In Iran new year’s address, Khamenei questions Holocaust

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Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivering his annual Persian New Year’s address, struck a defensive tone about Iran’s renewed international engagement, warning that Iran has to develop its internal economic and cultural resources as a bulwark against outside influences, and cannot count on the West for sanctions relief.

“A nation that is not strong will be oppressed,” Khamenei, 74, speaking from his hometown of Mashhad on the Nowruz holiday, said Friday. Iran should not count on “when the enemy will lift the sanctions,” he warned.

In the most controversial of his remarks Friday, Khamenei said the West accuses Iran of restricting free expression, but in many parts of Europe and the West, Holocaust denial is against the law.

“Expressing opinion about the Holocaust, or casting doubt on it, is one of the greatest sins in the West,” Khamenei said. “They prevent this, arrest the doubters, try them while claiming to be a free country.”

“They passionately defend their red lines,” Khamenei said. “How do they expect us to overlook our red lines that are based on our revolutionary and religious beliefs.”

Khamenei’s comments Friday threaten to undo months of uphill efforts by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s administration to try to repair Iran’s image in the West from the legacy of Holocaust denial and threats to wipe out Israel made by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Last fall, Rouhani and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif took to Twitter to send out Rosh Hashanah well wishes to Jews in Iran and around the world on the Jewish New Year’s holiday. Zarif, speaking to German television last month, acknowledged that a “horrifying tragedy” occurred in the Holocaust, and said that “it should never occur again.”

Ron Lauder, the President of the World Jewish Congress, blasted Khamenei’s comments Friday, saying they show that “it is not a new Iran, but the same Iran with a new face.”

“Ayatollah Khamenei’s words are unmistakable: he denies the Holocaust happened,” Lauder said in a statement to the Jerusalem Post. “Iran needs to renounce Holocaust denial, extremism, and bigotry if the world is to have any faith in its conduct and intentions. Until then, the West needs to be very careful in in engaging with Tehran.”

Trita Parsi, author of two books on Iran, said Khamenei’s remarks on Holocaust denial were deeply disappointing, and said they may be a sign that he is worried about protecting his system as he reluctantly permits Rouhani to pursue growing international engagement with the outside world to try to seek sanctions relief.

Khamenei’s Holocaust denial remarks are “extremely problematic and deeply disappointing, because these things do undermine a very carefully constructed, useful atmosphere that has been built, that can help facilitate a [nuclear] agreement,” Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, told Al-Monitor Friday.

Khamenei’s remarks were intended to “keep the revolutionary ideology on high volume,” Suzanne Maloney, a former State Department Iran analyst now with the Brookings Institution, told Al-Monitor.

“But note of course that Holocaust denial was never unique to Ahmadinejad,” Maloney added. “Everything that Khamenei said in this speech, he has said before.”

“Just because [Khamenei] supports nuclear negotiations doesn’t mean he has had a change of heart regarding Israel and the West,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, said Friday. “And while he supports Rouhani’s negotiations, he is very suspicious that his government is going to open up Iran to Western cultural influences.”

“It’s important to understand, this is a person who is doing something that he is afraid of,” Parsi said of Khamenei, who has served as Iran’s Supreme Leader since 1989. He “is permitting a different team of people to start doing things that are opening up Iran. He’s skeptical about it. But he is also afraid of it, that he cannot control what happens afterwards.”

Israel Intel Minister: Not pessimistic about Iran deal

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Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday that he believes Iran is “serious” about wanting to make a nuclear deal to save its economy. But he pressed for no let-up in economic pressure unless Iran agrees to terms for a deal that many US national security experts believe could preclude a diplomatic compromise.

“I think they are serious,” Steinitz, speaking to al-Monitor in an interview Tuesday, said of the Iranians. “They want an agreement.”

But the deal they are aiming for, he said, is a “North Korea-type,” under which Iran would freeze, rather than dismantle, major elements of its nuclear program, and offer “better inspections procedures.”

“Nuclear energy without enrichment is the only reasonable compromise,” he said.

Steinitz was in Washington leading an Israeli delegation attending two days of high-level talks with US counterparts as part of the US-Israel Strategic Dialogue. US Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman addressed the gathering Wednesday, the State Department said.

Sherman led the US delegation to P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva last week in which the Iranians “were saying they are ready to discuss” various elements of a potential nuclear compromise, Steinitz said. Though their proposal was not very detailed, Steinitz said he understood, he said he did not interpret that necessarily as a sign of lack of seriousness.

“I am not pessimistic,” Steinitz said. Iran's economic problems have brought Iranian leaders to realize they have a “dilemma,” he said. “If it’s put to them, ‘Look, the time to maneuver… is over. After ten years of negotiations… enough is enough. You have to make a decision. You want to save the Iranian economy? You have to give up your military nuclear project on all its components. You choose to continue with your military nuclear program? You will destroy the Iranian economy,” or face possible military action.

Steinitz, in the interview, argued against any sort of interim deal that might offer Iran an easing of sanctions in exchange for nuclear concessions. The concern, he said, is that once any sanctions are eased, the entire sanctions regime will crumble, and won’t be able to be ramped back up if Iran backslides on the agreement.

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Ex envoys Wisner, Kurtzer: What the U.S. should do now in Egypt

Two former U.S. envoys to Egypt advise that given the uncertain and violent turn of events, Washington should avoid public statements for now.

Washington was perhaps slow to recognize and try to correct the widespread perception in Egypt that the U.S. government was supporting Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government–as opposed to the elected government of Egypt.

“The United States has been behind the curve for a long time in this revolution, and I think it’s a little behind the curve this past week as well,” former US Ambassador to Egypt Daniel Kurtzer told Al Monitor in an interview Sunday.

“We gave the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in particular a very long time to prove his capabilities and his understanding of democracy and he failed on both counts,” Kurtzer, now at Princeton University, said. “He was a totally inept president–which is not necessarily a reason to be thrown out of office. He was also a president who didn’t understand what [democracy] means in terms of inclusiveness and respect for institutions.”

Kurtzer was a junior diplomat in Cairo in 1981 when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. He rose through the Foreign Service ranks to serve as Bill Clinton’s envoy to Egypt and the Bush administration’s ambassador to Israel.

“I think the best thing to do is to avoid public statements,” Kurtzer said. Given the fast-moving situation and current atmosphere of heightened tensions, “at this point, all public statements are being misunderstood.”

Veteran former US diplomat Frank Wisner agrees.

“If you know and respect you’re in a hole, don’t take out a shovel and dig any deeper,” Wisner, a former US Ambassador to Zambia, India, the Philippines and Egypt, told Al-Monitor in an interview Sunday. “The less we say, the better.”

The son of a legendary CIA officer, Wisner joined the Foreign Service in 1961, and served for over four decades in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. During the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011, he served as a special advisor on Egypt for the Obama administration and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He is now a foreign policy advisor at Patton Boggs.

“We got ourselves painted into a corner,” Wisner said. “And now we’re in the awkward position of un-painting ourselves. And it’s not very graceful.”

How did we get here?

“My own personal view is that, in an attempt to do something that I think made sense – which was to try…to get the Muslim Brotherhood government to open its doors, and create national consensus and stability and a chance to unveil some policies that might work–we allowed ourselves to get painted in the corner as supporting the Muslim Brothers, without making clear what we were trying to accomplish,” Wisner said.

“I am also frank enough to recognize there are moments when our approach to things and the mood swing, and we find ourselves out of step,” Wisner said.

President Obama “had exactly the right line. If we had only just stuck to it,” Wisner said, paraphrasing the president’s statement on Egypt last week, ‘We don’t pick governments in Egypt.’

“Say that and be done with it,” he advised. “And stop babbling and leaping to get on the right side of every fence. Unfortunately in Egypt of the last couple of years, the fence line has moved.”

The current effort by a motley coalition of Egyptian political parties–“the Tamarod gang and the (Salafi) Nour party”–and the military to come to consensus on interim leaders and a transition plan for new elections and a constitution is likely to be bumpy, Wisner said. But “to build a consensus–a workable, grubby, nasty, deal-making consensus–Egyptians are quite good at that,” Wisner said. “They are consensus people. “

The new transition government should then move to tackle two urgent priorities—restoring law and order, and stabilizing the economy, he advised.

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Rouhani proposes nuclear transparency, easing US-Iran tensions

Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani ushered in the post-Ahmadinejad era Monday with a sometimes extraordinary 90-minute press conference in which he stressed he would take a pragmatic and moderate approach to improve Iranian relations with the world and reduce tensions with the United States over Iran's nuclear program.

“The Iranian people…will be happy to build trust and repair relations with the United States,” if the US pledges to never interfere in Iran’s domestic affairs and to respect Iran’s rights, including for domestic enrichment, Rouhani told the packed press conference in Tehran.

“We don't want further tension” with the United States, Rouhani, 64, said. “Both nations need to think more about the future and try to sit down and find solutions to past issues and rectify things.”

“My government will defend the rights of the Iranian nation,” the multilingual cleric, who earned his PhD in Glasgow, said. “We want to see less tension, and if we see goodwill” from the United States, then “confidence -building measures can be made.”

Asked how Iran could get out from crippling economic sanctions, Rouhani said his government would offer greater transparency of Iran’s nuclear program and take steps to restore international trust to get sanctions rolled back. “Our nuclear program is transparent but we’re ready to take steps to make it more transparent,” he said.

Rouhani said, however, that the time has passed for Iran to agree to suspend lower level enrichment, which it did in 2004-2005 when he was Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. “That era is behind us,” Rouhani said of the deal he negotiated a decade ago with three European powers to suspend Iran's 3.5% enrichment. “There are so many other ways to build international trust.”

Rouhani proposed that a deal he discussed in 2005 with then French President Jacques Chirac, which he said was rejected by the UK and the US, could be the model going forward.

Hossein Mousavian, who served as a member of the Rouhani negotiating team, said the Chirac idea that Rouhani referenced involved the highest level of transparency of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for Iran having its rights under the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognized.

“We agreed with Chirac that: first, the EU-3 would respect the legitimate rights of Iran for peaceful nuclear technology under the NPT, including enrichment,” Mousavian told Al-Monitor Monday. “Second, Iran would accept the [International Atomic Energy Agency] IAEA's definition for objective guarantees that the Iranian nuclear program would remain peaceful and would not divert toward weaponization in the future.”

“It means that Iran would respect the maximum level of transparency that internationally exists,” Mousavian, a contributing writer to Al-Monitor, further explained. “In return, the P5+1 would not discriminate against Iran as a member of the NPT. It would respect Iran's rights under the NPT like other members.”

Mousavian, asked how Washington should try to realize the potential to advance a nuclear deal under the more moderate Rouhani presidency, recommended that US President Barack Obama write Rouhani, offer him congratulations, and reiterate US interest in direct talks.

“Confirm the willingness and intentions of the US for relations based on mutual respect and mutual interest, to depart from 30 years of hostility and tension,” Mousavian suggested. Reiterate Washington's “readiness for direct talks with no preconditions.”

“I think now is the time,” Mousavian said, adding that he too had been taken by surprise by Rouhani's victory.

A top advisor to President Obama said Sunday the White House sees Rouhani's election as a “potentially hopeful sign.”

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Appointments: Frank Lowenstein advising Kerry on Middle East; economist may move up

More John Kerry aides have arrived at the State Department, officials tell the Back Channel.

Frank Lowenstein, former Senate Foreign Relations committee chief of staff and foreign policy advisor to Senator Kerry, has joined the Kerry State Department as a senior advisor, currently focusing on Middle East issues, officials tell the Back Channel. Lowenstein is currently working in the office of David Hale, the acting Middle East peace envoy, and may be being groomed to succeed him, the official said. Lowenstein joins State after a year at the Podesta Group.

Lowenstein joins the fray amid a flurry of preparations for Kerry's and President Obama's upcoming trips to the region. Kerry leaves Sunday for his first foreign trip as Secretary of State, heading to the UK, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. President Obama travels to Israel, Ramallah and Jordan next month.

US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is in town this week helping prepare for President Obama’s trip, he said on Twitter Wednesday. Also in town to help prepare for Obama's trip, Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror, an Israeli official told the Back Channel, as well as Palestinian negotiator Saab Erekat, the State Department said.  (Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appointed former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni his envoy on Palestinian peace talks.) Continue reading

US to announce more countries waived from Iran sanctions

The United States will soon announce a list of more countries to receive waivers from US sanctions on Iran’s central bank, set to go into effect later this month, Reuters reports:

The latest round of U.S. sanctions come into effect on June 28 and aims to cut Iran’s oil revenue to pressure Tehran into halting its nuclear program, which Western powers suspect is aimed at developing nuclear arms.

The U.S. can exempt countries from sanctions if they make significant reductions to crude imports, and granted a waiver to Japan and 10 European countries in March.

The official declined to give more details on which countries would join the exemptions list, but said the U.S. and South Korea had made progress in talks. Continue reading