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Just Foreign Policy's Iran Online Petition Urges New York Times To Investigate Story Claims

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An online petition by Just Foreign Policy, an organization that calls itself "an independent and non-partisan membership organization dedicated to reforming U.S. foreign policy," urges readers to participate in a campaign to make the New York Times "investigate why dubious and unsubstantiated claims about Islam are appearing in the paper as news analysis."

The group takes issues with an article by James Risen published on April 15 titled, "Seeking Nuclear Insight in Fog of the Ayatollah’s Utterances."

According to Just Foreign Policy, the article's claim that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei can't be trusted to comment on the country's nuclear program is based on the fact that Iran's leaders are Shiites, and "Shiites have a religious doctrine called 'taqiyya,' which allows them to lie."

"For centuries an oppressed minority within Islam, Shiites learned to conceal their sectarian identity to survive, and so there is a precedent for lying to protect the Shiite community," Risen writes in the New York Times.

Middle East commentator Juan Cole argues in his blog Informed Comment that taqiyya "is widely misrepresented by Muslim-haters and does not apply in Khamenei’s case."

Just Foreign Policy writes that Risen's argument is unsubstantiated and "should have been a red flag" for NYT editors.

The taqiyya argument, Juan Cole says, "is just some weird form of Islamophobia, and policy-makers and analysts can safely disregard it."

Click here to read the petition.

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MOSCOW — A top Russian official made a last-ditch effort to save talks over Iran's nuclear program from collapse Tuesday, holding a meeting with Iran's chief envoy.

But diplomats said the negotiations remained deadlocked as they went into a second and possibly final day, with the presidents of the United States and Russia urging Iran to agree to curb nuclear activities that could be turned toward arming warheads and Iran demanding a lifting of sanctions crippling its oil industry.

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MOSCOW, June 18 (Reuters) - World powers began two days of talks with Iran on Monday to try to end a decade-long stand-off over Tehran's nuclear programme and avert the threat of a new war in the Middle East.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran would be prepared to stop enriching uranium to a higher level - a process that could be used to make nuclear arms - if the six powers agreed to meet its needs for the fuel. But it is not clear how much influence Ahmadinejad has over the negotiations and whether his remarks reflect Tehran's position in the talks.

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TEHRAN, Iran -- Proposals from both Iran and the group of six world powers will be on the table for nuclear talks in Moscow next week, not just the West's demand to halt Iran's highest level uranium enrichment, Iran's top negotiator said Wednesday.

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VIENNA, June 8 (Reuters) - Iran and the United Nations nuclear watchdog began a new round of talks on Friday in an attempt to seal a deal to resume a long-stalled probe into suspected atomic weapon research in the Islamic state.

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TEHRAN, Iran — Iran's president says Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons, but fear would not deter it if it decided to make them.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's comments suggest a toughening of Iran's position ahead of June 18-19 talks with world powers over Tehran's nuclear program.

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany want Iran to shut down its highest level uranium enrichment facilities. Ahmadinejad's remarks suggest Iran would refuse.

Ahmadinejad made the comments during a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday in China. His remarks were posted on his website.

The U.S. and its allies suspect Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes like power generation and cancer treatment. (AP)

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The BBC reports that billion worth of goods -- the equivalent of nearly 30 percent of the country’s annual official trade -- are smuggled into Iran's borders every year.

Watch the full story here.

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Israeli singer Rita Jahanforuz has managed something even world leaders have failed to do: she’s united Iran and Israel. On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported on the release of Jahanforuz’s latest album, which has captivated Israelis and Iranians alike.

Iranian-born Jahanforuz immigrated with her family to Israel in the 1970s, and jump-started her singing career with a gig in the Israeli army. She participated in the Facebook campaign “Israel-Loves-Iran”, and spoke openly about Iran in a video interview posted to the WSJ blog. “The people in Iran are not like the leaders there. They are not. They want peace,” she told the WSJ.

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STOCKHOLM — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says she's not drawing any conclusions about what effect the latest hash words from Iran might have on the potential success of upcoming nuclear talks in Moscow.

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Iranian-born Reza Baluchi is a regular Forrest Gump. Ten years ago he ran away from Iran. He’s run across the United States twice since then, once around its perimeter. Yet now he’s planning his biggest journey of all, CNN reports, a run around the world that will take him through his home country once more.

It started when he ran away from home at the age of eight. Later he ran away from his homeland, Iran, and spent seven years on a bicycle, pedaling 49,700 miles across 55 countries.

In 2002, he reached America. He now lives in a tent in Death Valley.

It's been nearly 10 years since Reza Baluchi escaped from Iran. He has run across the United States twice and around its perimeter once. He sets out on every journey with the same mission: to spread a message of world peace.

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After being seized by Iranian customs over a monetary dispute, a painting by Jackson Pollock has been returned to the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in Iran, the BBC reports.

The BBC explains:

Mural on Indian Red Ground was seized by the country's customs service on 11 May after being on loan to Japan.

The service said it confiscated the work over money owed by the Ministry of Culture, which runs the museum.

The ministry said the painting had been returned "after negotiations.”

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Hossein Ronaghi Maleki, a 26-year-old Iranian dissident blogger, has spent the past 13 months in solitary confinement at Iran’s Evin Prison, BBC Persian reports.

International Business Times reports that Maleki has written a letter to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, including the following passage:

(Read the full translation here.)

“Leader of the Islamic Republic,

We must admit that judicial independence is not possible with the existence of so many intelligence and security entities.

We must admit that the society is facing a great explosion, and the current superficial peace is basically due to oppression, intimidation, imprisonments and suppression.

We must know that the thoughts of freedom seekers cannot be enchained! Ideologies cannot be tortured! Truth cannot be suppressed!”

Read the full story here.

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Who is running Iran's side of the nuclear negotiations? Here's Saeed Jalili, the man behind the nuclear talks: saeed jalili

AP Photo

From The National:

“Iran's chief nuclear negotiator is like no other diplomat. Saeed Jalili drives a battered Kia Pride that was assembled many years ago in Iran, insists on lugging his own suitcases around on high-level trips abroad and has a reputation for indulging in monologue rather than debate. It is not just Mr Jalili's style that makes him so different to the international big-name envoys he grapples with on the momentous issue of Iran's nuclear programme. His background is alien to the likes of Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, or William Burns, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs.”

Read the full story here.

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(Reuters) - International sanctions meant to deprive Iran's nuclear programme of funds and technology are squeezing the country's vital oil exports. Talks between Iran and major powers, that could lead to an easing of sanctions if successful, are set to begin in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Following are details of major sanctions imposed on Iran by the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations over the years.

Captions courtesy of Reuters.

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  • <em>In this Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 photo, Iranian women and a man weave carpet in a workshop in Qom, 78 miles (125 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)</em><br><br> Initial sanctions were imposed after Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy and took diplomats hostage in 1979. Iranian products cannot be imported into the United States apart from small gifts, information material, food and some carpets.

  • <em>Former President Bill Clinton addresses the audience during the opening night dinner of the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates at the Field Museum Monday, April 23, 2012, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)</em><br><br> In 1995, President Bill Clinton issued executive orders preventing U.S. companies from investing in Iranian oil and gas and trading with Iran. The same year, Congress passed a law imposing sanctions on foreign companies investing more than million a year in Iran's energy sector.

  • <em>In this Thursday, Oct. 30, 2008 file photo, an Iranian money changer holds currency with Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's image in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)</em><br><br> In October 2007, Washington imposed sanctions on three Iranian banks and branded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a proliferater of weapons of mass destruction. The Treasury has since added numerous other Iranian banks to its blacklist. The Treasury has identified about 20 petroleum and petrochemical companies as being under Iranian government control, an action that put them off-limits to U.S. businesses under the trade embargo.

  • <em>This photo shows a branch of Iranian Bank Tejarat in Tehran on January 24, 2012 upon which the US Treasury announced sanctions claiming all of the Islamic Republic's major state-owned banks have now been subjected to punitive measures. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> Congress approved tough new unilateral sanctions on June 24, 2010, aimed at squeezing Iran's energy and banking sectors. The new law imposed penalties on companies that supply Iran with refined petroleum products worth more than million a year. It also effectively deprived foreign banks of access to the U.S. financial system if they did business with Iranian banks or the Revolutionary Guards.

  • <em>Oil workers gather by an oil well operated by Venezuela's state-owned oil company PDVSA in Morichal, Venezuela, on July 28, 2011. (RAMON SAHMKOW/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> In May 2011, the United States announced new sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company, PDVSA, and six other smaller oil and shipping firms for trading with Iran in violation of the U.S. ban, prompting fury from Hugo Chavez's government.

  • June 2011

    <em>Members of Iran's paramilitary Basij militia parade in front of the former US embassy in Tehran on November 25, 2011 to mark the national Basij week. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> On June 11, it announced new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards, the Basij Resistance Force, and Iran's law enforcement forces. The sanctions froze any of the targets' assets under U.S. jurisdiction and barred U.S. persons and institutions from dealing with them.

  • <em>Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (L) announce new sanctions against Iran at the State Department on November 21, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)</em><br><br> On Nov. 21 the United States named Iran as an area of "primary money-laundering concern", a step designed to dissuade non-U.S. banks from dealing with it. The United States also blacklisted 11 entities suspected of aiding its nuclear programmes and expanded sanctions to target companies that aid its oil and petrochemical industries.

  • <em>US President Barack Obama (C) greets guests after speaking on nuclear security, touching on subjects from terrorism to Iran and North Korea, during a visit to Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul on March 26, 2012. (SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> On Dec. 31, 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law a defense funding bill that imposed sanctions on financial institutions dealing with Iran's central bank, which is the main conduit for oil revenues. Sanctioned institutions would be frozen out of the U.S. financial markets.

  • <em>Hostesses stand in front of the construction site of the Saudi Basic Industries Corp. (SABIC) Technology Centre and Greater China Headquarters in Shanghai, China Friday, April 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)</em><br><br> On Jan. 13, 2012 the United States extended sanctions to Chinese state-run energy trader Zhuhai Zhenrong Corp, which it said was Iran's largest supplier of refined petroleum products. It also imposed sanctions on Singapore's Kuo Oil Pte Ltd and United Arab Emirates-based FAL Oil Company Ltd.

  • <em>Members of Iranian Revolutionary Guards attend a ceremony at the mausoleum of the late revolutionary founder Ayatollah Khomeini, commemorating 33rd anniversary of his return from exile after 14 years, and the 1979 Islamic Revolution which toppled pro-US Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, just outside Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)</em><br><br> The United States exempted Japan and 10 European Union nations from financial sanctions on March 20 because they had significantly cut purchases of Iranian oil, but Iran's top customers China and India remain at risk of such steps. On March 28 the Treasury set additional sanctions against Iranian engineering firms with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, as well as individuals and shipping companies with ties to the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL).

  • <em>In this Sept. 27, 2000 file photo, an Iranian oil worker repairs a pipe at an oil refinery in Tehran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi, File)</em><br><br> On May 21 the Senate approved the latest tightening of sanctions on Iran's oil trade.

  • <em>In this Jan. 19, 2012 file photo, fishing boats are seen in front of oil tankers on the Persian Gulf waters, south of the Strait of Hormuz, offshore the town of Ras Al Khaimah in United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)</em><br><br> On Aug. 12, 2010 the EU banned the creation of joint ventures with enterprises in Iran engaged in the oil and natural gas industries. Member states must prohibit the provision of insurance and re-insurance to the government of Iran. The import and export of arms and equipment that could contribute to uranium enrichment, or have a "dual use", is banned. The sanctions forbid the sale, supply or transfer of energy equipment and technology used by Iran for exploration and production or for refining or liquefying natural gas. The EU expects the effects of the sanctions to increase over time as existing parts wear out.

  • <em>EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton speaks during a media conference after a meeting of EU foreign ministers at the EU Council building in Brussels on Monday, Jan. 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)</em><br><br> In May 2011, EU foreign ministers added 100 new entities to a list of companies and people affected, including those owned or controlled by IRISL. Last October, the EU imposed sanctions on 29 people, extending the list targeting individuals associated with human rights violations to 61. On Dec. 1, the EU added 180 Iranians and entities to a sanctions blacklist that imposes asset freezes and travel bans on those involved in the nuclear program.

  • <em>In this March 13, 2008 file photo, gold coins and bars are shown at California Numismatic Investments in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Nick Ut, File)</em><br><br> On Jan. 23, 2012 the EU placed an immediate ban on all new contracts to import, purchase or transport Iranian crude oil and petroleum products. EU countries with existing contracts to buy oil and petroleum products were allowed to honor them until July 1. The EU also agreed to freeze the assets of Iran's central bank and ban trade in gold and other precious metals with the bank and state bodies.

  • <em>British Ambassador to the UN Mark Lyall Grant (C) speaks during a vote on broader military and financial sanctions on Iran over its suspect nuclear program during a UN Security Council at the UN headquarters June 9, 2010 in New York. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> The Security Council has imposed four sets of sanctions on Iran, in December 2006, March 2007, March 2008 and June 2010. The first covered sensitive nuclear materials and froze the assets of Iranian individuals and companies linked with the nuclear program.

  • <em>A military truck carries a Sejil rocket as it is paraded during the annual Army Day military parade in Tehran on April 17, 2012. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> The second included new arms and financial sanctions. It extended an asset freeze to 28 more groups, companies and individuals engaged in or supporting sensitive nuclear work or the development of ballistic missiles.

  • <em>Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad adjusts his goggles as he tours an exhibition on laser technology in Tehran on February 7, 2010. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)</em><br><br> The third, in 2008, increased travel and financial curbs on individuals and companies. It expanded a partial ban on trade in items with both civilian and military uses to cover sales of all such technology to Iran.

  • <em>A street money exchanger, puts US dollars in a plastic bag, in Ferdowsi St. in downtown Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)</em><br><br> A Security Council resolution passed on June 9, 2010, called for measures against new Iranian banks abroad if a connection to the nuclear or missile programmes was suspected.

  • <em>Soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard walk past a satirical drawing of Statue of Liberty on the wall of the former US Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)</em><br><br> It expanded a U.N. arms embargo against Tehran and blacklisted three firms controlled by IRISL and 15 belonging to the Revolutionary Guards. The resolution called for the setting up of a cargo inspection regime.

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VIENNA — The chief of the U.N. nuclear agency says he has reached a deal with Iran on probing suspected work on nuclear weapons and adds that the agreement will "be signed quite soon. "

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TEHRAN, Iran -- The head of the U.N. nuclear agency arrived Monday in Tehran on a key mission that could lead to the resumption of probes by the watchdog on whether Iran has secretly worked on an atomic weapon.

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JERUSALEM, May 17 (Reuters) - U.S. plans for a possible military strike on Iran are ready and the option is "fully available", the U.S. ambassador to Israel said, days before Tehran resumes talks with world powers which suspect it of seeking to develop nuclear arms.

Like Israel, the United States has said it considers military force a last resort to prevent Iran using its uranium enrichment to make a bomb. Iran insists its nuclear programme is for purely civilian purposes.

"It would be preferable to resolve this diplomatically and through the use of pressure than to use military force," Ambassador Dan Shapiro said in remarks about Iran aired by Israel's Army Radio on Thursday.

"But that doesn't mean that option is not fully available - not just available, but it's ready. The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it's ready," said Shapiro, who the radio station said had spoken on Tuesday.

The United States, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany have been using sanctions and negotiations to try to persuade Iran to curb its uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for reactors, medical isotopes, and, at higher levels of purification, fissile material for warheads.

New talks opened in Istanbul last month and resume on May 23 in Baghdad.

Israel, which is widely assumed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, feels threatened by the prospect of its arch-foe Iran going nuclear and has hinted it could launch preemptive war.

But many analysts believe the United States alone has the military clout to do lasting damage to Iran's nuclear programme.

In January, Shapiro told an Israeli newspaper the United States was "guaranteeing that the military option is ready and available to the president at the moment he decides to use it".

U.S. lawmakers are considering additional legislation that would increase pressure on Iran, with further measures to punish foreign companies for dealing with Iran in any capacity. (Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates sat down with CBS's Charlie Rose to talk about his new memoir -- and in doing so, gave insight into the Osama bin Laden raid, as well as the standoff between Iran and Israel.

"The only good option, is putting enough pressure on the Iranian government that they make the decision for themselves," Gates said.

As for a potential Israeli strike on Iran, Gates told Rose, "I think that would be worse."

Watch the embedded video above, or on CBS News.

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VIENNA -- Iran's envoy to talks with the U.N. nuclear agency said Tuesday the meeting was going well, as the two sides began their second day of discussion of agency suspicions that Tehran might have tested atomic arms technology.

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VIENNA, May 14 (Reuters) - A senior U.N. nuclear official said Iran must give his inspectors access to information, people and sites as he began a two-day meeting with Iranian officials on the Islamic state's disputed atomic activities on Monday.

The meeting in Vienna will test Iran's readiness to address U.N. inspectors' suspicions of military dimensions to its nuclear programme, ahead of high-stakes talks on the programme in Baghdad next week between Iran and six world powers.

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On Thursday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad applauded the country’s subsidy reform project, Fars News reports.

Yet according to BBC Persian, the cuts have had drastic effects on the price of certain commodities such as food, with the price of produce, dairy, and meat nearly doubling since last year.

The BBC reports that while the price of a kilo of yogurt, a staple in Persian cuisine, was 11380 Rials (.93) last year, it amounted to 18320 Rials (.50) this year. Similarly, the price of lamb increased from 91160 Rials (.44) per kilo to 177230 Rials (.46) per kilo.

The Iranian government has dismissed the spike in prices, saying that it is just the immediate effect of a shock to Iran’s economy. However, economic experts are concerned with the increases, and say that if the Iranian government continues with the cuts, it might paralyze its manufacturing industry, the BBC reports.

The subsidy reform program, which was spearheaded in December of last year, was intended to remove inefficient subsidies on fuel and other goods within a five-year span, Fars News explains. Now, Iran is in the process of implementing a second phase of cuts.

Reuters reports the cuts came in response to recent international sanctions, which have reduced Iran’s oil revenue, and have placed additional pressure on its government to make up the loss.

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JERUSALEM — Israel on Wednesday accused Iran of stalling in negotiations over its nuclear program with the international community, and said an upcoming round of talks can succeed only if the Iranians agree to halt all uranium enrichment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the visiting EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, on Wednesday that Iran is "playing for time" with these talks, an Israeli official said.

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Hopes dimmed Monday for staging major nuclear talks later this year between Israel and its Muslim rivals, as Iran and Arab countries at a 189-nation conference accused Israel of being the greatest threat to peace in the region and Egypt warned that Arab states might rethink their opposition to atomic arms.

Because Israel has not signed the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, it was not present at Tuesday's gathering of treaty members. But the United States defended its ally, warning that singling out Israel for criticism diminished chances of a planned meeting between it and its Muslim neighbors to explore the prospect of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.

The Mideast conference planned for later this year was a key plank of a monthlong 2010 high-level gathering of treaty signatories that convenes every five years to review the objectives of the 42-year-old treaty. Muslim nations have warned that failure to stage the Mideast meeting would call into question the overall achievements of the 2010 conference.

Egypt, speaking for nonaligned NPT signatory nations – the camp of developing countries – said Israel's nuclear capabilities constitute "a threat to international peace and security."

Later, in his separate capacity as Egypt's delegate, senior Foreign Ministry official Ahmed Fathalla warned that Arab nations might "revise their policies" regarding their opposition to having nuclear weapons if the planned Mideast conference failed to materialize.

Fathalla said he was citing a declaration from the March 29 Arab summit in Baghdad. But a senior U.S. official, who demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters, said it was the first time he had heard that threat.

The senior official also said he was not surprised by the verbal attacks on Israel, noting that outreach by Washington to individual Arab countries for moderation so as to not jeopardize the Mideast conference had been unsuccessful.

Israel is unlikely to attend any hostile Mideast meeting and its absence would strip the gathering of significance, leaving it as little more than a forum for Arab states to further criticize the Jewish state and its undeclared nuclear arsenal.

Israel has remained opaque on its nuclear capabilities but is commonly considered to posess atomic arms – a status that Muslim nations say make it the greatest threat to Mideast stability.

Western allies of Israel disagree, accusing Iran of violating the nonproliferation treaty by noncompliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it curb uranium enrichment and other activities with nonmilitary applications that could also be used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. As such, they say, Iran most menaces Mideast stability.

Reacting to a harsh series of attacks on Israel, U.S. State Department envoy Thomas M. Countryman urged Muslim nations to ease their pressure at the Vienna meeting, convened to prepare for the next NPT summit in 2015, telling delegates: "continued efforts to single out Israel ... will make a (Mideast) conference less likely."

He also voiced "deep concern over Iran's persistent failure to comply with its nonproliferation obligations, including ... U.N. Security Council resolutions," and urged Tehran to reduce concerns about is nuclear program by coming to May 23 talks with six world powers in Baghdad "with the same serious and constructive attitude that the six partners bring."

Countryman also criticized Syria – found by the International Atomic Energy Agency to be "very likely" hiding a covert nuclear program – and urged it and Tehran to "return to full compliance" with their treaty obligations.

Iran insists that it has no intention of harnessing its expanding nuclear program into weapons making, a stance repeated Tuesday by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh. He condemned the "hypocritic and double standard approach of the United States and the EU member states for keeping "deadly silent on the Israel nuclear program (while) they express baseless concern about Iran's nuclear program." (AP)

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Iran has made no secret of its hopes for the next round of nuclear negotiations with world powers: Pledges by the West to ease sanctions as a step toward deal making by Tehran.

Iran's pitch is certain to smack head-on into resistance and counter proposals by the West. But it reflects a harder-edged atmosphere before the next talks that suggests envoys will face pressure to stake out at least some tangible bargaining positions, as opposed to the last round where just getting to the negotiating table was considered positive.

Iran has been careful about avoiding ultimatums in a possible sign that it sees the meeting scheduled for later this month in Baghdad as a stepping stone, not a showdown.

No official, for example, has suggested that talks would hit an impasse if the U.S. and European partners balk at immediately rolling back some sanctions, which have targeted Iran's critical oil sector and left the country effectively blackballed from international banking networks.

Instead, Iran has cultivated a sunny approach - with officials repeatedly saying they are "optimistic" about the May 23 session and their hopes for goodwill gestures from the other side: the five permanent U.N. Security Council members plus Germany.

"We continue to be optimistic about upcoming negotiations," said Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister, Mohammad Mahdi Akhondzadeh, at a conference in Vienna on Wednesday.

From the Western corner, the mood is much tougher.

U.S. officials have rejected the idea that they could ease sanctions against Iran as a confidence-building measure. They have said sanctions will only be pulled back if Iran eases world concern over its nuclear program and complies with demands that include suspending uranium enrichment.

"No one's talking about any sanctions being reversed or canceled at all," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner on April 16, just after the Baghdad meeting was announced.

Two days later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the question of removing sanctions was "hypothetical."

"We have to see what the Iranians are willing to do, then we have to make sure they do it, and then we have to reciprocate. That's what a negotiation is all about," she told CNN.

Any progress in the talks also further dampens support for possible military strikes on Iran's nuclear facilities.

Israel, which has been the most aggressive in discussing the military option, has been confronted with growing questions over the risks versus rewards of an attack. Some former Israeli security officials, including the ex-chief of internal security Yuval Diskin, have speculated that bombs would only set back Iran's nuclear development by a few years, but could touch off a region-wide war and bring direct retaliation from Tehran proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Obama administration has been trying to convince Israel to give more time for sanctions and negotiations to yield results - even as Netanyahu branded last month's talks in Istanbul a "freebie" that allowed Iran to continue enriching uranium until the next round.

Istanbul's meeting ended with little more than the plan to meet again. Yet that was portrayed as a success after the swift collapse of negotiations in early 2011.

Iran's uranium enrichment remains the central issue.

Tehran says its enrichment labs are only making nuclear fuel for energy and research reactors, and insists it has no intention of producing weapons. Washington and allies worry the enrichment sites could eventually churn out weapons-grade material.

Now looms the greater challenges of actually hashing out proposals that bridge very different agendas: The West and its allies seeking to rein in Iran's nuclear enrichment, and Tehran strongly refusing to accept any significant reverses in its atomic program.

This is where negotiators may begin to parse the enrichment capabilities.

Iranian officials have indicated they could consider suspending production of 20 percent enriched uranium, which is used for Iran's medical research reactor but is a far higher grade than needed for the country's lone electricity-generating reactor. The 20 percent uranium is a significant concern for the West because it can be converted into weapons-grade material - at over 90 percent enrichment - in a matter of months.

Iran also has agreed to answer questions about its alleged attempt to develop nuclear weapons. In the past, Iran refused to even enter into discussions, simply rejecting them as CIA fabrications.

Iranian officials plan to meet May 13-14 in Vienna with experts from the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency. Among the discussions could be efforts to work out guidelines for an IAEA inspection of Iran's Parchin military complex, where the agency suspects secret atomic work has been carried out.

Iranian lawmaker Hossein Nejabat suggested a move by the West to lift some sanctions could bring an Iranian pledge not to exceed 5 percent enriched uranium. But Iranian officials - as high as Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - flatly reject any calls to halt uranium enrichment entirely.

"Lifting sanctions is our least expectation," added hardline parliament member Gholam Ali Haddad Adel.

It appears unlikely that U.S. or European governments would offer any rollback in sanctions without considerable concessions from Iran in return.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that Washington wants "to see Iran live up to its international obligations including the suspension of uranium enrichment as required by multiple UN Security Council resolutions."

A full boycott of Iranian oil goes into effect July 1 across the European Union, which once accounted for about 18 percent of Iran's crude exports. Iran threatened to block Gulf tankers in retaliation for tougher sanctions, at one point shooting oil prices above 0 a barrel.

A prominent Iranian political analyst, Sadeq Zibakalam, said sanctions may become the linchpin on whether talks stall in Baghdad or move forward.

"Sanctions have harmed Iran. They also harmed Europeans," he said. "Sanctions also have caused a hike in the oil price, worsening the global economic downturn ... Neither Iran nor the West benefit." (AP)

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Two top Israeli security officials said Wednesday that the prospect of early national elections will have no influence over a decision over whether to strike Iranian nuclear sites.

Both Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said in published comments on Wednesday that policy toward Iran will be based solely on strategic interests.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled this week that he may call parliamentary elections a year ahead of schedule - casting additional uncertainty over any Israeli military plans.

Israel considers Iran a threat to its existence because of its nuclear and missile development programs, frequent reference to Israel's destruction by Iranian leaders and Iran's support of violent anti-Israel groups in Lebanon and Gaza.

Israel has been warning for years that Iran is trying to construct nuclear bombs. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.

Both Barak and Netanyahu have often hinted at an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, but no specific threats have been made, and some believe the talk is meant only as pressure.

Israeli media reported Wednesday that the election would be set for September 4.

"The election would have no affect on considerations on the professional level regarding the Iranian issue," Barak said on his Facebook page in answer to questions from the public.

Echoing Barak's sentiments was Deputy Prime Minster Moshe Yaalon. "The election will not be a consideration in the Iranian issue. If we need to make decisions we will make them," he told the Maariv daily.

There has been a precedent to big military offensive prior to an election.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered a daring Israeli airstrike on an unfinished Iraqi nuclear in 1981 just a few weeks before Israelis went to the polls. His Likud Party won that election. Though that attack successfully destroyed the Iraqi reactor, critics charged that Begin ordered the raid to win votes.

An Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities now would likely trigger the same charges. In any event, success of such an Israeli strike is far from guaranteed, and the risk is far greater.

Iran is believed to have multiple well guarded underground nuclear sites. An Israeli attack would require that almost all of its fleet fly over hostile countries and face formidable Iranian defense systems.

Also, an Israeli attack on Iran would likely trigger punishing retaliation from Iran itself and its proxies on Israel's borders - Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza - both armed with thousands of rockets.

Israel is also under international pressure not to act militarily. The U.S want Israel to give sanctions imposed on Iran more time.

With debates of an attack being aired publicly Israel has lost the element of surprise, a key to the 1981 air raid's success.

Barak warned earlier this week that as long as Iran poses a threat to Israel with its nuclear program, an Israeli strike remains an option.

"It would be complicated with certain associated risks. But a radical Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear weapons would be far more dangerous both for the region and, indeed, the world," he said. (AP)

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@jstreetdotorg: RT @cnni: Israeli politics now 'in tailspin' over Iran

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Yet another senior Israeli defense official speaks out about an attack on Iran:

Iran would possibly accelerate its nuclear weapons program after a future Israeli military strike, former IDF Intelligence head Shlomo Gazit told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

Gazit, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, made the comments in response to a question put to him by the Post over recent views aired by former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Yuval Diskin, who questioned the effectiveness of an Israeli strike.

The public discourse over a strike largely neglected the likelihood that Iran would resume its program after being attacked, Gazit noted.

He said he agreed with Diskin that an Israeli attack would not destroy the program, and could even accelerate it, while enabling Iran to legitimize its efforts diplomatically.

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The New York Times runs a story on Barak's speech yesterday:

The Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said Monday night that the international talks on the Iranian nuclear program do “not fill me with confidence,” reiterating his hard-line position about all options — including an independent Israeli attack — remaining on the table, despite mounting criticism from the security establishment here and a growing sense abroad that a diplomatic solution may be possible.

“They say in the Middle East a pessimist is simply an optimist with experience,” Mr. Barak said in a speech to about 100 members of the Foreign Press Association at the King David Hotel. Acknowledging that a military strike was “not simple” and would be “complicated by certain risks,” he said that a “radical Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear weapons would be far more dangerous both for the region and, indeed, the whole world.”

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@brit_newsman: Map: US bases encircle Iran via @ajenglish Interesting to find no bases in the US belonging to foreign countries

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The prospect of an imminent election in Israel will not affect its strategy for tackling Iran's nuclear program, including plans for a possible preemptive war, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday.

Rifts in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's conservative coalition over military conscription and budget cuts have prompted parties to mobilize to bring forward the ballot to as early as September, a year ahead of schedule.

That has raised questions about whether an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites - long threatened, although viewed by some Netanyahu critics as a bluff - might now be shelved due to government reluctance to send potential voters to bomb shelters.

"Elections will not affect deliberations of the professional echelon in everything regarding the Iranian issue," Barak said on his Facebook page, adding that Israel still saw military force as among "options on the table".

Israel, reputed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, has long said it would strike Iran to prevent it from getting nuclear weapons. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.

The United States and European Union have sharply tightened economic sanctions on Iran this year, and have called on Israel to show restraint to give the new measures a chance to bite. Washington says it too would be willing to strike Iran as a last resort, but the White House believes it is too early to give up on diplomacy.

Nuclear talks between major powers and Iran, which broke down last year, restarted in Istanbul on April 14 and are expected to continue later this month in Baghdad.

Netanyahu's national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, was touring European capitals this week to hear arguments in favor of the six world powers' negotiations with Iran.

"We are telling him (Amidror) that we need time," a Western diplomat told Reuters, saying the goal was "verifiable compliance" by Iran with nuclear anti-proliferation safeguards.

Netanyahu and Barak have maintained a continuously hawkish stance in public towards Iran, but there are signs that the Israeli security establishment may not be keen on war.

In a rare public rebuke on Friday, Netanyahu's former internal security chief accused the prime minister and Barak of having a "messianic" policy, and of overstating their belligerence.

"A barking dog doesn't bite," Yuval Diskin said.

Surveys show Netanyahu's Likud party is likely to win the most seats in an election, but most Israelis would oppose going solo in an attack on Iran.

Israel could be vulnerable to cross-border missile salvoes from Iran and its guerrilla allies in retaliation for any strike. Fortification drives overseen by its Civil Defence Ministry have lagged, with the current minister, Matan Vilnai, due to step down in August and no successor in sight. (REUTERS)

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