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Iran Factor
Iraq's Prime Minister Among Those At Opening of Iraq-Focused Discussions
05/28/2007 07:48 AM ET
Photo from Iraqi Prime Minister's office/Getty Images

By Adel Fakher
Baghdad, May 28, (VOI) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki expressed optimism that the U.S.-Iranian talks, which started earlier on Monday on security in Iraq, would help bring about positive outcomes for the war-troubled country.

"I welcome you all to Baghdad, which is witnessing the first meeting between representatives from the U.S. and Iranian governments to discuss the Iraqi affair," Maliki said in an inaugural speech. The Iraqi premier hoped "the meeting would act as a significant step towards security and stability in Iraq and the region."

"U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker led his country's delegation, while the Iranians were led by ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi," a source close to the Iraqi government told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI) on condition of anonymity.

He said a high-level delegation from the Iraqi government and diplomats from Iraq's foreign ministry would attend the talks.

The source declined to name the place where the meeting will be held, noting that it will be inside Baghdad's heavily fortified green zone.

"The U.S. ambassador will hold a press conference at the green zone's joint information center at 02:30 p.m. (Baghdad local time) to give a briefing on the talks," the source said.

Diplomatic Buzz
Anti-Iran/Syria Group Modeled on Earlier Anti-Iraq Unit Shut Down
By ROBERT Y. PELTON 05/26/2007 10:35 AM ET
Tehran, IRAN: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech at a conference entitled 'Islamic World - Victim of Terrorism' in Tehran 01 May 2007.
Tehran, IRAN: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivers a speech at a conference entitled 'Islamic World - Victim of Terrorism' in Tehran 01 May 2007.

The U.S. State Department has announced that it is shutting down the the Iran-Syria Policy and Operations Group it created in March 2006.

The purpose of the group was to damage Iran's economy by pressuring banks to cut credit and limiting their military capability by opposing the sale of military equipment to Tehran's army and supporters.

This comes at a time when rhetoric and actions from Iran has become more strident and forceful. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has pressed forward with both his nuclear enrichment plan, anti-west rhetoric and continuing dismissal of the U.S. intentions in the region.

The shutdown was explained as being part of a reorganization but the Boston Globe reports that;

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said the group was shut down because of a widespread public perception that it was designed to enact regime change. State Department officials have said the focus of the Iran-Syria group was persuading the two regimes to change their behavior, not toppling them.

The elimination of the group (which only met weekly) coincides with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice launched a major initiative to engage Iran and Syria in a regional effort to stabilize Iraq, reversing longstanding U.S. policy against high-level contact with the countries. U.S. State Department officials will meet with Iranian representatives on May 28th in Baghdad, the first time since the 1979 that Iranian and U.S. counterparts have met in high level talks.

The Boston Globe's Farah Stockman interviews government researcher Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist who provides insight;

"I think the rationale for that group was promoting regime change, and Rice is going in a much different direction from that," Katzman said. "The regime-change school within the administration has really gotten quite a bit weaker."

In a "good cop, bad cop" move, it appears that according to ABC News that President Bush authorized the CIA to begin a "coordinated campaign of propaganda, disinformation and manipulation of Iran's currency and international financial transactions." Despite upcoming talks President Bush called for Rice to convince European nations to impose tougher sanctions on Iran in his May 24th reaction to Iran's nuclear plans.

The reality is that covert elements of Special Forces and CIA paramilitaries have been training insurgents inside and outside Iran for some time. Internal sabotage would be a very effective tool against a country that relies primarily on the shipment of it's petroleum products to outside markets.

David Samuels writing in The Atlantic mentions a laundry list of violent acts that have taken place inside Iraq including a bomb in Zahedan, Baluchistan on February 14; the death of the Iranian scientist Ardashir Hosseinpour, who worked on uranium enrichment at the Isfahan nuclear facility; and "the defection of a high-ranking Iranian general named Ali Asgari, a former deputy minister of defense who was also the Revolutionary Guard officer responsible for training and supplying Hezbollah during its war against the Israelis in southern Lebanon in the 1980s"

Iran has a number of outside enemies in addition to the U.S., chief among them Israel, Saudi Arabia and Sunni regions and Iraq. Despite Iran's stern coordinated outward image similar ethnic, tribal and other structures found inside Iraq can be found inside Iran. These schisms can be leveraged by an outside force to crack the monolithic Persian Shia structure. The truth is that ethnic Persians make up only 51% of Iran. It is not surprising that the U.S would take advantage of these ethnic minorities to engage in violent acts inside Iran, and accordingly it is not surprising that Iran would support insurgent groups inside Iraq as payback. The resulting effect may not be a cohesive peaceful democracy but an internally warring mess with a ruling American-friendly elite controlling the oil and military.

Iran has a history forged by strong enemies ranging from the Greeks to the Romans to the Ottomans to the Iraqis. The region's bellicose nature comes from its position as a Shia bastion, a wellspring of unique culture and now being an island in a hostile sea of U.S. influenced nations. Iran is an intensely youthful country with most of its population being under 30 providing a fertile audience for change. These dynamics combined with the strategic importance of Iran's geographical control over middle east oil, its nuclear program and bellicose statements make it a high priority target for the current administration and arguably any future U.S. administrations. It is not surprising that the current petroleum industry-savvy leadership of the United States sees the opportunity to overthrow the theocratic government and the need to install a U.S. friendly system as urgent and compelling.

There is a deadline to Rice's diplomatic moves and there is a sense of countdown to dealing with Iran's constant truculence and instransigent resistance in joining the world stage as a modern, non-combative player.

It appears that as the Bush administration comes to the end of its functional life and at a time that the U.S. military infrastructure has been stressed the diplomatic option becomes more appealing. But there is no guarantee that a navy and air based attack on Iran's infrastructure combined with Special Forces led uprisings could not be a desperate "Hail Mary" move to shift attention from a failed 5 year expedition to pacify Iraq.

Iran Factor
Exercises Involving Nine US Vessels to Last for Weeks
05/23/2007 5:50 PM ET
Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74)
Tina Lamb/US Navy/Getty
Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74)

In a major show of military might, the US Navy sailed two aircraft carriers and a flotilla of other vessels through the Straits of Hormuz to begin naval exercises in the Persian Gulf, just off the coast of Iran.

U.S. Navy officials said Iran was not notified of plans to sail nine ships through the Straits of Hormuz, a narrow channel in international waters off Iran's coast and a major artery for global oil shipments.

Rear Admiral Kevin Quinn, who is leading the group, said the ships would conduct exercises as part of a long-planned effort to reassure regional allies of U.S. commitment to Gulf security.

"There's always the threat of any state or non-state actor that might decide to close one of the international straits, and the biggest one is the Straits of Hormuz," he told reporters on board the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier.

The naval exercises will involve carriers USS John C. Stennis and USS Nimitz, the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam and USS Princeton, the destroyers USS O'Kane and USS Higgins, and the landing ships USS Denver and USS Rushmore.

The naval maneuvers come just days in advance of a critical meeting planned for Monday between US, Iraqi, and Iranian officials in Baghdad, during which the representatives are supposed to discuss cooperation on Iraqi security. But US officials deflected suggestions that these naval exercises, expected to last a few weeks, were designed to send a message to Tehran in advance of the meeting.

"The timing of the exercise was determined by the availability of forces in the area of operations," said Lt. John Gay, spokesman for the Bahrain-based U.S. 5th Fleet.

Gay said the nine ships taking part in the maneuvers were already on patrol in Mideast waters outside the Gulf when they passed through the Strait of Hormuz on Wednesday and began air and sea maneuvers in the Gulf.

Naval officials said the latest training would include air defense exercises and boarding ships posing as suspect vessels.

"This training demonstrates our commitment to security and stability in the Gulf area and our commitment to regional partners,'' said Vice Admiral Kevin J. Cosgriff, commander of 5th Fleet.

Highlighting the dangers of accidental escalation, Reuters reports a Navy official said the Stennis had received nine inquiries from nearby countries--two from Oman and seven from Iran--including one from an Iranian vessel that sailed close by. An Iranian aircraft had also flown nearby, but was part of normal traffic.

"If the Straits of Hormuz were to be closed or there were to be some conflict there, the shipping rates would go sky high," Quinn said.

Oil Prices

Oil prices have risen to more than $70 (£35) a barrel as US navy movements in the Gulf focused attention on US-Iranian tensions.

Brent crude rose as high as $70.04 in afternoon trade in London.

Oil analysts tried to ease concerns that a US-Iran confrontation could affect the flow of oil.

"We are still of the opinion that this is a more symbolic show of force than anything else," Olivier Jakob, from oil analysts Petromatrix, told the BBC.

Words From Iran

During a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the recapture of an Iranian port seized by Iraqi forces during the 1980-88 war, Iranian defense minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar warned, "Islamic Iran will resist any kind of threat and will give a powerful answer to enemies and oppressors," according the official IRNA news agency.

"If one day a war is about to happen, Iran will defend its borders with more power than previous years," Alireza Afshar, deputy for "defense propaganda", told Mehr news agency.

"Nowadays, the US officials express willingness to hold talks with Iran, so they should quit their hostile behavior towards Iran," Majlis Speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel told reporters at his weekly press conference in Tehran.

He added, "We call for the US change of attitude in practice."

The Latest
Shi'ite Cleric, Reportedly Diagnosed With Cancer, Seeking Treatment in Tehren
05/21/2007 09:51 AM ET
Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim
Wathiq Khuzaie/AFP/Getty
Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim

Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, head of Iraq's largest parliamentary bloc and a powerful Shi'ite cleric, confirmed rumors that he is suffering health problems Monday and announced that he would be seeking treatment in Iran for a "simple tumor" in his lungs.

Reports surfaced last week that Hakim had departed for the United States for a medical examination in Texas, and Saturday's Washington Post reported that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Without specifically mentioning cancer, Hakim, speaking from Iran in a statement for his party's Furat TV station, said, "The results of these examinations found a number of limited infections and a limited tumour ... (Doctors) saw that the condition could easily be controlled."

Hakim said Iraqi doctors had recommended he travel to the US for a thorough examination, but that those tests had revealed that he would be able to receive adequate treatment from Iraq's neighbors, rather than remaining in the US.

Iran's Fars news agency reported Hakim declined to be treated in the US, citing his desire to be closer to his family. Specialist at the University of Texas clinic reportedly told him that the two countries neighboring Iraqi where he could be treated were Iran and Saudi Arabia. Fars also reported that Hakim would travel to Iran for a treatment which could last several months or longer.

While not specifying what course of treatment he would undertake, Hakim said in his taped statement that it would begin within a couple of days.

Hakim’s absence could be felt severely by his party, Fars reports. "We are in a difficult situation," said Hameed Moalah, a top-level SIIC MP, according to the Iranian agency.

Only on Slogger
Iraqi Officials Take Lessons From Texas Border Crossing
By JANE ARRAF 05/21/2007 02:30 AM ET
Iraqi laborer pulls luggage cart for pilgrims crossing Iraq/Iran border
©Jane Arraf
Iraqi laborer pulls luggage cart for pilgrims crossing Iraq/Iran border

Zurbathia Border Crossing – The line stretches into the hundreds as the wind whips up the sand at this border post.

Women in black abayas – the long cloaks - surrounded by fidgety children and bulging, dust-covered suitcases, young men in blue jeans, religious clerics in flowing robes and black or white turbans – all of them waiting to cross over from Iran to Iraq.

Iraqi border guards, checking documents and searching luggage by hand, can process 1,200 people a day from Iran – but there are usually many more. Most of them are Shiite families making the pilgrimage to Iraq’s holy shrines.

“In El Paso, Texas they have 25,000 vehicles enter every day – including 2,500 trucks,” Major General Muhsen Abdul Hassen tells his men. Abdul Hassen is the head of Iraq’s Department of Border Enforcement. He’s just come back from a trip to the United States and he loves El Paso – a model of efficiency, he says.

Brigadier General Dana Pittard, in charge of transition teams, greets Iraqi official. Iraqi Major General Mohsen Abdul Hassen looks on
©Jane Arraf
Brigadier General Dana Pittard, in charge of transition teams, greets Iraqi official. Iraqi Major General Mohsen Abdul Hassen looks on

“How do they organize it? They go through four gates and no vehicle waits more than a few minutes,” he says.

But here, in the desert 80 miles southeast of Baghdad, they’re not worried about illegal immigrants. It’s shipments of weapons. U.S. officials have increasingly made the claim that weapons, arms and insurgents coming from Iran are a growing threat to U.S. forces in Iraq.

There are hundreds of trucks a day at this border crossing in southeastern Iraq. There’s a construction boom in Iraq and many of the country’s own factories are idle. A steady steam of trucks carrying bags of cement, ceramic tiles, plastic containers and produce such as melons comes from Iran

The Iraqi government has banned Iranian trucks from entering Iraq so the goods are loaded onto Iraqi vehicles. But they’re cross-loaded on the Iranian side of the border, under only Iranian supervision.

“We have a big problem because we don’t have a neutral zone – we want the Iraqi side to be present but the Iranians don’t agree,” the Iraqi general says.

Disabled equipment and no maintenance

When they get to the Iraqi side, only one of four back scanners meant to see through the trucks is operating.

“They were bought by the coalition forces,” says Abdul Hassen. “They didn’t give us training or maintenance training – when it breaks down we don’t even know which company to contact.” He said they were trying to bring engineers from Basra to train staff in maintaining the equipment.

“It was an expensive contract and it didn’t include training Iraqis in how to repair them,” says Brigadier General Dana Pittard, in charge of the Iraqi Assistance Group, which embeds U.S. training teams with Iraqi security forces. “The idea was good - you know how it worked in 2003, 2004 – ‘get the stuff out, get the stuff out’ - it was better to get it out quickly than to get it out the normal way. We’ve refined the procedures now.

U.S. Army captain and Shiite cleric crossing Iran/Iraq border acknowledge each othe
©Jane Arraf
U.S. Army captain and Shiite cleric crossing Iran/Iraq border acknowledge each othe

Abdul Hassen said they did not have enough fuel to carry out the patrols U.S. advisers were asking them to conduct. The Iraqi government has recently lifted some subsidies on gasoline and other fuels, tripling the price border officials pay when they buy it on the open market. The border areas are too spread out for regular fuel deliveries.

U.S. military lures Homeland Security agents from Mexican border

Despite the serious handicaps in many ways this is a model border crossing. That’s because it’s one of only two border entry points on the Iraq-Iran border where coalition forces are posted full-time. The other eight are staffed and patrolled only by Iraqi forces or have British forces patrolling the border from their bases.

“The British will say they have teams in the others but they’re fewer and smaller. They are four-man teams that go out and come back but they’re not dedicated to the ports of entry,” Pittard says.

In addition to the soldiers and Marines working with and soon to be living with Iraqi border guards at Zurbaitha, three advisers from Department of Homeland Security have been here since January.

“Border work is border work,” said one of the officers, comparing working on the Mexican border to working on the Iranian one. He did not want to give his name.

Iraqi soldier flanked by Iranian flags in background at border crossing
©Jane Arraf
Iraqi soldier flanked by Iranian flags in background at border crossing

“They are very helpful there are just not enough of them,” said Pittard, who is from El Paso. The Department of Homeland Security, facing pressure to crack down on the U.S. border with Mexico, had authorized only 12 of its personnel for all of Iraq.

So U.S. military commanders here decided to contract out the work – offering more money to Homeland Security staff than they were currently making to come to Iraq as contractors. “We’re contracting out well over 100 former and current customs folks and border folks ...We’re saying ‘you wouldn’t send them so we’re paying more than they were making to draw them here,” says Pittard.

He says the contractors, who average 15 to 20 years experience in borders and customs, will arrive over the next four months for year-long assignments.

“If they have experience at places like El Paso, Texas we put them out with the POETS – ports of entry transition teams. If they have experience with roving border patrol we put them out there,” he said.

Concern over weapons coming from Iran through the marshes

Abdul Hassen says the borders have improved since he started the job two years ago.

“We had 176 guard posts now we have 430 and I would say we can control between 65 and 70 percent of the borders,” he says.

He says weapons smuggling hasn’t been a problem at Zurbathia – the problem he says is farther south.

“I see all the reports and we have not captured any weapons here...but there are marshes in the south of Iraq in the Maysan area – control of those marshes is very difficult. I’m not sure, but they may be using boats for that (arms smuggling),” he says.

Pittard says the smuggling is likely being done at other official border crossings where there is no coalition overwatch. The area is still heavily mined – a legacy of the Iran-Iraq war – and driving off-road can be dangerous.

“We think the we think the majority are coming through ports of entry because there are large shipments that go by truck so they don’t need to go by the areas where they used to be mines along the border when they can go along the roads.”

He says his teams are concentrating on helping Iraqis stop the flow of foreign fighters across the Syrian border and the flow of weapons from Iran.

“On the Iranian side it has to do with supplying weapons – unless we cover every single port of entry like we do with Zurbaitha it’s not going to happen.”

Meanwhile, pilgrims from Iran and as far away as Pakistan as well as Iraqis trying to return home wait in the sand and dust to see whether they will part of the group border officials are able to process that day. There are plans to build a waiting hall – and a gate which the Iraqi side can control.

“We’ve been sitting here since seven a.m.,” an elderly woman named Najla tells me. She and her family have been visiting relatives in Iran and are trying to return to their homes in Diwaniya in the south.

“Essentially at the end of the day someone’s got to tell these people they can’t go across and it always creates problems,” says Col Mark Mueller, in charge of the transition team at this crossing. “They’ve waited all this time usually from 8 o clock in the morning until 5 at night and then they have to go back.”

Iran to Build Pipeline, Invited to Bid on Refinery Construction
05/18/2007 1:32 PM ET
NAJAF, IRAQ: A general view of the new oil refinery built near the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, 07 October 2006.
Qassem Zein/AFP/Getty
NAJAF, IRAQ: A general view of the new oil refinery built near the Shiite shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, 07 October 2006.

Iraq and Iran moved to significantly increase their ties this week, with the two governments signing a deal for the Islamic Republic to build a pipeline for direct export of Iraqi crude. The Iraqi Ministry of Oil also invited Iranian companies to bid on the contract for construction of four planned refineries.

The official spokesman for Iraq's Oil Ministry said on Thursday that the Iraqi government has agreed with Iran to start laying oil pipeline for the export of Iraqi oil to the neighboring country.

"The agreement came during the meeting between Iraqi oil minister Hussein al-Shahrestani and Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hasan Kazemi Qomi at the minister’s office," Essam Jihad told the independent news agency Voices of Iraq (VOI).

"The two agreed to lay the oil pipeline from southern Iraq to Abadan region in Iran in order to export more than 200,000 barrels per day of Iraqi crude oil to Iran according to crude oil international prices," he also said.

He noted that the new pipeline will provide a new way to boost the country's export capacity to Iranian refineries in Abadan.

"They also agreed to arrange a mutual visit for technicians from both countries to prepare the agreement's contracts," the official added.

Iraqi government spokesman Asim Jihad said that Oil Minister Hussain al-Shahristani agreed with the Iranian ambassador on Wednesday to activate an agreement to build a pipeline to carry about 200,000 bpd of Iraqi crude to Iran's southern refineries.

"They have agreed that the technical committees should begin within days mutual visits to discuss costs and the time they need to build the pipeline," Mr Jihad said. "The Iranians will buy the crude based on market price."

Iraq wants to build at least four refineries to help it solve chronic fuel shortages. Its eight pre-existing refineries, none of which were damaged during the invasion, operate at only 50-75% capacity, according to the Oil Ministry.

The ministry said last year that it wants to build a refinery in Nahrain, just south of Baghdad, with a capacity of 140,000 barrels per day. A second refinery at Kuya in the north, is projected at 70,000 bpd. Plans have also been discussed for a refinery in Nassiriya, south of Iraq, for export purposes with a capacity of 300,000 bpd and another in southern Amara.

In other developments in the Tehren's bilateral relations this week, Iran's state-run news service IRNA reports that a meeting on the sidelines of the OIC conference in Islamabad between foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Syrian foreign minister Walid Moualem led to a commitment "to build up contacts to study issues of mutual interest more regularly."

Diplomatic Buzz
Mottaki Announces Talks to Proceed May 28 in Iraq
05/17/2007 10:20 AM ET
Islamabad, PAKISTAN: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki listens to a question during a press conference at the end of the three-day Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad, 17 May 2007.
Islamabad, PAKISTAN: Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki listens to a question during a press conference at the end of the three-day Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad, 17 May 2007.

US and Iranian officials have scheduled to meet in Iraq on May 28, Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Thursday.

The much-anticipated talks between ambassadorial-level representatives of the estranged nations are being held at the request of the Iraqi government, with their security problems topping the agenda.

Mottaki, speaking at a press conference at the Islamic Conference of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad, reiterated Iran's position that Iraq's problems have resulted from bad US policy decisions, and said the meeting would strictly focus on discussing the security and stability of its neighbor.

"Negotiation is limited to Iraq, in Iraq, and will start in the presence of Iraqi officials," Mottaki said.

Mottaki declined the notion that Iran's nuclear program would be an item for discussion.

"Nothing but Iraq on the agenda," he insisted.

Iran plans to send an “expert diplomat” at ambassador level to the talks, while the US has appointed one of their ambassadors as chief negotiator, Mottaki said.

Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari said the discussions will be a part of three-party talks, involving the United States, Iran and Iraq.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told reporters in Baghdad that he did not expect "any stunning, startling breakthroughs" from the first meeting.

"Their support for militias, their involvement in the development and transfer of EFPs that are killing our forces, these are not good things," Crocker said.

"It would be a very good thing if they brought their actions more into alignment with their words."

Diplomatic Buzz
Ayatollah Rejects Direct Negotiations Until US Changes Policies
05/16/2007 12:29 PM ET
MASHHAD, IRAN: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali khamenei waves under the portrait of late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni during a meeting with clerics in Mashhad, 950 kms northeast of Tehran, 16 May 2007.
MASHHAD, IRAN: Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali khamenei waves under the portrait of late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni during a meeting with clerics in Mashhad, 950 kms northeast of Tehran, 16 May 2007.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Wednesday that Iran would use the imminent meeting with US officials to remind them of "their duties and responsibilities" in Iraq, but rejected any notion of direct talks until "the policies of this arrogant government change."

In his first public comments on the proposed diplomatic encounter, "The (Iranian) Foreign Ministry, at the request of the Iraqi government, decided to remind them (the United States) of their duties and responsibilities ... in a face-to-face discussion," Khamenei said in the comments reported by state TV and cited by Reuters.

"(These) negotiations (on Iraq) are only about the duty of the occupier regarding the security of Iraq," he added.

"Iran's policy of not negotiating and having relations with America remains the same until the policies of this arrogant government change," said Khamenei, who has the final say in all matters of state under Iran's system of clerical rule.

IRNA's piece about Khamenei's comments quoted more of the Supreme Leader's harsher rhetoric: "How is it possible to hold talks with US arrogant, bullying, expansionist administration and its impolite, bold and demanding officials?," he asked.

"The talks on Iraq was supposed to be held early last year but the Americans misbehaved. However, this time they have extended a request for direct talks."

"Iran's policy on avoiding direct talks with the current US administration is still in force until they change their behavior."

President Promises "Severe" Retaliation If US Attacks
05/14/2007 11:10 AM ET
Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives a press conference in Abu Dhabi 14 May 2007 during the first visit of an Iranian president to the UAE since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad gives a press conference in Abu Dhabi 14 May 2007 during the first visit of an Iranian president to the UAE since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confirmed Monday that he has assented to talks on Iraq security between his country and the United States, even as in the same press conference he racheted up the defensive rhetoric, threatening "severe" retaliation if the US attacks Iranian territory.

Speaking at a press conference in Abu Dhabi Monday, Ahmadinejad said, "The US has called for holding talks with Iran to settle security problems in Iraq. We have announced our readiness for talks to help the Iraqi government and nation."

State-run Iranian TV reports that Ahmadinejad added, "But the exact date and venue of talks have not been determined yet. Both sides prefer talks to be held in Iraq in presence of the Iraqi government."

However, AP reports that the president said in the press conference that, "Both parties have confirmed the talks will take place in Baghdad in the presence of the Iraqi government."

The White House confirmed Sunday that Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker will meet with Iranian counterparts in Baghdad--possibly as early as nex week--to prod Tehran to play a "productive role in Iraq."

Even as taking a step forward in diplomatic interaction, Ahmadinejad also used the press conference to voice a pointed message that he wouldn't be pushed around by the superpower, threatening a harsh response if the US ever decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.

"They realize that if they make such a mistake the retaliation of Iran would be severe and they will repent," Reuters reports Ahmadinejad told the news conference.

"All people know they cannot strike us. Iran is capable of defending itself. It is a strong country," said Ahmadinejad.

The West cannot stop Tehran from pursuing its nuclear energy program, he said. "Superpowers cannot prevent us from owning this energy."

The vow comes on the heels of US vice-president Dick Cheney’s comments Friday while visiting the UAE that the US would keep Gulf shipping lanes open and not allow Iran to possess nuclear technology.

Ahmadinejad used the occasion of a large rally Sunday night to strongly condemn US actions. The Iranian president gave a rousing speech to thousands of people--many of them Iranian expats--at a soccer stadium in Abu Dhabi.

Referring to the US accusations that Iran contributes to the insurgency inside Iraq, Iranian TV reports Ahmadinejad said, "Iran and Iraq have very friendly ties. Those who came to the region from thousands of kilometers away cause trouble.

"They are used to looking for an external factor instead of accepting their mistakes whenever they fail.

"The occupiers' plans in Iraq have totally failed," the president said, adding, "The solution (to the Iraqi crisis) is based on respect for rights and dignity of the Iraqi people and end the country's occupation."

"We are telling you to leave the region. This is for your benefit and the benefit of your nation," Ahmadinejad shouted to the crowd according to AP. "The nations of the region can no longer take you forcing yourself on them. The nations of the region know better how to create peace and security."

He played down talk of Iran militarily punishing any Gulf neighbor who allies with the US during any arising conflict and called residents of the UAE brothers.

Iran wants to “ensure and secure peace in the area. We believe the foreigners will leave us. We want to coexist and live together.”

AP reports Ahmadinejad also claimed the U.S.-allied Emirates backs Iran's position that the U.S. military should leave the Gulf. "This region won't allow other powers from thousands of miles away to threaten the region and create enmity," he said. "Our talks with our brothers in the United Arab Emirates reiterated this truth again and again."

The United States has three military bases in the UAE, and a presence in all of the Gulf nations, except Saudi Arabia.

Ahmadinejad wants the Persian Gulf Arab nations to drop their military ties with Washington and help Iran create a regional alliance to maintain stability in the Middle East.

Majlis Protests Channel's "Insult" of Ayatollah al-Sistani
05/07/2007 11:13 AM ET

The Iranian Parliament has banned al-Jazeera reporters until the network apologizes for a perceived insult the news show "Without Borders" made against Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

"Iran's Majlis has banned entry of the al-Jazeera reporters to its sessions as the legislative body attaches great importance to the Iraqi religious figures particularly those residing in the holy city of Najaf," speaker of the Iranian Majlis Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel said on Monday.

Referring to the insulting move as "a plot masterminded by the enemies of Islam and Iraq," Haddad-Adel said, "The ban will be effective until the Arab-language news network apologizes for the insult."

The program broadcast an interview with Sheikh Jawad al-Khalsi, a Shiite cleric with strong ties with the Sunni Association of Muslim Scholars, who has been sharply critical of Sistani and other Shi'ite leaders' relationships with the Americans.

Sistani, who does not make public appearances and rarely grants interviews, has not issued a statement on the controversy. However, his representative in Karbala said during Friday prayers that Al-Jazeera was trying to drive a wedge between al-Sistani and his followers by suggesting that the cleric supports foreign occupation.

NAJAF, IRAQ: Iraqi Shiites brandish pictures of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Thani as they protest against the Doha-based satellite Arab channel Al-Jazeera, 04 May 2007, in the southern city of Najaf.
Qassem Zein/AFP/Getty
NAJAF, IRAQ: Iraqi Shiites brandish pictures of Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad al-Thani as they protest against the Doha-based satellite Arab channel Al-Jazeera, 04 May 2007, in the southern city of Najaf.

Following afternoon prayers on Friday afternoon, Shi'ite worshippers protested al-Jazeera in the streets of Najaf and Karbala.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zibari wrote a letter to his Qatari counterpoint on Sunday urging him to halt what Zibari described as a campaign against the Iraqi government.

"The majority of Iraqis believe that the material televised by al-Jazeera TV about Iraq is interference in the country's internal affairs and nourishes, to a great extent, incitation of terrorism," Zibari said in his statement.

"The Iraqi government is aware that al-Jazeera is a private company but Iraq relies on the Qatari foreign minister's wisdom and stature to deal with this affair by demanding al-Jazeera to avoid provoking the Iraqi people's sentiments and respect the media code of ethics," Zibari added.

Iran Factor
Mottaki Walks Out on a Chance to Sit Across From Rice at Dinner
05/04/2007 10:47 AM ET
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attends the second day of an international conference on Iraq, 04 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Khaled Desouki
Sharm El-Sheikh, EGYPT: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attends the second day of an international conference on Iraq, 04 May 2007 in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Iranian and US ambassadors had a conversation on the sidelines of the international conference in Cairo, according Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

Zebari told a press conference Friday that "there was no direct meeting, but they were in the same room and they were discussing the issues."

"I don't know what happened during this meeting but I believe it was positive and indications are positive," he added.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, played down the significance of the meeting, saying he spent only three minutes with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi.

"The exchange, such as it was, was limited and was on Iraq... It was a pass-by meeting," he told Reuters, using the term for a brief informal encounter. The State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, was also present.

Zebari welcomed the U.S.-Iran encounter, even if the conference did not achieve the anticipated face-to-face between Secretary of State Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki. "I think it was a positive sign that at least such a thing did take place while we are here. This is a process I think. It needs more work," he told a news conference.

"There is a lot of suspicion. There is a lot of mistrust. But it is in my country's interest really to see a reduction of this tension," he added.

Rice said that if she had had the chance she would also have met Mottaki.

"The opportunity simply didn't arise for the foreign minister of Iran and me to meet... I would have taken that opportunity," she told a news conference.

"But our officials did ... have an opportunity to exchange views about the substance of this meeting, which is how to help Iraq be more secure," she added.

A diplomats' dinner Thursday night is causing a slight controversy because Mottaki walked out, ostensibly because a female violinist entertaining the gathering was dressed too revealingly.

"I don't know which woman he was afraid of, the woman in the red dress or the secretary of state," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Friday, regarding the actions of Iran's Manouchehr Mottaki on Thursday night.

AP writes that Mottaki "was seated directly across" from Rice, but Reuters reports that he walked out before the Secretary of State arrived--a minor difference, but significant in the possible indication of any intended slight by the Iranian foreign minister.

Whether or not Mottaki's behavior at dinner Thursday night was designed to offend, his speech to the conference vividly demonstrates that the Iranian delegation had not travelled to Cairo to make friends with the Americans.

Mottaki told the assembly, "The United States must accept the responsibility arising from the occupation of Iraq and should not fingerpoint or put the blame on others," adding, "The continuation of and increase in terrorist acts in Iraq originates from the flawed approaches adopted by the foreign troops."


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