Turkey says Israel has relaxed restrictions on imports to Palestinian areas


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Turkish counterpart on Friday that Israel had “substantially” lifted restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's office said.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu … noted that Israel had substantially lifted the restrictions on the entry of civilian goods into the Palestinian territories, including Gaza, and that this would continue as long as calm prevailed,” a statement said.

Reporting by Jonathon Burch; Editing by Pravin Char

Khamenei dismisses sanctions, says Iran stronger than ever


Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday dismissed harsher sanctions imposed on Iran this month over its disputed nuclear activity, saying the country was “100 times stronger” than before.

A European Union embargo on Iranian crude oil took full effect on July 1 – a joint effort with the United States to force Tehran to curb nuclear energy work the Western powers say is a camouflaged bid to develop bombs, which Tehran denies.

Prices of goods have soared and the Iranian rial has plunged in value as broader, deeper sanctions have been introduced this year targeting Iran’s financial and energy sectors.

“The Iranian nation, through life, wealth and loved ones, has stood up to all plots and sanctions and has advanced to the extent that today we are 100 times stronger compared with 30 years ago,” Khamenei told a women’s conference in Tehran in a speech that was published on his official website.

“These days Westerners are being sensational about sanctions but they don’t understand that they themselves vaccinated Iran through their sanctions imposed over the last 30 years,” he said. Iran’s Islamic Revolution a little over three decades ago toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

Iranian officials regularly shrug off sanctions, saying they have little or no effect on the country. But a combination of increasing unemployment, substantial price rises and rampant inflation is creating tough new challenges for the government.

Industry sources say Iran’s oil exports have declined in the wake of the EU crude ban and extensive U.S. diplomatic efforts to get Iran’s main customers to cut their imports.

The United States imposed sanctions in 1979, soon after the Islamic Revolution that overthrew its monarchy. Successive U.S. administrations have added to the embargo, effectively creating a near total ban on any trade between it and Iran.

The U.N. Security Council has imposed four rounds of international sanctions specifically targeting Iran’s nuclear activities. Tehran says its uranium enrichment program is for peaceful energy purposes only.

Six world powers and Iran have had several rounds of negotiations on how to defuse concerns over its nuclear ambitions this year but found no common ground for a deal.

Senior diplomats from the EU and Iran will meet on July 24 for technical talks to try to salvage diplomatic efforts to resolve the decade-long standoff.

Reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Iran slams EU oil embargo, warns could U.S. targets worldwide


Iran accused Europeans on Monday of waging “psychological warfare” after the EU banned imports of Iranian oil, and President Barack Obama said Washington would impose more sanctions to address the “serious threat presented by Iran’s nuclear program.”

The Islamic Republic, which denies trying to build a nuclear bomb, scoffed at efforts to choke its oil exports, as Asia lines up to buy what Europe scorns.

Some Iranians also renewed threats to stop Arab oil from leaving the Gulf and warned they might strike U.S. targets worldwide if Washington used force to break any Iranian blockade of a strategically vital shipping route.

Yet in three decades of confrontation between Tehran and the West, bellicose rhetoric and the undependable armory of sanctions have become so familiar that the benchmark Brent crude oil price edged only 0.8 percent higher, and some of that was due to unrelated currency factors.

“If any disruption happens regarding the sale of Iranian oil, the Strait of Hormuz will definitely be closed,” Mohammad Kossari, deputy head of parliament’s foreign affairs and national security committee, told Fars news agency a day after U.S., French and British warships sailed back into the Gulf.

“If America seeks adventures after the closure of the Strait of Hormuz, Iran will make the world unsafe for Americans in the shortest possible time,” Kossari added, referring to an earlier U.S. pledge to use its fleet to keep the passage open.

In Washington, Obama said in a statement that the EU sanctions underlined the strength of the international community’s commitment to “addressing the serious threat presented by Iran’s nuclear program.”

“The United States will continue to impose new sanctions to increase the pressure on Iran,” Obama said.

The United States imposed its own sanctions against Iran’s oil trade and central bank on December 31. On Monday it imposed sanctions on the country’s third-largest bank, state-owned Bank Tejarat and a Belarus-based affiliate, for allegedly helping Tehran develop its nuclear program.

The EU sanctions were also welcomed by Israel, which has warned it might attack Iran if sanctions do not deflect Tehran from a course that some analysts say could potentially give Iran a nuclear bomb next year.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement with Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner: “This new, concerted pressure will sharpen the choice for Iran’s leaders and increase their cost of defiance of basic international obligations.”

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, reiterated Washington’s commitment to freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. “I think that Iran has undoubtedly heard that message and would be well advised to heed it,” she said at a meeting of the board of governors of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

CALLS FOR TALKS

Germany, France and Britain used the EU sanctions as a cue for a joint call to Tehran to renew long-suspended negotiations on its nuclear program. Russia, like China a powerful critic of the Western approach, said talks might soon be on the cards.

Iran, however, said new sanctions made that less likely. It is a view shared by some in the West who caution that such tactics risk hardening Iranian support for a nuclear program that also seems to be subject to a covert “war” of sabotage and assassinations widely blamed on Israeli and Western agents.

The European Union embargo will not take full effect until July 1 because the foreign ministers who agreed the anticipated ban on imports of Iranian crude at a meeting in Brussels were anxious not to penalize the ailing economies of Greece, Italy and others to whom Iran is a major oil supplier. The strategy will be reviewed in May to see if it should go ahead.

Curbing Iran’s oil exports is a double-edged sword, as Tehran’s own response to the embargo clearly showed.

Loss of revenue is painful for a clerical establishment that faces an awkward electoral test at a time of galloping inflation which is hurting ordinary people. But since Iran’s Western-allied Arab neighbors are struggling to raise their own output to compensate, the curbs on Tehran’s exports have driven up oil prices and raised costs for recession-hit Western industries.

A member of Iran’s influential Assembly of Experts, former Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahian, said Tehran should respond to the delayed-action EU sanctions by stopping sales to the bloc immediately, denying the Europeans time to arrange alternative supplies and damaging their economies with higher oil prices.

“The best way is to stop exporting oil ourselves before the end of this six months and before the implementation of the plan,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted him as saying.

‘PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE’

“European Union sanctions on Iranian oil is psychological warfare,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said. “Imposing economic sanctions is illogical and unfair but will not stop our nation from obtaining its rights.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told the official IRNA news agency that the more sanctions were imposed on Tehran “the more obstacles there will be to solve the issue”.

Iran’s Oil Ministry issued a statement saying the sanctions did not come as a shock. “The oil ministry has from long ago thought about it and has come up with measures to deal with any challenges,” it said, according to IRNA.

Mehmanparast said: “The European countries and those who are under American pressure, should think about their own interests. Any country that deprives itself from Iran’s energy market, will soon see that it has been replaced by others.”

China, Iran’s biggest customer, has resisted U.S. pressure to cut back its oil imports, as have other Asian economies to varying degrees. India’s oil minister said on Monday sanctions were forcing Iran to sell more cheaply and that India planned to take full advantage of that to buy as much as it could.

The EU measures include an immediate ban on all new contracts to import, purchase or transport Iranian crude and petroleum products. However, EU countries with existing contracts can honor them up to July 1.

EU officials said they 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.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said: “I want the pressure of these sanctions to result in negotiations.”

“I want to see Iran come back to the table and either pick up all the ideas that we left on the table … last year … or to come forward with its own ideas.”

Iran has said it is willing to hold talks with Western powers, though there have been mixed signals on whether conditions imposed by both sides make new negotiations likely.

IAEA INSPECTORS VISIT

The Islamic Republic says it is enriching uranium only for producing electricity and other civilian uses. The start this month of a potentially bomb-proof – and once secret – enrichment plant has deepened skepticism abroad, however.

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, confirmed plans for a visit next week by senior inspectors to try to clear up questions raised about the purpose of Iran’s nuclear activities. Tehran is banned by international treaty from developing nuclear weaponry.

“The Agency team is going to Iran in a constructive spirit, and we trust that Iran will work with us in that same spirit,” IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said in a statement announcing the January 29-31 visit.

Iran, whose regional policies face a setback from the difficulties of its Arab ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has powerful defenders in the form of Russia, which has built Iran a reactor, and China. Both permanent U.N. Security Council members argue that Western sanctions are counter-productive.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, classifying the EU embargo among “aggravating factors”, said Moscow believed there was a good chance that talks between six global powers and Iran could resume soon and that Russia would try to steer both Iran and the West away from further confrontation.

His ministry issued an official statement expressing “regret and alarm”: “What is happening here is open pressure and diktat, an attempt to ‘punish’ Iran for its intractable behavior.

“This is a deeply mistaken approach, as we have told our European partners more than once. Under such pressure Iran will not agree to any concessions or any changes in its policy.”

But that argument cuts no ice with the U.S. administration, for which Iran – and Israel’s stated willingness to consider unilateral military action against it – is a major challenge as Obama campaigns for re-election against Republican opponents who say he has been too soft on Tehran.

Additional reporting by Robin Pomeroy and Mitra Amiri in Tehran, David Brunnstrom in Brussels, Adrian Croft in London, John Irish in Paris, Alexei Anishchuk in Sochi, Ari Rabinovitch and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Nidhi Verma in New Delhi, Steve Gutterman in Moscow, Rachelle Younglai and Andrew Quinn in Washington, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna and Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing by Robert Woodward and Mohammad Zargham

Iran says sanctions to fail, repeats Hormuz threat


Iranian politicians said on Tuesday they expected the European Union to backtrack on its oil embargo and repeated a threat to close the vital Strait of Hormuz shipping lane if the West succeeds in preventing Tehran from exporting crude.

A day after the EU slapped a ban on Iranian oil, Iran’s tone appeared defiant, even skeptical, with Tehran insisting that, with the EU faced with its own economic crisis, it needs Iran’s oil more than Iran needs its business.

The ban is expected to take full effect within six months.

“The West’s ineffective sanctions against the Islamic state are not a threat to us. They are opportunities and have already brought lots of benefits to the country,” Intelligence Minister Heydar Moslehi told the official IRNA news agency.

Speaking in London, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain Prince Mohammad Bin Nawaf said the region was witnessing “a very difficult and a very tense situation”.

“We are seeing every day an escalation in the rhetoric and this definitely does not help in stabilizing the area,” he told a briefing.

“I think the next couple of weeks will be very critical for the whole region. Hopefully, Iran will adhere to the proposals presented to them.”

He said Iran’s threats to block the strait of Hormuz would have grave consequences on the Islamic Republic and the region.

“It will be very difficult to maintain such a blockade against the export of oil but the ramifications of such a decision would be very grave and definitely would escalate the whole situation and God knows where it would lead.

“Definitely the Iranians will pay a very heavy price if they gamble and take such a decision,” the Saudi envoy said.

The EU wants to press Iran into curbing its contested nuclear program and engage in talks with six world powers.

“The global economic situation is not one in which a country can be destroyed by imposing sanctions,” Moslehi said.

A spokesman for the oil ministry said Iran had had plenty of time to prepare for the sanctions and would find alternative customers for the 18 percent of its exports that up to now have gone to the 27-nation European bloc.

“The first phase of this (sanctions action) is propaganda, only then it will enter the implementation phase. That is why they put in this six months period, to study the market,” Alireza Nikzad Rahbar said, predicting the embargo could be rescinded before it takes force completely.

“This market will harm them because oil is getting more expensive and when oil gets more expensive it will harm the people of Europe,” state TV quoted him as saying. “We hope that in these six months they will choose the right path.”

EMBARGO PLANS

The embargo will not kick in completely until July 1 because the bloc’s foreign ministers who agreed the ban at a meeting in Brussels were anxious not to penalize the ailing economies of Greece, Italy and others to whom Iran is a major oil supplier.

The strategy will be reviewed in May to see if it should proceed.

Iran, which denies international suspicions that it is trying to design atomic bombs behind the facade of a declared civilian atomic energy program, has scoffed at efforts to bar its oil exports as Asia lines up to buy what Europe rejects.

Iran’s foreign ministry summoned the Danish ambassador on Tuesday to complain about the EU’s “illogical decision”, accusing Europe of doing the bidding of the United States.

Emad Hosseini, spokesman for parliament’s energy committee, said that if Iran encountered any problem selling its oil, it would store it, adding Tehran retained its threat to shut the Gulf to shipping.

The United States, which sailed an aircraft carrier through the strait into the Gulf accompanied by British and French warships on Sunday, has said it would not tolerate the closure of the world’s most important oil shipping gateway.

Fitch Ratings issued an assessment of the embargo’s market impact saying it would likely cause an oil price increase.

“However, prices may not necessarily increase markedly from current levels as some of the risks related to the EU ban on Iranian oil appear factored in already,” it said.

The embargo decision had no discernible impact on oil prices as it was a move that had been flagged well in advance and the threat to close Hormuz seemed remote. Brent crude down slightly at $110 per barrel on Tuesday.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday that the EU sanctions underlined the strength of the international community’s commitment to “addressing the serious threat” presented by Iran’s nuclear program.

“The United States will continue to impose new sanctions to increase the pressure on Iran,” he said in a statement.

Washington applied its own sanctions to Iran’s oil trade and central bank on December 31 and on Monday extended them to the third largest Iranian bank, state-owned Bank Tejarat, and a Belarus-based affiliate for allegedly helping Tehran’s nuclear advance.

The EU sanctions were also welcomed by Israel, which has warned it might attack Iran if sanctions do not deflect Tehran from a course that some analysts say could potentially give Iran the means to build a nuclear bomb next year.

Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in London

Mideast


Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome” had its Israeli premiere grave;re in Tel Aviv this month. Strauss, who died in 1949,served, however briefly, as a cultural official in Adolf Hitler’sNazi administration. The season, by the visiting Kirov Opera from St.Petersburg, was an unchallenged hit. Strauss has been forgiven,perhaps because he had a Jewish daughter-in-law and soon learned thefolly of his ways.

Yet, when the Kirov’s hosts, the New Israel Opera,suggested that it was time to lift Israel’s tenacious ban on anotherGerman composer, Richard Wagner, some of its audience walked out.Last week, the Knesset education committee reaffirmed the embargo.For many Israelis, Wagner remains a detested symbol of the Teutonicracism that exterminated 6 million Jews during World War II.

Zubin Mehta, musical director of the Israel Philharmonic, has failed repeatedly to get the ban on Richard Wagner’s music dropped.

One hundred fifteen years after the rampantlyanti-Semitic Wagner died, and 50 years after the establishment of theJewish state, Israelis are still passionately arguing whether to playhim in their opera house and concert halls. Like Wagner’s gargantuan”Ring” opera cycle, the debate will run and run, with a revival everydecade and no end in sight.

Zalman Shoval, chairman of the New Israel Operaand Israel’s ambassador-designate to Washington, puts the case forthe prosecution:

“This is not a debate about the merits of Wagner’smusic,” he says. “Nor is it a debate about our relationship withGermany, nor about the freedom of expression, nor aboutanti-Semitism. It is a debate about sensitivity. It is a debate aboutWagner as a self-proclaimed symbol.

“He evolved a philosophy which called for thedisappearance, if not the destruction, of the Jews. In his writings,he blamed the Jews for all the ills of the Aryan people. He was thehead of a pan-Germanic racist movement. His ideas were later takenover by Nazi propaganda. Hitler once said, ‘If you want to understandNational Socialism, you have to know Wagner.'”

Shoval admits that there have been otheranti-Semitic composers whose works nonetheless are performed inIsrael. But Wagner, he argues, was different.

“No other anti-Semitic composer had hatred of Jewsas something which permeated everything they did, in their artisticas well as their personal life,” Shoval says. “Wagner did not wantJews playing his music. When a Jewish conductor, Hermann Levy,conducted his music, Wagner tried to get him to convert toChristianity.

“These things had a different meaning after theHolocaust, when we know what all this led to. There are still peopleamong us whose memories are fresh about the Holocaust, about the roleof Wagner’s ideas and music as the Nazis used them. When a Holocaustsurvivor hears Wagner’s ‘ride of the Valkyrie,’ he thinks about thegas ovens.”

For the defense, Mordechai Virshubsky, aliberal-left politician who chairs the cultural committee of the TelAviv City Council, dismisses the ban as “stupid” andself-defeating.

“If you don’t play someone because of what he was,then you’re behaving like a totalitarian regime,” he says. “This isthe worst kind of censorship.”

Virshubsky, who was born in Germany in 1930 andwas brought to Israel as a child refugee in 1939, contends that thereare other ways to remember the Nazi atrocities.

“Why deny ourselves the chance to hear this great,dramatic, important music?” he says. “We are the poorer for it. Weare punishing ourselves and gaining nothing by it. No one would beforced to go and listen to his music.

“After all, we drive German cars; we teach theGerman language; we even translated ‘Mein Kampf’ into Hebrew. Thereare no taboos any more. We are making a mockery of ourselves.”

Yet the Nazi genocide, which is central toIsrael’s national consciousness, casts a stubborn shadow.

“There has to be at least one place in the worldwhere survivors can feel that the society protects them, where theirsensitivities are taken into account,” says Ephraim Zuroff, Israeldirector of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which is still striving tobring war criminals to trial. “This is part of the role of the Jewishstate. It is why people came here instead of going to America. Theydon’t want Wagner played here, and I think they’re right.”

Most of Israel’s musicians would like to playWagner. One of the most eminent among them, the pianist-conductorDaniel Barenboim, once tried, but was booed off the stage. ZubinMehta, the Indian-born musical director of the Israel Philharmonic,has failed repeatedly to get the ban dropped. Israel Radio’s musicchannel slips in a snatch of Wagner from time to time — and getsaway with it. The ban is anchored in custom and use, not thelaw.

Asher Fisch, musical director of the New IsraelOpera, would like to introduce a Wagner opera into its program. Hemaintains that the decision should be left to the musicians. “It’simportant,” he says, “because everything that was composed afterWagner was influenced by Wagner to some extent. His sound is of akind that our orchestras do not know. It is important for them tolearn it.”

Yet, sotto voce, quietly, quietly, theIsraeli-born Fisch does not see Wagner topping the charts here, ifand when he is performed. “When we play Wagner in Israel,” he says,”we will realize that, musically, it will not be a great success. Idon’t think the Israeli audience will go for this music.”

Perhaps that would be a more subtle revenge thanbanning his music.

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