigging, Iran’s younger generation played a leading role in the massive street protests that ensued and gave birth to the opposition Green Movement.

Iran’s rulers were shaken. For the first time since the days of the shah, Iranians screamed “death to the dictator!” from Tehran’s rooftops. Iran’s youth were energized — and angry.

It was Iran’s younger generation (60 percent of the country’s population is under the age of 30) that was at the heart of the Green Movement, and it was that generation’s political spirit that the government sought to crush. The heavy-handed clampdown — forever seared into memory by the shooting death of 26-year-old philosophy student and protester Neda Agha Soltan — eventually muted the mass street demonstrations, jailed the moderate opposition’s most ardent supporters and leaders, and allowed the establishment to continue on almost as before.

For Iran’s young, however, it was a different story. Bereft of morale or leadership, they became increasingly apolitical under the second term of the virulently anti-Western Ahmadinejad and watched — almost helplessly — as their country became more isolated and more mistrusted and more extreme.

It was a source of depression for many Iranians, but an interesting thing happened: as young people became increasingly disenfranchised from politics, they poured their energies into other areas. According to an observer in Tehran who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity, recent years have witnessed an explosion of creativity in art, music and, above all, theater. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. strikes Syria militia threatening U.S.-backed forces

Reuters reports: The U.S. military carried out an air strike on Thursday against militia supported by the Syrian government that posed a threat to U.S. and U.S.-backed Syrian fighters in the country’s south, U.S. officials told Reuters on Thursday.

The militia, who numbered in the dozens and drove a tank and a small number of construction vehicles, ignored warning shots from U.S. aircraft and, according to a U.S.-led coalition statement, even “apparent Russian attempts to dissuade” their advance.

One of the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, speculated that the group might have been trying to establish a position near the garrison in Syria used by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces around the town of At Tanf.

“They were potentially probing to see how close they could get to At Tanf,” the official said.

A member of the U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces told Reuters the convoy comprised Syrian and Iranian-backed militias and was headed toward the Tanf base when they clashed with some rebel forces. [Continue reading…]

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Trump may have just increased the risk of a terrorist attack on the U.S.

In response to the latest political firestorm Donald Trump has created, he has done what he usually does: jumped onto Twitter.


In other words, Trump divulged highly classified information with Russia because when it comes to fighting terrorism we’re all on the same side.

That’s the way it might look to an ignorant president and his equally ignorant supporters, but in reality the situation is much more complicated.

Just days ago, Alan Dershowitz criticized the hyperbolic tone of political discourse these days by tweeting:


Dershowitz’s reaction to the latest turn of events, however, showed that he is no less susceptible to extreme reactions — or that in this case he is correctly assessing the gravity of what just happened.


Dershowitz speculates that Israel may have been the source of intelligence that Trump revealed to the Russians:

“Let’s take the following hypothetical: What if it was Israel who provided this intelligence?” he said on an interview on MSNBC.

He warned that if Israeli intelligence was shared with Russia, then Russia could send it to Iran and Hezbollah, two of Israel’s foes.

The issue here may or may not be the content of the intelligence if it was gathered by Israel. Just as important would be the implied cooperation of any states in the region being seen to facilitate Israeli operations.

If, for instance, Israel, with Saudi Arabia’s consent, is gathering intelligence in Yemen, there can be little doubt that Russia and Iran could use this information to apply political pressure on the Saudis both in Yemen and Syria.

If as a result these intelligence gathering operations are curtailed this will then help ISIS and al Qaeda.

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U.S. accuses Syria of mass executions and burning bodies

The Washington Post reports: The Syrian government has constructed and is using a crematorium inside its notorious Sednaya military prison outside Damascus to clandestinely dispose of thousands of prisoners it continues to execute inside the facility.

At least 50 prisoners a day are executed in the prison, some in mass hangings, said Stuart Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East. A recent Amnesty International report called Sednaya a “human slaughterhouse” and said that thousands of Syrians have been abducted, detained and “exterminated” there.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad, Jones said, has carried out these atrocities and others “seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” his main backers.

The information, he said, came from human rights and nongovernmental sources, as well as “intelligence assessments.” He released overhead photographs of the facility.

Russia, Jones said, “has either aided in or passively looked away as the regime has” engaged in years of “mass murders” and other atrocities, including extensive bombing of hospitals and other health-care sites and the use of chemical weapons on both civilians and rebel forces. [Continue reading…]

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At Rouhani rally, daring slogans and reminders of Iran’s political ghosts

The New York Times reports: As supporters of Iran’s president awaited his arrival to fire them up for his May 19 re-election bid, the thoughts of many were with two other men under house arrest for years.

“Moussavi, Karroubi must be released!” the crowd of thousands thundered over and over, a reference to the country’s most prominent opposition leaders.

Hands raised, they drowned out a warm-up speaker at the campaign event for the president, Hassan Rouhani. Many wore green wristbands, a political symbol that, not too long ago, could get someone arrested in Iran.

Not these days — a concession in the modestly widened latitude permitted for political discourse when Iran gears up for elections. During the campaign, which lasts only a few weeks, politics are not only freer, but edgier.

The scene at the Rouhani campaign rally in Tehran on Tuesday has been replicated in other cities in recent days. In what appeared to be a warning that they not get out of hand, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Wednesday that anyone who disrupted the elections would get a “slap in the face.” [Continue reading…]

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Syria government ‘producing chemical weapons at research facilities’

BBC News reports: Syria’s government is continuing to make chemical weapons in violation of a 2013 deal to eliminate them, a Western intelligence agency has told the BBC.

A document says chemical and biological munitions are produced at three main sites near Damascus and Hama.
It alleges that both Iran and Russia, the government’s allies, are aware.

Western powers say a Syrian warplane dropped bombs containing the nerve agent Sarin on an opposition-held town a month ago, killing almost 90 people.

The United States launched a missile strike on a Syrian airbase in response to the incident at Khan Sheikhoun, which President Bashar al-Assad says was faked.

The intelligence document obtained by the BBC says Syria’s chemical weapons are manufactured at three sites – Masyaf, in Hama province, and at Dummar and Barzeh, both just outside Damascus. All three are branches of the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), a government agency, it adds. [Continue reading…]

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Former Tehran mayor under fire for criticism of Syria war

Arash Karami reports: Former Tehran Mayor and head of the Reformist Executives of Construction Party Gholam Hossein Karbaschi is under fire for doing what few of Iran’s active or former politicians or even journalists do: criticize Iran’s approach to the seven-year Syrian civil war. During an April 29 speech in Esfahan province in support of President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election campaign, Karbaschi said, “We too want peace in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, for the oppressed to be defended and the Shiites to be supported. But this cannot be done by giving money, buying arms and killing.”

On May 2, Karbaschi was indicted for “insulting the martyrs of the defenders of the shrine.” Iranian soldiers who fight in Syria are referred to as “defenders of the shrine,” in reference to the Shrine of Zeinab in Damascus. Ahmad Khosravi Vafa, Esfahan’s chief justice, said that Karbaschi will soon be summoned to court.

Karbaschi said May 3 that he has not yet received a summons. He neither backed away from the comment nor defended it when asked about it by Iranian journalists. Rather, he said that his comments on the topic were about two minutes long, but only 28 seconds were shown by media outlets. The short video clip went viral on social media. [Continue reading…]

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Russia reaches deal for Syria safe zones, but some rebels scoff

The New York Times reports: Russia, Iran and Turkey signed a memorandum on Thursday to create four “de-escalation zones” in Syria, to reduce bloodshed in a war now in its seventh year, but many questions remained about the plan.

Presented at talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, the memorandum was the most ambitious of recent proposals, but it was not signed by the Syrian rebels or government. Rebel representatives said it left too many loopholes for the Syrian military to continue what the rebels called indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas.

The memorandum calls for a pause in fighting, including government airstrikes, and for unhindered aid deliveries in and around the four main zones still held by rebels unaffiliated with the Islamic State. It also calls for all parties to fight jihadists like the Islamic State and the Qaeda-linked group once known as the Nusra Front.

The top United Nations envoy dealing with Syria, Staffan de Mistura, called the memorandum an “important, promising, positive step in the right direction.”

But some rebels, in rejecting the deal, said they would not accept Iran as a guarantor and reiterated their demands for the ouster of Iran-backed militias like Hezbollah, an end to arbitrary detentions, and other concessions the government is unlikely to grant. [Continue reading…]

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Reformist candidate in Iranian election overshadows Rouhani

Belkis Wille writes: A candidate who entered the Iranian election race to help his boss, President Hassan Rouhani, is emerging as a favourite of reformists for his bold and outspoken campaign, even though he is ultimately expected to step aside.

Eshaq Jahangiri, the first vice-president, made clear when he registered as a candidate for the top job that he was “supplementing” and not challenging the incumbent – indicating his campaign was a tactical move aimed at defending Rouhani’s achievements.

The presidential election on 19 May is the first since the 2015 nuclear deal with the west, when Tehran rolled back its nuclear programme in exchange for the removal of sanctions.

None of the candidates have spoken of scrapping that accord but two conservatives – Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, and the hardliner Ebrahim Raisi – have questioned whether Rouhani has achieved tangible economic benefits.

Jahangiri’s strong appearance in the first of three televised debates boosted the reformists but Ghalibaf said it was a “strange phenomenon” that he was running alongside Rouhani.

Referring to the marginalisation of reformists after the 2009 disputed presidential vote, which gave hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a second term in office, Jahangiri responded: “There’s a movement called the reformist movement and you’ve deprived them of all rights and now you are saying that they shouldn’t even have a candidate?

“I’ve put myself up as a representative of the reformist movement to speak out … They confined everyone to their houses. They [Ahmadinejad’s government] earned $700bn, they took it, they spent it and they left nothing, just unemployment.” [Continue reading…]

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To freeze Syria war, Russia proposes setting up ‘de-escalation zones’

The New York Times reports: Russia is circulating a draft proposal to Syrian rebel groups and diplomats that envisions pausing the war in Syria through the creation of safe “de-escalation zones,” with outside troops possibly acting as buffers between the antagonists.

The draft proposal, shared with The New York Times on Wednesday by participants at Syria talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan, is one of the most detailed suggestions to emerge in recent months in the rocky negotiations to halt the war, now in its seventh year.

The proposal would apply to Syrian government and rebel forces in the four main areas of the country where insurgents unaffiliated with the Islamic State still hold significant territory.

But it faces a number of challenges, most notably acceptance by the Syrian government and the insurgent groups attending the talks.

The insurgent groups suspended participation in the talks on Wednesday to protest what they described as heavy bombing by the Syrian government’s Russian-backed forces the day before that killed dozens, including civilians.

The Russian proposal does not specify measures to prevent government warplanes from carrying out such bombings. Rebels said they remained suspicious of Russian guarantees, regardless, because Russia has been unable or unwilling to curb government attacks on civilians.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Wednesday that the proposal had the backing not only of Russia but also of Iran, another ally of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and Turkey, which backs some anti-Assad groups.

“We as guarantors — Turkey, Iran, Russia — will do everything for this to work,” Mr. Putin said in remarks carried on Russian television, speaking in Sochi, Russia, after meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The proposal was made as the United States, another supporter of some anti-Assad groups, appeared to be re-engaging in the negotiations after a prolonged absence.

Stuart E. Jones, the acting assistant secretary of state, was in Astana, the most senior American official to participate in Syria talks since President Trump took office. [Continue reading…]

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Israel strikes Iran-supplied arms depot near Damascus airport

Reuters reports: Israel struck an arms supply hub operated by the Lebanese group Hezbollah near Damascus airport on Thursday, Syrian rebel and regional intelligence sources said, targeting weapons sent from Iran via commercial and military cargo planes.

Video carried on Lebanese TV and shared on social media showed the pre-dawn airstrikes caused a fire around the airport east of the Syrian capital, suggesting fuel sources or weapons containing explosives were hit.

Syrian state media said Israeli missiles hit a military position southwest of the airport, but did not mention arms or fuel. It said “Israeli aggression” had caused explosions and some material losses, but did not expand on the damage.

Israel does not usually comment on action it takes in Syria. But Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, speaking to Army Radio from the United States, appeared to confirm involvement.

“The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel’s policy to act to prevent Iran’s smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “said that whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act”, he added. [Continue reading…]

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