Only Iran is confronting ISIS, says commander of Quds Force

Reuters reports: The general in charge of Iran’s paramilitary activities in the Middle East said the United States and other powers were failing to confront Islamic State, and only Iran was committed to the task, a news agency on Monday reported.

Major General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force responsible for protecting the Islamic Republic’s interests abroad, has become a familiar face on the battlefields of Iraq, where he often outranks local commanders.

“Today, in the fight against this dangerous phenomenon, nobody is present except Iran,” the Tasnim news agency quoted Soleimani as saying on Sunday in reference to Islamic State.

Iran should help countries suffering at the hands of Islamic State, said Soleimani, whose force is part of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Mehr news agency reported.

The Sunni militant group has taken key cities in Iraq and Syria in the past week, routing regular forces in both countries with apparent ease.

“Obama has not done a damn thing so far to confront Daesh: doesn’t that show that there is no will in America to confront it?” Mehr quoted Soleimani as saying, using a derogatory Arabic term for Islamic State.

“How is it that America claims to be protecting the Iraqi government, when a few kilometres away in Ramadi killings and war crimes are taking place and they are doing nothing?” [Continue reading…]

Christian Science Monitor adds: The comments have created a “Twilight Zone”-esque conversation in which former US military officers – whose troops were killed during the height of the Iraq War by the roadside bombs that Quds force advisers helped Iraqi insurgents make – say that Soleimani may have a point.

“Quite frankly, Soleimani is correct,” says retired Col. Peter Mansoor, who served as the executive officer for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq.

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Fall of Ramadi to ISIS weakens rule of Iraqi premier

The New York Times reports: As Shiite militiamen began streaming toward Ramadi on Monday to try to reverse the loss of the city to the Islamic State, the defeat has given new momentum to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s rivals within his own Shiite political bloc.

At the urging of American officials who sought to sideline the militias, Mr. Abadi had, in effect, gambled that the combination of United States airstrikes and local Sunni tribal fighters would be able to drive Islamic State fighters out of the city as fighting intensified in recent weeks. The hope was that a victory in Ramadi could also serve as a push for a broader offensive to retake the Sunni heartland of Anbar Province.

But as the setback brought the Shiite militias, and their Iranian backers, back into the picture in Anbar, intensified Shiite infighting appeared to leave the prime minister more vulnerable than ever. And it presented a new example of how developments on the Iraqi battlefield have sometimes instantly shifted political currents in the country.

“Abadi does not have a strong challenge from Iraq’s Sunnis or Iraqi Kurds,” said Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst in Washington with the Education for Peace in Iraq Center. “It’s from the Shia side.” [Continue reading…]

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Fall of Ramadi reflects failure of Iraq’s strategy against ISIS, analysts say

The Washington Post reports: As Islamic State militants repeatedly attacked ­Ramadi this year, police solicited cash from local families and businessmen to buy weapons, one officer recalled. The Iraqi government didn’t pay the police for months, he said.

“We begged and begged for more support from the government, but nothing,” said Col. Eissa al-Alwani, a senior police officer in the city.

The fall of Ramadi amounts to more than the loss of a major city in Iraq’s largest province, analysts say. It could undermine Sunni support for Iraq’s broader effort to drive back the Islamic State, vastly complicating the war effort.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Tuesday reiterated a government pledge to train and arm Sunni fighters to rout the extremists from the predominantly Sunni province. The government had announced a military campaign that envisioned taking back Anbar province in the coming months and then moving on for a climactic battle with the extremists in Mosul, Iraq’s ­second-largest city.

But the plan to form an effective Sunni fighting force was slow to take shape, hobbled by government concerns that some of the Sunnis might be close to the Islamic State, analysts say. [Continue reading…]

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To recapture Ramadi from Islamic State, Iraq must use this formula

Hayder al-Khoei writes: The fall of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, is a major defeat for the Iraqi security forces. It follows a period in which a number of strategic advances have been made by Iraqi forces elsewhere in the north and east of the war-torn country. Dreams of an offensive to defeat Islamic State in Mosul this year will now be crushed. Iraq will instead focus its resources and attention on liberating Ramadi, which lies just 60 miles to the west of Baghdad.

The complex realities on the ground will also lead to difficult choices being made on all sides of the conflict. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s approval to send in the Shi’ite-dominated Hashid Shaabi paramilitary forces to the Sunni-dominated Anbar region will worry many, but it comes at the request of local Sunnis who are desperate to defend their areas against Islamic State. The Anbar governor, provincial council and local tribes have publically asked Baghdad to send in these paramilitary forces to support Iraq’s security forces and Sunni tribesmen.

Unlike in Tikrit, several Sunni tribes in Ramadi have already been resisting Islamic State for years now. As 3,000 Shi’ite fighters have deployed to the west of Ramadi following Abadi’s green light, 4,000 Sunni tribesmen have now been deployed in the west to prevent further Islamic State advances in Anbar. Sunni-Shi’ite military cooperation — aside from the official security forces that are themselves mixed — will be a crucial element in this campaign. Sunni tribal fighters are also officially part of the Hashid Shaabi in Anbar, so this paramilitary force is no longer exclusively Shi’ite. [Continue reading…]

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The Iranian Kurdish ‘revolution’ the world doesn’t know is happening

IBT reports: Buildings are burning, protesters are bloodied, law enforcement vehicles are destroyed, hundreds of young men and women have been arrested and there is no end in sight. Iranian Kurdistan has been under what Iranian opposition called an “undeclared martial law” for the last week, and the Iranian regime has done all it can to keep it out of the media.

Thousands of Iranian Kurds have been demonstrating in the streets of roughly a dozen Iranian cities almost consistently for the past week. On Friday, protests turned violent as Iranian Kurdish political leaders called for an independent Kurdistan and democracy in Iran. It is one of the biggest Kurdish uprisings against the Iranian regime in years.

Iranian Kurds are “planning to carry out a comprehensive revolution and there are armed Iranian Kurdish political parties positioning themselves for the revolution,” said Sarkawt Kamal Ali, an Iraqi human rights lawyer familiar with the Kurdish situation.

On Friday, a recently formed coalition of Kurdish political parties, Kodar, threatened to deploy protesters and militia fighters to the Iranian capital of Tehran if the regime did not allow them to independently govern Iran’s Kurdish areas, according to Rudaw. [Continue reading…]

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Interview with Iranian foreign minister: ‘We will have differences with U.S. no matter what’

Der Spiegel reports: Mohammad Javad Zarif, 55, is relaxed and cheerful during an interview that takes place in his office in Tehran, telling jokes in perfect English. He studied political science in the United States before becoming Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations. Since 2013, he has served as foreign minister under President Hassan Rouhani. He recently negotiated the preliminary agreement in the country’s nuclear dispute with the international community. He is well-liked by his Western negotiating partners and a star in his home country, where his autobiography is a best-seller. Some see a future president in the making, but he smiles and shrugs off the suggestion. “Domestic policy is not for me,” he says.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, you literally had people dancing in the streets when you announced on April 2 that a solution to the nuclear conflict was in sight. At the same time, neither side was able to agree on a joint fact sheet. Did people party prematurely?

Zarif: It is the right of the people to be happy and it is the responsibility of the government to make people happy. What happened in Lausanne was an important milestone, but it wasn’t a deal. I believe that a deal is not only possible, but probable. We reached a conceptual understanding on a number of parameters for the resolution. We need to put that in writing in terms of an agreement, and that’s exactly what my colleagues are doing now in Vienna.

SPIEGEL: The United States released its fact sheet of the key points of the negotiations in order to show that it didn’t make major concessions. We assume you weren’t thrilled about this, right?

Zarif: I do not believe that the practice of producing fact sheets is a very useful one. The world has gone through a significant change. You cannot pick and choose your audience anymore. In the past, you could present your version of reality, your narrative to your audience, and the other side could have presented their narrative to their audience. But today in the age of the Internet and social media, narratives become global — and that’s where the problem comes. So you need to be able to present the final, complete package. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. may raise Arab states to ‘major’ ally status

Politico: The White House is open to the possibility of declaring all of the Arab states attending a Camp David summit “major non-NATO allies,” a designation that makes it easier for the United States to provide financial and military aid, a top U.S. official said Thursday.

The designation stops short of being a mutual defense pact, but a joint statement released later in the day includes a promise from the United States “to use all elements of power to secure our core interests in the Gulf region, and to deter and confront external aggression against our allies and partners.”

“I am reaffirming our ironclad commitment to the security of our Gulf partners,” Obama told reporters at a news conference at the conclusion of the summit.

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Obama is on a quest to rebalance American power in the Middle East

Reza Marashi writes: As President Obama hosts leaders from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the UAE on May 13 and 14, he will surely hear a push from them for a White House plan to contain Iran. However, recent candid remarks from Admiral Mike Mullen should cause America to think twice. Going against conventional wisdom in Washington, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said: “[A nuclear deal] would also more fairly rebalance American influence. We need to re-examine all of the relationships we enjoy in the region, relationships primarily with Sunni-dominated nations. Détente with Iran might better balance our efforts across the sectarian divide.”

Let that sink in. The highest-ranking officer in the United States Armed Forces from 2007 to 2011 is essentially saying that America’s long-standing allies in the Middle East are trying to lock it into permanent confrontation with Iran–and into a permanent alliance with countries whose interests and values are increasingly opposed to its own. After the initial shock from Admiral Mullen’s intellectual honesty subsides, one quickly realizes that he is right: Why shouldn’t the U.S. have more options at its disposal to achieve its interests and reduce the threats it faces? For example, after 15 Saudi hijackers attacked the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, American decision-makers did not have the option of being firm with Saudi Arabia. Instead, they were trapped in an alliance precisely because there was no regional alternative that could be leveraged to hold the Saudis accountable. [Continue reading…]

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My enemy, my brother: Two survivors of the Iran-Iraq war

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ISIS seems to be losing appeal and here’s why

Hassan Hassan writes: Two recent developments in the region appear to have caused more damage to ISIL’s popularity and relevance than nine months of air strikes and battles in Iraq and Syria.

The first is the Syrian rebels’ recent victories against Al Assad regime in northern, central and southern Syria. In the past four months, the anti-government forces have assumed control of key military bases (Wadi Al Dhaif, Hamidiya, Brick Factory), a provincial capital (Idlib), a strategic town (Jisr Al Shughour) and several villages in Hama. In the perception of many, ISIL is a has-been. In other words, the rebels have stolen ISIL’s thunder.

But make no mistake, ISIL remains capable of holding on to its territory for years. Even so, it’s worth noting reports from the ground that the group is losing some of its appeal among new recruits. The appeal of ISIL is multifaceted and the fight against it should capitalise on any trend, no matter how insignificant, to undermine the group.

Several people inside Syria have told me that ISIL started to lose some of its sympathisers after the rebels swept through significant regime bases in recent months. Jamal Khashoggi, the prominent writer from Saudi Arabia, has spoken of the same trend on Twitter.

The second development that is damaging to ISIL is the campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the way that people across the region are reacting to it. There is a decided drop in positive mentions of the group. Those who once subtly cheered for ISIL have shifted to enthusiastic support for the campaign against what they perceive as Iranian proxies in Yemen. This attitude is discerned in that section of the region’s population that believes in ISIL’s political project. The energy that often favours ISIL has shifted towards something else, at a time when ISIL is losing ground to Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq. [Continue reading…]

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Why Iran’s foreign minister is bullish on a nuclear pact

Barbara Slavin reports: With the final deadline just two months away, negotiators from Iran and six world powers get back around the table in New York on Thursday to begin drafting a comprehensive nuclear agreement. And as the parameters of that deal come into clearer focus, Iran’s foreign minister sounds confident about getting a deal done — and implementing it within a couple of weeks of signing.

“We have general agreement on the concepts … the parameters of an agreement,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told a large crowd at New York University on Wednesday. But he said the current text contains brackets on “almost everything,” and the sides still need to resolve differences — which he declined to specify — on wording.

Still, Zarif asserted that all of those differences are surmountable. “I believe it can be done, I believe it should be done and this is an opportunity that should not be missed,” he said. Drafting the final accord will begin on the sidelines of a U.N. nuclear treaty review conference, and will continue next week in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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As Assad’s power dwindles, Iran creates a state within a state in Syria

The New York Times reports: Four years ago, Syria’s army had 250,000 soldiers; now, because of casualties and desertions, it has 125,000 regulars, alongside 125,000 pro-government militia members, including Iranian-trained Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghan Hazaras, according to the senior American official in Washington.

And Syrians are not always in charge, especially where Hezbollah, the best trained and equipped of the foreign militias, is involved.

“Every area where there is Hezbollah, the command is in their hands,” said the Syrian with security connections. “You do something, you have to ask their permission.”

That, he said, rankled senior security officials who recalled the rule of Mr. Assad’s father, Hafez, in the 1980s, when Hezbollah’s patron Iran was the junior partner in the alliance with Syria.

American officials are exploring how to exploit resulting tensions between Syrian and Hezbollah commanders, said the senior American official.

An official in the region sympathetic to Hezbollah said that enemies were trying to exploit natural tensions that “happen between allies, and between brothers and sisters in the same house,” but would not succeed.

“Even if Hezbollah does battle alone, it is with Syrian approval,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. “Hezbollah is only a stone that helps the builder.”

But others see a loss of Syrian sovereignty to Iran, which needs Syria as a conduit to arm Hezbollah. Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Brookings Doha Center in Doha, Qatar, said Iran with the help of Hezbollah and other militias is building “a state within a state in Syria — an insurance policy to protect itself against any future Assad demise.”

Ali, 23, a soldier on leave in Damascus from the southern front, said one of his officers, a major, had complained that any Hezbollah fighter was “more important than a Syrian general.”

Then there is simple jealousy. Hezbollah fighters are paid in dollars, while Syrian soldiers get depreciating Syrian pounds. Hezbollah fighters get new black cars and meat with rice, Ali said, while Syrian soldiers make do with dented Russian trucks and stale bread.

A student who recently fled Damascus after being constantly stopped at checkpoints to prove he is not a deserter said that Hezbollah now runs his neighborhood in the old city and once helped him solve a problem between his brother and security forces. (Syrian police, he said, are so little seen that people now smoke hashish openly.)

“If you have Hezbollah wasta,” or connections, he said, “your problems will be solved.” The student identified himself only as Hamed Al Adem, a name he uses as a performance artist, to protect family members still in Damascus.

Even so, Hezbollah is not in a position to bail out Mr. Assad the way it did in 2013, when it sent hundreds of fighters to crush the insurgent hub of Qusayr, near the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah now has more fighters and advisers in Syria than ever, about 5,000, American intelligence officials said. But, said the Syrian with security connections, they “only interfere in areas that are in their own interests.”

The official sympathetic to Hezbollah said it has “maybe thousands” of fighters along the Lebanese border, hundreds in the south, bordering Israel, and only dozens around divided Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.

It had none in Idlib city, which he said may have fallen because some Syrian officers failed to correctly assess threats.

The Syrian with security ties said the leadership had not made a priority of defending Idlib. Many government troops, he said, fled after insurgents knocked out their communications network and called “God is Great” from the mosques.

“Damascus and the Syrian coast, other than this nothing is important. Nothing,” he said, adding of Mr. Assad: “He doesn’t give a damn if Syria is destroyed.” [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s hold on power looks shakier than ever as rebels advance in Syria

The Washington Post reports: A surge of rebel gains in Syria is overturning long-held assumptions about the durability of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which now appears in greater peril than at any time in the past three years.

The capture Saturday of the town of Jisr al-Shughour in northern Idlib province was just the latest in a string of battlefield victories by rebel forces, which have made significant advances in both the north and the south of the country.

As was the case in the capital of Idlib province last month, government defenses in Jisr al-Shughour crumbled after just a few days of fighting, pointing as much to the growing weakness of regime forces as the revival of the opposition.

The battlefield shifts come at a time when the Obama administration has set aside the crisis in Syria to focus on its chief priorities: defeating the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran.

Yet the pace of events in Syria may force the United States to refocus on the unresolved war, which remains at the heart of the turmoil engulfing the Middle East, analysts say. Iran backs ­Assad, Saudi Arabia backs the rebels, and a shift in the balance of power in Syria could have profound repercussions for the conflicts in Iraq and Yemen. [Continue reading…]

Reuters adds: A coalition of Islamist rebels seized an army base in northwestern Syria at dawn on Monday after a suicide bomber from al Qaeda’s Nusra Front drove a truck packed with explosives into the compound and blew it up.

The capture, reported by a rebel commander and social media videos showing militants inside the base, brought the coalition closer to seizing most of Idlib province and moving toward Latakia, the ancestral home of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Robert S. Ford writes: The Assad regime still enjoys some military advantages and support from Iran and Russia, which helps to prolong the conflict. Yet some recent developments may in fact be indicators of the beginning of the end.

Inability to defend and to counterattack. Although the armed opposition announced its plan to attack the provincial capital of Idlib weeks in advance, the regime lacked forces to reinforce the city, which it lost on March 28 a week after the battle started. The regime has since tried to assemble forces for a counterattack, but its gains have been minimal. At the other end of the country, near the Jordanian border, the regime lost the regional stronghold of Busra Sham on March 25 and then the important Nasib border crossing on April 2—the last functioning crossing with Jordan. Regime counterattacks in those areas also stalled. In sum, the regime appears broadly on the defensive now, and its hold on western Aleppo appears insecure due to the vulnerability of its supply lines.

Increased dissent within the inner regime. There are four secret police agencies that are the foundation of the regime’s power, and in mid-March the regime publicly announced that the heads of two of them had been fired. The removal of Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh and Syrian Military Intelligence Chief Rafiq Shehadeh was unprecedented. There are unconfirmed reports that Ghazaleh and Shehadeh fell out over the regime’s dependence on Iran; there also are unconfirmed reports that in the wake of the argument Ghazaleh had to be hospitalized after he was physically attacked. [Continue reading…]

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Saudis believe war in Yemen signals more assertive role for the kingdom across the Middle East

Kim Ghattas writes: almost every conversation with Saudis about the Yemen military operation leads to a wider discussion about the region, the kingdom’s new role as the leader of a military coalition and in many cases, people’s desire to see this translate into action elsewhere.

At a bowling alley in Riyadh one evening, I met a young couple enjoying an evening out. The man was in the military so he would only give his name as Hamed. His eyes lit up when I asked him whether he supported the war.

“We support the king’s decision to go to war 100%, it’s long overdue. Hopefully, we will move to help Syria next, and bring down President Assad who has been causing so much death and destruction for his people,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has accused regional rival Iran of arming the Houthis – a charge both the Houthis and Iran have denied.

Saudis and Sunnis in general feel they have been taking a beating by Shia Iran across the Middle East as Tehran tries to solidify its influence from Baghdad to Beirut.

The victim narrative is an odd one considering the power of countries like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) in general and the fact that an overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni.

So there is an interesting wave of patriotism on display in the kingdom these days and a sense of pride that Saudi Arabia, under new King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, is asserting itself in a way it has not in the past.

“Saudi Arabia is a reference and a leader for the Arab and Muslim world and we are proud of that,” said Hamed.

Some Saudis do quietly express concern about the country entering into a war with no apparent end game. But no-one wants to be openly critical as they ponder the possibility it could all wrong and the kingdom could find itself in a long protracted war. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in neighbouring Yemen shows that the Sunni monarchy will stand up to Iran and that Arab states can protect their interests without U.S. leadership, the kingdom’s ambassador to Britain said.

Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf also said that the Saudi-led coalition that has waged four weeks of air strikes against Shi’ite Houthi fighters in Yemen had met its goals and could be a model for future joint Arab action. [Continue reading…]

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Mystery of the Iranian ‘armada’

Brian Whitaker writes: An Iranian “armada” is heading towards Yemen, according to a report last Friday. A couple of days later, the American aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt set sail from the Gulf, also heading in the direction of Yemen. Fox News is in no doubt about what this means; a headline on its website says “US aircraft carrier sent to block Iranian shipments to Yemen”. But let’s look a little closer.

What we know about the Iranian “armada” comes mainly from the American political website, The Hill. Citing two US defence officials, it says Iran is sending seven to nine ships, “some with weapons”, “toward Yemen” in a “potential attempt” to “re-supply” the Houthis.

Conceivably some of the vessels are warships, though the report doesn’t actually say so. It’s also unclear whether “some with weapons” means the ships are armed or carrying weapons as cargo. Considering the risks of piracy in the area, the former would not be surprising.

The ships’ destination “toward” Yemen rather than “to” Yemen also seems rather vague and talk of them possibly “re-supplying” the Houthis implies that Iran has been supplying them before – which is not established fact.

One curious feature of the “armada” affair, according to The Hill’s report, is that the Iranians seem to have made sure the US knew it was happening:

“What’s unusual about the new deployment … is that the Iranians are not trying to conceal it, officials said. Instead, they appear to be trying to ‘communicate it’ to the US and its allies in the Gulf.”

The Hill’s report also notes: “Iran sent a destroyer and another vessel to waters near Yemen last week but said it was part of a routine counter-piracy mission.”

Although the dispatch of USS Theodore Roosevelt looks like a response to the Iranian move, its purpose is also unclear – as is the ship’s precise destination. Reports say, rather vaguely, that it’s heading for the Arabian Sea. [Continue reading…]

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Iran warned Houthis against Yemen takeover

The Huffington Post reports: Iranian representatives discouraged Houthi rebels from taking the Yemeni capital of Sanaa last year, according to American officials familiar with intelligence around the insurgent takeover.

The seizure of the capital in September came as a surprise to the international community, as Houthi rebels demonstrating outside Sanaa realized the city was abandoned and effectively unguarded. Despite Iran’s advice, the Houthis walked into the city and claimed it.

The newly disclosed information casts further doubt on claims that the rebels are a proxy group fighting on behalf of Iran, suggesting that the link between Iran and the Yemeni Shiite group may not be as strong as congressional hawks and foreign powers urging U.S. intervention in Yemen have asserted. [Continue reading…]

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Mohammad Javad Zarif: A message from Iran

Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, writes: We made important progress in Switzerland earlier this month. With the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, we agreed on parameters to remove any doubt about the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program and to lift international sanctions against Iran.

But to seal the anticipated nuclear deal, more political will is required. The Iranian people have shown their resolve by choosing to engage with dignity. It is time for the United States and its Western allies to make the choice between cooperation and confrontation, between negotiations and grandstanding, and between agreement and coercion.

With courageous leadership and the audacity to make the right decisions, we can and should put this manufactured crisis to rest and move on to much more important work. The wider Persian Gulf region is in turmoil. It is not a question of governments rising and falling: the social, cultural and religious fabrics of entire countries are being torn to shreds. [Continue reading…]

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Iran and Australia pledge cooperation on fighting ISIS

Reuters: Australia and Iran have reached a tentative intelligence sharing agreement to combat Islamic State militants fighting in the Middle East, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Monday.

Australia has sent hundreds of soldiers to Iraq to help train forces fighting the Islamic State group, heightening concerns about reprisal attacks at home.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop this week became the first top diplomat from Australia to visit Iran in a decade. She said the two countries had a common purpose in defeating Islamic State extremists.

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