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.”

Jalili thrusts Iran nuclear stance to center of presidential race


The presidential campaign of Iran’s top nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili has thrust Iran’s nuclear policies to the center of Iran’s tumultuous presidential race.

Jalili, in a series of media interviews, appearances and campaign Twitter posts this week, doubled down on Tehran’s hardline stance in negotiations with six world powers, asserting that as president he would “accelerate Iran’s peaceful nuclear program.”

“Our nuclear objective is very legitimate & reasonable: To accelerate developing the peaceful Nuclear program,” Jalili’s official campaign Twitter feed wrote Friday.

Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, then took a swipe at key challenger, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani. “Other policies will be seriously criticized [and the] current nuclear approach… defended,” Jalili’s campaign vowed on Twitter. [We] “shall see what [is] Mr. Rafsanjani’s policy.”

Jalili’s message seems notably targeted to one key audience at this point: Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran watchers observed.

Jalili’s message of “resistance–political resistance, economic resistance–that feeds the narrative of the Supreme Leader,” said Iran political analyst Yasmin Alem, in an interview Thursday. It may resonate less, however, she added, with the average Iranian voter.

Jalili’s message “might resonate with Khamenei,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of A Single Role of the Dice, agreed Friday. “That’s the ‘voter’ whose vote he wants.”

“The fact that [the Jalili campaign writes] it in English is the point: he will be the president who will say this to the westerners,” Parsi added.

“Most of the main candidates”—Tehran mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, former foreign minister and foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader Ali Akbar Velayati, former Majles speaker Haddad Adel, and Jalili—“are campaigning not for the Iranian electorate’s votes, but for the approval of Ayatollah Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards,” Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corporation, observed Friday. In his opinion, he said, that portends that June 14th will mark “the least democratic election” since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.

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Iran intensifies debate on US talks


Iranian leaders have intensified debate on the pros and cons of direct talks with the United States in recent days, suggesting Tehran may be mulling whether to take President Obama up on the offer and under what conditions. The flurry of debate comes as arms control officials from Iran, Washington and five world powers are due to meet in Istanbul next week, to discuss a revised international nuclear proposal that Iranian negotiators greeted favorably in Kazakhstan last month.

Iranian Supreme Leader's longtime foreign policy advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, former Iran nuclear negotiator Hossan Rowhani, and two Iranian diplomats involved in 2007 talks with the United States on the issue of Iraq, have all weighed in on the merits of possible US-Iranian talks in recent days, in interviews with Iranian media and, notably, in photos of US and Iranian officials meeting in Iraq six years ago, newly published on the Supreme Leader's website.

“It is not the Supreme Leader’s view that Iran and the United States should not have negotiations and relations until the Day of Judgment,” Rowhani, former Iranian nuclear negotiator and a candidate in June’s presidential elections, was cited by Iranian media Thursday.

“If there is a situation where the country’s dignity and interests are..served, he will give permission for dialogue…as…negotiations have been held between the two countries on issues related to Iraq, Afghanistan, and the nuclear (issue),” Rowhani continued.

“Our red line, according to the Leader, was to negotiate only for the issue of Iraq and nothing else,” Hussein Amir Abdollahian, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab-African affairs who was involved in the Iraq talks with the Americans, said in an interview published on the Supreme Leader’s website this week, Iran news site Iran’s View reported Thursday.

“If you ask me about the US’ willingness to negotiate, as a person who has had the experience, I would say they are willing, but they are not intending to solve the problem,” Amir Abdollahian continued.

Then US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, pictured above right, told the Back Channel Friday that the publication of the photos by the Iranian leadership was “interesting,” and said they were from meetings that occurred in Iraq in 2007.

Crocker and Iran's envoy to Iraq Hassan Kazemi-Qomi held two meetings in Iraq in the summer of 2007, on May 28 and July 24, 2007, according to media reports at the time. “Their May 28 meeting marked the first public and formal talks between U.S. and Iranian representatives since the United States cut off diplomatic relations 27 years ago,” CNN reported at the time.

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Iran media: Nuclear talks Jan 28-29

Catherine Ashton, Vice-President of the EC, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy participates at a meeting of the E3 + 3 on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Iran has tentatively agreed to resume nuclear talks with six world powers on January 28-29, at a location still to be decided, Iranian media reported Wednesday.

However, western negotiators did not confirm the report, saying consultations are ongoing.

“In the context of ongoing consultations to agree on a next round of talks between the E3+3 and Iran, DSG Helga Schmid and Dr. Ali Bagheri spoke on the phone on 14 January,” a spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief told the Back Channel Wednesday. “Consultations to prepare a next round of talks are ongoing.”

“It is also possible that a final decision on the venue could lead to change in date,” Iran’s Student News Agency (ISNA) said.

Talks have been delayed by Iran haggling over the agenda for the next talks, Al Monitor reported this week. “Iran wants the agenda for a new round of nuclear talks to refer explicitly to sanctions relief and what it views as its right to enrich uranium,” Al Monitor’s Barbara Slavin wrote January 14.

“The E3+3 have repeatedly responded to the points made by Iran and have urged Iran to seriously address the concerns of the international community on the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme,” the statement from Ashton’s spokesperson continued.

The lead US envoy to the talks, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman, was in the UK earlier this week for meetings with fellow G8 political directors, the State Department said.

Separately, Iran is hosting a senior team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Tehran Wednesday.

In anticipation of resumed nuclear negotiations, seven former Iranian parliamentarians called in an open letter to President Obama, the EU’s Ashton, and Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei this week for direct US-Iran negotiations and for broader concessions from both sides to achieve a compromise.

“At this juncture, we believe transparent and bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Iranian governments regarding Iran’s nuclear program would be beneficial and effective,” . the seven former Majles members, including Seyed Aliakbar Mousavi, and Fatemeh both now living in the US, wrote.

“We therefore support such a discussion,” their letter continued. “By providing more guarantees in pursuit of a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the talks could create fertile ground for serious discussions on many outstanding and complicated problems between the two nations.”

Iran analysts said the letter is significant because it shows the wide consensus even among Iranian reformists on the terms of a viable compromise.

“The central gravity logically on this issue comes down to this issue: Iran has to be transparent and its rights have to be respected,” Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council, said.

Update: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Thursday the parties are still trying to firm up a late January date for talks, but it’s not finalized yet, Reuters reports.

(Photo: Diplomats from the UK, US, France, Germany, Russia, and China met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and deputy Helga Schmid in Brussels in November. EEAS.)

P5+1 to propose new meeting dates to Iran

Diplomats from six world powers, following further unpublicized consultations in recent days, have decided to propose to Iran dates for holding a new round of nuclear talks as early as this month, diplomatic sources told Al-Monitor Monday. However, a meeting is not expected to materialize before January, they said.

Diplomats from five of the six nations in the so-called P5+1 also agreed in their latest consultation to “update” the package presented to Iran at a meeting in Baghdad last May, the diplomatic sources said, although they downplayed expectations for major changes to the package. In addition, one country, believed to be Russia, had not yet formally signed on to that decision, one expert briefed by the US administration told Al-Monitor Monday, adding that it was his understanding the dissenting nation wanted a more revamped, generous package. That position is apparently now at odds with the consensus of other members of the international negotiating group, comprised of the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia.

“Dates in December will be proposed, but I doubt a meeting will materialize before January,” one western diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Monday.

“The package needs a little bit of updating, as things have evolved since the package was defined, but nothing radical is to be expected,” the diplomat added.

A spokesperson for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, asked by Al-Monitor Monday about the consultations, said that a date for the next round of Iran nuclear negotiations “is still under discussion.” There had been no physical meeting of the P5+1 in recent days, he added.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Saban Forum of Middle East experts in Washington late last month, alluded to intense consultations on the issue of what the international group should present to Iran at resumed nuclear talks.

“We are deeply engaged in consultations right now with our P-5+1 colleagues, looking to put together a presentation for the Iranians at the next meeting that does make it clear we’re running out of time, we’ve got to get serious, here are issues we are willing to discuss with you, but we expect reciprocity,” Clinton told the  Saban Forum November 30th.

The Obama administration had in recent weeks been debating whether the “stop, shut and ship” package presented to Iran last May should be “refreshed” and possibly broadened to what some in the administration called “more for more.” The “more for more” offer, as one US source explained it to Al-Monitor last month, would envision updating the Baghdad 20% proposal to get more verifiable limits on the rest of Iran’s nuclear program, in exchange for greater international concessions, including some form of sanctions relief.

But the diplomatic sources told Al Monitor Monday that the changes to the package were not expected to be large scale.

Some Washington Iran watchers expressed concern at the contradictory signals the international group was sending, including regarding their sense of urgency for getting back to negotiations, in light of the fact no new talks had been scheduled more than a month after the US presidential elections, held November 6th. Continue reading

Diplomats mull refreshing Iran nuclear proposal ahead of new talks

Washington and five world powers are considering offering Iran a refreshed proposal that could include limited sanctions relief in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program, Iran analysts and western diplomats briefed on the consultations said this week.

Diplomats rom the P5+1 are expected to hold a new round of talks with Iran next month, following informal contacts this month between European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, her deputy Helga Schmid, and their Iranian counterparts, the sources said.

Western policymakers “recognize they need to include some sanctions relief,” in the reformulated proposal, Trita Parsi, an Iran analyst with the National Iranian American Council, told Al Monitor Thursday. “But there’s a problem with sequencing, and questions about how to stop, freeze, shut, ship out.”

Given many US sanctions on Iran are legislated by Congress, and not solely under the discretion of the executive branch to lift, Washington will be looking to the Europeans for options for limited sanctions relief, Parsi said.

“We recognize that the Iranians need something more with which they can sell a deal at home, and we will expect real change on the other side,” the Guardian’s Julian Borger cited a European official in a report published Thursday. “It is about getting the sequencing right.”

Western diplomats see a few month “window”–from the US presidential elections Nov. 6 until some time in the spring–in which to try to negotiate a deal, Al Monitor‘s Barbara Slavin reported this week. Western diplomats and analysts suggest the timeline may be constrained, both because of wide anticipation of renewed pressure from Israel for military action early in the new year, as well as Iran’s leadership preparing for Iran presidential elections in June.

“The American administration is essentially looking at a window of immediately after the US presidential elections until March of next year, when the Iranians have their new year and after that, presidential elections,” Parsi said. “Before then, something positive needs to happen.” Continue reading

Bibi’s red line raises more questions than it answers


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu toned down his ultimatums to President Barack Obama and focused on Iran, displaying a crude drawing of a bomb to dramatize his concerns about Iran’s growing stockpile of enriched uranium in a speech to the United Nations Thursday.

“So how much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb, and how close is Iran to getting it?” Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly Thursday, pulling out a cartoonish drawing of a round bomb with a fuse. “This is a bomb. … In the case of Iran’s nuclear plans to build a bomb, this bomb has to be filled with enough enriched uranium.”

Iran is “70 percent of the way there,” the MIT-educated Israeli leader continued. “And by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.”

Still, that timetable seemed to allow for several more months to pursue international diplomatic efforts to try to persuade Iran to curb its nuclear program before Israel would feel compelled to resort to force. And Netanyahu Thursday expressed new confidence that the Israeli and American administrations would be able to reconcile their different timetables on how long there is to deal with Iran’s nuclear program.

“Israel is in discussions with the United States over this issue, and I am confident that we can chart a path forward together,” Netanyahu told the world body.

“The two sides, the Israelis and the Americans, are trying very hard to narrow differences between the two of them,” Patrick Clawson, an Iran analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Al-Monitor. The Israelis “feel comfortable that they are succeeding.”

As to what accounts for Netanyahu having toned down his camp’s recent rhetoric about the urgency of the Iran threat, analysts cited several factors. Key among them, the Israelis reading US polls showing the growing likelihood that Obama will be re-elected to a second term as US president. Continue reading