Iranian academics embrace U.S. sociologist in rare visit

n13-iconThe Washington Post reports: The presence of a prominent American scholar on Iranian university campuses this week, and the wide and positive reception he is receiving, is a sign that authorities here are attempting to fulfill promises of more openness in academia.

On Sunday, Tehran University’s School of Social Sciences hosted an event discussing the theory and work of Immanuel Wallerstein, a well-known critic of capitalism, best known for his world-systems analysis and his views about the decline of major powers, including the United States.

“I’m not sure what attracts people to my work. Maybe it’s that I’m an American, I say things that Americans don’t usually say and I have an analysis which seems to resonate in a lot of countries,” the 84-year-old Wallerstein said in an interview Monday.

Hundreds of students and professors crammed into the campus’ largest auditorium to hear Wallerstein’s remarks, which were preceded by discussions of his work by top Iranian sociologists, almost all of them delivered in English, a rarity in Iran.

“No government or social movement can be taken seriously if it is not addressing the issues of today,” Wallerstein told the audience toward the end of his hour-long speech, which at times dealt with topics that are often considered taboo in the Islamic republic, including women’s rights and corruption.

Wallerstein also spoke at Iran’s Centre for Strategic Studies, a think tank co-founded by Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani. [Continue reading...]

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Rouhani tells Iran generals to cut hostile rhetoric

n13-iconReuters reports: President Hassan Rouhani urged Iran’s military leaders on Saturday to let diplomacy prevail in dealing with potential foreign threats, in a clear reference to efforts to end the nuclear dispute and decades of hostile relations with the West.

“It is very important to formulate one’s sentences and speeches in a way that is not construed as threat, intention to strike a blow,” Rouhani said in a meeting with Iran’s top military echelon.

“We must be very careful in our calculations. Launching missiles and staging military exercises to scare off the other side is not good deterrence, although a necessity in its proper place,” the official IRNA news agency quoted him as saying.

“A misfire could burst into flames and wreak havoc to everything.” [Continue reading...]

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Why Assad will eventually lose

f13-iconBalint Szlanko writes: The National Defense Force — Syria’s main pro-government militia — is thought to number around 50,000 local recruits, but the government camp also includes foreign Shia militias. The Lebanese group Hezbollah has thousands of fighters in Syria, and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is sending officers both for advisory and direct combat roles, while Iraqi Shia volunteers number around 5,000, according to an estimate by Valerie Szybala of the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

This influx of irregular forces has to some extent allowed the government to deal with its biggest problem: a shortage of manpower in general and a shortage of reliable and effective infantry in particular. This has plagued the regime since the beginning of the conflict, due to questionable loyalty among and huge desertions from army units made up mostly of Sunni Muslim conscripts.

The problem hasn’t quite gone away, however, and it continues to affect operations. The push into rebel areas east of Aleppo, for instance, has come at the price of pulling out of areas south of Damascus, such as the town of Jasim, and going slow on the big clearing operation by the Lebanese border.

It also means that the regular army no longer appears to be able to conduct maneuver warfare, where all its different arms—infantry, artillery, armored units, and air force—are integrated into coordinated operations. It now mainly serves to provide heavy-weapons support to the militias. “We are not seeing regular military operations at and above the battalion level anymore,” Jeffrey White, senior defense analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me.

This has led government troops to rely on what Christopher Harmer, a military analyst at the ISW, calls siege warfare. “They identify rebel neighborhoods, encircle them and then shell and starve them into submission, trying to deny the rebels a safe haven,” he says. “They have enough infantry to go head-to-head in very specific places only.” The brutal barrel bombing of Aleppo, the starvation tactics that have left thousands of people without food in Damascus and Homs, and the razing of entire neighborhoods in these cities are only the most striking examples of this.

It also means that no success is final. “They just don’t have the capacity to completely destroy the rebels or stop them from leaking back in,” says White. Even as regime forces are working to envelop Aleppo, rebel fighters remain active in the government’s core areas, including Damascus and stretches of the crucial north–south highway.

In the final analysis, the problem is simply that the rebels have far more men. Syria’s population is 70 percent Sunni Muslim, and within this group most are overwhelmingly hostile to the regime. Alawites, the backbone of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, make up just over one-tenth of the population, though the regime can rely on some support from the Christian and Druze communities as well. In a war of attrition — which is what his siege tactics amount to — Assad is bound to be the loser in the long run. [Continue reading...]

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Iran boosts military support in Syria to bolster Assad

a13-iconReuters reports: As Syria’s war nears the start of its fourth year, Iran has stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad, providing elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops, sources with knowledge of military movements say.

This further backing from Tehran, along with deliveries of munitions and equipment from Moscow, is helping to keep Assad in power at a time when neither his own forces nor opposition fighters have a decisive edge on the battlefield.

Assad’s forces have failed to capitalise fully on advances they made last summer with the help of Iran, his major backer in the region, and the Hezbollah fighters that Tehran backs and which have provided important battlefield support for Assad.

But the Syrian leader has drawn comfort from the withdrawal of the threat of U.S. bombing raids following a deal under which he has agreed to give up his chemical weapons.

Shi’te Iran has already spent billions of dollars propping up Assad in what has turned into a sectarian proxy war with Sunni Arab states. And while the presence of Iranian military personnel in Syria is not new, military experts believe Tehran has in recent months sent in more specialists to enable Assad to outlast his enemies at home and abroad.

Analysts believe this renewed support means Assad felt no need to make concessions at currently deadlocked peace talks in Geneva. [Continue reading...]

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Israelis caught by U.S. trying to sell arms to Iran

n13-iconKathimerini reports: Israeli arms dealers tried to send spare parts for F-4 Phantom aircraft via Greece to Iran in violation of an arms embargo, according to a secret probe by the US government agency Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) carried out in cooperation with the drugs and weapons unit of Greece’s Financial Crimes Squad (SDOE).

According to the probe, which Kathimerini has had access to, the operation was carried out in two phases – one in December 2012 and the second in April 2013. In both cases, officials traced containers packed with the F-4 parts on Greek territory. The cargo had been sent by courier from the Israeli town of Binyamina-Giv’at Ada and had been destined for Iran, which has a large fleet of F-4 aircraft, via a Greek company registered under the name Tassos Karras SA in Votanikos, near central Athens. SDOE officials established that the firm was a ghost company, while the company’s contact number was found to belong to a British national residing in Thessaloniki who could not be located.

According to HSI memos, the cargo appears to have been sent by arms dealers based in Israel, seeking to supply Iran in contravention of an arms embargo, and using Greece as a transit nation. [Continue reading...]

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Iran, six big powers seek to agree basis for final nuclear accord

n13-iconReuters reports: Six world powers and Iran strived at a second day of talks in Vienna on Wednesday to map out a broad agenda for reaching a ambitious final settlement to the decade-old standoff over Tehran’s nuclear program.

The United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany want a long-term agreement on the permissible scope of Iran’s nuclear activities to lay to rest concerns that they could be put to developing atomic bombs. Tehran’s priority is a complete removal of damaging economic sanctions against it.

The negotiations will probably extend at least over several months, and could help defuse years of hostility between energy-exporting Iran and the West, ease the danger of a new war in the Middle East, transform the regional power balance and open up major business opportunities for Western firms.

“The talks are going surprisingly well. There haven’t been any real problems so far,” a senior Western diplomat said, dismissing rumors from the Iranian side that the discussions had run into snags already.

The opening session on Tuesday was “productive” and “substantive”, they said. “The focus was on the parameters and the process of negotiations, the timetable of what is going to be a medium- to long-term process,” one European diplomat said. [Continue reading...]

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The Iran I saw — in 781 days in Evin Prison

o13-iconJosh Fattal, who along with his friends Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd, was imprisoned in Evin Prison alongside Iranian political prisoners, writes: Nine months into my detention, my interrogators led me blindfolded out of my cell to meet a man they described mysteriously as a “foreign diplomat from this region.” Awaiting Shane, Sarah and me in a prison office was Salem Ismaeli, an Omani businessman and envoy of Sultan Qaboos bin Said. He enveloped us in his flowing robes as he introduced himself, and I still remember how sweetly he smelled of sandalwood. He gave us expensive watches and told us his mission was to get the United States and Iran to talk to each other about our release.

It took more than a year for Salem to deliver us to freedom and the waiting arms of our families on the tarmac in Muscat. The Associated Press has since reported that Oman’s mediation led to direct talks between U.S. and Iranian officials that paved the way for last November’s interim accord to freeze parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from some economic sanctions.

With talks between Iran and six world powers on a permanent accord resuming this week, some voices in Congress and some supporters of Israel continue to warn against engagement with Iran and to press for even tougher sanctions. The Iran that I glimpsed under my blindfold, heard in the supportive whispers on my prison hallway and tasted in the sweet candies provided by my hall mates convinces me this stance is misguided.

It is time to end the mutual hostility for good. A permanent accord that limits Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions would make my relatives in Israel safer. It would make my family in the United States safer. And it would strengthen the hand of the brave Iranians I met in the dark corridors of Evin Prison in their continuing struggle for democracy.

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Is Iranian support for ‘al Qaeda’ in Syria unimaginable?

UPI reports: U.S. officials allege Iranian intelligence is actively helping al-Qaida fighters in Syria, even though the jihadists are battling to bring down Syrian President Bashar Assad, Tehran’s key Arab ally.

At first glance, this would seem to fly in the face of a high-profile effort by U.S. President Barack Obama to achieve detente with Iran, America’s longtime adversary, which — if it comes off — would dramatically alter the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

At a deeper level, analysts say it makes sense, inasmuch as Tehran helping al-Qaida reinforce jihadist fighters engaged in vicious infighting with other Syrian rebel forces, including Islamists, means the divided insurgents are weakening themselves and not Assad’s beleaguered regime in Damascus.

The U.S. Treasury Department, targeting a diverse group of entities and individuals for allegedly evading international sanctions against Iran, aiding missile proliferation and supporting terrorism, said last week Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, was working with al-Qaida operatives directing jihadists to Syria.

Treasury has made this claim before. In February 2012, it cited the MOIS, Iran’s principal intelligence service, for supporting terrorist groups, “including al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq … again exposing the extent of Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism as a matter of Iranian state policy.”

A year earlier, it singled out a senior al-Qaida operative it identified as a Syrian named Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil, aka Yasin al-Suri, as the group’s chief facilitator in Iran.

He allegedly is still operating there. Al-Jazeera reported in January al-Suri “is more active than ever.”

Analyst Thomas Joscelyn of the Long War Journal, which tracks global terrorism, says: “Al-Suri operates under an agreement that was struck between the Iranian regime and al-Qaida years ago. He first began operating inside Iran in 2005.

“It’s not clear why the Iranian government would allow al-Suri to act as a facilitator for al-Qaida’s operations in Syria. … The Iranian regime, however, has mastered duplicity and may have unknown reasons for keeping tabs on al-Qaida’s operations.”

Jason Ditz writes:

That the Assad government is literally Iran’s closest ally on the planet and that al-Qaeda is openly hostile to Iran’s Shi’ite government are both unchanged, and of course that means Iran backing al-Qaeda against Syria is literally the last thing they’d do.

Actually, the idea that Iran might provide some kind of support to a group fighting its closest ally does not require a great leap of imagination. I’ll explain why, but first note that I chose the term group.

Now more than ever, the term al Qaeda begs more questions than it answers.

There are in Syria two groups both being referred to as al Qaeda affiliates: Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS aka ISIL, the successor of al Qaeda in Iraq). Yet al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, recently made it clear that the organization’s central command neither authorized the creation of ISIS nor views it as part of al Qaeda.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes:

[T]he media’s constant descriptions of ISIS as an “al-Qaeda affiliate” until this recent statement have been deeply misguided and reflect a misunderstanding of how ISIS has seen itself.

According to ISIS supporters and fighters I know, ISIS and its predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), have been independent of al-Qaeda since the inception of ISI in October 2006. This line of narrative — articulated by them long before this statement — argues that when ISI was formed, it absorbed what was then al-Qaeda in Iraq (which was certainly the main component of the ISI umbrella coalition), as the pledge of allegiance was switched from al-Qaeda to the emir of ISI.

ISIS’ supporters and fighters further point to Zawahri’s statement in 2007 explicitly stating that there is no “al-Qaeda in Iraq” anymore, as it had joined other jihadist groups in the ISI.

Regardless of whether one wishes to accept this narrative of independence from al-Qaeda from the very beginning, there is no doubt that the ISI quickly became an organization capable of supporting itself financially and supplying its own manpower.

The recent Treasury Department statement made no reference to ISIS and announced:

…the designation of a key Iran-based al-Qa’ida facilitator [Olimzhon Adkhamovich Sadikov] who supports al-Qa’ida’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities. The network also uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al-Qa’ida-affiliated elements in Syria, including the al-Nusrah Front.

So let’s assume that Iran welcomes support flowing towards al Nusra and this story isn’t anti-Iranian propaganda manufactured in Washington, how might this serve Iranian interests?

Since al Nusra is now in conflict with ISIS and since ISIS poses a threat to the Maliki government in Iraq (which is itself closely aligned with Iran), strengthening Nusra at ISIS’s expense may help Iran. Moreover, Iran may view the fight between the two groups in a similar way that Edward N. Luttwak last year characterized the whole war in Syria: “There is only one outcome that the United States can possibly favor: an indefinite draw.”

That is to say, as the UPI reports suggests, Iran may be fueling a fight in which it hopes all the combatants come out weaker.

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Nuclear deal heightens tension between Iran president and Guards

a13-iconReuters reports: The article on Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency appeared routine: the minister of roads and urban development said the ministry does not have a contract with construction firm Khatam al Anbia to complete a major highway heading north from Tehran.

Two things made it stand out: Khatam al Anbia is one of the biggest companies controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and company head Ebadollah Abdullahi had said just three days earlier that it did have the contract.

The December report was one of a series of signs that President Hassan Rouhani, who came into office last August, is using the political momentum from a thaw with the West over its nuclear program to roll back the Guard’s economic influence.

Existing government contracts with the Guards have been challenged by ministers and some, like the highway contract, that were left in limbo when Rouhani succeeded the more hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have been rebuffed.

Senior commanders in the Guards, established 35 years ago this week to defend the clerical religious system that replaced the Western-backed Shah, have criticized the nuclear talks but been more muted over the curbs on their economic interests.

Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in December that Ahmadinejad’s government had insisted the Guards get involved in the economy.

“But we have told Mr. Rouhani that if he feels the private sector can fulfill these projects, the Guards are ready to pull aside and even cancel its contracts,” he said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency.

In the same speech, Jafari lashed out at the nuclear negotiations, saying Iran had lost much and gained little and took aim more directly at Rouhani. “The most important arena of threat against the Islamic revolution — and the Guards have a duty to protect the gains of the revolution — is in the political arena. And the Guards can’t remain silent in the face of that,” Fars quoted him as saying. [Continue reading...]

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Iran delivers surprise donation to Jewish hospital

n13-iconThe New York Times reports: The brother of Iran’s president walked into Tehran’s only Jewish hospital on Thursday, delivering a surprise donation along with the message that the Health Ministry would give more attention to hospitals that traditionally serve Christian and Jewish Iranians.

“We are very happy,” a nurse there said by telephone. “This is a good sign.”

The hospital, the Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center, received $400,000 from the government of President Hassan Rouhani, the semiofficial Mehr News Agency reported. Another Iranian source, the semiofficial website Tabnak, said that the amount was $200,000, but that a second installment in the same amount would be coming.

The leader’s brother, Hossein Fereydoon, who goes by Mr. Rouhani’s original family name, was quoted by Tabnak as saying, “Our government intends to unite all ethnic groups and religions, so we decided to assist you.”

Since taking office in August, Mr. Rouhani has embarked on a campaign to engage the world after years of isolation under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who never missed an opportunity to denigrate Israel and deny that six million Jews had died in the Holocaust.

Mr. Rouhani’s approach toward Jews and the care he takes when mentioning Israel form a central part of his effort to undo some of the damage — international censures and sanctions — from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s two terms.

The gift to the hospital comes after the president’s social media team wished Jews around the world a happy Rosh Hashana, in September. In stark contrast to Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Rouhani rarely mentions Israel and avoids talking about the Holocaust. [Continue reading...]

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The Iraqi re-awakening

f13-iconMark Perry writes: Gen. Raad al-Hamdani holds a unique place among Iraqi military commanders: He openly confronted Saddam Hussein — and lived.

The incident occurred during a high-level briefing in the summer of 2002. A war with the U.S. was looming, but Saddam told Hamdani not to worry. There won’t be a war, he said confidently, because the American people “have no taste for blood.”

Hamdani, who commanded six divisions in Saddam’s elite Republican Guard Corps and was viewed as one of his country’s toughest fighters, disagreed. The Americans would not only invade, he responded — their plan was to occupy Baghdad after a lightning campaign. The only way to fight them, he argued, was to “bleed them slowly” in a series of delaying actions.

Saddam might easily have lost his temper, but he smiled and dismissed his general’s prediction. After all, there was good reason to value Hamdani’s knowledge: He not only owned a library filled with books on America’s World War II campaigns, he was known for his obsessive study of U.S. military tactics. Saddam regularly taunted him about his obsession, calling him “my American General.”

After his conference with Saddam, Hamdani returned to his command. Less than a year later, his divisions fought the U.S. Marines in Nasiriyeh, but failed to hold the southern Iraqi city’s bridges. Without air power, Hamdani’s army didn’t stand a chance; most of his units were destroyed. After Saddam was toppled, Hamdani returned to his home in Baghdad where, one night, American soldiers burst through his door, wrestled him to the ground, and questioned him. Hamdani was enraged.

The experience didn’t rob Hamdani of his courage. After his questioning — and after receiving death threats from Iraq’s new Shiite-dominated government — he moved to Amman. From there, he worked with Anbar tribal leader Talal al-Gaood to kick-start a political opening with the U.S. military that led to the Anbar Awakening. Hamdani’s idea, proposed in a quiet meeting with U.S. Marine Corps officers in an Amman hotel in July 2004, was to arm Anbar’s Sunni militias to face off against Islamic extremists flooding into the province from Syria. Anbar’s insurgents, he told his U.S. military interlocutors, had at least one thing in common with their American occupiers — they both hated al Qaeda.

Gaood established a think tank called the Iraq Futures Foundation in Amman in the summer of 2005, and signed Hamdani on as the organization’s military advisor. The think tank’s goal was to unite Anbar’s tribes against the al Qaeda threat. While it took many months for this vision to be realized, their pioneering work — alongside officers of the U.S. 1st Armored Division — resulted in the formation of the Anbar Awakening Council. The council fought off al Qaeda, empowered Anbar’s Sunnis, and returned the province to political and economic stability.

Hamdani, who is still living in Amman, is now increasingly concerned that his achievements in Anbar are unraveling. Over the last few months, he’s watched with growing alarm as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki cracked down on an anti-government protest movement in the province, laying the groundwork for the resurgence of al Qaeda.

His worries are shared by current and former U.S. military officials, who believe that Iraq will need to build another Awakening to defeat al Qaeda, but are convinced the obstacles to doing so will be even more daunting this time around.

Maliki appears to be preparing the Iraqi Army for a renewed assault on Anbar province. His forces shelled the outskirts of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi on Monday, Feb. 3, and the Iraqi Defense Ministry claimed that the attacks killed 57 militants.

The violence has returned Anbar to the dark days of 2004 and 2005, when hundreds of U.S. soldiers lost their lives battling a jihadist insurgency there.

“People who know Iraq and Anbar best saw this coming as early as this last summer,” a former senior advisor to both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert Gates told me. “Maliki kept poking at Anbar, inflaming the tribes. It was an absolutely cynical power play. He figured the angrier Anbar got, the more he could pose as Iraq’s strongman. He thought he’d be viewed as the defender of the Shias and win himself another term as prime minister.”

But by cracking down on Anbar’s Sunnis, the Iraqi premier set the stage for a full-blown uprising. [Continue reading...]

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Iran’s top clergy back Rouhani’s nuclear approach

n13-iconReuters reports: President Hassan Rouhani has secured the backing of senior conservative clerics against hardliners opposed to a nuclear deal reached with major powers, Iran’s official news agency IRNA said on Saturday.

His first vice president, Eshaq Jahangiri, visited clerics in the Shi’ite Muslim holy city of Qom to explain the deal and seek their blessing over “complex foreign policy issues” ahead of talks next month on a long-term accord, IRNA said.

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West’s 30-year vendetta with Iran is finally buried in Davos

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes: The Iranian nuclear deal is on. Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in Davos has been a tour de force, the moment of rehabilitation for the Islamic Republic. His words were emollient.

“The world hasn’t seen a speech like that from an Iranian leader since the Revolution,” tweeted Ian Bremmer from the Eurasia Group.

Anybody betting on oil futures in the belief that Iran’s nuclear deal with great powers is a negotiating ploy – to gain time – should be careful. There is a very high likelihood that the sanctions against Iran will be lifted in stages, leading to an extra 1.2 barrels a day on the global market just as Libya, Iraq, and the US all crank up output.

“One of the theoretical and practical pillars of my government is constructive engagement with the world. Without international engagement, objectives such as growth, creativity and quality are unattainable,” said Rouhani.

“I strongly and clearly state that nuclear weapons have no place in our security strategy,” he said.

Behind closed doors in Davos, the Iranian leaders made a sweet sales pitch to oil executives. BP said it is eyeing the “potential”. Chevron and ConocoPhillips have been approached, assured by Iran’s leader that there are “no limitations for U.S. companies.” Total’s Christophe de Margerie hopes to restart work at the South Pars field. [Continue reading...]

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Iran wants full nuclear deal and investment, Rouhani tells Davos

Reuters reports: Iran is determined to negotiate a comprehensive deal on its nuclear programme with major powers so it can develop its battered economy, President Hassan Rouhani said on Thursday, inviting Western companies to seize opportunities now.

Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos, the pragmatic president said Tehran was negotiating with the United States as part of a “constructive engagement” with the world and wanted Washington to back up its words with actions.

However, a day after a chaotic Syria peace conference from which Iran was excluded, he was unbending in his support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Ending “terrorism” backed by some of Syria’s neighbours was a precondition for any settlement of the country’s civil war, he said. [Continue reading...]

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U.S. says invitation to Iran to attend Syria talks should be withdrawn

Reuters reports: The United States insisted on Monday that a U.N. invitation to Iran to attend a January 22 peace conference on ending Syria’s war should be withdrawn unless Tehran fully supports a 2012 plan to establish a transitional government in Syria.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said chances of the conference going ahead were still “fluid” given that Iran has not fully endorsed the Geneva 1 agreement from 2012 to end the conflict.

The 2012 Geneva 1 plan agreed to establish “by mutual consent” a transitional body to govern Syria.

Syrian opposition groups, which voted on Saturday to attend the conference, have threatened to withdraw from the talks unless the invitation to Iran is withdrawn.

The official said Iran was providing substantial military and economic support for President Bashar al-Assad and Tehran’s participation in peace talks was not helpful.

“They are doing nothing to de-escalate tensions … and their actions have actually aggravated them, and so the idea that they would come to the conference refusing to acknowledge support for Geneva 1, we do not see how it could be helpful,” the official said.

No wonder this State Department official was speaking on condition of anonymity. He or she would hopefully be embarrassed to have their name attached to such nonsensical statements.

If this so-called peace conference was to require that all participants be committed to de-escalating tensions, then either there would be no participants who are qualified or no conference would be necessary.

The purpose of a peace conference is not to bring together peace lovers; it is to bring together adversaries in order to explore alternatives to the continuation of fighting. For any alternative to gain any traction it will need to offer each side the prospect of a better outcome than does the continuation of war.

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Why Russia might be crazy enough to buy Iranian oil and undermine nuclear talks

Quartz: Moscow privately denies a report that it is conducting barter negotiations that would increase Iranian crude oil exports by up to 50%, a source privy to US State Department communications has told Quartz. But if Russian president Vladimir Putin has in fact sanctioned such discussions, it is because of the attractions of a sweet deal and a chance yet again to flaunt his foreign policy independence.

The report — a Jan. 10 exclusive by Reuters — is taken seriously enough in Washington that US secretary of state John Kerry raised it with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. The idea is that Iran would ship as many as 500,000 barrels of oil a day to Russia, which would pay in the form of goods. The volume is eye-popping since Iran currently exports just 1 million barrels a day, one-third of its 2011 shipments, because of sanctions.

The Russian side denied the Reuters report to US officials, the source told Quartz. But the reason Kerry reacted so sharply was that it coincided almost precisely with a Jan. 12 final agreement by Iran and US-led negotiators to scale back Tehran’s nuclear enrichment program in exchange for some sanctions relief. The two sides agreed to activate that deal Jan. 20. If Iran could hike its oil shipments significantly, with Russia’s help, it would weaken other countries’ leverage for getting it to agree to a planned final and much more stringent agreement in six months. [Continue reading...]

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