Secret U.S.-Iran talks set stage for nuke deal

The Associated Press reports: The United States and Iran secretly engaged in a series of high-level, face-to-face talks over the past year, in a high-stakes diplomatic gamble by the Obama administration that paved the way for the historic deal sealed early Sunday in Geneva aimed at slowing Tehran’s nuclear program, The Associated Press has learned.

The discussions were kept hidden even from America’s closest friends, including its negotiating partners and Israel, until two months ago, and that may explain how the nuclear accord appeared to come together so quickly after years of stalemate and fierce hostility between Iran and the West.

But the secrecy of the talks may also explain some of the tensions between the U.S. and France, which earlier this month balked at a proposed deal, and with Israel, which is furious about the agreement and has angrily denounced the diplomatic outreach to Tehran. [Continue reading...]

Haaretz reports: Israel found out about the existence of secret talks between the United States and Iran months before they were officially informed of the negotiations by the U.S. government, a senior Israeli official told Haaretz. The Israeli government learned of the secret negotiations sometime near the beginning of the summer through intelligence it managed to obtain.

Managed to obtain how? Through surveillance on U.S. diplomatic communications? Or, more likely, through leaks from an Israel-friendly Washington insider.

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Arab states show cautious optimism on nuclear deal

The Wall Street Journal reports: Saudi Arabia maintained a pointed silence Sunday on the new nuclear pact between world powers and Saudi Arabia’s top rival, Iran, while other Gulf and Arab states gave a cautious welcome to a deal hoped to ease tensions in a region bloodied by proxy battles between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab states.

Saudi political commentators voiced persistent fears that Iran would now see itself as freed to advance on other, non-nuclear fronts against its Middle East rivals.

By early Monday in the Middle East, most of the region’s Muslim powers — Turkey, Egypt, and at least four of the six wealthy Arab Gulf countries — had issued statements expressing support for the deal. The United Arab Emirates., a commerce-minded nation that traditionally has thrived on doing business with both Iran and Arab states, welcomed the deal as one it hoped would protect the region “from the tension and danger of nuclear proliferation,” the emirates’ council of ministers said.

Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Arab states and the most intensely suspicious rival of Shiite Iran, made no public comment on the pact Sunday, and its foreign ministry didn’t return requests for comment. [Continue reading...]

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Bahrain regime promoting sectarian division

Marc Lynch writes:

While the American and international debate over Libya continues, the situation in Bahrain has just taken a sharp turn for the worse. A brutal crackdown on the protestors followed the controversial entry of security forces from Saudi Arabia and three other GCC states. Media access has been curtailed, with journalists finding it difficult to gain entry to the Kingdom (I was supposed to be in Bahrain right now myself, but elected not to try after several journalists let me know that they were being denied entry and several Embassies in Doha warned me off). The road to political compromise and meaningful reform now appears to be blocked, which places the long-term viability of the Bahraini regime in serious question.

The response of the Bahraini regime has implications far beyond the borders of the tiny island Kingdom — not only because along with Libya it has turned the hopeful Arab uprisings into something uglier, but because it is unleashing a regionwide resurgence of sectarian Sunni-Shi’a animosity. Regional actors have enthusiastically bought in to the sectarian framing, with Saudi Arabia fanning the flames of sectarian hostility in defense of the Bahraini regime and leading Shia figures rising to the defense of the protestors. The tenor of Sunni-Shi’a relations across the region is suddenly worse than at any time since the frightening days following the spread of the viral video of Sadrists celebrating the execution of Saddam Hussein.

The sectarian framing in Bahrain is a deliberate regime strategy, not an obvious “reality.” The Bahraini protest movement, which emerged out of years of online and offline activism and campaigns, explicitly rejected sectarianism and sought to emphasize instead calls for democratic reform and national unity. While a majority of the protestors were Shi’a, like the population of the Kingdom itself, they insisted firmly that they represented the discontent of both Sunnis and Shi’ites, and framed the events as part of the Arab uprisings seen from Tunisia to Libya. Their slogans were about democracy and human rights, not Shi’a particularism, and there is virtually no evidence to support the oft-repeated claim that their efforts were inspired or led by Iran.

Mohammed Ayoob writes:

The real reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 was not defense against external enemies threatening the security of GCC states but cooperation against domestic challenges to authoritarian regimes. Its main task was and continues to be coordination of internal security measures, including sharing of intelligence, aimed at controlling and suppressing the populations of member states in order to provide security to the autocratic monarchies of the Persian Gulf. The establishment of the GCC was in large measure a reaction on the part of the Gulf monarchies to the Iranian revolution of 1979 in which people’s power toppled the strongest autocracy in the neighborhood. The Arab autocracies of the Gulf did not want to share the Shah’s fate.

That ensuring the security of autocratic regimes was the principal reason for the existence of GCC has become crystal clear with the military intervention by Saudi-led forces in Bahrain to put down the democracy movement and prevent the freedom contagion from spreading to other parts of the Gulf. It is true that the Saudis are apprehensive of the Shia majority coming to power in Bahrain because of the impact it could have on its own restive Shia minority in the oil-rich east of the country. Riyadh is also worried about the impact of a change in regime in Bahrain on the balance of power between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the region. (One can, however, argue that Saudi military intervention in Bahrain’s affairs will in fact redound to Iran’s benefit in the long run by further de-legitimizing the al-Khalifa rule in Bahrain).

But these are secondary explanations. The primary concern of the Arab autocracies in the Gulf is the suppression of democratic movements regardless of the sectarian character of the populations engaging in democratic struggles. They are worried that if any of the autocracies fall or even reach a substantial compromise with democratic movements it will have a domino effect in the entire Gulf region consigning all of them to the dustbin of history. The GCC was established as an instrument to protect and prolong autocratic rule on the Arabian littoral of the Gulf. Its military operation in Bahrain has clearly shown this true colors.

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‘Neither with the West, nor against it’

Alain Gresh writes:

The fantasy that the Arabs are passive and unsuited to democracy has evaporated in weeks. Arabs have overthrown hated authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. In Libya, they have fought a sclerotic regime in power for 42 years that has refused to listen to their demands, facing extraordinary violence, hundreds of deaths, untold injuries, mass exodus and generalised chaos. In Algeria, Morocco, Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, the West Bank and Oman, Arabs have taken to the streets in vast numbers. This defiance has spread even to non-Arab Iran.

And where promises of reform have been made but were then found wanting, people have simply returned to the streets. In Egypt, protesters have demanded faster and further-reaching reform. In Tunisia, renewed demonstrations on 25-27 February led to five deaths but won a change of prime minister (Mohamed Ghannouchi stepped down in favour of Beji Caid-Essebsi). In Iraq, renewed protests led to a promise to sack unsatisfactory ministers. In Algeria, the 19-year emergency law was repealed amid continuing protests. The demands are growing throughout the region, and will not be silenced.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Libya, and all the other popular movements that have shaken the region are not just about how people want to live and develop, but about regional politics. For the first time since the 1970s, geopolitics cannot be analysed without taking into account, at least in part, the aspirations of people who have retaken control of their destinies.

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Oman’s Sultan Qaboos: a classy despot

“Sultan Qaboos, Oman’s absolute ruler, is a man of culture,” writes Brian Whitaker.

“I have never encountered a place in the Arab world so well-governed as Oman, and in such a quiet and understated way,” Robert Kaplan wrote the other day in an article for Foreign Policy headed “Oman’s renaissance man”.

Last weekend, though, overshadowed by events in Libya, there were disturbances in Sohar (Oman’s second city) along with more peaceful demonstrations elsewhere in the country. Protesters’ complaints were the familiar ones heard these days in most of the Arab countries: government corruption, cronyism and youth unemployment.

Oman has an exceptionally young population – 43% are under the age of 15 – and even those who buy the line that Oman is well governed recognise that the authorities face an uphill struggle in providing jobs. “The problem is evolving faster than they can provide solutions,” one person who is familiar with the country (and asked not to be identified) told me this week.

But there’s another problem too. Even if Qaboos is a Britain-friendly, music-loving ruler with benevolent intentions he is none the less a despot. He doesn’t tolerate criticism and his citizens have very few rights. They can’t, for instance, hold a public meeting without the government’s approval. Anyone who wants to set up a non-governmental organisation of any kind needs a licence. To get it, they have to demonstrate that the organisation is “for legitimate objectives” and not “inimical to the social order”. On average, that takes two years – assuming permission is granted at all.

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Intifada update

Anti-Saleh protests sweep Yemen
A growing wave of protests across Yemen is mounting pressure on President Ali Abdullah Saleh to end his 32-year rule

Several thousand demonstrators turned out yet again in the capital Sanaa on Wednesday for what are now almost daily rallies against him and denied any links to the US.

“The people who come to the square are youths, free youths who have no connection whatsoever to any foreign entity, their only concern is to topple the regime,” Ali Al Sakkaf, a protester, said.

In the town of Sadr, in the country’s south, witnesses said that security forces fired tear gas and shot at hundreds of protesters, to which the demonstrators responded by setting police vehicles alight. (Al Jazeera)

Saleh accuses the US and Israel of destabilizing the Arab world
[O]n Tuesday, Saleh seemed to be turning on Washington. In a speech to about 500 students and lecturers at Sanaa University, he claimed the U.S., along with Israel, is behind the protest movement.

“I am going to reveal a secret,” he said. “There is an operations room in Tel Aviv with the aim of destabilizing the Arab world. The operations room is in Tel Aviv and run by the White House.”

Saleh also alleged that opposition figures meet regularly with the U.S. ambassador in Sanaa. “Regrettably those (opposition figures) are sitting day and night with the American ambassador where they hand him reports and he gives them instructions,” Saleh said.

The Obama administration rejected these claims. White House spokesman Jay Carney called on Saleh to focus on implementing the political reforms demanded by his people instead of “scapegoating.”

Saleh’s relationship with the U.S. has been ambivalent, and he has at times attempted to play down his military alliance with Washington. Anti-U.S. sentiment remains strong in Yemen, as elsewhere in the region, and Saleh’s comments appeared to be an attempt to discredit the protesters by suggesting they are serving foreign interests. (AP)

The looming threat of tribal war
Over the 32 years of his reign, Salih, who is a former tank commander, has paid keen attention to the tribal backgrounds of his general officers and field officers. The majority of the general officers are drawn from Salih’s tribe, the Sanhaan, and many are directly linked with his family and or extended family through marriage. Most notably, the Republican Guard and the Central Security Service, the most able and well equipped of Yemen’s armed forces, are commanded by Salih’s son and nephew respectively. The field officers’ backgrounds are more varied but are still thoroughly vetted in terms of tribal affiliations. The junior officer core is more of an unknown, but even within its ranks there are few southerners and most are still from the northern tribes from which Salih has traditionally drawn most of his support.

The tribal affiliations of Yemen’s general and field officers likely mean that Salih can expect continued loyalty from much of his armed forces, especially if threatened by a Hashid-backed alliance led by members of the al-Ahmar family. The loyalty of his general officers has been further buttressed by often exorbitant salaries that allow them to carve out fiefdoms of their own. Some of the more senior officers are in a position to guarantee the loyalty of their troops, if necessary, with cash bonuses and other perks. Many within the general and field officer cores have also sought to make sure that a majority of the enlisted men within their ranks are from their own tribes and clans, to further guarantee loyalty.

While the tribal affiliations of the Yemeni Army, especially within its officer core, are likely to guarantee a significant level of loyalty to the regime, it should be noted that the Yemeni Army’s morale suffers from poor pay and living conditions. In addition, it was dealt a blow by the prolonged war against the Houthis in northern Yemen. Salaries for enlisted men, despite Salih’s recent promise of an increase, remain low, with many soldiers owed months of back pay. Corruption is also endemic. During the last war against the Houthis (2009-2010), there were numerous reports of officers selling ammunition and supplies and leaving their troops with neither food nor bullets to fight with. (Jamestown Foundation)

Radical cleric demands ouster of Yemen leader
Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, maintained a tenuous hold on power on Tuesday, blaming the United States and Israel for protests across the Arab world, while a prominent radical cleric joined the growing crowds demanding his ouster and called for an Islamic state.

American officials expressed concern about the statement of the cleric, Abdul Majid al-Zindani, a one-time mentor of Osama bin Laden, which introduced a new Islamist element to the turmoil in a country where Al Qaeda is viewed as a grave threat. The protests that toppled leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and that now have spread to Libya, Bahrain and Oman have been largely secular in nature.

Mr. Zindani spoke on an open-air stage before several thousand antigovernment protesters, guarded by 10 men carrying AK-47s and shielded from the scorching sun by two umbrellas wielded by aides. “An Islamic state is coming,” he said, drawing cries of “God is great” from some in the crowd.

He said Mr. Saleh “came to power by force, and stayed in power by force, and the only way to get rid of him is through the force of the people.”

It was not clear how much support Mr. Zindani had among the protest movement. (New York Times)

Army appoints new Egyptian PM
Egypt’s governing military council has accepted the resignation of Ahmed Shafiq, the prime minister, and appointed a former transport minister, Essam Sharaf, to form a new government, according to an army announcement.

The statement was carried on the military’s Facebook page on Thursday and then confirmed by a military spokesman.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces decided to accept the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and appointed Essam Sharaf to form the new government,” the statement said.

The council said it had tasked Sharaf with forming a new caretaker cabinet that would oversee the country’s transition to civilian rule.

Sharaf took part in the mass rallies in Cairo’s Tahrir Square which brought down Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, on February 11 after three decades in power. (Al Jazeera)

Mubarak to be questioned in corruption probe
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who is still believed to be at his residence in Sharm el-Sheikh, will be brought to Cairo next week for questioning in his corruption case, said Mustafa Bakri, a former member of parliament.

Bakri, who brought the case against Mubarak and other officials, was told of the development by the Prosecutor General’s office on Thursday.

Attorney General Abdel Maguid Mahmoud issued an order freezing assets of Mubarak and his family on Monday and prohibited them from leaving the country. (CNN)

Iranian activists appeal to UN over missing opposition leaders
A number of prominent Iranian activists have written an open letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urging him to intervene in the case of detained opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Mehdi Karrubi, RFE/RL’s Radio Farda reports.

The letter, published on March 1 on opposition websites, calls on Ban to use all “international levers” at his disposal to ensure the welfare of Musavi and Karrubi and seek their release from detention.

Iranian officials have denied the men have been arrested or detained.

Their family, friends, and supporters along with the opposition website Kaleme, which is close to Musavi, say he and Karrubi and their wives, Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karrubi, were taken recently to Heshmatieh prison in Tehran. (RFE/RL)

Iran forces fire teargas at protesters
Iranian security forces fired teargas and clashed with anti-government protesters demonstrating against the treatment of opposition leaders, pro-reform websites reported on Tuesday.

Thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Tehran and other cities, chanting slogans against the government, Sahamnews reported.

“Security forces and plainclothes agents fired teargas and clashed with demonstrators in Tehran to disperse them,” another opposition website Kaleme reported. (Reuters)

Saudi Facebook activist planning protest shot dead
Saudi activists alleged Wednesday that state security shot dead a leading online activist, who was calling for a ‘Day of Rage’ on March 11 in the oil-rich kingdom.

Faisal Ahmed Abdul-Ahadwas, 27, was believed to be one of the main administrators of a Facebook group that is calling for protests similar to that have swept North Africa and the Middle East.

The Facebook group, which has over 17,000 members, is calling for nationwide protests and reforms, including that governors and members of the upper house of parliament be elected, the release of political prisoners, greater employment, and greater freedoms.

Online activists said they believe Abdul-Ahadwas was killed by state security and that his body was taken by authorities to ‘hide evidence of the crime.’ (DPA)

Tunisian ministers continue to quit
Three more ministers left Tunisia’s interim government, following the resignations of the prime minister and two others, after weeks of protests about the caretaker authority.

Ahmed Ibrahim, higher education and scientific research minister, told the Reuters news agency he had resigned on Tuesday, while the departure of Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, local development minister, was announced by the official TAP news agency.

Also on Tuesday, private Tunisian radio broadcaster Shems FM reported Elyes Jouini, minister of economic reform, had resigned.

These resignations come after three other high profile politicians quit Tunisia’s interim unity government since the weekend, including prime minister Mohamed Ghannouchi, who stepped down on Sunday. (Al Jazeera)

Oman deploys army units fearing more unrest
Oman deployed troops north of the capital Muscat and near the border with the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday, following three straight days of anti-government protests, a government official said.

Oman, ruled by a powerful family dynasty, is the latest Arab nation to be swept up in a wave of regional unrest that has already brought down two leaders and threatened the rule of others.

The center of protests in Oman has been the port town of Sohar, about 120 miles (200 kilometers) northwest of Muscat, where demonstrators demanding higher salaries and jobs have clashed with security forces.

Police killed a protester in Sohar on Saturday, after demonstrations turned violent. Several government buildings and a supermarket were set on fire, local media reported. (AP)

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Intifada update

The Economist’s index of unrest in the Arab world

Tunisian interim PM Ghannouchi resigns over protests
Tunisian interim Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi has announced on state TV that he is resigning – a key demand of demonstrators.

He was speaking at a news conference in Tunis, after making a lengthy speech defending his record in government.

Mr Ghannouchi is seen as being too close to former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in an uprising last month. (BBC)

Three people killed as demonstrations turn deadly in Tunisia
Protests in Tunisia turned violent and deadly Saturday, just over six weeks after a popular uprising forced the president out of office, and lit a spark of desire for democratic reform in parts of Africa and the Middle East.

Three people were killed Saturday and nine others injured during mayhem in the capital, Tunis, according to a Interior Ministry statement cited by the state-run news agency, Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP).

More than 100 people were arrested, the ministry said, in the area around Habib Bourguiba Avenue, in the city’s center, accused of “acts of destruction and burning.” (CNN)

2 dead as protesters, police clash in Oman, witnesses say
Clashes between protesters and police in the Omani industrial town of Sohar wounded about 10 people Sunday, state media reported Sunday.

At least two protesters were killed, Oman TV editor Asma Rshid told CNN.

“The police shot them because they burned shops and cars in Sohar,” Rshid said. Another source said it was rubber bullets that the police fired. A number of police had also reportedly been injured, but numbers were not confirmed. (CNN)

In Bahrain, Sunni activist’s plight seen as a cautionary tale
Mohamed Albuflasa was different from everyone else taking the stage on the second day of Bahrain’s protests. He was a Sunni Muslim.

The 34-year-old Salafist favored government reform, and he believed he should speak at the rally to promote unity among the country’s Shiite Muslim majority and Sunnis at Manama’s Pearl Square.

Within hours, a security agency had detained him, and he has not been seen since. Even as hundreds of political prisoners were freed this week by King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, Albuflasa remains jailed and his whereabouts a mystery.

“Mohamed’s speech was meant to reduce the fire going on where people create differences between Shiites and Sunnis. He was there to show there is no difference between them. We are all Bahraini,” his brother, Rashid, told The Times this week. “He is not against the royal family and government.” (Los Angeles Times)

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