From cold war to cold peace? Ex Mossad chief sees possible opening

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20131104-180456.jpgIstanbul__ Even as Iranians on Monday demonstrated outside the old US embassy on the anniversary of the 1979 embassy seizure and hostage crisis that led to the severing of US-Iranian diplomatic ties, one former Israeli intelligence chief said he saw signs of a potential opportunity emerging from recently intensified US-Iran nuclear diplomacy.

If the US and Iran are able to reach a nuclear deal, will they move next to implement a broader rapprochement? And if so, would the prospect of a thaw in US-Iran ties lead Iran to consider reducing hostilities against Israel? Or is that a bridge too far?

“I come away from this with a sense of possibility, by no means a certainty, that there might be an opening, in which one can turn around the thorniest problem of all: the deep-seated rejection of Israel by the current regime in Iran,” Efraim Halevy, former head of the Israeli intelligence service the Mossad, told Al-Monitor in interviews on the sidelines of a conference on Middle East security issues in Istanbul this week convened by the Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs. “This will not be obtained overnight.”

“If the Iranians think straight, ..they must realize it is inconceivable that they [would be] able to change the basics of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. whilst maintaining the level of denial and enmity they now have to Israel,” said Halevy, who conducted secret negotiations with Jordan’s King Hussein that led to the historic 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

To be sure, there were few signs from Tehran in recent days that it was prepared to abandon its anti-Israel or anti-American enmity, even as a debate has opened up in recent weeks about “Death to America” chants at Friday prayers and after the Tehran municipality last week removed anti-US billboards, describing the posters as put up illegally.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, in a speech Sunday after a conspicuous three week absence from the public scene, firmly backed his Iran nuclear negotiating team, and warned hardliners to stop attacking their patriotism and trying to undermine their “difficult mission.” But Khamenei also made clear that he had endorsed negotiations with six world powers on the nuclear issue alone, and not yet a broader rapprochement with the United States, which he described as duplicitous, and its ally Israel as the “bastard and illegitimate…Zionist regime.”

“We should not trust an enemy who smiles,” Khamenei said. “From one side the Americans smile and express a desire to negotiate, and from another they immediately say all options are on the table.”

Iran Foreign Minister and chief nuclear negotiator Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaking with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a visit to Istanbul October 31st, proposed an exit from “zero sum” thinking on global security matters, and abandoning the calculus that one nation’s security is a factor of the insecurity of its adversary.

Halevy, analyzing the speech, said he found elements of it “exhilarating.”

Zarif “said security is no longer a zero sum game, but a global issue….in which all of the players emerge with their interests intact,” Halevy said. “Therefore ultimately what he is saying, it will not be able to reach an understanding which will satisfy Iran”s security problems, without addressing Israel’s security concerns.”

It “could be that what we are seeing here is a deception, that there is a campaign of smiles which is designed to delude us-both the world and Israel into a false reading of the situation,” Halevy cautioned.

Zarif said there was no place in Iran’s security doctrine for nuclear weapons, and that both security interests as well as religious edicts forbid Iran from ever pursuing a weapon. “Certainly there’s enough evidence to show he knows what he is saying for public consumption is not consistent with the facts,” Halevy said, disputing the assertion that Iran had never pursued a weapons program. “But you cannot ignore the fact that the tone and the reasoning being presented…is different.”

“It’s too early in the game to say what will happen here,” Halevy said. “If the dynamism that leads to a resolution of the nuclear issue, leads to a thaw between Iran and the US, it’s very difficult for the Iranians to envisage an ‘American spring’ at the same time they pursue a confrontation with Israel.”

“America is signaling very clearly it wants to reach a conclusion, it wants to be able to close the nuclear file,” Halevy said. “If the Iranians want to close the nuclear file, let’s imagine, what then? Will it resume diplomatic relations, trade, the flow of academicians… What do you do?”

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Iran FM Zarif outlines ideas to exit nuclear dispute

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Istanbul __ Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Friday he believes Iran and six world powers should accept each other’s chief objectives as their own in order to resolve concerns about Iran’s nuclear program.

“On the nuclear issue, I believe the problem we have faced in the last ten years is we have both seen the nuclear issue as a zero sum game; we have articulated two seemingly opposing objectives, and each tried to make gains for one objective seemingly at the expense of the others,” Zarif told an audience of Middle East nonproliferation specialists convened in Istanbul Friday by the Pugwash conference on nuclear disarmament.

“The result has been that ten years ago, Iran had less than 160 centrifuges spinning, now it has over 18,000,” Zarif, speaking in English, said. While ten years ago, “Iran’s economy was prospering, now sanctions are hurting the wrong segment of the population. I hope we have come to understand that approach was wrong.”

Zarif said he proposed, at meetings with the P5+1 in New York and Geneva the past two months, a new approach: that Iran accepts the West’s objective that Iran never have a nuclear weapon, and that the West accept Iran’s objective that it have a peaceful nuclear energy program that includes domestic enrichment, with mechanisms to verify it not be used for military purposes.

Iran’s nuclear know-how and technology are now “homegrown,” Zarif said, to explain why he thinks it in the West’s interest to accept Iranian enrichment. You “cannot kill all our scientists and kill our program. …You cannot destroy the technology. How to ensure [the program] is peaceful: allow it operate in a transparent fashion; you cannot push it under the rug.”

Asked whether he believes President Obama would be able to sell Congress on an Iran nuclear deal that includes sanctions relief, Zarif said he would leave American domestic politics to the Americans to sort out: “I do not interfere in American domestic politics.” Both sides have public opinion on their side to pursue a negotiated settlement, he said he believes, but formidable hardline constituencies to contend with at home as well.

“I believe leaders need to show leadership,” Zarif said. “I think experience shows, once there is a good deal, the US president will be able to sell it, and I think we will be able to sell it too.”

Zarif spoke here, at a presidential palace overlooking the Bosporous on the Asian side of the city, on a panel with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming the post of foreign minister in the Hassan Rouhani administration in August. While Zarif and Davutoglu had warm words for each other, the two nations’ differences on Syria were apparent. However, they agreed that the US-Russian agreement that led to Syria’s decision to give up its chemical weapons stockpiles and join the chemical weapons ban was a positive development, and urged that it be a first step towards a broader agreement towards ridding the entire Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

“I agree with my good friend and brother, Javad-bey,” Davutoglu said. “Something good happens with the Syria chemical weapons ban, at least the process has started.”

Zarif, whose back seemed much improved from when he appeared at a press conference in Geneva last month in a wheel chair, was due to travel on to Ankara Friday for meetings with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. He is slated to travel to Paris next week, ahead of leading the Iranian delegation to the next round of negotiations between the P5+1 and Iran, in Geneva on November 7-8th.

(Photo: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamad Javad Zarif speaks at a press conference in Istanbul on Friday, November 1, 2013. Associated Press.)

Ashton, Jalili hold ‘constructive’ four-hour dinner meeting

European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton held a ‘useful and constructive’ four hour dinner meeting with Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili in Istanbul Tuesday, at which he stressed Iran’s interest in continuing negotiations, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor.

Jalili made clear at the dinner, which stretched from 7:30pm until almost midnight, that the Iranians would like negotiations to continue, diplomats said. Ashton, for her part, would also like to move the process forward, but stressed to the Iranians that it’s time for them to get serious.

Also attending the dinner Tuesday–which was held at the Iranian consulate in Istanbul–were Ashton’s deputy Helga Schmid, Iranian deputy nuclear negotiator Ali Bagheri, and Ashton’s chief of staff James Morrison. (Video of Ashton and team arriving at the Iranian consulate here.)

The Iranians avoided the hectoring and litany of complaints that had characterized the strained atmosphere at high level six nation talks with Iran held in Moscow in June. The informal dinner discussion deliberately did not focus, however, on the substantive details of the international dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

Ashton heads to New York Saturday, where she will hold meetings on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly opening session with senior envoys from the P5+1 negotiating group–the United States, UK, France, Germany, Russia and China–on how to proceed.

It’s not yet clear if the six nations’ foreign ministers will meet as a group or if Ashton will hold some bilateral discussions giving readouts. Russia, for one, hasn’t yet agreed to a foreign minister-level meeting, sources said.

Jalili, speaking to a news conference in Istanbul Wednesday, said he and Ashton had agreed to confer after her discussions with the six powers in New York, Reuters reported.

Beyond the New York discussions, the path going forward is ‘open,’ as one western diplomat put it Wednesday, meaning yet to be agreed among the members of the P5+1. Without greater hope of progress, some capitals, including Washington, had recently opposed holding another round of high-level political director talks with Iran, at least in the near term. (France had also expressed reservations about Ashton holding the dinner meeting with Jalili.)

Ashton was returning to Brussels from Istanbul Wednesday, after meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu.

(Photo: European Council TV Newsroom.)

 

The matzo meter: Signs Israel and Turkey are getting friendlier

Elif Batuman reports in the New Yorker this week on Istanbul’s “phantom matzo factory” that operated in the city’s Galata neighborhood for thirty years, before being closed in 2007 and turned into an arts space:

A lot of people don’t know that, for nearly thirty years, Istanbul had its own working matzo factory, or that Istanbul still has its own non-working matzo factory. Known in Turkish as the “doughless oven,” located in Galata, on the northern bank of the Golden Horn, it has been given over to the arts. …

The machine had stopped running in 2007, after visiting rabbis found that some batches of matzo didn’t meet the regulations to be kosher. Maintaining the aging Turkish apparatus, with its frequent need of repairs and replacement parts, turned out to be more costly than importing matzo from Israel ….It might seem ironic to mass-produce and export a kind of bread that derives its importance from the fact that it was made on the run. Nonetheless, Israel now supplies all of Turkey’s matzo.

In Istanbul last month to cover the international Iran nuclear talks, I snapped the photo above of some of those Israeli matzohs for sale at a grocery store in Istanbul’s Nistantisi neighborhood.

While Israel and Turkey have been at odds in recent years in particular since the 2010 Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla violence, there are several recent signs that relations between the two countries are quietly improving. Israel this week downgraded its March warning to citizens about travel to Turkey to its lowest level–that of “continuing potential threat.”

Among other signs: Turkish authorities reportedly halted some “flytilla” activists at Turkish airports last month. Meantime, flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul were expanded to three a day last month, and Turkish budget airlines Pegasus reportedly added Tel Aviv to its routes. And commercial trade between the two nations rose to almost $4 billion in 2011–notably, with more of it consisting of consumer goods–software, foodstuffs, etc., rather than high-price-tag defense items.

Turkey’s Ambassador to the United States Namik Tan–who previously served as Ankara’s envoy to Israel–attended Israel’s Independence Day celebrations in Washington this week, where his presence was warmly welcomed by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren.

“We very pleased to see [Turkish Amb ] @NamikTan here tonight,” Amb. Oren told Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir, he noted on twitter, in a post retweeted by the Israeli envoy. “We missed him a lot.” Continue reading