Iran Election Guide

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Entries in Middle East (5)


Damascus Matters: Syria, the US, and the New Middle East

Video: Palestine Latest - Settlements and Blockades but No Reconstruction
After The Obama-Abbas Meeting: A Palestinian Stuck between Washington and Tel Aviv
Video and Full Transcript of Obama-Abbas Meeting (28 May)

Much has changed in US foreign policy since the Bush Administration pulled its ambassador from Damascus in 2005 to protest Syria's suspected involvement in the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Since the advent of the Obama Administration, not only the hopes of change in US-Syrian relations but the quest to unblock the Palestinian-Israeli peace process has brought the prospect of dialogue.

The latest signal came on Thursday when two Democratic Congressmen, Senator Edward E. Kaufman of Delaware and Representative Tim Waltz of Minnesota visited Syrian President Assad. According to Syria's official Arab News Agency, talks focused on "the necessity to remove obstacles that hinder relations and to promote stability in the Middle East". Specifically, the exchange points to a visit to Damascus by President Obama's envoy George Mitchell in June.

The Kaufman-Waltz visit is the fourth by US officials or legislators since January. Three days after the hard-line statement of the new Israeli Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, “Peace will only be in exchange for peace.”, Democratic Representative Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts and Republican Bob Inglis of South Carolina, met Assad.

Assad's comment after this meeting that he wanted to meet Obama personally was matched by the US Embassy's statement that the talks were constructive on Syrian-Lebanese relations, security on the Syria-Iraq border, and the situation in Gaza. On 5 May, two senior US officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, made their second journey to Damascus in two months and found some “common ground” with the Syrians.

The 2nd Feltman-Shapiro visit was particularly significant as it came on the
same day that Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met to re-confirm their ‘strategic alliance.’ Contrary to the claim of many that this was a declaration of Syria's "strategic needs" being met by Tehran; Assad's manoevure was more a temporary alignment with no advance on the "road map" of the Palestinian-Israeli and Syrian-Israeli peace processes. In the absence of tangible steps, Damascus is covering itself against any unilateral concessions.

Hence, the second visit of Feltman and Shapiro was needed to maintain close contact between Washington and Damascus until the peace process could be restarted. Other regional leaders have also contributed. On May 11, the Jordanian King Abdullah visited Damascus, as he and Assad affirmed the need for a comprehensive solution on the basis of Israeli and Palestinian states in a regional context. The newly-appointed Syrian ambassador to Ankara said on 12 May that Damascus was ready to resume Turkish-mediated indirect talks with Israel, despite Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement that he would not cede the Golan Heights.

In contrast to the Bush Administration's attempt to get the "right" Middle East through exclusion of those whom it did not like or trust, the Obama Administration in four months has rebuilt relationships with key leaders. Still, the outcome of those initial breakthroughs awaits an even bigger signal: the US President's speech in Cairo next Thursday.

Video: Brzezinski --- "This is the Last Chance for Peace in the Middle East"

Speaking on MSNBC's Morning Joe this week, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter's National Security Advisor, reviewed the Middle East peace process. He declared that President Obama found himself between two options/schools of thought: Israel’s official perspective of delaying the peace with Palestinians, by presenting the Iranian danger as the priority of “existential threat”, and the demand for a two-state solution.

For Brzezinski, the outcome of Obama’s speech in Cairo on July 4 will be the turning point in US policy. It will ether foster a solution or, in its failure, ensure the peace process will be stuck for a long time. Thus, the US must make it clear to Israelis and Palestinians that this is the last chance for peace in the region, particular as the tension with Iran is worsening.

Brzezinski believes Israel must withdraw from occupied Palestine and must be pushed to share Jerusalem and stop the expansion settlements. In return, Israel must be assured that it does not have to accept any Palestinian refugees via a "right to return". Otherwise, a polarization would continue, with Palestinians seeing no alternative outside Hamas.


George W. Bush: Iraq Was a Biblical War Against Gog and Magog

In 2003, just before the Iraq War, former President George W. Bush tried once more to get the support of France. His approach to French President Jacques Chirac was straightforward, drawing on thousands of years of history and on higher authority: "This confrontation is willed by God, who wants to use this conflict to erase his people's enemies before a New Age begins." This, he added, was the "holy" war in the Middle East, predicted in the Bible, against Gog and Magog.

For you heathen out there, Gog and Magog are first mentioned in the Old Testament books of Genesis and Ezekiel, prophesied to come out of the north to attack Israel. They make their big appearance in Revelations, Chapter 20, Verse 7-9, as the Devil's commanders in the final battle of Good and Evil:
7 - And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison,
8 - And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.
9 - And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them.

Some evangelists believe that Arab nations, supported by others, have to attack Israel in The Apocalypse for Gog and Magog, the enemies of Israel, to return and be defeated before the return of Jesus Christ to Earth.

More importantly, some people in very important political positions believe this. Chirac's advisors, according to a 2007 article in the university review Allez Savoir and now Chirac's memoirs, were concerned enough to ask the advice of Thomas Romer, a professor of theology at the University of Lausanne.

And it was not the only time Bush held up his wars as a religious duty. In June 2003, he told the Palestinian foreign minister that he was on "a mission from God" in launching the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and was receiving commands from the Lord. About the same time, US military officers were adding Biblical quotes to the cover slides of intelligence reports from Iraq.

This is not to deny that there were other reasons for the US wars from 2001 to 2009, and of course the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan, irrespective of Gog and Magog, is still going strong. Still, rest assured that America's wars --- of Earthly or Biblical necessity --- were overseen by a "true believer" in the Bush years.

May Plan C on the Israeli-Arab Peace Process Work?

My colleague Scott Lucas wondered for weeks whether the Obama Administration has a Plan A for the Middle East before, last Friday, he finally wrote of an American "grand design".

With respect, I differ. The President and his advisors not only have a Plan A. They are ready with a Plan B and a Plan C.

Obama put Plan A for a two-state Israel-Palestine outcome and general Arab-Islamic agreements to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israelis made clear, and let the press know they had made clear, that this was not acceptable. So Plan B is working groups with the Israelis while encouraging regional leaders, such as Jordan's King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to maintain the call for an Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Then there is Plan C. The Associated Press reported last week that the Obama Administration may set a deadline of the end of 2009 on talks with Iran if they are not producing result.

The immediate reading was that Washington might be siding with Tel Aviv on the need for an eventual showdown with Iran. The reality could be more nuanced: the Obama Administration may use Tehran’s uncompromising position to pull Arabs and Israelis together for a regional process including Israel-Palestine.

Although some claim that this Plan C will never work, since Arabs and Israelis have different fears with regards to Iran’s policies, others argue that it is the best path. "The administration has to find the best path," says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Is this the best path? Given the opportunities, yes. They may not produce success but they offer the best alternative available."

The key to full Arab participation may be Syria, which has recently been in talks with Iran on a possible common approach. Here George Mitchell, Obama's Middle East envoy and a legendary negotiator, comes into play. Washington's ploy may be for Mitchell talks in Damascus to open the doors both to a diminishing of Iran’s influence and Israeli-Syrian talks.

Because Israel wants to see the Iranian threat "dealt with" before any peace deals with the Arabs, this subtle move by the Obama Administration could bring success. Instead of Israel’s insistence on clearing Tehran's nuclear facilities, Washington can change the context of the Tehran issue by adding the more political yet still forthright policies of Arab states into a broad-based coalition against Tehran. This approach may be enough to allay Tel Aviv’s concerns.


The Power Politics Surrounding Iran

Shirvin Zeinalzadeh, who writes on Iranian affairs for Enduring America, evaluates the significance of Tehran's firing of a solid-fuel missile last week:

Iran last week successfully test-fired the controversial solid fuel ‘Sejjil 2’ missile, ahead of the upcoming Iranian Presidential elections and with prominent publicity and international attention.

The immediate reaction from Israeli and US outlets went farther, speculating that Iran would use this as a platform for nuclear weapons. Israeli foreign minister Avidgor Lieberman said, "Israel and the US share an understanding on strategic goals, first and foremost dismantling Iran from the ability to attain non-conventional arms."

The reality, however, is that the nuclear issue is peripheral to both the symbolic and military importance of the test-firing. This is once a statement by Iran , both to its own people and to the world, that a nationalist rallying around the flag will lead to self-sufficient military power.

Iran has no power whatsoever in its arsenal to reach the US mainland. Instead, Tehran's initiaitive is in the context of the creation of NATO and US strategic bases in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Diego Garcia.

Iran's justification, therefore, is that it is balancing the power in the region with its missile development A range of 2000 kilometres ensure that Iran can deter the US or Israel from attacking it through with the possibility of a counterstrike against any forces based in the area within the Sejjil’s range.

This notion was put forth in President Ahmadinejad's statement, "Today Iran has the power to turn any base that fires a bullet at Iran into hell." He added, "Today we declare that no country has the power to threaten Iran."

The power politics are in play, as Iran seeks to defend its sovereignty and territorial rights by boosting its defence system. As Ahmadinejad said, "Unfortunately today there are some people who think that compromise with enemies will remove threats, but experience has shown that whenever Iran softens its stance the enemies are emboldened."