Report: Iran Qods chief Soleimani meets with Iraqi Kurdish leaders


Iran Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani has held meetings with Iraqi Kurdish officials in Erbil this week, Rudaw reports:

The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, visited Erbil this week and met with top officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), among them Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.

A source from the Erbil International Airport told Rudaw on condition of anonymity that Soleimani’s plane arrived from Sulaimani where the Iranian commander had met with officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Barzani’s press secretary told the media that the PM has received an official invitation to visit the Islamic Republic of Iran.

“The prime minister received an invitation from the Islamic Republic to visit Tehran and meet with top Iranian officials, but he has not set a date for his visit yet,” Sami Argushi, the PM’s press secretary said.

Political analysts believe this visit by Major General Soleimani, who commands an important wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, alongside other visits between Iranian and Kurdish officials, is a sign of strengthening relations between Iran and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

According to Argushi, the prime minister’s visit will be to “strengthen mutual relations between Kurdistan and the Islamic Republic.” Continue reading

Back story: Abbas rebuffed Ahmadinejad mediation offer

Al-Monitor‘s Andrew Parasiliti reports from New York:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas got off to a chilly start in their first ever meeting at the summit of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM), hosted by Iran late last month (August 31, 2012).

According to a participant in the meeting, who spoke exclusively to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, Ahmadinejad was obligated to invite Abbas, as leader of Palestinian Authority, a member of the Non Aligned Movement, to the summit in Tehran.

Abbas had not planned to meet with Ahmadinejad during the summit, but agreed when the Iranian president requested a formal meeting after Abbas had arrived in Tehran.

After the ceremonial pleasantries, Abbas asked whether Ahmadinejad had invited Hamas leader Ismael Haniyeh to the NAM summit, as Hamas had claimed. Ahmadinejad said he personally had not extended an invitation, although the Iranian Foreign Ministry had in fact invited Haniyeh as a special guest. Haniyeh decided not to attend only after Abbas threatened not to participate in the summit if Haniyeh did.

Abbas told Ahmadinejad that his references to eliminating Israel hurt the Palestinian cause. Ahmadinejad was taken aback by the criticism, apparently having thought his aggressive language on Israel would be a boost to the Palestinians. Abbas said that was not the case, and that it would be more helpful to talk about putting Palestine on the map, rather than wiping Israel off the map.

Ahmadinejad offered to mediate reconciliation talks with Hamas, but the offer was politely deflected by Abbas.

Abbas also declined a subsequent invitation to visit Tehran, although he has not ruled out a future visit to Iran.

–Andrew Parasiliti is CEO & Editor at Large for Al-Monitor.

(Photo: Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Egypt’s President Mohamed Mursi and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (L-R) prepare to take a group photo during the 16th summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran August 30, 2012. REUTERS/Ra’ouf Mohseni/Mehr News Agency.)

US Syria hand Fred Hof to resign

Veteran US diplomat Fred Hof, the US Special Advisor on Transition in Syria, is resigning his post, Al Arabiya Washington bureau chief Hisham Melham reports.

Hof’s last day at State is Friday, a former senior American official told Al-Monitor Tuesday.

Hof has “worked tirelessly to unify Syrian opposition,” Melhem wrote on Twitter Tuesday, calling the diplomat a “real Mensch,” and his departure a tremendous loss to the Syrian people.

Hof joined the Obama administration in 2009 as an advisor on Syria and Lebanon aiding the small team of US Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell, who resigned last year.

More recently Hof had been traveling in the region almost constantly, working in close coordination with US Syria envoy Robert Ford on a post-Assad Syria ‘day after’ transition plan.

Hof initially told Mitchell he would commit to two years in the job, but extended his work as the Syria conflict deepened, a source familiar with his decision to leave told Al-Monitor, adding Hof’s spouse was eager for him to return to civilian life.

News of the resignation comes as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met in New York Tuesday with Lakhdar Brahimi, the new joint UN/Arab League Syria envoy. Brahimi reportedly gave Clinton a bleak assessment of the conflict.

“I do not have a full plan for the moment, but I have a few ideas,” Brahimi said Tuesday, Reuters reported.

“The situation in Syria is extremely bad and getting worse,” the Algerian diplomat continued. “There is a stalemate … but I think we will find an opening in the not too distant future.”

Iran Pulse: Rafsanjani reacts to son’s arrest

Al-Monitor‘s Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi has posted the Baztab video of former Iran president Hashemi Rafsanjani embracing his son, before he is taken to Evin Prison.

Mehdi Hashemi returned to Iran this week after three years’ exile in London and Dubai, after being accused of “playing an important role in stoking the protests and unrest,” that followed Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential elections, Eskandar writes.

The video seems to show an unusually intimate glimpse of the former Iranian president, who is among Iran’s wealthiest businessman, and whose political influence remains a subject of regime suspicion ahead of the 2013 presidential elections. As it was designed to, says Eskandar. Continue reading

Obama to UN: World must reject intolerance

President Barack Obama said the world faces a choice between tolerance and extremism, in a speech to the United Nations Tuesday that vowed the United States will not retreat from the world despite the recent killing of US diplomats in Libya amid protests at US embassies in the Muslim world sparked by an anti-Islam video trailer posted to YouTube.

“We face a choice between the forces that would drive us apart, and the hopes we hold in common,”  Obama told world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly 67th Opening Session Tuesday. “Today, we must declare that this violence and intolerance has no place among our United Nations.”

“Understand, America will never retreat from the world,” Obama vowed. “We will bring justice to those who harm our citizens and our friends, and we will stand with our allies.”

On Iran’s nuclear program, Obama restated that he wants to solve the issue through diplomacy, but recommitted the United States to do “what’s needed” to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so,” Obama said. “But that time is not unlimited.”

More highlights: Continue reading

Ahmadinejad: Iran nuclear issue ‘very tiresome subject’

New York__Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad confessed Monday that he is tired of discussing the Iran nuclear issue.

The nuclear issue “is a very tiresome subject,” Ahmadinejad told journalists at a media breakfast at a midtown Manhattan hotel Monday morning. “Everyone knows Iran is not seeking” a nuclear weapon.

The whole issue begins “to resemble a comedy show,” Ahmadinejad continued. “Those accusing us have warehouses full” of nuclear weapons.

Ahmadinejad, on his eighth and perhaps final visit to New York as Iran’s president, looked subdued and somewhat weary at two appearances with journalists and think tank scholars in New York Monday.

In an effort to perhaps lighten the glum mood, the Iranian president shared a joke he said was making the rounds of Iranian school children–at the apparent expense of the six-nation group trying to negotiate a resolution to international concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. “In Iran, the children come up with a joke for the P5+1,” he said. “‘How is it possible not to be able to add 5+1 for so many years?'”

Asked by a former American diplomat about the prospect of opening US-Iranian talks on the nuclear issue to bypass the somewhat cumbersome P5+1 format, Ahmadinejad, however, did not answer directly if he would support such an initiative.

“We all know the nuclear issue is a political issue,” Ahmadinejad said at the midday meeting with American think tank scholars and nuclear experts. “Not legal or technical. The problem is between the U.S. and Iran.” Continue reading

On US decision to delist MEK

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has decided to take a controversial Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), off the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations as compensation for the group’s almost complete evacuation of its historic base in Iraq, a US official told Al-Monitor on Friday, Barbara Slavin and I report on the front page. But Iran is likely to see it as a signl that the United States backs Iran regime change:

The official, speaking to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, said the decision – first reported by CNN’s Elise Labott — reflected the fact that all but 200 MEK members have now relocated from Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad to a facility near Baghdad airport where they will be processed for resettlement out of Iraq by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. […]

The US official added that taking the MEK off the terrorist list would not connote US government approval. […]

Iranian officials are likely to be furious at the move which could negatively impact already stalled nuclear negotiations. […]

Philip Zelikow, who dealt with the issue as Counselor to then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told Al-Monitor, “From what I can learn, I don’t see any basis for keeping the MEK on the FTO [Foreign Terrorist Organization] list and thus obstructing the resettlement, outside of Iraq, of the Ashraf folks as refugees.  My advice is also unwelcome to the MEK supporters since I’ve told them bluntly that the US can no longer protect them in Iraq and that they should accept resettlement outside of Iraq.”

“I am relieved to see that, thanks to some able US diplomatic work, we seem to have found a solution,” Zelikow added.

Friday reads: War games

Iran war game shows rapid escalation as US, Iran misread others’ moves. (David Ignatius/Washington Post)

State Department rejects Sen. John Kerry’s call to block US funds to Iraq over alleged Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps overflights to supply arms to Syria. (Reuters)

Iraqi government spokesman Ali Aldabbbagh tells Al-Monitor that the Iraqi government has informed Iran that it will not allow its air space to be used to supply either side in Syria’s civil war. “We had informed the Iranians that Iraq will never [allow the] use [of] its airspace to do so.” (Al Monitor)

New AIPAC spokesman Marshall Wittman once worked as a lobbyist for Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition. (The Forward)

Egyptian author Alaa Al-Aswany writes how the Muslim world can defend the prophet. (Al-Safir/Al-Monitor)

Recent Israeli war games in the Golan Heights are an important signal to Iran, writes former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (Ydioth Ahronoth/Al Monitor)

Former Israeli spy chief Meir Dagan becomes a dissident. (The New Yorker)

(Photo: An Israeli soldier travels atop a mobile artillery unit during a drill near the northern city of Katzrin in the Golan Heights September 19, 2012. Israel’s military launched the surprise large-scale exercise on Wednesday on the occupied Golan Heights, testing its battle readiness amid tensions over Iran’s nuclear drive and civil war in Syria. REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Report: US to delist MEK

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is expected to formally notify Congress shortly of her intent to de-list the controversial Iranian group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (the MEK), from the US list of designated terrorist groups, CNN’s Elise Labott reports, citing three US officials.

“We don’t love these people but the Secretary’s decision is merited based on the record of facts that we have,” one US official told CNN. “This was not done casually and it’s the right decision.”

“The notification will be followed by a formal de-listing from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in the coming days,” CNN reported.


Syria’s Moallem to lead delegation to UN in New York

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.Syria’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem will lead the country’s delegation traveling to New York next week for events surrounding the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Moallem is expected to arrive in New York around September 24, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

His visit comes as the international community remains divided over how to contain the civil war that has engulfed the country over the past 18 months, killing over 20,000 people and spurring a refugee exodus to Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon. Western countries remain reluctant to intervene in the conflict, and the prospect looms of a protracted civil war, that could potentially destabilize Syria’s neighbors.

On Wednesday, Iranian Foreign Mnister Ali Akbar Salehi arrived in Damascus for talks with Moallem and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about how to resolve the conflict.

Salehi’s Damascus trip followed consultations in Cairo the past two days on the Syrian crisis, involving Turkey, Egypt, Iran and the new UN/Arab League Syria envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

Salehi will also travel to New York next week as part of the Iranian delegation attending the UNGA activities.