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More Signs Iran May Want Nuclear Agreement

When Hassan Rouhani scored such a decisive and surprising victory in Iran’s elections, many took this as a sign that the hard-liner positions of Amadinejad were ending and that a new, more moderate position for the country would emerge. Iran-watching is of course made difficult by the complex relationship between the civilian and religious sides of the government, but additional signs are now emerging both that Rouhani is indeed maneuvering toward a friendlier negotiation stance and even that some of the moves toward moderation began before the election was held and are therefore not just moves by Rouhani.

In today’s New York Times, we see further support for the suggestion that came out earlier in the week that Iran is likely to name new Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif as the chief negotiator in talks regarding Iran’s nuclear technology:

Mr. Rouhani’s choice for foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, was confirmed by Parliament last week. The signals that Mr. Zarif would lead the nuclear negotiations were conveyed on Tuesday at a regular weekly news conference in Tehran by the Foreign Ministry spokesman, which was broadcast by Iran’s Press TV Web site.

“Over the past 10 to 12 years, the negotiator has been the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. This may change,” said the spokesman, Abbas Araqchi. “Rouhani may decide to appoint somebody else. Maybe the foreign minister, or anyone else that he deems fit.”

For the spokesman to even make such a speculative statement suggested that Mr. Rouhani had already decided that his foreign minister would be doing the negotiating henceforth and that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on the nuclear issue, had agreed, despite his own deep mistrust of the West.

There has been some minor push-back on the speculation about Zarif, but this appears to be aimed more at the fact that an official announcement has not yet been made than the idea of Zarif taking the lead in negotiations:

In similar remarks on Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Seyed Abbas Araqchi also rejected the AP report which alleged that Zarif would be leading the negotiations with the G5+1, saying, “No decision has yet been adopted in this regard.”

Araqchi said the foreign ministry and other related bodies are “waiting for President Rouhani to choose the country’s chief negotiator”, and added, “Whenever he specifies the negotiating chief and team, the next step will be specifying the time of the negotiations.”

After getting that “denial” out of the way, however, the article goes on to report on discussions already held between Zarif and the chief EU negotiator Catherine Ashton, but with Ashton identified as EU’s “foreign policy chief”, so that the conversation is merely foreign minister to foreign minister (emphasis added): Read more

Iran, Pakistan Break Ground on Gas Pipeline, Capping Horrible Week for US in Region

Headline and photo from Pakistan's Express Tribune announcing the pipeline groundbreaking ceremony.

Headline and photo from Pakistan’s Express Tribune announcing the pipeline groundbreaking ceremony. The image could be an old one, since that is Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on the left.

On Saturday, the ceremony to transfer final control of the Detention Facility in Parwan to Afghanistan was canceled at the last minute as the US once again tried to maintain veto power over Afghan decisions on which prisoners to free. This occurred amid a backdrop of a range of other events demonstrating how the US is trapped in a quagmire in Afghanistan and yesterday was no better, as Karzai ratcheted up his rhetoric even further, prompting cancellation of the joint press appearance featuring Karzai and Chuck Hagel, who was making his first trip to Afghanistan as the new US Secretary of Defense.

Today caps the shitstorm in the region, as we have yet another green on blue attack, and although it is very early in sorting out details, it appears to involve US Special Forces in Maidan Wardak province, where Karzai had made today the deadline for SOF to withdraw from the province over allegations of widespread atrocities at the hands of groups claiming to be affiliated with and/or trained by US SOF. But US pain and embarrassment spread further out into the region immediately surrounding Afghanistan today, as Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made a joint appearance to commemorate the official ground-breaking for construction of Pakistan’s side of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. From the PressTV account of the event, we get some background:

The 1,600-kilometer pipeline, projected to cost USD 1.2-1.5 billion, would enable the export of 21.5 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas to Pakistan on a daily basis.

Iran has already constructed more than 900 kilometers of the pipeline on its soil.

Tehran-based Tadbir Energy Development Group will reportedly undertake all engineering procurement and construction work for the first segment of the project, which starts from the Iran-Pakistan border and costs around USD 250 million.

The Iranian firm will also carry out the second segment of the project, and extend the financing later to USD 500 million.

The Express Tribune relates the history of the US trying to prevent the pipeline being built:

The two sides hope the pipeline will be complete in time to start delivery of 21.5 million cubic metres of gas per day to Pakistan by December 2014.

The US has issued warnings to invoke economic sanctions already in place against Iran if Pakistan went ahead with its plans to import natural gas from the Islamic republic.

The United States has steadfastly opposed Pakistani and Indian involvement, saying the project could violate sanctions imposed on Iran over nuclear activities that Washington suspects are aimed at developing a weapons capability. Iran denies this.

India quit the project in 2009, citing costs and security issues, a year after it signed a nuclear deal with Washington.

Isn’t that interesting? The pipeline could come online the same month that NATO troops are scheduled to end their involvement in Afghanistan. That could well be why we see this paragraph in the Fars News story on the pipeline:

During the meeting at the international airport of the Southeastern Iranian port of Chabahar today, Ahmadinejad and Zardari said that the gas pipeline will further strengthen the economic, political and security relations between Tehran and Islamabad and other regional states.

US presence in the region clearly has been a destabilizing force. Iran and Pakistan appear to be taking steps toward what they hope will be improved stability once we are gone.

P5 +1 Talks Resume in Moscow With Iran Sanctions Set to Ratchet Up

The latest round of talks between the P5 + 1 countries and Iran on Iran’s nuclear technology are underway today in Moscow amid mixed signals on whether any progress is expected. There is significant pressure on Iran in these negotiations as the sanctions currently in place are already causing great difficulty and they are set to move to an even more restrictive level in two weeks if no diplomatic progress is made.

Iran’s Mehr News agency is running a story with the headline “Iranian nuclear negotiators not optimistic about Moscow talks” which paints a stark picture of prospects for the talks:

The quality of the interaction of the Western countries’ representatives in the nuclear talks with Iran coupled with the atmosphere prevalent in the Baghdad talks, a reluctance for preparatory and expert talks before the Moscow meeting, and no authorization to present effective proposals have almost eroded chances for a breakthrough in the talks which starts on Monday, our correspondent says.

The Iranian negotiators say the Western countries on the 5+1 group have reneged on the agreements made in the previous meetings. They also say if the Western countries repeat their previous statements the negotiations will “definitely fail”.

Iran has clearly favored Moscow’s “step by step” proposal since the beginning of the process, and that preference also appears in this article:

There is also no sign that the Western countries are committed to the “step-by-step” approach or any new proposals will be presented in the talks on Monday and Tuesday.

According to the “step-by-step” proposal, which was first revealed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov at the Moscow Embassy in Washington on July 12, 2011, Iran would take steps to increase cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency and those steps would be rewarded with a gradual easing of sanctions.

Almost out of nowhere, Joby Warrick’s article in the Washington Post, which mostly centers on the status of sanctions now in place against Iran and the new sanctions set to kick in soon provides a “step by step” reference at the end. In this case, it seems significant that the reference is attributed to a Western diplomat:

But the Moscow talks could bog down quickly if Iran persists in demanding immediate relief from Western economic sanctions in exchange for any downsizing of its nuclear ambitions, U.S. diplomats and Iran experts say. Obama administration officials have said they would oppose a significant easing of sanctions until Iran makes verifiable cuts that sharply restrict its ability to develop nuclear weapons.

“We need to see a step-by-step process, with the core issue being an agreement by Iran on 20 percent enriched uranium,” said a Western diplomat involved in preparations for the Moscow talks. Read more

Defying the Rules of Gravity, Obama Directs Sanctions Solely against Israel’s Enemies

In conjunction with his speech at the Holocaust Museum yesterday and announcement of the Atrocities Prevention Board, President Obama also rolled out sanctions against those who use IT to repress human rights. The Treasury Department the sanctions GRAHVITY (I think they get it from “GRAve Human rights abuses Via Information TechnologY” or some such Orwellian acronym).

There’s a problem with that. We are all subject to gravity.

But only Israel’s enemies–Iran and Syria–are subject to GRAHVITY.

This exclusive application was set up in yesterday’s speech when Elie Wiesel suggested the point of remembering the Holocaust was to guarantee the strength of Israel and ensure its enemies–in this case, Syria and Iran–are removed from office (and deprived of the same weapons Israel stockpiles against them).

Have you learned anything from it? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power? How is it that the Holocaust Number 1 denier, Ahmadinejad, is still a President, he who threatens to use nuclear weapons–to use nuclear weapons–to destroy the Jewish state?

[snip]

Now, I hope you understand, in this place [the Museum], why Israel is so important, not only to the Jew that I am and the Jewish people, but to the world. Israel cannot not remember. And because it remembers, it must be strong, just to defend its own survival and its own destiny.

Obama’s focus was broader. In his speech, he listed Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur, Côte d’Ivoire, Libya (with no mention of the civilian casualties NATO caused), the Lords Resistance Army.

But Obama, too, focuses primarily on Syria.

In this speech, the sole reason to ensure internet freedom, according to Obama, is to bring about regime change in Syria.

And when innocents suffer, it tears at our conscience. Elie alluded to what we feel as we see the Syrian people subjected to unspeakable violence, simply for demanding their universal rights. And we have to do everything we can. And as we do, we have to remember that despite all the tanks and all the snipers, all the torture and brutality unleashed against them, the Syrian people still brave the streets. They still demand to be heard. They still seek their dignity. The Syrian people have not given up, which is why we cannot give up.

Read more

Peace Talks Breaking Out All Over

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall, so no link!) Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that Afghanistan has joined the “secret” talks that have been underway for some time now between the US and the Taliban. From Reuters:

Karzai’s government had previously been excluded from early, exploratory contacts between the Taliban and the United States, with the insurgents seen as resisting the involvement of a local administration they regard as a puppet of Washington.

But the Journal quoted Karzai on Thursday as saying the Taliban were “definitively” interested in a peace settlement to end the 10-year war in Afghanistan, and that all three sides were now involved in discussions.

“People in Afghanistan want peace, including the Taliban. They’re also people like we all are. They have families, they have relatives, they have children, they are suffering a tough time,” the Journal quoted Karzai as saying in an interview conducted on Wednesday in the Afghan capital.

“There have been contacts between the U.S. government and the Taliban, there have been contacts between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and there have been some contacts that we have made, all of us together, including the Taliban.”

Karzai also arrived in Islamabad today and entered immediately into discussions with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. From the Express Tribune:

Earlier in the day, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani welcomed Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the President House.

In a meeting at the Prime Minister House, Gilani and Karzai discussed a range of issues, including the regional situation and bilateral ties, which have been hit by mistrust following recent cross-border attacks. The two leaders also discussed ongoing efforts for restoring peace in conflict-hit Afghanistan, such as US’ negotiations with the Taliban in which both Pakistan and Afghanistan have felt neglected by the US.

But those were the second and third paragraphs of the Express Tribune article. The first paragraph has material that is not nearly as prevalent in the US reporting on the talks among the US, the Taliban, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It turns out that Karzai has traveled to Islambad to take part in three way meetings with Pakistan and Iran. The first paragraph:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has arrived in Pakistan for a two-day visit to attend the Pakistan-Iran-Afghanistan trilateral summit in Islamabad, Express News reported on Thursday. Read more

From US-Pakistan Meetings: No Pakistan Action in North Waziristan; Petraeus to Deliver Evidence Against ISI

The high level meetings in Islamabad between US and Pakistani officials head into their second day today, after a marathon four hour session late yesterday.  The line-ups of officials present for the two countries is remarkable and reflects the seriousness with which the two countries view the current situation.  Pakistan’s Express Tribune provides a partial list of those present at the meetings:

Clinton was accompanied by US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsy, Director Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) David Petraeus, US Special Envoy Marc Grossman and US Ambassador Cameron Munter, while Premier Gilani was assisted by Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ISI chief Lt General Ahmed Shuja Pasha, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and other senior officials.

Despite the pomp surrounding the meetings and the seniority of those present, there seems to be little prospect that positions on the major issue will change.   As I described yesterday, Clinton is delivering the “new” catchphrase for the US of “fight, talk, build”, meaning that the US places the highest priority on fighting the Haqqani network, seen by the US as the biggest current threat and unlikely to participate in meaningful peace talks.  By contrast, Pakistan’s Prime Minister has implored the US to “give peace a chance”.  From the same Express Tribune article:

A statement issued by the Prime Minister’s press office also confirmed that Pakistan has no plans to initiate a military operation in North Waziristan.

“Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani called upon US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to give peace a chance, as envisaged in the All Parties Conference’s resolution,” said the statement.

We learn from today’s Washington Post that Clinton is warning Pakistan that they will pay a price for this refusal to attack the Haqqani network in their safe havens: Read more