Wednesday, April 1, 2015
By Ivan Watson and Gul Tuysuz
By Jason Ditz
That seems to be the case once again, as some jihadist groups have announced they’re joining the Saudi war against Yemen, taking the same path Pakistan’s government is.
While it’s weird to think of Taliban allies like Jamaat ud-Dawa fighting alongside Pakistani troops, these groups are often targeting Pakistan’s own Shi’ite minority, and are only too eager to join an international war led by Sunni power Saudi Arabia against Shi’ites in Yemen.
The influx of Sunni Islamists from the Indian subcontinent is likely to make the war even more overtly sectarian in nature, which will likely provoke a backlash from Yemen’s significant Shi’ite minority, above and beyond the ones already supporting the Houthis.
By Nicola Abé
The US is rethinking its approach to the Middle East and has even found commonalities with erstwhile archenemy Iran. Meanwhile, relations with traditional American allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, are cooling. A nuclear deal could further the shift.
Barack Obama wanted to do everything differently than his predecessor, also in the realm of foreign policy. He wanted to bring an end to America's role as global police officer and to lead from the background rather than pursue one-sided dominance. His vision was that of becoming a moderator of international politics and finding allies for new coalitions.
But he likely didn't foresee the results as they appear today. The US is currently involved in all fronts in the Middle East -- even, more recently, with countries that are antagonistic toward one-another. Last week, the situation was particularly absurd. On the one hand, the US supports the Sunni military coalition in Yemen that is bombing an Iran-supported rebel group. On the other hand, the US provided air support to a Shiite militia that is being led by an Iranian general.
What's more, US Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran, with Tuesday, March 31, marking the self-imposed deadline for a framework agreement. America's traditional ally Israel is adamantly opposed to such a deal.
Political certainties are becoming hazier. Who are America's enemies and who are its allies? After decades spent as an immovable constant in American foreign policy, does Israel still enjoy its status as inalienable ally? Many of the constants that have characterized the Middle East for decades are no longer as assured.
No other country, apart from Israel, has been the recipient of as much high-tech weaponry as the arch-conservative monarchy of Saudi Arabia. Despite the brutal oppression of every opposing voice and the years spent financing Islamist terror via "charitable" organizations, Washington has continued to feel bound to the Saudis. But that may not last. Because fracking at home has reduced American dependence on oil from Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Middle East -- to the point that the US may soon not have to import any more oil at all -- relations with Riyadh could change, or at least cool.
Furthermore, Saudi Arabia, which is Sunni, and Iran, which is Shiite, are both fighting for supremacy in the Middle East -- in Syria, in Iraq and, most recently, in Yemen. But in contrast to previous years, American interests of late have sometimes overlapped to a considerable degree with those of Iran. Indeed, whereas relations between Washington and the Israeli leadership have sunk to an all-time low in recent weeks, Tehran has become a de-facto partner in the ongoing fight against Islamic State, even if neither side is willing to say as much.
Spying on the US
Reconciliation with Iran, its integration into Washington policy and its economic opening to large American companies is a high priority for President Obama. As such, his foreign policy legacy depends to a large degree on securing a nuclear deal with Tehran. To get one, the US government appears willing to go to great lengths. Israel, though, fears exactly that: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in addition to some in the opposition, is concerned that Washington will make too many concessions.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Switzerland.
As if that weren't enough, reports emerged that Israel's secret service had been spying on the US delegation during the nuclear negotiations with Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland and passing along details of the planned deal to members of Congress. Obama was furious. "This can't be reduced to somehow a matter of let's all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya,'" he said a week ago of his relations with Netanyahu. He wasn't even prepared to rule out supporting a Palestinian state at the United Nations, saying only: "We're going to do that evaluation."
Obama's advisors are quietly hinting what that could mean: The US may cease blindly supporting Israel at the UN and could ignore Netanyahu's concerns and sign a nuclear pact with Tehran together with Europe, China and Russia.
How, though, could things have come this far?
The search for an explanation leads back to the Arab Spring, which held the promise of positive developments in the region. But those hopes have long since faded. In Egypt, a de facto military dictatorship is once again in power while both Libya and Yemen have descended toward "failed state" status.
Exerting Influence on Assad
Washington, though, sees the biggest danger as being that presented by Islamic State. In the battle against the radical Islamists, Obama is prepared to make painful compromises. In mid-March, Secretary of State Kerry raised the possibility that Washington may consider negotiating with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Even if he immediately backpedalled on his statement, it does appear that, in the battle against Islamic State, there is at least an indirect understanding with Assad. Indeed, the White House seems no longer to see regime change as a priority and the US president, it is said, is trying to exert influence on Assad via Iranian channels. No one, after all, has more influence over Assad than the powers that be in Iran.
Indeed, the most important strands of power in the region all seem to come together in Tehran these days, making the country look like the biggest victor of the current geopolitical shifts in the Middle East. The corner stone for the development was unwittingly laid by Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush. Following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he attacked both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, two Sunni archenemies of Iran's. He did not, however, do much to weaken Hezbollah, the Iran-financed militia that exerts huge influence in both Syria and Lebanon. Indeed, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa in Yemen are three capital cities in the region that are largely under Iranian control.
These primarily strategic alliances are, of course, largely the result of a pragmatic response to the issues at hand and do not represent a fundamentally new approach to Iran. The issues, in fact, are controversial within the Obama administration as well. CIA head John O. Brennen says that he doesn't see Iran as an ally in Iraq.
But there is still a chance that a long-term shift in US-Iranian relations is on the way. That, though, depends on whether or not a nuclear deal with Tehran is agreed to and signed.
The nuclear conflict between Tehran and the rest of the world has been ongoing for the last 12 years. On five separate occasions, the UN has passed sanctions against Tehran as a result of its nuclear program. Incontrovertible proof that Iran is building a nuclear weapon has never been presented, but it has been proven that deception and tricks have been part of Tehran's strategy to continue what it insists is a civilian nuclear program. Furthermore, the country has refused to comply with concrete demands and inspection requests issued by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN agency which oversees compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The fact that Iran continues to refuse to provide information pertaining to experiments thought to have a connection to its nuclear weapons program continues to be one of the main stumbling blocks to a potential deal.
In recent weeks, the possibility of a negotiation breakthrough has repeatedly been the subject of widespread speculation and progress on specific questions has been confirmed. Both sides want success and the negotiators would like to present a political framework for a possible agreement by the end of Iran's Nowruz new year festival on Tuesday. That would be the first necessary, contractual and symbolic step. By the end of June, a more detailed treaty is to follow, which is to spell out Iran's commitments and those of the West. In recent days, though, skepticism that a deal will ever be hammered out has outweighed optimism.
Negotiators have had some success when it comes to technical questions, such as the number of centrifuges Iran is allowed to operate and the degree to which it is allowed to enrich uranium. Reports indicate that the time span of a possible agreement -- around 10 years -- has largely been established. But two other, vitally important, areas are proving difficult to solve: inspections and sanctions.
Facing a Stalemate
The West wants the IAEA to have the ability to comprehensively inspect all facilities at any time and without prior notification so that Iran is given no possibility to leave the path of peaceful nuclear power. Restraints on the ability of Iranian scientists to conduct research in nuclear technologies are also foreseen. But Tehran is unwilling to accept any measures which might limit its national sovereignty and has thus far blocked such proposals.
The two sides, in fact, are facing a stalemate, with Iran unwilling to accept unlimited inspections and the US and EU unable to meet Iranian demands for an immediate lifting of all sanctions. Europe and the US want to make the lifting of the penalties dependent on Iranian goodwill and have proposed a step-by-step removal of the penalties. They point to the fact that Tehran has often sought to deceive them and they know that it would be difficult to renew sanctions once they have been removed. Still, it is hard to imagine the Iranian leadership agreeing to a prolonged timeline.
Now that he is in the second half of his second and final term, however, Obama is free to take some risks. His recent restoration of diplomatic relations with communist Cuba, a move that ruffled Republican feathers, indicates he is willing to take advantage of the freedom that term limitations grant. He cannot, however, simply revoke sanctions on Iran unilaterally, given that they were levied by Congress. The most he can do is temporarily suspend some of them -- which isn't likely to satisfy Iran.
Moderate Iranian President Hassan Rohani and his advisors, though, are concerned about something else as well. They don't want to be the victims of what they refer to behind the scenes as the "Oslo Disaster." In the early 1990s, Israelis and Palestinians led US-brokered talks in the Norwegian capital, during which PLO leader Yasser Arafat was widely praised for his willingness to compromise. But he never reaped the benefits.
'No Deal Better Than a Bad Deal'
In Tehran, of course, it isn't the government that has the last word, but the supreme religious leader Ali Khamenei. His preference would be to not sign a written framework agreement now, favoring instead a single deal at the end of June in which everything is regulated -- without latitude for varying interpretations. Thus far, though, he has supported Iran's negotiating team and in February, in a speech to the Revolutionary Guard, he even said he was prepared to "drink from the poisoned chalice."
The reference was to his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of present-day Iran, who described accepting the cease-fire that put an end to the 1980s Iran-Iraq War as "drinking from the poisoned chalice."
"Just as we proved then that we are reasonable, we are doing so today with our nuclear policy," Khamenei said, in emphasizing his willingness to make a deal. But only, he made clear, if it is a good deal. "Just like the Americans, I am of the opinion that no deal is better than a bad deal."
Of course, that, too, is a form of rapprochement.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will extend his stay in Switzerland to continue talks between six world powers and Iran over Tehran's controversial nuclear program.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on April 1 in the Swiss resort city of Lausanne that Kerry will stay "at least" until April 2 to continue negotiations.
She said the talks "continue to make progress," but that the sides "have not reached a political understanding."
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, for his part, urged officials from Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United States to "seize the moment" to realize an "opportunity which may not be repeated."
Zarif made his comments after an unusually short, 10-minute meeting with Kerry on the evening of April 1, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported.
Zarif said Tehran had shown a "readiness to engage with dignity" during the negotiations.
The diplomats missed a self-imposed deadline of midnight on March 31 to agree on the outlines of a deal to curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from painful economic sanctions.
The potential framework agreement is meant to pave the way for a comprehensive deal by June 30.
Such a deal would end a 12-year standoff over Iran's nuclear program, which Western states and Israel fear is aimed at creating nuclear weapons-production capability -- a charge Tehran denies.
Agreement Close, Far?
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Abbas Araqchi, said that "problems" remained.
In a live interview with Iranian state television, Araqchi said that if a joint statement was issued by the end of the day, he suggested it would contain no specifics.
He named sanctions relief and research and uranium-enrichment-related research and development as key stumbling blocks.
Early on April 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that one "can say with confidence that the ministers have reached a general agreement on all key aspects of a final settlement of this issue."
"It will be put down in writing over the next few hours, maybe during the day," Lavrov added.
But U.S. diplomats close to the talks said it was "not true" that an agreement had been reached on all key issues.
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond later said, "I think we have a broad framework of understanding, but there are still some key issues that have to be worked through."
"Some of them are quite detailed and technical so there is still quite a lot of work to do but we are on it now and we'll keep going at it," he told the BBC.
A German diplomat was quoted as saying the talks had become stuck overnight on “several important issues.”
The unidentified diplomat said that progress was "noticeable” after technical experts worked all night, adding, "Nothing is decided but with goodwill an agreement [is possible]."
China called for compromises, saying that, if the talks get stuck, all efforts to resolve Iran's nuclear standoff will have been wasted.
"All parties must be prepared to meet each other halfway to reach an agreement," a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement issued to reporters in Lausanne said.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi left Lausanne on March 31 and French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius left early on April 1, saying he would return when it was "useful" and when he was needed.
Lavrov also left on April 1.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Araqchi, said Tehran hoped to conclude talks in Lausanne by the end of the day.
In a live interview with Iranian state television, Araqchi said that "until we have solutions to all problems we cannot have a comprehensive agreement," naming sanctions and research and development as key stumbling blocks.
Negotiators have been wrangling over the scope of uranium enrichment that Iran would be allowed to conduct, where stockpiles of enriched uranium should be stored, proposed limits on Iran's nuclear research and development, and the timing and conditions for the removal of sanctions.
About two hours after the late-night talks resumed, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif emerged and told reporters that there had been "good progress."
"We have accomplished quite a bit, but people needed to get some rest and start over early in the morning. I hope that we can finalize the work on Wednesday [April 1]," Zarif told reporters.
U.S. President Barack Obama was briefed on the status of the negotiations in Switzerland in a video conference late on March 31 with Secretary of State Kerry and other members of his national security team.
The five permanent UN Security Council nations and Germany are seeking verifiable curbs on Iran's nuclear program that ensure Tehran is not able to develop nuclear weapons.
An interim deal was reached in November 2013, but negotiators have missed two self-imposed deadlines for a comprehensive agreement since then.
Iran says its nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes, mostly power generation, and it wants U.S., EU, and UN sanctions lifted swiftly.
"There will be no agreement if the sanctions issue cannot be resolved," Majid Takhteravanchi, an Iranian negotiator, told Iran's Fars news agency.
BY JULIA EDWARDS
U.S. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey was indicted on corruption charges, allegations that the high-ranking lawmaker said he would address at a news conference on Wednesday night.
Menendez was indicted by a grand jury in New Jersey for accepting gifts from Salomon Melgen, a Florida ophthalmologist, in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to benefit Melgen's financial and personal interests, according to the court filing.
The allegations against Menendez, a senior lawmaker on foreign policy and banking, raise the possibility of Republicans gaining a 55th Senate seat to strengthen their hand in policy fights with Democratic President Barack Obama, should the senator decide to resign his seat.
Menendez was stepping down as ranking member, or top Democrat, on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee, Senate aides said.
Menendez and Melgen, both 61, were charged with one count of conspiracy, one count of violating the travel act, eight counts of bribery and three counts of honest services fraud. Menendez was also charged with one count of making false statements.
Menendez, in response to previous reports of a federal investigation, has denied wrongdoing. Melgen and his representative could not immediately be reached for comment on the charges.
The Justice Department said Mendendez accepted up to $1 million worth of lavish gifts and campaign contributions from Melgen in exchange for using the power of his Senate office to influence the outcome of Medicare billing disputes worth tens of millions of dollars to Melgen.
The indictment said Melgen improperly gave Menendez flights on private jets, use of a Caribbean villa, a stay at a luxury hotel in Paris and tens of thousands of dollars to a legal defense fund. Between 2007 and 2012, Menendez never disclosed any of the reportable gifts that he received from Melgen and withheld the information from his Senate staff, the indictment said.
Menendez, a Cuban-American, is one of the most prominent Hispanic politicians in the United States. His office said in a statement that he will speak at a news conference in Newark, New Jersey at 7 p.m. (2300 GMT).
Political science professor Matthew Hale at Seton Hall University in New Jersey said, "It is important to remember that Senator Menendez grew up in the rough and tumble rink of North Jersey politics ... He knows how to fight and I suspect he will fight these charges."
Menendez was re-elected to a second term in the Senate in 2012. He spent 13 years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"As we have said before, we believe all of the senator's actions have been appropriate and lawful, and the facts will ultimately confirm that," Tricia Enright, Menendez's communications director, said on March 6, responding to early reports that federal prosecutors were close to bringing charges.
The New Jersey Democratic State Committee issued a statement of support from several politicians, including Menendez's fellow New Jersey Senator Corey Booker.
Articles written by the imprisoned Saudi blogger and free speech activist Raif Badawi have now been translated into German and published as a book. His severe punishment is evoking outrage in the West.
Raif Badawi's articles, translated into German and compiled in the book "1000 Peitscheinhiebe" ("1,000 lashes"), are filled with irony. Yet one can hardly enjoy the humor without being haunted by the shocking sentence imposed on the Saudi blogger.
How could these texts, which appear so harmless from a Western perspective, lead to 10 years of prison, 1,000 lashes and a fine of 1 million riyal (about $266,000)?
Religious establishment uneasy
There can only be one explanation for such a punishment: Saudi Arabia's religious establishment is very nervous. Badawi expresses ideas which are shared by many Saudi citizens and it is getting harder and harder to stop them from circulating publicly.
Badawi writes about - as he puts it - the spectacular ways in which Arab society is suffering under the weight of theocracy, while clerics refuse to accept anything less than complete obedience from the population.
From the blogger's perspective, "They are doing business with the minds of the people." Clerics wouldn't want to suddenly lose their power, which explainswhy they so fiercely protect their teachings from public criticism.
The cynical methods of the Saudi clerics
Badawi provides an example to show how the Saudi clergy deals with the slightest offensive suggestion. The Saudi author Turki al-Hamad wrote in a novel: "God and the Devil are two sides of a same coin." This sentence, beyond the fact that it was written in a work of fiction, was meant to be completely harmless: the author simply wanted to say that God is defined by its opposite.
Yet the Saudi clergy spent years attacking Turki al-Hamad for his choice of words. According to them, he put God and the Devil on the same level.
The author once gave a televised interview to try to explain what he meant with his book. Religious TV stations repeated the clip of Turki al-Hamad saying that sentence over and over again in their own shows. Their cynical methods aimed to ruin his reputation in religious Saudi Arabia.
Against religious intolerance
But is the country really that pious? After reading Badawi's texts, one can't help but think: not completely.
Women are especially affected by the polygamous system in place. A wife - one among many others, of course - cannot expect any material support from her husband, not even a place to live or child support. On the other hand, she must always make herself available to her husband's desires. There are many names for this kind of sexual arrangement in Saudi Arabia. Badawi calls them "animal marriages."
Badawi shares several of his grievances in his book. No Christian missionaries are allowed to work in Saudi Arabia; no churches can be built: A demonstration of religious intolerance in his country's version of Islam. He is irritated by zealots who show "pseudo-Islamic chauvinistic arrogance towards other people."
Warning against religious extremism
These excerpts clearly demonstrate that Badawi isn't specifically opposed to Islam. His criticism is not against religion as such. He rather criticizes the intolerance shown by some authorities.
He already observed signs of such intolerance during the Arab Spring. He wrote in February 2012: "There is a systematic mass mobilization in progress and ordinary citizens are being sprayed with religion and religiosity - or least the Islamists' interpretation of it. (…) They're loudly warning against everything related to culture and education. From their point of view, this somehow equates to heresy, atheism and blasphemy."
For such criticism, Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years of prison, a heavy fine and 1,000 lashes. Saudi Arabia has decided to silence one of its best minds as a cautionary tale for those who would dare think like him.
There are certainly many others who do. Badawi is not the only one who is locked up - many other Saudi thinkers are behind bars. Imprisoning its free spirits is a questionable move for a rich country like Saudi Arabia: It may well define the shape of its future.