Iran warns region against ‘dangerous’ stance on Hormuz


Iran’s foreign minister warned Arab neighbors on Thursday not to put themselves in a “dangerous position” by aligning themselves too closely with the United States in the escalating dispute over Tehran’s nuclear activity.

Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, used for a third of the world’s seaborne oil trade, if pending Western moves to ban Iranian crude exports cripple its lifeblood energy sector, fanning fears of a slide into wider Middle East war.

European Union foreign ministers are expected at a meeting on Monday to agree an oil embargo against Iran and a freeze on the assets of its central bank, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said, confirming diplomatic leaks.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s No. 1 oil exporter, riled Iran earlier this week when it said it could swiftly raise oil output for key customers if needed, a scenario that could transpire if Iranian exports were embargoed.

“We want peace and tranquility in the region. But some of the countries in our region, they want to direct other countries 12,000 miles away from this region,” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said in English during a visit to Turkey.

The remark was an apparent reference to the alliance of Iran’s Arab neighbors with Washington, which maintains a big naval force in the Gulf and says it will keep the waterway open.

“I am calling to all countries in the region, please don’t let yourselves be dragged into a dangerous position,” Salehi told Turkey’s NTV broadcaster.

He added the United States should make clear that it was open for negotiations with Tehran without conditions. He referred to a letter Iran says it received from U.S. President Barack Obama about the situation in the Straight of Hormuz, the contents of which have not been made public.

“Mr Obama sent a letter to Iranian officials, but America has to make clear that it has good intentions and should express that it’s ready for talks without conditions,” he said.

“Out in the open they show their muscles but behind the curtains they plead to us to sit down and talk. America has to pursue a safe and honest strategy so we can get the notion that America this time is serious and ready.”

The United States, like other Western countries, says it is prepared to talk to Iran but only if Tehran agrees to discuss halting its enrichment of uranium. Western officials say Iran has been asking for talks “without conditions” as a stalling tactic while refusing to put its nuclear program on the table.

IAEA CHIEF SAYS MUST ALERT WORLD ABOUT IRAN

The International Atomic Energy Agency chief said it was his duty to alert the world about possible military aspects to Iran’s nuclear campaign, keeping the heat on Tehran ahead of a rare visit by senior IAEA officials for talks on January 29-31.

“What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons,” he was quoted as saying in comments published in the Financial Times Deutschland on Thursday. “We want to check over everything that could have a military dimension.”

An IAEA delegation, to be headed by Deputy Director General Herman Nackaerts, is expected to seek explanations for intelligence information indicating Iran has engaged in research and development applicable to nuclear weapons.

Tehran denies wanting bombs, saying it is refining uranium only for electricity generation and medical applications.

Salehi said on Wednesday that Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, was in touch with world powers to reopen talks that he expected to be held soon.

Washington and the EU quickly denied this, saying they are still waiting for Iran to show it wanted serious negotiations addressing fears that it trying to master ways to build atom bombs behind the facade of a civilian nuclear energy program.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said after meeting Salehi that all sides were willing to resume talks but the time and place need to be settled. “I will tell Ms. Ashton about the talks today,” he told reporters, referring to the EU foreign policy chief who represents the powers on Iran.

“We have always said we are ready for dialogue,” France’s Juppe told reporters in Paris. “Ashton has made concrete offers, but sadly until today Iran has not committed transparently or cooperatively to this discussion process.”

He added: “It’s for this reason that to avoid an irreparable military option we have to strengthen sanctions.”

Iran has wanted to discuss only broader international security issues, not its nuclear program, in meetings with the powers held sporadically over the past five years.

“RED LINE”

Iranian politicians said Obama had expressed readiness to negotiate in a letter to Iran’s clerical supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

“In this letter it was said that closing the Strait of Hormuz is our (U.S.) ‘red line’ and also asked for direct negotiations,” the semi-official Fars news agency quoted lawmaker Ali Mottahari as saying.

Washington declined to comment on whether Obama had written to Khamenei.

The stage was set for international oil sanctions against Iran when Obama signed legislation on December 31 that would freeze out any institution dealing with Iran’s central bank, making it impossible for most countries to buy Iranian crude.

Diplomats said the EU’s 27 member states were still mulling details such as when an embargo would start. They were looking into a grace period that would end in July to help some debt-ridden EU states that rely on Iranian oil to adjust to a ban.

“On the central bank, things have been moving in the right direction…,” an EU diplomat said. “There is now wide agreement on the principle. Discussions continue on the details.”

CHINA DEFENDS OIL TRADE WITH IRAN

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao defended his country’s extensive oil trade with Iran against Western sanctions pressure in comments published on Thursday. Nevertheless, he said, Beijing firmly opposes any Iranian effort to acquire nuclear weapons.

The last talks between Iran and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council – the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China – along with Germany stalled in Istanbul a year ago, with the parties unable to agree even on an agenda.

The six have also failed to agree on a common line in their approach to Iran, a lack of unity that led to a watering down of four earlier rounds of U.N. sanctions adopted since 2006.

An IAEA report in November lent weight to concerns that Iran has worked on designing a nuclear weapon, and Tehran is shifting enrichment to an underground bunker in a mountain fortified against air attack.

Israel, which is believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal but sees Iran’s nuclear ambitions as a mortal threat, and the United States have not ruled out military action as a last resort to prevent an atomic “breakout” by Tehran.

However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on Wednesday that any decision about an Israeli assault on Iran was “very far off.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the last-ditch military option mooted by U.S. and Israeli leaders would ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. Russia also opposes the new push for oil sanctions, calling it counterproductive.

Additional reporting by Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Phil Stewart in Washington, Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Peter Graff

Arabs, Israel to attend nuclear talks, Iran uncertain


Arab states and Israel plan to attend a rare round of talks next week on efforts to free the world of nuclear weapons but Iran has yet to say whether it will take part, diplomats said on Wednesday.

The November 21-22 forum, hosted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, is seen as a symbolically significant bid to bring regional foes together at the same venue, even though no concrete outcome is expected.

If conducted smoothly with relatively toned-down rhetoric on all sides, it could send a positive signal ahead of a planned international conference next year on ridding the Middle East of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

“It is a good opportunity for everybody to sit and talk but

I don’t think it is going to achieve a tangible result,” a Western diplomat said.

An Arab ambassador said he and others would probably mention Israel’s assumed nuclear arsenal in their statements, but would not include anything “that would create polarization” in the meeting room.

“We expect to pinpoint the issues that could be an obstacle or impediment to establishing a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and possibly how to deal with them,” the envoy said.

“Everybody knows that the Israeli nuclear capabilities are a big obstacle in this endeavor,” the Arab diplomat said.

Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East’s only nuclear arsenal, and faces frequent Arab and Iranian condemnation.

Israel and the United States regard Iran as the region’s main nuclear threat, accusing Tehran of trying to develop an atomic bomb in secret. An IAEA report last week added weight to those allegations, which Iran denies.

Next week’s discussions, convened by IAEA chief Yukiya Amano, will focus on the experiences of regions which have set up Nuclear Weapons-Free Zones (NWFZ), including Africa and Latin America.

IAEA member states decided in 2000 to hold the meeting but it has taken this long for the parties involved to agree on the agenda and other issues.

All 151 IAEA member countries have been invited to the forum, to be chaired by senior Norwegian diplomat Jan Petersen, but dialogue and debate among Middle East envoys will take center stage.

“I think there is a genuine will to make this a positive experience,” Petersen told reporters on Wednesday. “I’m encouraged about what I heard during the consultations.”

NUCLEAR MEETING IN FINLAND

Diplomats said Israel and Arab states had accepted the invitation but that there had as yet been no word from Iran, which in September said it saw no justification for such a meeting now and took a swipe at arch-enemy Israel.

Israel, the only Middle East country outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has never confirmed or denied having nuclear weapons under a policy of ambiguity to deter numerically superior foes.

It says it would only join the treaty if there is a comprehensive Middle East peace with its longtime Arab and Iranian adversaries. Israel would have to renounce nuclear weaponry if it signed the 1970 agreement.

Last month, the United Nations said Finland agreed to host a potentially divisive international meeting in 2012 to discuss ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.

The idea for that conference came from Egypt, which pushed for a meeting with all states in the Middle East to negotiate a treaty that would establish a nuclear arms-free zone.

Washington’s commitment will be key to the success or failure of next year’s talks, Western diplomats have said, as it is the only state that can persuade Israel to attend.

“If successful, it (next week’s forum) may be a building block toward 2012,” Petersen said.

The Arab ambassador and others said setting up this kind of zone in the Middle East would not happen soon.

“It is very distant. It is a very complicated issue. There is a lot of mistrust among the parties,” the envoy said.

Editing by Andrew Roche

Baklava and Bombs


Sami Michael, an Iraqi-born novelist who writes about the clash of Arab and Jewish cultures, knows what it’s like to be a part of a beleaguered minority. In Iraq, he was always labeled a Jew; in Israel, he is still known as a Jewish writer from an Arab country. The irony is hardly lost on him.

Born in Baghdad in 1926, Michael became active in the communist underground and was forced to flee to Iran in the first year of his university studies. In 1949, he was able to make his way to Israel, where he has lived ever since. To date, he has written nine novels, the latest of which is titled "Water Kissing Water" (Am Oved, 2001). Other books have included "Refuge," "A Handful of Fog," "Trumpet in the Wadi," and his best-selling novel, "Victoria," which depicted a family saga set in Baghdad and was translated into several languages. he writes all of his novels in Hebrew. In addition to three honorary doctorates, Michael has also been awarded numerous prizes, including the Ze’ev Prize, Kugel Prize and (twice) the Prime Minister’s Prize.

The following is excerpted from a recent interview, conducted in Hebrew in his apartment overlooking Haifa’s bay.

F.M. Black : As a Jewish writer born and brought up in Iraq who now lives in Israel, how do you see the situation today?

Sami Michael: It’s very bad. It’s quite dangerous, especially since we are emphasizing that we are bringing European culture to the Middle East when the Middle East has suffered so much from colonialism and they really see us like a part of the Crusaders. The two sides have really been poisoned by a century of conflict, of bloody conflict. We look at them as monsters and that’s the same way they look at us.

F.B.: Have you gotten used to this, to both sides pummeling each other?

S.M.: The truth is that it’s not a matter of my getting used to it. I foresaw it 50 years ago. If I took out articles that I wrote in Baghdad in the mid-’40s, it’s like I wrote them today. The Middle East is not ready yet, not ripe yet to accept both a Jewish and a democratic state at the expense of some of its territory. I knew it long ago. It’s not a surprise for me.

F.B.: How do you deal with it?

S.M.: I’m not in a good frame of mind. I’m not a youth anymore. I already have children here. I have a house here and this is my homeland today. We’ve created a lovely country, a delightful place, and there’s a danger that it will all be lost, if not through warfare, then through an economic collapse because of the conflict.

F.B.: Do you think that the writer has an obligation to take a political stand?

S.M.: That would be a disaster. That’s what happens in the Arab countries; it kills literature. As soon as a writer writes out of an obligation, he becomes a politician, not a writer. I think that the only obligation of a writer is to be honest with himself and to obey the unknown masters and not the known masters. The known masters are the prime minister, the secretary of the Communist Party, Arafat and so on. But, on the other hand, one can’t be divorced or disengaged from the place where one’s living.

F.B.: Tell me, do you feel part of the majority or the minority in Israel?

S.M.: I’m not only part of the minority, I’m alone.

F.B.: How’s that?

S.M.: Because the Israeli left is ridiculous. The Israeli left talks for the television cameras and radio, but it has no roots among its own people. It always claims that it’s part of European culture and there’s nothing that Arabs hate more than European influences. From Europe came the Crusaders and the British, French and Italian imperialists who committed atrocities in the Middle East. And we proclaim morning, noon and night that we’re part of Europe, knowing what the fate was of the Europeans who came to the Middle East.

F.B.: So you don’t feel a part of the left?

S.M.: I can’t define myself as a part of the Israeli left because it’s a left of cliques and salons. After a month in Israel, I said to myself that I’m going to establish a country of one.

F.B.: Of one?

S.M.: I have my own personal opinions and I say to every party when it puts on a show, "Bravo." I’m very glad that my wife, Rahel, has joined my country of one. It’s a small island, very small.

F.B.: What’s holy to you?

S.M.: Human life. That’s the holiest thing. Life itself. And, unfortunately, human life is the cheapest thing here in the Middle East.

F.B.: You’ve written that you’re both inside and outside of the Israeli reality at the same time.

S.M.: That’s right. Because I came from another place, from across the border of the war. Once I saw the war between Israel and the Arabs while I was on the Arab side, as a Jewish Iraqi citizen; and now I’m in Israel and see the war from the perspective of the Jewish Israeli.

F.B.: Does it look different from here?

S.M.: I see how idiotic both sides are.

F.B.: How so?

S.M.: This is one of the richest parts of the world — in oil and minerals and quarries and what are we fighting over? Over the most idiotic things. It’s as though we’re living in the past and want to reestablish former empires — from Saddam Hussein to the rebuilding of the Second Temple, and back again. It’s the stupidest thing that could ever be. Under conditions of peace, this could be one of the most flourishing places in the world.

F.B.: Do you think that the Israeli, the sabra, is a ‘new’ Jew?

S.M.: That’s the disaster of the so-called ‘new’ Israeli and the ‘new’ Arab. The new Arab is an Arab whose ideal is a Muslim who existed 1,500 years ago and the ideal of the new Jew is the Maccabees from 2,000 years ago or 1,500 years ago. There is no such thing as a ‘new’ Jew.

F.B.: But doesn’t being a ‘new’ Jew or an Israeli mean, in part, that Jews now have the means to defend themselves? That Israel will be a refuge from anti-Semitism?

S.M.: Is it possible? Is it possible? I think that the Israeli experience shows more than anything else that this is impossible. Why? Because you are not living alone in the world. Our security doesn’t depend on our mightiness, on our force or on our ability to defend ourselves, but it … depends on our relations with our neighbors.

F.B.: So Israel has failed to provide a place of refuge?

S.M.: I think that we achieved the exact opposite of what we said, of what the founders were trying to achieve: the most dangerous place for a Jew to live today is in Israel. The difference is that here you have the freedom to die proudly! But a secure place here? That’s the biggest lie.


F.M. Black was a reporter in the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times from 1988-1991. He now contributes to The Los Angeles Times, The Forward, Chicago Tribune and Archaeology Magazine, among other publications.