Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared via satellite at the JFNA General Assembly. Courtesy of JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discusses Western Wall, Iran and more


Israel Prime Minister Benjamin discussed the controversial decision of the Israeli government to freeze the implementation of the Western Wall agreement; President Donald Trump’s decision to decertify the Iranian nuclear deal, which Israel was opposed to when it was authorized during the Obama administration; Israel’s improved relationships with its Middle Eastern neighbors and more during the final day of the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2017 General Assembly.

JFNA Chair Richard Sandler conducted the interview with Netanyahu, who appeared from Israel via satellite, on Nov. 14. The GA was held at the JW Marriott hotel at L.A. Live in downtown Los Angeles.

More than 3,000 people attended.

Here is a transcript of the interview, or you can watch the interview here. The section with Netanyahu begins at the 1:17:47 mark.

Richard Sandler (RS):  Mr. Prime Minister, in January of 2016 much of our audience here today celebrated the resolution the government passed regarding the pluralistic prayer space at the Kotel. And then as we know last June the government froze the implementation. Yesterday at the GA we passed a resolution requesting the Kotel resolution be implemented. So can you please share with us the present status of the resolution and what do we tell those in our community who feel that as Reform or Conservative Jews they may not be fully welcome in Israel?

Benjamin Netanyahu (BN): First of all, you are fully welcome. Israel is the home of all Jews and it must remain so. I took on the issue of prayer arrangements at the Western Wall because I strongly believe all Jews, without exception, should feel at home in Israel.

Now, Richard, you know very well I didn’t have to deal with this; I could have left it to the courts, to the Knesset, but it is vitally important to me, personally. What the government froze in June are only the most ideologically-charged elements of the Western Wall plan. They were holding up the practical elements hostage.

So as many of you know there has been a pluralistic prayer space in the Western Wall, in the Kotel, for almost 20 years. The 2016 decision wasn’t to create prayer space; it was to improve the existing space. We are moving forward with construction to do just that, and I hope, and I am working to make sure that this happens, that you will see the improved prayer space before the next GA [in Tel-Aviv in 2018]. I am working to move forward on solutions for other issues as well.

Here is the thing that guides me—this is true from the time of Ben-Gurion, who as Israel’s first prime minster was faced with this dilemma, how to deal with the conflicting views of religion and the state, and what he articulated then is something that basically all prime ministers have done and I have done as well—you remember also with the issue of conversion, this is this principal: religious status quo issues have always been resolved as the result of evolution, and not revolution.

So, despite the disagreements, despite I have to say a lot of distortions and despite the at-times disparaging remarks about me and my government, I remain committed to moving forward. I believe that the Jewish people are all one family. I believe that Israel is the home of all Jews and that all Jews should have access and prayer in the Kotel.

RS: Now that President Trump has decertified the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] what is in Israel’s best interest and what would we like to see happen next?

BN: Well, for me the bottom line hasn’t changed, Richard. We must ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon. The JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal, doesn’t achieve that. On the contrary after about a decade it will leave Iran able to produce hundreds of nuclear weapons in a very short time because the deal rescinds all limitations on Iran’s enrichment capacity. They can have hundreds of thousands of centrifuges, and they plan to.

I want to thank President Trump and his administration for the current American Iran policy. I also want to thank Ambassador Haley for the strong support given for Israel at the U.N.

What President Trump has done is create an opportunity to address the deal’s flaws and in my view I don’t particularly care about the deal. I don’t care if you keep it or you remove it. But you have to correct it either by fixing it or nixing it.

I’ve been speaking to world leaders around the world actually, and I’ve encouraged them to take advantage of this opportunity. Now the question is why is Iran so dangerous? It’s dangerous because of its fanatical ideology of global conquest, its growing power, its unflagging commitment to destroy Israel, its unvarnished aggression.

Iran has already spread bloody conflict across the Middle East – in Yemen; Iraq; in Syria; in Lebanon – and we are far from alone in recognizing the Iranian threat to the Middle East. I believe that the leading Arab countries—Saudi Arabia; the Emirates; many of our Arab neighbors—see things exactly as we do, and I think they’re right.

Now Iran is scheming to entrench itself military in Syria. They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence with a declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel. We’re not going to agree to that. I’ve said very clearly: Israel will work to stop this, and we must all work together to stop Iran’s aggression, its worldwide campaign of terror and its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

I think if we stand together we are going to achieve it, but I’ve always said if we have to we will stand alone. Iran will not get nuclear weapons. It will not turn Syria into a military base against us.

RS: I read recently in U.S. News and World Report where Israel was ranked the eighth most powerful country in the world. And thinking about the 70 years of all the pressures and all the distractions Israel has been put under, how do you do it?

BN: It begins with a simple reality that we understand. In our area, and it’s a very, very tough neighborhood, the weak don’t survive. The strong survive. We look around us and see entire nations being wiped out. People massacred tragically. So you have to be strong, and there are basically three powers that we are all the time nurturing. The first power, you would be surprised, you’d think it is military power and it is, but it is very expensive. We nurture the Israeli army, we’re very grateful for the support, the continued support of the United States, and I am very happy I signed with President Obama the MOU for 10-year support for Israel, $38 billion, it helps, but believe me 85-percent of our budget, our military budget, has to come from Israel. And where do you get that? Well you get it from a strong economy, that’s the other power we’re developing.

And, you know, there is a great genius in our people but for too long it was shackled, it was really not allowed to burst out because we had a very controlled economy. So I’ve been working very hard over the past 20 years to liberate, liberalize our economy and it has produce a tremendous economic success.

Now you take our military and intelligence prowess, which all nations need. Our intelligence, because Israel has stopped dozens and dozens of terrorist attacks, in dozens and dozens of countries. We share that intelligence with our friends and with many countries that are not our friends but we want to stop attacks like Barcelona or Paris or the other horrors that you see, and we have. So nations want to partner with us, for intelligence or for technology. They want more milk for the cows; guess which country has the most milk per cow? It’s an Israeli cow, you know that.

Or they want solar energy. Or they want clean water.  Or they want cherry tomatoes — it’s ours too. Anything you can imagine. Autonomous vehicles. Israel has this dual prowess of technology and security and we combine that to get an unprecedented diplomatic flourish. We now have diplomatic power because many countries, many, many countries around the world, are coming to Israel, in fact some of them are standing in line – I was in Africa, twice in a year, I was in Latin America. It’s unbelievable. Can you imagine? I am the first Israeli Prime Minister to have visited a country south of the United States in the western hemisphere in 70 years. It is a tremendous change. And by the way, Mexico should be congratulated. Mexico has just decided to vote against 10 anti-Israel resolutions in the U.N., and I think they deserve your applause.

So these three powers – our economic power, our military power, our diplomatic power – give Israel great presence and great capacity to defend ourselves but they all rest on one other power – our spiritual power. Our strength as a fighter of democracy, as a society anchored in our heritage but always seeking the future, our strength is what creates greatest chances for peace, because you don’t make peace with the weak; you make peace with the strong and the threat of Iran has done one good thing: It’s brought us closer than ever to our neighbors, creating new opportunities for peace and I think you will be hearing more about that in the future.

RS: That’s a perfect segue to my last question. As you think about Israel today, what makes you the most proud?

BN: I’m most proud of the rebirth of the Jewish people through the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty. Remember that for thousands of years Jews wandered around the globe. We were homeless, we were voiceless, we were defenseless, and today the Jewish people have returned to our ancestral homeland, and today Israel is capable of defending itself, by itself, against any threat. Today we have a voice and we need to raise that voice,

I’m also proud Israel is an open society, a free society, an island of liberal democracy in a sea of terror. We have free speech, a free press, minority LGBT rights, everything, we have an Arab Supreme Court Justice, a Druze minister who I appointed in my government; female generals; gay members of Knesset. This is what a vibrant and diverse society looks like. I’m proud we have created an open economy that as I told you before has unleashed the ingenuity of our people, our capacity for innovation; I’m proud that Israel has helped thousands of Syrian civilians injured in the war.

Now I just saw the pictures of the destruction in Iran and Iraq following this week’s earthquake. I saw these heartbreaking images of men, women and children buried under the rubble. I’m proud to announce tonight that a few hours ago I directed that we offer the Red Cross medical assistance for the Iraqi and Iranian victims of this disaster. Now you heard me right. We have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our quarrel is only with the tyrannical regime that holds them hostage and threatens our destruction. But our humanity is greater than their hatred. Israel continues to be a light unto the nations. This is what I am proud of, and all of you can be proud of, of Israel’s morals and Israel’s might.

Mourners carry the bodies of their relatives Kurdish Peshmerga fighters killed during an advance by Iraqi forces on Kirkuk, during a funeral in Sulaimaniya, Iraq, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Stringer NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

Kurdish Independence Movement Deserves the Support of Western Nations


On Oct. 16, Iraqi armed forces and Iran-supported Shia militias moved into the disputed town of Kirkuk, bringing the country close to civil war. 

The move was Baghdad’s decisive response to the referendum on independence that the Kurds of Iraq held on Sept. 25. The referendum produced a resounding majority for independence and a high turnout — more than 92 percent voted in favor of independence, with a 72.6 percent turnout, reflecting the stubborn determination of the Kurds to maintain and build a sovereign state.

The lines now are clearly drawn, as are the rights and wrongs of the case. 

The Kurdish-controlled part of Iraq is the most peaceful and well-ordered section of that blighted country. The Kurds have given refuge to nearly 2 million of their fellow Iraqi citizens who were fleeing the onslaught of ISIS. In turn, the armed forces of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), the Peshmerga, played the crucial role in stemming the advance of that murderous project and then turning it back, in close cooperation with U.S. air power. Many Kurdish fighters died in achieving this. 

For Americans and other Westerners, the KRG has long constituted a unique space. Outside of Israel, it is the only part of the Middle East where public sentiment is solidly and, indeed, passionately pro-American and pro-Western. It also is safe. In Baghdad, Westerners cannot walk the streets in safety. The Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil is as safe as any Western city, and safer than many. 

Over the past 25 years, the Kurds have built the KRG into a pro-Western de facto sovereign space, complete with its own armed forces, visa system, economy and parliament. Their ambitions do not end with autonomy, however. Language, outlook and history set them apart from the warring Shia and Sunni Arabs further south.

So the Kurds want independence. They want out of Iraq. The Sept. 25 vote was about kick-starting this process. The success of the referendum led to hopes for a swift negotiating process with Baghdad. 

Instead, the countries surrounding the KRG have united in a vow to prevent Kurdish sovereignty by all available means.

How did we get here?

Iraq is not a historic entity. It was carved by the British out of the carcass of the Ottoman Empire in the post-World War I period, when London and Paris were divvying up the former Ottoman territories of the Middle East. At that time, the Kurdish population lacked an organized national movement, and the Kurdish-majority territories were distributed among the new states of Iraq, Turkey and Syria (with an additional Kurdish population in Iran, outside of the former Ottoman territories). 

This decision has led to much suffering. From the 1950s on, Iraq was governed by a virulent form of Arab nationalism. The rise of the brutal Baath Party in 1963, and then the ascendancy, from within the ranks of the party, of the executioner Saddam Hussein to Iraq’s helm, meant disaster for Iraq’s Kurds. They were deprived of the right to use their language and subjected to arbitrary expulsion from their homes as Hussein and the Baathists sought to leaven the Kurdish areas with Arab newcomers to end any hope of Kurdish sovereignty.

The West should recognize its failure in Iraq and embrace Kurdish aspirations.

The apogee came in 1988 when, in an effort to end Kurdish resistance once and for all, the Iraqi dictator lunched a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing and slaughter led by his cousin, Ali Hassan al-Majid, henceforth to be known as “Chemical Ali.” In this campaign, between 50,000 and 182,000 Kurds died. The accurate number probably will never be known. What is known for certain is that in the town of Halabja, on March 16, 1988, 5,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed in a poison gas attack. Acording to a report by Human Rights Watch, “It is apparent that a principal purpose of [the attack] was to exterminate all adult males of military service age captured in rural Iraqi Kurdistan.”

This is the bitter legacy that the Iraqi Kurds carry. 

If international affairs were dictated by moral decency, the case for Kurdish statehood would be open and shut. A people who were never consulted as to whether they wished to be joined to the Iraqi state, and who were treated with the most appalling brutality and cruelty by the regimes of that state to which they never wanted to join, and who have proven themselves the most democratic and civic-minded element of the population of that state, now wish to be afforded the liberty to create, finally, their own secure and sovereign country. 

Yet despite the clear facts of the case, the West has chosen to back the Islamist administrations in Tehran, Baghdad and Ankara in their determination to oppose the emergence of Kurdish sovereignty. After the referendum, the government in Baghdad demanded that the Kurds hand over control of all oil revenue and border crossings, as well as control of the international airport at Erbil. Baghdad took unilateral control of Kurdish airspace. (I left Kurdistan on one of the last scheduled flights out of Erbil airport that Baghdad permitted to fly).

With the assault on Kirkuk, the Iraqis have demonstrated their willingness to back up their words with iron and steel. 

Why is the West acquiescing to this?

Ostensibly, the reason has to do with the urgency to complete the war against ISIS. U.S. Special Presidential Envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS Brett McGurk said the Kurdish referendum was “ill-timed and ill-advised.” This, he added, was the position of the “entire international coalition.” 

But the notion that the referendum damages the war against ISIS by diverting attention from it is unsustainable. The war against ISIS in Iraq is largely won, with the final battle to drive them from their last urban holdings being waged right now. Kurdish independence will not get in the way.

So, what is the real reason for Western opposition? 

First, the U.S. and its allies spent a great deal of blood and treasure in destroying the Saddam Hussein regime and installing a system of elections and formal democracy in Iraq. They are loath to see this project fail. At the moment, Iran-supported forces are in the ascendant in Iraq. The West hopes to assist those forces opposed to the Iranians in Iraqi politics. The Kurds need to remain part of Iraq, it is believed, to act as a counterweight to Iranian influence. 

But Iranian domination of Iraq is quite complete with or without the Kurds. More important than Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the political structures in Baghdad are the Shia militiamen of the Popular Mobilization Units — 100,000 to 120,000 strong — raised when ISIS was heading for Baghdad but with no intention of disbanding, and controlled by pro-Iranian elements. This independent armed force, combined with other pro-Iranian social and political forces, will remain the principal instruments of Iranian influence in Iraq. 

There’s a deeper cause for the resistance, however: an Arab-centric view of the Middle East that dominates Western universities and the scholars and policy advisers who emerge from them, resulting in a certain lack of interest, even a condescending indifference, to the Kurds, their aspirations and their memories. 

If allowed to triumph, this view will combine failure with disgrace. Failure because Iraq is already dominated by Iran. Disgrace because the justice of the Kurdish case is self-evident.

Instead of denying the Kurds their due, the West should recognize its failure in Iraq and embrace Kurdish aspirations, and then make a strong friend and ally of the new Kurdish state. Instead of acquiescing to Iranian gains in the region, we should be enlisting the Kurds in the effort to roll them back.

But for that to happen, their legitimate demands for self-determination need to be acknowledged and supported.

The hour is late, as the gobbling up of Kirkuk by the militias and the army shows. But it’s not yet too late. The time to support Kurdish statehood has arrived. 


Jonathan Spyer is director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs at IDC Herzliya.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Kiev, Ukraine, on July 9. Photo by Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Rex Tillerson: US wants Iran out of Syria


A condition of U.S. cooperation with Russia in the Syria arena is the removal of Iranian forces from the country, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said.

“The direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle,” Tillerson said Wednesday in a wide-ranging news conference.

The other condition, Tillerson said, was that the end result should be a unified Syria with “new leadership” — the removal of the Assad regime.

Israel expressed concerns last month at the terms of a proposed cease-fire in the civil war in southern Syria in part because it left Iranian forces in place. Israel’s deadliest enemies in the region are Iran and its Lebanese ally, the Hezbollah militia, and it wants them removed from Syria as part of any endgame.

It’s not clear whether President Donald Trump was on board with Tillerson’s conditions. Particularly on Iran policy, Tillerson has advanced one position — for instance, preserving the nuclear deal with Iran — only to be contradicted by Trump within hours.

Perhaps wary because of these experiences, Tillerson declined to say whether the Trump administration would continue to back the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which trades sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. Trump has said that Iran is violating the “spirit” of the agreement by engaging in activities, including testing missiles and military adventurism in the region, not covered by the agreement.

“What does that mean if we say the spirit of the agreement’s been violated?” Tillerson asked.

“Do we want to tear it up and walk away? Do we want to make the point to Iran that we expect you to get back in line with the spirit of the agreement and we’re going to stay here and hold you accountable to it?” he said. “There are a lot of – I think there are a lot of alternative means with which we use the agreement to advance our policies and the relationship with Iran. And that’s what the conversation generally is around with the president as well, is what are all those options.”

From left: Netanel Kahana, Anat Morag, Ofir Michaeli, Alex Kleiner, Mimi Kaplan, Chris Tucker, Noam Sonnenberg, Yael Nor, Omri Sagir and Shira Glasner come together at the Milken Institute Global conference. Tucker, known for the "Rush Hour" film franchise, appeared with the young adults, who are participants of a Milken Innovation Center delegation that traveled to the conference from Israel. Photo by Ryan Torok, with help from Mimi Kaplan

Celebrity converges with Israel fellows at Milken Institute Global Conference


 

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States an founder of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, appeared in conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

George W. Bush, 43rd president of the United States an founder of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, appeared in conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

Former President George W. Bush participated in a conversation with Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, at approximately 1:30 p.m. Wednesday.

At the beginning of the discussion, the two discussed one of the more positive element’s of the 43rd president’s legacy, increasing foreign aid to the African continent.

“I believe all life is precious, and I believe we’re all God’s children,” Bush said, explaining his commitment to Africa.

Bush hopes to prevent the current administration from cutting foreign aid to Africa.

“My mission today is to … urge Congress not to stop the funding on a program that’s effective,” Bush said, appearing in the International Ballroom of the Beverly Hilton.

Actor Chris Tucker, in attendance at the Milken Institute Global Conference, expressed interest in visiting Israel.

“I haven’t been to Israel, but I want to go…So, I’m a Christian, I want to go visit the Holy Land…I was raised in church, my mama raised me in church. [I value] my spiritual side. It’s so important to stay balanced,” he said in an interview with the Journal.

Tucker goes to church “every Sunday,” unless he is on the road for work, he said. He attends a Church of God in Christ (COGIC) congregation. In the photograph above, he appears with fellows from Israel from the Milken Innovation Center.

Israel Prime Minister's Office Director General Eli Groner. Photo by Ryan Torok

Israel Prime Minister’s Office Director General Eli Groner. Photo by Ryan Torok

“I have no doubt California can stand up to its [water shortage] challenges,” Eli Groner,Israel Prime Minister’s Office Director General, said, appearing on a May 3 Milken Institute Global Conference panel titled “Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” “It has been done, can be done, but it takes real focus.”

Joining Groner on the panel were Jeremy Bentley, Citi Israel head of financial institutions and public sector; Clare Akamanzi, CEO of the Rwanda Development Board; Richard Blum, chairman of Blum Capital, a member of the board of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and former chair of the UC Board of Regents; Angela Homsi, director of the Angaza-Africa Impact Innovation Fund; and Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Glenn Yago, senior fellow at the Milken Institute and senior director at its Israel Center, moderated the discussion.

Seated in the audience, Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said he wished supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement had been there, so they could hear representatives of Africa discuss the work they are doing partnering with Israeli businesses.

“This is reality, and BDS is ideology,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said. “It’s a shame.”

"Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies." Photo by Ryan Torok

“Start-up Nations: Creating Laboratories for Developing Economies.” Photo by Ryan Torok

On Wednesday, Michael Milken, chairman of the Milken Institute, conducted a conversation with former President George W. Bush. The two discussed immigration, the Middle East, W. Bush’s passion for painting and more.

“That’s what this whole conference is about in some way – markets,” Adam Silver, NBA commissioner, said in a May 2 panel titled “Commissioners of Sport: Agile Leadership in a Competitive World.”

In the lobby of the Hilton at 3:45 p.m. Herbert Simon (second from left), owner of the Indiana Pacers, mix and mingled with pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz (far right). Photo by Ryan Torok

In the lobby of the Hilton at 3:45 p.m. Herbert Simon (second from left), owner of the Indiana Pacers, mixed and mingled with pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz (far right). They were on their way to a panel titled “Commissioners of Sport: Agile Leadership in a Competitive World.” Photo by Ryan Torok

 

On May 1, during the Milken Institute Global Conference, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin spoke of the effectiveness of policy implementing sanctions against terrorist organizations or countries sponsoring terrorism, including Iran.

“These sanctions really do work [on countries such as Syria],” he said in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network, appearing the first day of the three-day conference. “When you cut off the money to terrorist organizations, you have a big impact and I think you saw this in the case of Iran.

“The only reason Iran came to the table to negotiate was because of economic sanctions on them,” he said, “and that’s what created the incentive.”

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

Steven Mnuchin, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury. Courtesy of the Milken Institute

 

In an interview with David Rubinstein, a billionaire financier and philanthropist who has been a supporter of Jewish life at Duke University, Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., U.S. secretary of commerce, said he is hopeful President Donald Trump will have a positive impact on the American business community.

“Every business executive I see, even ones who have specific complaints…every one of them is very encouraged by the new president,” Ross said on Monday afternoon during a Global Conference lunchtime session.

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Wilbur L. Ross, Jr., Secretary, U.S. Department of Commerce. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

 

This year’s conference, held April 30-May 3, drew more than 4,000 attendees from 48 states and more than 50 countries. 75-percent of the speakers were new speakers, according to the Global Conference, which was held at the Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hilton, site of the Milken Institute Global Conference. Photo by Ryan Torok

Beverly Hilton, site of the Milken Institute Global Conference. Photo by Ryan Torok

 

Jamie Dimon, chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, has advised the president on business matters, such as the China currency manipulation issue. On Monday, Dimon appeared in an interview with Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

“I was not a Trump supporter, but he asked me to serve in this [the president’s business strategic advisory council]. I was criticized by a lot of people, including one of my daughters…[But] I’m a patriot. I am going to try the best I can to help my country,” Dimon said.

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Willow Bay, dean of the USC Annenberg School of Journalism. Photo courtesy of Milken Institute

 

A dinner session on Monday featured Jon Favreau, J.J. Abrams and Apple executive Eddy Cue.

Favreau, director of “Jungle Book,” a live action reimagining of the classic animated film, said he heeds to the philosophy of making the old new again.

“[Telling] the old stories and giving it a new look, using new technologies and new settings,” is rewarding, Favreau said, appearing in a conversation titled “Multi-Hyphenates.”

“I think ‘multi-hyphenate,’ is a term for a lucky person with ADD,” Abrams, director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” said.

Abrams spoke of moviegoing as a “communal experience,” while addressing the phenomenon of people opting to watch new releases at home.

“We are desperately working to give people something worthy of their time,” Abrams said.

Favreau, on making the film, “Chef,” said he appreciated the opportunity of becoming acquainted with real chefs.

“As a filmmaker, you have access. When you say you are directing a movie, something about the magic of the movie business, it opens up doors and you can sit and talk to the top people in each of these fields – futurists, chefs, soldiers, police officers, generals. They will talk to you and give you their perspective. It’s incredibly fulfilling. For me to get into that [when working on ‘Chef’], just chopping shallots and that mindfulness brought to the work, it was very meditating,” he said. “It was very fulfilling.”

Both Abrams and Favreau are Jewish.

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams

From left: Jon Favreau, Eddy Cue and J.J. Abrams

 

Check back for updates.

 

 

President Donald Trump delivers an statement about missile strikes on a Syrian airbase on April 6. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

On Trump’s order, U.S. missiles target Syrian airbase


U.S. warships launched 50-60 missiles at an airbase in northern Syria in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians in President Donald Trump’s first major intervention in the Middle East.

The Tomahawk missiles hit Shayrat airfield on Thursday, north of Damascus, CNN reported, citing Pentagon sources. The Bashar Assad regime is believed to have launched the chemical attacks on Iblid province in northern Syria earlier this week which killed at least 82 civilians, including many children.

Trump ordered the attack from his Mar-A-Lago estate in Florida, where he is spending the weekend.

“It is in the vital national security interests of the United States to prevent the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons,” Trump said in a short statement to the media at Mar-A-Lago.

As a result of Assad’s repression and use of chemical weapons among other means, Trump said, “the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize threatening the United States and allies.” Trump has said he sees the exodus of refugees from Syria as a threat to the West because of terrorists who may be among them. He has twice sought to bar their entry into the United States; both bids were stayed by the courts.

Trump had indicated earlier that he was considering action.

“Yesterday, a chemical attack — a chemical attack that was so horrific, in Syria, against innocent people, including women, small children, and even beautiful little babies,” Trump said Wednesday during a press opportunity with Jordan’s King Abdullah, a U.S. ally whose nation borders Syria. “Their deaths was an affront to humanity. These heinous actions by the Assad regime cannot be tolerated.”

The Assad regime has denied responsibility and its ally, Russia, has resisted U.N. Security Council action, saying that it is premature to blame Assad for the attack. Trump, in his short statement to the press on Thursday, said there was “no dispute” Assad was behind the attack.

The missile launch represents a sharp departure from the policies of his predecessor, President Barack Obama, who resisted targeting the Assad regime while maintaining some U.S. involvement in the efforts to push back the Islamic State, the terrorist group that is among Assad’s enemies.

It is also a dramatic departure from how Trump campaigned for president, when he lacerated Obama’s predecessor, President George W. Bush, for deepening U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and called for a pullback of U.S. involvement in foreign conflicts.

Just last week, Trump officials suggested that the United States was withdrawing from what was for years a U.S. policy of seeking Assad’s removal.

At his Wednesday press conference, Trump said he was flexible in how he approached policy. “I have that flexibility, and it’s very, very possible — and I will tell you, it’s already happened that my attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much,” he said.

CNN reported that Trump informed other countries prior to the attack, although it did not specify whether Israel was among those countries. Israel is concerned about any escalation north of the Golan Heights, which Israel controls; that area, in southwest Syria, is not near the targeted base.

The attack could for the first time in Trump’s presidency rattle what had been warming ties with Russia.

Russia uses Iran as base to bomb Syrian militants for first time


Russia used Iran as a base from which to launch air strikes against Syrian militants for the first time on Tuesday, widening its air campaign in Syria and deepening its involvement in the Middle East.

In a move underscoring Moscow's increasingly close ties with Tehran, long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers used Iran's Hamadan air base to strike a range of targets in Syria.

It was the first time Russia has used the territory of another nation, apart from Syria itself, to launch such strikes since the Kremlin launched a bombing campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September last year.

It was also thought to be the first time that Iran has allowed a foreign power to use its territory for military operations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Iranian deployment will boost Russia's image as a central player in the Middle East and allow the Russian air force to cut flight times and increase bombing payloads.

The head of Iran's National Security Council was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying Tehran and Moscow were now sharing facilities to fight against terrorism, calling their cooperation strategic.

Both countries back Assad, and Russia, after a delay, has supplied Iran with its S-300 missile air defense system, evidence of a growing partnership between the pair that has helped turn the tide in Syria's civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Relations between Tehran and Moscow have grown warmer since Iran reached agreement last year with global powers to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of U.N., EU and U.S. financial sanctions.

President Vladimir Putin visited in November and the two countries regularly discuss military planning for Syria, where Iran has provided ground forces that work with local allies while Russia provides air power.

TARGET: ALEPPO

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday Iraq, which lies between Iran and Syria, had granted Russia permission to use its air space, on the condition the planes use corridors along Iraq’s borders and not fly over Iraqi cities.

Abadi told a press conference the same permission has been given to air forces of a separate U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State flying to Syria from Kuwait.

Russia also gave advanced notice to the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, complying with the terms of a safety agreement meant to avoid an accidental clash in the skies, the U.S. military said.

“They informed us they were coming through and we ensured safety of flight as those bombers passed through the area and toward their target and then when they passed out again,” said U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S-led coalition.

“They did not impact coalition operations in either Iraq or Syria.”

The Russian Defence Ministry said its bombers had taken off on Tuesday from the Hamadan air base in north-west Iran.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian bombers were believed to have returned to Russia.

The ministry said Tuesday's strikes had targeted Islamic State as well as militants previously known as the Nusra Front in the Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al Zour provinces. It said its Iranian-based bombers had been escorted by fighter jets based at Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province.

“As a result of the strikes five large arms depots were destroyed … a militant training camp … three command and control points … and a significant number of militants,” the ministry said in a statement.

The destroyed facilities had all been used to support militants in the Aleppo area, it said, where battle for control of the divided city, which had some 2 million people before the war, has intensified in recent weeks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said heavy air strikes on Tuesday had hit many targets in and around Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, killing dozens.

Strikes in the Tariq al-Bab and al-Sakhour districts of northeast Aleppo had killed around 20 people, while air raids in a corridor rebels opened this month into opposition-held eastern parts of the city had killed another nine, the observatory said.

The Russian Defence Ministry says it takes great care to avoid civilian casualties in its air strikes.

Zakaria Malahifi, political officer of an Aleppo-based rebel group, Fastaqim, said he could not confirm if the newly deployed Russian bombers were in use, but said air strikes on Aleppo had intensified in recent days.

“It is much heavier,” he told Reuters. “There is no weapon they have not dropped on Aleppo – cluster bombs, phosphorus bombs, and so on.”

Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, is divided into rebel and government-held zones. The government aims to capture full control of it, which would be its biggest victory of the five year conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped in rebel areas, facing potential siege if the government closes off the corridor linking it with the outside.

Russian media reported on Tuesday that Russia had also requested and received permission to use Iran and Iraq as a route to fire cruise missiles from its Caspian Sea fleet into Syria, as it has done in the past. Russia has built up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caspian as part of what it says are planned military exercises.

Russia's state-backed Rossiya 24 channel earlier on Tuesday broadcast uncaptioned images of at least three Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and a Russian military transport plane inside Iran.

The channel said the Iranian deployment would allow the Russian air force to cut flight times by 60 percent. The Tupolev-22M3 bombers, which before Tuesday had conducted strikes on Syria from their home bases in southern Russia, were too large to be accommodated at Russia's own air base inside Syria, Russian media reported.

Iran and Russia move closer but their alliance has limits


When Iran took delivery of the first parts of an advanced Russian air defense system this month, it paraded the anti-aircraft missile launchers sent by Moscow to mark Army Day.

Tehran had cause to celebrate: the Kremlin's decision a year ago to press ahead with the stalled sale of the S-300 system was the first clear evidence of a growing partnership between Russia and Iran that has since turned the tide in Syria's civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

But the delay in implementation of the deal also points to the limitations of a relationship that is forged from a convergence of interests rather than a shared worldview, with Iran's leadership divided over ideology and Russia showing signs of reluctance to let the alliance develop much more, according to diplomats, officials and analysts interviewed by Reuters.

Some Iranian officials want a strategic alliance, a much deeper relationship than now. But the Kremlin refers only to ongoing cooperation with a new dimension because of the conflict in Syria, in which both back Damascus.

“We are continuously developing friendly relations with Iran, but we cannot really talk about a new paradigm in our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month.

Russia agreed to sell the S-300 system to Iran in 2007 but froze the deal in 2010 after sanctions were imposed on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Moscow lifted the self-imposed ban in April last year as Iran and world powers got closer to the deal that led eventually to the nuclear-related sanctions being lifted in exchange for Tehran curbing its atomic program.

Russia is now weighing the financial and diplomatic benefits of arms sales to Tehran against the risk of upsetting other countries including Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, or seeing Iran become too powerful.

“There is a military-economic aspect to this alliance which is beneficial to both sides,” said Maziar Behrooz, associate professor of Mideast and Islamic history at San Francisco State University, who has studied Iran's relationship with Russia.

“But on a geopolitical level, Iran and Russia can only form a tactical short-term alliance, not a strategic one. I think the ideological differences between the two are just too deep.”

BACKING FOR DAMASCUS

The relationship, long cordial, appeared to reach a new level last September when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military intervention in Syria in support of Iran's ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran had already deployed its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), who had rallied Assad's troops to check the opposition's momentum. But it took Russian air power to break the stalemate and give Assad the upper hand.

Militarily, the two powers proved complementary. Iran brought disciplined ground troops who worked well with their local allies, while Russia provided the first-rate air power that Iran and Assad lack.

Diplomatically, the joint operations have made Tehran and Moscow central to any discussion about the regional security architecture.

That is important for Putin as he has sought to shore up alliances in the region and increase Moscow's influence since Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a Russian ally, was killed.

How well Moscow will fare when it comes to winning lucrative business contracts now the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted is less clear. There is little sign so far of Russian companies making new inroads into Iran.

This is partly for ideological reasons. The Iranian establishment is divided, with President Hassan Rouhani's faction more interested in trading with the West than struggling against it, even if many U.S. policies are still condemned.

Russia has little incentive to join the mostly Shi'ite “Axis of Resistance” to Western interests in the region which is championed by the more conservative Iranian faction as this could ruin its relationships with other Middle Eastern powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

SECRET MEETINGS

Russia's first big intervention in the Middle East since the Cold War followed months of secret meetings in Moscow between Putin and Iranian officials, including IRGC commanders and Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A close and exclusive alliance with Russia would suit Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure, who has blamed Western influence for Iran's troubles and pushed hard to implement his “Look East” policy.

But it runs contrary to the policy of Iran's government, led by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have courted Western delegations on an almost weekly basis since the nuclear deal was reached with world powers last July.

The Western-educated Rouhani is less inclined toward Russia and has an uneasy relationship with Putin. Last November, during his first visit to Tehran in eight years, Putin went straight from the airport to meet Khamenei, rather than seeing Rouhani first as most visitors do.

“Rouhani and Putin don't get along that great,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Some Iranian officials are also wary of getting too close to Russia, which fought Britain for domination of 19th century Iran and occupied the country during both World Wars.

“Russians have always used us as a tool in their foreign policy. They never stayed committed to their alliance with any country,” Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, who served as spokesman for former President Mohammad Khatami, told Reuters from Tehran.

Putin has worked hard to improve relations with Iran. During the November visit, he presented Khamenei with one of the world's oldest copies of the Koran, which Russia had obtained during its occupation of northern Iran in the 19th century.

The intervention in Syria has served as a distraction from economic problems in Russia, deepened by international sanctions on Moscow over its role in the Ukraine crisis which have forced Moscow to seek new trade partners.

Trade with Iran was only $1.3 billion in 2015, according to Russian data, though there are signs cooperation could pick up.

Russia says it is ready to start disbursing a $5-billion loan to Tehran for financing infrastructure projects. A deal is also being discussed for Russia to send oil and gas to northern Iran, where supply is scarce, and for Iran to send oil and gas from its southern fields to Russia's customers in the Gulf.

But the prospects for cooperation may be limited, sector analysts say, as, to update its energy sector, Iran mainly needs technology and equipment which Russia is also in need of.

Russia is also in talks to help upgrade Iran's dilapidated air force by selling it Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets but the deal would need the approval of the United Nations Security Council and could further strain Moscow's relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Power: Iran’s compliance with deal – ‘strong’


Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal has been “strong,” U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power said during a visit to Israel on Monday. 

“What this deal does if implemented – and so far the implementation has been strong but it’s very early days – is it cuts off the pathways to a nuclear weapon and it gives us much more visibility into Iran’s [nuclear] program than we had before,” Power told students from more than 40 schools at the Israel Middle East Model UN Conference at the American International School in Even Yehuda. 

But Power cautioned that Iran’s sponsorship of global terrorism remains a threat to the region and the United States. “Iran, of course, is still a threat,” she said. “Iran is supporting terrorism. Iran is supporting parties to conflict like the Assad regime (in Syria).” 

During her speech, the U.S. Ambassador also pointed to the rejection of Israeli rescue volunteer organization, ZAKA, as proof of the United Nations, especially its Human Rights Council, singling out of Israel for criticism. “Bias has extended well beyond Israel as a country, Israel as an idea,” said Power. “Israel is just not treated like other countries.” 

Earlier Monday, Power met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin. Netanyahu “showed a video clip showing Palestinian incitement in schools, official PA media and by the leadership. He emphasized the direct connection between incitement and the terrorism and violence, and called on the international community to demand that the PA stop the incitement,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office.

Israel says Arrow 3 missile shield aces test, hitting target in space


Israel's upgraded Arrow ballistic missile shield passed a full interception test on Thursday, hitting a target in space meant to simulate the trajectory of the long-range weapons held by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the Defense Ministry said.

The success was a boost for “Arrow 3,” among Israeli missile defense systems that get extensive U.S. funding. Its first attempt at a full trial, held a year ago, was aborted due to what designers said was a faulty deployment of the target.

“The success of the Arrow 3 system today … is an important step towards one of the most important projects for Israel and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) becoming operational,” said Joseph Weiss, IAI's chief executive officer.

Arrow 3 interceptors are designed to fly beyond the earth's atmosphere, where their warheads detach to become 'kamikaze' satellites, or “kill vehicles”, that track and slam into the targets. Such high-altitude shoot-downs are meant to safely destroy incoming nuclear, biological or chemical missiles.

The Arrow system is jointly developed by state-owned IAI and U.S. firm Boeing Co. <BA.N> and U.S. officials were present for the test. The earlier Arrow 2 was deployed more than a decade ago and officials put its success rate in trials at around 90 percent.

The United States has its own system for intercepting ballistic missiles in space, Aegis, but a senior Israeli official played down any comparison with Arrow 3.

While it “might be true” that the allies were alone in having such proven capabilities, “Israel is not on the level of the U.S.,” Yair Ramati, head of anti-missile systems at the Defense Ministry, told reporters.

Arrow serves as the top tier of an integrated Israeli shield built up to withstand various potential missile or rocket salvoes. The bottom tier is the already deployed short-range Iron Dome interceptor, while a system called David's Sling, due to be fielded next year, will shoot down mid-range missiles. 

Israel's strategic outlook has shifted in recent months, given the international deal in July curbing Iran's nuclear program, the depletion of the Syrian army's arsenal in that country's civil war and Hezbollah's reinforcement of Damascus against the rebels. Israel and Hamas fought a Gaza war in 2014 but the Palestinian enclave has been relatively quiet since.

Nonethless, a senior Israeli official said there was no sign of waning government support or weakening U.S. backing for the various missile defense programs.

“Everyone knows that you have to prepare with an eye well beyond the horizon, especially as the enemy's capabilities improve all the time,” the senior official told Reuters.

In the coming months the Defense Ministry and Israeli military will discuss a possible schedule for deployment of Arrow 3, Ramati said, adding that further tests of the system were expected.

Israel says 90 pct of Syria’s ballistic missiles used up on rebels


Syria has used up more than 90 percent of its ballistic missiles against rebels during a more than four-year-old civil war but a few were transferred to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon, a senior Israeli military officer said on Wednesday. 

Israel, which is expanding its high-altitude Arrow air defence system with U.S. help, has been keeping an eye on Syria's Scud-type missiles as well as Iran's long-range Shehabs as potential threats. 

“The number of (Syrian) ballistic missiles left is less than 10 percent,” a senior Israeli officer told Reuters on condition of anonmity, but added: “That could still change. They could start making them again.” 

Syrian opposition activists say Damascus' army has fired dozens of devastating Scud-type missiles at rebel-held areas, out of a ballistic arsenal believed to have numbered in the hundreds before the insurgency erupted in 2011. 

Israel had a stable standoff with Syria's ruling Assad family for decades. It sees little chance of the now fractured Arab neighbour going to war with it now, but is still on guard for any accidental cross-border launches or deliberate attacks by jihadi rebels.

The Israelis are more worried about Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought their superior military to a standstill in a 2006 Lebanon war and has been building up its arsenal.

Hezbollah now has more than 100,000 rockets, including “around 10” advanced Scud-D missiles with conventional warheads supplied by Syria, the senior Israeli military officer said. 

Hezbollah does not comment publicly on its military capabilities but has confirmed improving them since 2006.

Disagreements behind them, Obama and Netanyahu get down to business


It took agreeing to set aside differences on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get down to business on other issues afflicting the region, including the threat of Islamist extremism and the rise of Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Appearing pleased and relaxed — if hoarse — after meeting with Obama for more than two hours on Monday, Netanyahu told reporters that the two had a pragmatic discussion that lacked the contentiousness of their previous encounters.

“The conversation was substantive, practical,” Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting. “We have a common interest in keeping Iran from violating the agreement.”

Two major burrs that have irritated the U.S.-Israel relationship for months were removed in the lead-up to the meeting, with each leader scoring a win. Netanyahu acknowledged that the nuclear deal between Iran and six major powers is on its way to implementation, despite his vehement objections. And Obama administration officials said the president no longer held out hope for a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before the end of his term in January 2017.

“Not that we are agreed on the agreement,” Netanyahu said, referring to the Iran deal. “But we must look forward at what needs to be done.”

In remarks before their meeting in the Oval Office, each man signaled an understanding of what the other wanted. Netanyahu, free from the pressure of having to reach a final-status agreement with the Palestinians in the short term, recommitted to a two-state solution in the long run. Obama was furious when Netanyahu declared, on the eve of his re-election in March, that a Palestinian state would not rise on his watch.

“I want to make it clear that we have not given up our hope for peace,” Netanyahu said, looking Obama in the eyes — itself a change from previous tension-wracked meetings, when the leaders barely looked at each other.

“We’ll never give up the hope for peace. And I remain committed to a vision of peace of two states for two peoples, a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish state.”

For his part, Obama said the two would discuss “how we can blunt the activities of ISIL, Hezbollah and other organizations in the region that carry out terrorist attacks.” And he reiterated his defense of Israel’s right to defend itself against Palestinian terrorism.

“I want to be very clear that we condemn in the strongest terms Palestinian violence against innocent Israeli citizens,” Obama said. “And I want to repeat once again, it is my strong belief that Israel has not just the right but the obligation to protect itself.”

Following the meeting, Netanyahu described an encounter more conversational than contentious.

“I did not sense any broad tension,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters at a briefing after the meeting. “It was not a symposium for debate, it was not a debating society — and there have been such meetings. But this, for sure, was not.”

Instead, Netanyahu and his team, including national security adviser Yossi Cohen, outlined the technological challenges facing Israel in dealing with the rise of the Islamic State and an Iran emboldened by the nuclear deal.

In addition to Obama, American officials in the meeting included Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Vice President Joe Biden.

One focus of the discussion was renewing the 10-year defense assistance memorandum of understanding between Israel and the United States. Under its current terms, due to expire in 2018, Israel receives an average of $3 billion a year.

Netanyahu would not address the particulars of the Israeli request, but Israeli officials have said that Israel wants a comprehensive package that would amount to as much as $50 billion over 10 years, or $5 billion a year. It would include missile defense cooperation, which is now considered separately from the $3 billion in annual defense assistance and amounts to about an additional $700 million in U.S. contributions.

He said Israel was eager to avoid inflaming the recent violence, which has focused on the Temple Mount, also known as Haram al-Sharif, the Jerusalem site holy to both Muslims and Jews.

Netanyahu said he raised with Obama proposals that his Cabinet had unanimously endorsed. The Israeli leader did not describe the proposals except to say that they included easing movement and the transfer of goods to Palestinians.

Another key issue was Syria. Netanyahu said it was critical that whatever the outcome of the civil war in that country, Iran should not be able to open a front against Israel on the Syrian border. Iran is actively assisting the Assad regime.

Obama says Syria deployment doesn’t break no ‘boots on ground’ pledge


President Barack Obama said on Monday the planned deployment of dozens of U.S. special forces to Syria to advise opposition forces fighting Islamic State did not break his promise not to put “boots on the ground” in the Syrian conflict.

“Keep in mind that we have run special ops already and really this is just an extension of what we are continuing to do,” Obama said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News” in his first public comments on the deployment since it was announced on Friday.

“We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with ISIL,” Obama said, using another acronym for the Islamic State militant group. “I have been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn't solve the problem.”

In announcing the measure, the White House said the troops would be on a mission to “train, advise and assist” and would number fewer than 50.

The introduction of U.S. forces on the ground marks a shift after more than a year of limiting theSyria mission to air strikes against Islamic State. Before last year, Obama, who has been averse to committing troops to Middle East wars, had ruled out an American presence on the ground inSyria.

In a nationally televised address in September 2013, Obama said: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

Over the past year, however, he has emphasized that he would not send U.S. “combat” troops there.

The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up the U.S. effort against Islamic State, particularly after the militant group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and following the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.

Russia and Iran have increased their military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's fight against rebels in the 4-1/2-year-old civil war.

I was held in Iran for 13 months: This is why I think Jason Rezaian may be freed


Everything that's been happening to Jason Rezaian and his family over the past 15 months feels familiar.

Jason Rezaian is a journalist. I'm also a journalist.

Rezaian is from Marin County, Calif. My home is right next door in Oakland, Calif.

I was arrested in 2009 along with my two companions, Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal – while hiking somewhere near Iran's unmarked Western border. I was on vacation from my home in Damascus, Syria.

Rezaian was arrested on July 22, 2014. He is an Iranian-American who was working legally in Iran as the Washington Post's Tehran bureau chief.

He was vaguely accused of some sort of espionage, with no evidence ever provided to the public to back that up. Guess what? My friends and I were also vaguely accused of some sort of espionage, with no evidence

My friends and I did nothing wrong. Jason Rezaian has done nothing wrong.

Yet, we were all punished: held incommunicado by the Iranian government in arbitrary, solitary detention – myself for over 13 months, Rezaian for over 15 months now, and my friends for over two years.

So, yes, these cases fit a pattern – not just the arrest, dubious charges and the blatant illegality of imprisonment. It's also often the release that fits that pattern.

Last week Rezaian was found guilty in a closed court. It's not clear for what or for how long – but we do know that Rezaian was sentenced.

After more than two years in prison Shane, now my husband, and our friend Josh were released just two weeks after being convicted and sentenced to eight years for espionage.

In 2009 Roxana Saberi, another wrongfully convicted Iranian-American journalist, was held for over three months, given an eight-year sentence for espionage, then released less than a month later.

So the pattern goes: illegal arrest, allegations of espionage, lengthy, high-profile imprisonment, show trial, conviction, then “humanitarian” release.

Is the Iranian government gearing up for Rezaian's release?

The fact that the trial is nothing but political theater is good for Rezaian. The sentence itself means nothing. Yet there are many variables standing between him and his freedom.

For the Iranian government, imprisoning Americans provides an important kind of security, like money in the bank – a bargaining chip it can use as leverage or to assert pressure in any number of scenarios.

When a hostage has been held too long, he or she decreases in value. When the pressure on and condemnation of the Iranian government reaches a critical point, the hostages become more trouble than they are worth. That's how people get released.

For the Iranian government, the timing of a release of a political hostage is everything. I was released just days before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to New York for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). My release was timed to soften the president's image in light of the rampant human rights condemnations against him. Shane and Josh were released a year later, again, right before the UNGA and right after Ramadan.

But the UNGA is over. Ramadan is over.

Even more importantly, a historic nuclear deal has completely changed the equation – a deal the Iranian government never would have signed on to if it wasn't ready for the decades-long stalemate between our governments to end.

Not even Congress or hardliners in Iran have been able to kill this deal.

So why is the Iranian government still holding Rezaian?

I feel certain that the nuclear deal bodes well for the four Americans held unjustly in Iran. I also think it creates less incentive for the Iranian government to use hostage-taking as a tactic in the future.

Yet the fact that Rezaian is still sitting in a jail cell reminds me that – though huge leaps have been made towards ending decades of animosity between our countries – this long, terrible chapter of U.S.-Iranian relations has not ended.

There are interests inside Iran that will do anything to stop this normalization from happening, and I wouldn't be surprised if those same forces are the ones blocking Rezaian's release.

While I was being held hostage I felt certain that my freedom – if and when it came – would be calibrated precisely in response to the temperature of unfolding U.S.-Iranian relations. My interrogators told me as much. The Omani negotiators that worked diligently on our case told me as much.

In 2013, this was confirmed publicly when the Associated Press reported that it was a series of secret talks between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials – facilitated and hosted by the Sultan of Oman – that paved the road for the historic agreement over Iran's nuclear program.

“Ironically,” said the AP report, “efforts to win the release of the three American hikers turned out to be instrumental in making the clandestine diplomacy possible.”

October 18 was “Adoption Day,” the day that both sides begin to fulfill their obligations under the nuclear deal.

According to the deal, Iran has to act first: showing good faith by removing centrifuges, reducing its stockpile of enriched uranium, destroying the core of the Arak reactor and expanding inspector access – all of which it hopes to do by December 2015.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government believes implementing these changes could take much longer. Under terms of the deal, Iran will not experience any sanction relief until “Implementation Day,” when signatories are satisfied that Iran has fulfilled its obligations.

It may not be until spring of 2016 before the Iranian people begin to see some economic benefit.

With parliamentary elections in February, President Hassan Rouhani can't afford to wait that long. He therefore has every incentive to cooperate in every way possible in order to hasten the arrival of “Implementation Day” – including softening Iran's image on human rights.

Rezaian, the most high-profile prisoner of the moment, is the obvious choice for a humanitarian release.

The question boils down to this: Does Rouhani have enough power to get this done? Or are his hands tied?

Ultimately, it's Iran's Supreme Leader who makes the decision for a hostage to be released. Ayatollah Khamenei is probably hearing from the hardliners that Iran should continue to hold Rezaian until the United States and world powers fulfill their end of the deal by lifting sanctions.

It's a perverse, cynical equation that has nothing to do with the suffering of an innocent man and his family.

Reading his writing, Rezaian seems like the kind of person who will come out of prison with compassionate, sensible things to say that we could all benefit from hearing.

It really is time to close this chapter on U.S.-Iranian relations; the quicker this deal is implemented, the sooner sanctions are lifted, the better.

I hope Rezaian's case is the last to fit this hateful “pattern.”

I hope this is the end of an era.

I don't know what moment the Iranian government will choose to free Jason Rezaian, but there could be no better moment than now.

U.S. officials say Russian cruise missiles aimed at Syria crashed in Iran


U.S. officials said four Russian cruise missiles fired at Syria from a warship in the Caspian Sea on Wednesday had crashed in Iran while Russia insisted they had reached their targets in Syria.

The White House declined to comment on the report from the officials, who asked not to be identified, and the State Department said it could not confirm it.

If confirmed, the crashes would be a blow to the military strength Russia aimed to display in launching what it said were 26 missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria some 1,500 km (900 miles) from the Caspian Sea on Wednesday.

The Russian defense ministry denied any of the missiles had fallen short of their targets after reports of crashes first emerged on U.S. television.

“In contrast to CNN, we do not talk with reference to anonymous sources,” the Russian Defence Ministry said. “We show the launch of our rockets and the targets they struck.”

Russia had displayed graphics of the missiles flying over Iran and Iraq on Wednesday.

U.S. officials have already disputed Russian reports that the missiles stuck Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Moscow says it shares the West's aim of fighting the extremists, who have seized much of Syria, but fighters on the ground and western states have accused it of targeting U.S.-backed rebels to support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Iran troops to join Syria war, Russia bombs group trained by CIA


Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar al-Assad's government, Lebanese sources said on Thursday, a sign the civil war is turning still more regional and global in scope.

Russian warplanes, in a second day of strikes, bombed a camp run by rebels trained by the CIA, the group's commander said, putting Moscow and Washington on opposing sides in a Middle East conflict for the first time since the Cold War.

Speaking by video link for an hour, U.S. and Russian military officials discussed ways to ensure their warplanes do not come into conflict as they carry out separate air campaigns over Syria, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters. He said it was the first in a series of conversations.

Two Lebanese sources told Reuters hundreds of Iranian troops had reached Syria in the past 10 days with weapons to mount a major ground offensive. They would also be backed by Assad's Lebanese Hezbollah allies and by Shi'ite militia fighters from Iraq, while Russia would provide air support.

“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisers … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” one of the sources said.

So far, direct Iranian military support for Assad has come mostly in the form of military advisers. Iran has also mobilised Shi'ite militia fighters, including Iraqis and some Afghans, to fight alongside Syrian government forces.

Moscow said it had hit Islamic State positions, but the areas it struck near the cities of Hama and Homs are mostly held by a rival insurgent alliance, which unlike Islamic State is supported by U.S. allies including Arab states and Turkey.

Hassan Haj Ali, head of the Liwa Suqour al-Jabal rebel group which is part of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters one of the targets was his group's base in Idlib province, struck by around 20 missiles in two separate raids. His fighters had been trained by the CIA in Qatar and Saudi Arabia, part of a programme Washington says is aimed at supporting groups that oppose both Islamic State and Assad.

“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to Bashar,” Haj Ali said. He said the Russian jets had been identified by members of his group who once served as Syrian air force pilots.

The group is one of at least three foreign-backed FSA rebel factions to say they had been hit by the Russians in the last two days.

At the United Nations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference Moscow was targeting Islamic State. He did not specifically deny that Russian planes had attacked Free Syrian Army facilities but said Russia did not view it as a terrorist group and viewed it as part of a political solution in Syria.

The aim is to help the Syrian armed forces “in their weak spots”, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook described Thursday's military talks as “cordial and professional” and said a U.S. official raised concerns that areas targeted by Russian aircraft in Syria were not Islamic State strongholds.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the United Nations on Thursday: “Instead of lone decisions by Russia to take direct military action in Syria we need Russia to take political action advocating transition in Syria.”

SAME ENEMIES, DIFFERENT FRIENDS

Russia's decision to join the war with air strikes on behalf of Assad, as well as the increased military involvement of Iran, could mark a turning point in a conflict that has drawn in most of the world's military powers.

With the United States leading an alliance waging its own air war against Islamic State, the Cold War superpower foes, Washington and Moscow, are now engaged in combat over the same country for the first time since World War Two.

They say they have the same enemies – the Islamic State group of Sunni Muslim militants who have proclaimed a caliphate across eastern Syria and northern Iraq.

But they also have different friends, and sharply opposing views of how to resolve the 4-year-old Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and driven more than 10 million from their homes.

Washington and its allies oppose both Islamic State and Assad, believing he must leave power in any peace settlement.

Washington says a central part of its strategy is building “moderate” insurgents to fight Islamic State, although so far it has struggled to find many fighters to accept its training.

Moscow supports the Syrian president and believes his government should be the centrepiece of international efforts to fight the extremist groups.

It appears to be using the common campaign against Islamic State as a pretext to strike against groups supported by Washington and its allies, as a way of defending a Damascus government with which Moscow has been allied since the Cold War.

The Russian strikes represent a bold move by President Vladimir Putin to assert influence beyond his own neighbourhood: it is the first time Moscow has ordered its forces into combat outside the frontiers of the former Soviet Union since its disastrous Afghanistan campaign in the 1980s.

The Russian and Iranian intervention in support of Assad comes at a time when momentum in the conflict had swung against his government and seem aimed at reversing insurgent gains.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi of neighbouring Iraq, where Washington is also leading an air war against Islamic State while Iran aids government forces on the ground, said he would be open to Russian strikes as well.

A Syrian military source said on Thursday that Russian military support would bring a “big change” in the course of the conflict, particularly through advanced surveillance capabilities that could pinpoint insurgent targets.

Putin's gamble of going to war in Syria comes a year after he defied the West to annex Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, drawing U.S. and EU economic sanctions while igniting a wave of popular nationalist support at home.

He appears to be betting that decisive action to aid Assad will improve Russia's position at future talks on a political settlement, safeguard its control of the naval base and limit the influence of regional rivals like NATO member Turkey. It could also help his image at home as a strong leader willing to challenge global rivals, first and foremost the United States.

Rouhani says Iran ready to help bring democracy to Syria, Yemen


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Tehran was ready to help bring democracy to war-torn Syria and Yemen, and blamed the spread of terrorism in the Middle East on the United States.

In a speech to the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York, Rouhani said Iran was prepared to assist in “the eradication of terrorism and in paving the way for democracy”.

“As we aided the establishment of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are prepared to help bring about democracy in Syria and also Yemen,” said Rouhani.

Tehran has provided military and financial support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the four-year war against rebels, and supports Houthi rebels fighting for power in Yemen.

Rouhani, who has said previously that Iran would back the Syrian nation and Assad “until the end of the road,” did not mention the Syrian president's name in his speech.

Anti-Assad rebels enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia, Shi'ite-led Iran's regional rival.

U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Monday offered different views on how to resolve the Syrian crisis. But Obama said he was willing to work with Russia and Iran to end it.

Rouhani blamed the crisis in the Middle East on what he characterized as the United States' occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as what he said was Washington's support for Israel against Palestine.

“If we did not have the U.S. military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the U.S.'s unwarranted support for the inhumane actions of the Zionist regime against the oppressed nation of Palestine, today the terrorists would not have an excuse for the justification of their crimes,” he said.

Rouhani praised the nuclear deal reached in July between Iran and major world powers, which will lift economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran curbing its nuclear program.

“The deal is a brilliant example of victory over war that has managed to disperse the clouds of hostility and perhaps even the specter of another war and extensive tensions from the Middle East,” Rouhani said.

He criticized the “incompetence and mismanagement of those in charge” of the haj tragedy in Saudi Arabia, in which more than 700 Muslim pilgrims were killed, including many Iranians.

Rouhani is cutting his U.N. trip short, returning to Teheran later on Monday to take part in ceremonies for the return of the bodies of Iranian pilgrims killed in the tragedy.

Rouhani: U.S.-Iran ties better but ‘still a long road to travel’


Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Friday said ties with the United States had improved, though there was “still a long road to travel” before the two estranged nations could have normal relations.

“The situation has certainly changed,” Rouhani, in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, told a group of senior editors from media organizations at a nearby hotel. “We can point to the tangibles, the many steps forward, but there is still a long road to travel.”

He described the historic nuclear deal between Iran and the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China as a “big test” for U.S.-Iranian relations and said that it was important to create an atmosphere of trust.

“If we continue on the path, the road will be paved to further cooperation and collaboration,” he said, adding that “we have seen good faith between the two sides.”

The White House has said there was no meeting planned between Rouhani and U.S. President Barack Obama while they are at U.N. headquarters in the coming days. Rouhani suggested it would be premature to discuss encounters between the two men.

“Before talking about meetings or handshakes,” Rouhani said, the two countries should focus on resolving issues.

Still, Rouhani's first public remarks since arriving in New York were more upbeat than what Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said earlier this month. Khamenei said Tehran would not negotiate with the United States on any issue after the landmark nuclear deal with the six world powers in July.

The United States and Iran have been at odds since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution and the U.S. hostage crisis that followed. Deep differences remain over Middle East conflicts, as well as what Washington sees as Iran's support for terrorism and poor human rights record.

ROUHANI: IRAN WANTS STABILITY IN SYRIA

Speaking through an interpreter, Rouhani also responded to media reports that Iran and Russia were part of a coalition that would take on Islamic State and other militant groups.

“I do not see a coalition between Iran and Russia on fighting terrorism in Syria,” Rouhani said.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin told him personally that Moscow wants to play a more active role in combating militant groups in the Middle East.

Russia and Iran both support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, unlike Western powers, which back what they describe as moderate rebels seeking to oust Assad. The Western-backed rebels have enjoyed limited battlefield success, while Assad's forces control less than half the country's territory.

As a result, Russia has recently stepped up its military support for Assad.

Rouhani said Damascus would ultimately have to accept some measure of political reform. Still, fighting terrorism and addressing the humanitarian crisis were more urgent, he added. 

“Stability can be imagined with democracy, but democracy cannot be imagined without stability,” he said. “You cannot put a ballot box in a battlefield.”

Implementation of the July 14 nuclear agreement, which will eventually see the lifting of crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on Tehran's nuclear program, could begin by November or December of this year. 

“Conditions are ripe for that,” the Iranian president said.

Western officials have suggested that implementation of the deal was more likely next year. 

Rouhani also referred to the detention of Americans in Iran and Iranians in the United States. Iran is holding several Americans, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who has dual U.S. and Iranian citizenship.

Rouhani said both countries should do what they could to move forward to freeing prisoners held by each other. He added that the issue was “personally important to me,” though he said his constitutional powers were limited on the matter.

“Both governments have to help to move these legal files forward,” he said.

Iranian officials have said they want freedom for Iranians held in the United States, some of whom have been jailed on charges of circumventing U.S. sanctions on Tehran.

Rouhani complained about some of the statements made by U.S. lawmakers critical of the nuclear deal, saying they contained “extremely bitter extremist judgments” and were met with astonishment in Iran.

“It was as if they were on another planet,” he said. “They did not seem to know where Iran was.” 

Rouhani also touched on the tragedy in Saudi Arabia, echoing other Iranian officials' comments that Saudi authorities bore some blame for a crush that killed over 700 people at the haj pilgrimage in the annual event's worst disaster in 25 years.

He said the tragedy may be a result of the Saudis transferring experienced troops to Yemen to fight against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters, a military campaign that Tehran has repeatedly criticized.

In letter to P5+1, Israel blames Iran for rockets from Syria


Israel submitted a formal diplomatic complaint to world powers about a recent rocket attack from Syria — blaming a specific Iranian general and warning of increased regional aggression by the Islamic Republic in the wake of the nuclear deal.

The demarche was sent Friday to the P5+1 — the six world powers, including the United States, that negotiated the nuclear agreement with Iran — a day after a barrage of four rockets hit Israel from Syria.

Sent by Jeremy Issacharoff, the vice director general of Israel Foreign Affairs Ministry, the document said Israel has “credible information” that Thursday’s rocket attack was ordered by “Iranian Operative Saeed Izaadhi” and carried out by the Palestinian branch of militant group Islamic Jihad.

The document called the attack “an indiscriminate and premeditated terrorist attack against Israeli territory without any provocation from the Israeli side.” Further, it said the attack was “another clear and blatant demonstration of Iran’s continued and unabating support and involvement in terrorist attacks” and “a clear indication of how Iran intends to continue to pursue its destabilizing actions and policies as the international sanctions regime is withdrawn in the near future.”

“The international community led by the P5+1 cannot enable Iran to gain respectability and political legitimacy from the [nuclear agreement, which lifts sanctions in exchange for Iran curbing its nuclear program], while in parallel it continues to actively and directly perpetrate terror throughout the region,” the document said.

Dore Gold, director general of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said: “It is untenable that Iran can argue that it is in a diplomatic process with the West when its forces continue to wage wars of subversion and terror against Israel and across the Middle East.”

The nuclear deal is being hotly debated in the U.S. Congress, which has until September to decide whether or not to vote against the deal. President Obama has said he will veto any legislative attempts to block the deal.

Kerry visits Riyadh to soothe fears of stronger Iran under nuclear deal


Secretary of State John Kerry flies to Riyadh this week to try to reassure King Salman that any nuclear deal with Iran will be in Saudi interests, despite the kingdom's fears that it may boost Tehran's backing for Shi'ite Muslim groups in the region.

Convincing Saudi Arabia to accept any agreed nuclear deal is important to President Barack Obama because he needs Riyadh to work closely with Washington on a host of regional policies and to maintain its role as a moderating influence in oil markets.

While the main critics of the U.S. push for a nuclear deal with Iran are Israel and Congressional Republicans, Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia is also concerned that an accord would allow Iran to devote more cash and energy to Shi'ite proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, escalating conflicts.

“The Saudis fear Obama will give the Iranians a deal whatever the cost because it is important for his legacy and that Iran will get a certain regional status in exchange for an agreement,” said one diplomat in the Gulf.

Kerry met Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Montreux, Switzerland, on Monday and Tuesday and the two are expected to sit down again on Wednesday as they try to meet a late March deadline to achieve a framework nuclear agreement.

Kerry then flies to Saudi Arabia, where on Thursday he meets the new king, deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef and foreign ministers of the six Gulf Cooperation Council nations: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The main purpose is to brief them on the state of the Iran talks and to make the case that a diplomatic solution to the long-festering crisis over Iran's atomic programme will make them more secure rather than less.

Saudi Arabia's anxiety about an agreement has fuelled a flurry of diplomacy in recent days to bolster unity among Sunni states in the Middle East in the face of shared threats including Iran, analysts say.

Washington shares Arab concerns about Iran's role, particularly in Syria and Yemen and through its ties to Lebanon's Hezbollah militia, a senior U.S. official said, on condition of anonymity, but added that there was a “very substantial” U.S. military commitment to Gulf allies.

“What we need to do is have the appropriate strategies to counter any provocative and destabilising behaviour … It's going to depend on what can we do effectively in places like Syria and Yemen,” he said.

A second senior U.S. official told reporters a nuclear deal would not necessarily lead to a closer U.S.-Iran relationship and less influence for Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, nor would it diminish U.S. efforts to counter Iranian influence.

“You can't read into the nuclear negotiation any kind of determination of where the U.S. relationship with Iran may go in the future,” he said. “Regardless of what happens with the nuclear file, we will continue to confront aggressively Iranian expansion in the region, Iranian aggressiveness in the region.”

ANXIOUS

However, U.S. officials are unwilling to outline what strategies might curb Iran's regional influence, and the U.S. record in Iraq, Syria and Yemen – where armed Iranian allies have since flourished – has caused Saudi Arabia great anxiety.

The country's trust in Washington during the Iran talks is also still recovering from the sudden move in late 2013 towards a nuclear deal, when Saudi officials were blindsided by the revelation of months of secret talks between the U.S. and Iran.

“They are very, very nervous about the way we are moving forward,” said a Western diplomat who tracks the issue closely. The diplomat said Riyadh feared a “lose-lose situation” in which Iran either gained an atomic weapon or was freed from sanctions.

Riyadh has long been worried about Iran gaining nuclear weapons capability, something that once led the late King Abdullah to ask Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” by striking Iran, diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks showed.

But it now sees Iran's involvement in Arab countries, particularly its backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, its support for Iraqi Shi'ite militias and its ties to the Houthi group that has seized control in northern Yemen, as a more urgent problem.

A senior State Department official told Reuters: “Secretary Kerry will make clear we understand the concerns they have about the region's security, concerns that we also share.”

Meanwhile, King Salman is working to forge a united front among Sunni states against what Riyadh sees as the dual threat from Iran and Islamic State militants, analysts say.

Over the past week Salman has met the leaders of all Saudi Arabia's Gulf Arab neighbours, the king of Jordan and the presidents of Egypt and Turkey, the two most populous and militarily powerful Sunni states in the region.

“The understanding is that we will face a more aggressive Iran if they sign an agreement. All the restrictions on it will be lifted and it will be much stronger. This is an issue that needs some sort of unity,” said Mustafa Alani, an Iraqi security analyst with ties to the Saudi Interior Ministry.

Chaos is my Heaven: Q-and-A with Itai Anghel


Rob Eshman: What year did you first meet Commander Media, the leader of the female militia you film in your documentary.

Itai Anglel: 2010.  She was already a commander. So when I saw her now, it was very good, you know. It meant for her, you know, that, “Okay, it’s fine. He can join us. “

Rob: And you just crossed into Syria?

Anghel:  I’ve been to Iraq four times and I’ve been to Syria two times. I have an American passport. I was born in the United States, but I never lived actually in the States because my parents have been studying in Columbia University in New York for six years.

Rob: But it still must give you an extra level of, I don’t know, caution or fear thinking what people would do to you in these places if they found out you were Israeli somehow.

Itai: Yeah. Of course. I deal with it a lot. I actually, you know, do some sort of techniques in order to make my way through all these very tense places. The way I see it is like that, I mean, if I will attract attention, then it is the beginning of the end. The thing is try not to attract attention. I mean, I try not to be interesting. I’m working on not being interesting when I’m working in journalism.

If I try to summarize it in one sentence, you know, whenever you feel anxious, whenever you look scared — and I’m scared, I’m scared to death — but whenever you look scared, then all the attention is on you, all eyes on you because you look like someone who has done something bad. You look like you’re guilty of something.

[MORE: The brave Israeli interviewing ISIS fighters in Syria]

When you hang around in places where there are a lot of conspiracies among other people going on, so when they see someone look at his face, immediately, “Okay, who’s this guy? Why does he look like that?” So although I feel very scared of this outside I got to a point where, you know, when I got from the border of Pakistan to Afghanistan, it was exactly on the day that America began bombarding there and there was a lot of hostility in this specific place that I had to go through. They were chanting, “Death to Israel. Death to America!” and I would put my camera and there were like hundred men. And they burned the flag of Israel and they burned the flag of the United States. 

So you know, the instinct is just to run away, but actually it’s not the place to run away. Running away was something that attracts attention. So I do exactly the other thing. I try to look at them, respond to, you know, even the problematic people around them. For example, one burned the Israel’s flag and they go straight to me. “Hello, who are you?” “I can speak some Arabic, I can speak English, I can speak whatever language you speak.”  

He was smoking a cigarette, so I asked for a cigarette. I do not even smoke, by the way, but you know the circumstance. And I think in every moment — not in every moment — in every second back there I’m engaging myself in what they are thinking about me and how they see me. And when I ask him for a cigarette, I mean, obviously he doesn’t know me, but he has an idea of, “Oh, this guy looks cool. He probably used to come in here, probably know people in here.” And this is how I make my way. And I realized, I mean, the flag of my country is melting in front of me, so what I feel in my stomach is one thing, and the outrage is one thing, but on the outside I stepped on this flag, this part of this flag that is being melted as it had nothing with me.

And I talked to him and I give him the impression like, “Oh, great that you’re here. I’ve been looking for you. What are you doing right now?” and then, you know, it’s sort of a dance  between us begins. This is actually the beginning for everything that I’ve done anywhere. I’ve been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Gaza, whatever. This is the way I’ve been around, absolutely in contrast to what you would accept, contrary to what I would do, you know, normally. Now the situation is not normal, so you have to think out of the box. It’s what I’ve been doing in the past 20 years.

Rob: The fact that you have an American passport in a lot of these places doesn’t really protect you either. It’s not like America is that popular.

Itai: Yeah, exactly. I mean, the American passport enables me to put a step on the map, like when the Americans invaded Iraq, so with the American passport I could go inside. While inside it doesn’t have to do with nationality and it doesn’t have to do with your religion. It has to do with you being a human being. The way you manage to handle yourself socially. Normally, they don’t even ask you where you’re from. Really.  And if they ask, I tell them that I’m an American.  In Fallujah, for example, where they’re fighting against the Americans. I was there by the way, when the Iraqi sniper [Mustapha,made infamous in the American Sniper movie], you know, shot Marines.

Rob: From 'American Sniper.'

Itai: I tell [the Iraqis] that I’m an American. And they say, “Hey, hey, American is not good.” But I tell them in Arabic, “I’m an American, but I’m not a soldier. I’m not from the Army, I’m a journalist.” And when I speak in Arabic, believe me, they’re amazed, because it’s not that they saw during the 10 years that the Americans have been there someone speaking Arabic, without a professional translator.

So immediately the next question is, “How come you know Arabic?” And I told them that I studied, and then, immediately the next question that I know will be asked is, “Why do you study Arabic?” because they never saw an American make an effort to speak Arabic. And I told him, “Because I want to speak with you, I want to talk to you.”

And then something happened, you know. “Okay.” They see me. I’m alone usually. I’m also the cameraman and the soundman … I do everything by myself. So I’m not intimidating. I will never be intimidating.  

Rob: But [ISIS] seems to especially hate journalists, right?

Itai: Yeah. This is in the specific territory of ISIS. I’ve been with the Kurdish guerrilla while I was taping them and knowing, without any doubts, that if I was caught within ISIS territory, I’m dead. So I went with a Kurdish fighter. I was in the front line but still with the Kurds. Had something happened to the Kurds, some sort of attack by ISIS and they would’ve managed to capture me. I mean, I didn’t even try to fool myself. I know what might’ve happened. But I trusted this guy.

Rob: Did the Kurds know that you were Israeli or Jewish?

Itai: I had, in this specific place, two people that they knew who I am. They knew the truth of me being Israeli, and because of my visit in 2010 and some Kurdish friends.

After the massacre in Sinjar, which was the biggest massacre that ISIS committed against the Iraqi Kurds, I talked to a friend and I felt like I really needed to go again and tell the story again. I tried to verify whether there is a possibility for me to hang around there. And a friend told me, “Yeah, why not?” I mean, it’s okay. I was not sure whether I really needed it, but slowly but surely I knew a conflict was built. It was two people, a man and a woman, and one of them from Syria and one of them from they were very interested in  an Israeli coming there, but they knew who I am, because of my previous work. So they said okay, and they told me that I can absolutely trust them. So I trusted them. It proved to me the right assessment. And then, you know, I got in.

Rob: And these were Kurds? The people you trusted they were Kurds?

Itai: Obviously, yeah. Absolutely. So among them … they told me, “Listen, don’t share too much that you’re an Israeli because we know there are also, within the Kurdish area, a lot of Sunni Muslims that would’ve liked ISIS to capture the place. So if there is a rumor that is spread about an Israeli in here, it would be a problem.” 

But little by little more people realized who I am. It was good, because normally I hide my identity and I occupy myself 24 hours a day, every minute and every second with what they think about me and how do a look. And it’s difficult because I’m a very honest man, but you have to live this part of lying and never tell the whole truth of who you are. I mean, I am an American with an American passport, but it’s not the whole story. You meet people, and you make friends, but you cannot tell them who you are. Even if I absolutely trust them, I cannot.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And  this specific trip was amazing. It was a great relief because they knew who I am. They knew who I am. I didn’t have to engage myself in pretending.

Rob: So, say, like the female commander Media, she knew you were Israeli?

Itai: Yeah. Definitely.  And then we kept another segment of this commander when she’s saying something specific about it because she knew that I’m an Israeli. She said, “The other people who suffer, the only people who suffer, the only community who suffer more than the Kurds, are the Jewish people. So we would’ve expected you, more than any other nation, to sympathize and to be our allies.” And we share the same enemies, by the way. And you, out of this genocide, managed to fight back to win, to have a state, an important state in the world. And this is the model we are looking for because this is our war for independence.” I was amazed.

Rob: Why did you cut that out of the documentary?

Itai: I don’t know. Instead of putting it inside the documentary, we decided, you know, when we go to the studio—because everybody was watching it live—and then you go to the studio and everybody is in love with this commander. “So now this is what this commander has to say about us.” And then we brought it up, so everybody saw it. 

Rob: I see.

Itai: She referred mainly to the fact that Israel provided a lot of weapons to Turkey and a lot of drones to Turkey and these drones are used in order to shoot and kill people like her.

Even when I was there four and a half years ago, 2010, and I hung around where they take refuge  and hide, there were drones, you know, even there. And they were Israeli drones!

Rob: Crazy.

Itai: They were operated by Israelis. Even in the toughest times of the relationship between Turkey and Israel, you still have the kid in Ashdod with joysticks between the Israeli army and the Turkish army.

Rob: So you could’ve been killed by an Israeli drone.

Itai: Yeah, exactly! That went through my head, you know. “If I’m killed now, it would be done by an Israeli weapon driven by Israeli people.”

Rob: It could be your cousin.

Itai: So, yeah, so this is, you know, she was referring to that.

Rob: And do you know if Israel is now helping the Kurds in the ISIS territory at all?

Itai: I don’t know too much about the [government], but after this documentary we made a lot of difference. So I mean, everybody was in love with the Kurds and everybody supported the Kurds…

Kurds have been enemies of Syria, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, our same enemies, and they share values like democracy and human rights. And then they see the Commander Media and then they see the respect for Israel — so everybody is absolutely in love with them. And everybody is very much enraged when they realize what we’ve done when they heard the commander. There was a lot of reaction right now.

Rob: How long total were you inside doing this documentary? How long were you inside Iraq and Syria doing the documentary?

Itai: Two weeks.

Rob: Two weeks.

Itai: More or less one week in Iraq, one in Syria.

Rob: Did you go in thinking it was going to be focused so much on this woman, or is that something you discovered when you got there?

Itai: No, I knew about [Media]. I wanted to make all the efforts to meet the woman. Obviously I didn’t know that I would be able to meet her. It was by chance. They told me, “Listen, there is a city of Mahmour that was held by ISIS and is liberated. We’re going in and we’re going to see the commander.” 

And the commander I realized she is a woman, and Media. And I told the interpreter, “Why didn’t you tell me that the commander is a woman?” And they looked at me as if, you know, something is wrong with me, because they don’t differentiate. In Hebrew you say, Mefaked or Mefakedet (Male or Female Commander).

Rob: Right.

Itai: In Kurdish there is one word for male or female. So I was surprised. This is amazing! Nowhere else in the world.  

Rob: You interviewed a man who said the woman are actually better fighters than men.

Itai: You know, in terms of feminism, it’s not that male fighters are their enemy. This is not like it happens with Western feminism. No, no, absolutely it’s like brothers and sisters are fighting together, trusting each other. It’s amazing.  So I knew about all of the women because I saw them fighting two and a half years ago. I was very, very happy to meet the commander.

Rob: America and Israel have women in their armies, but these are really hardcore combat troops. I mean, they’re—

Itai: They are absolutely frontline. In Israel, you know, the idea to say that a women have liberty to make something big of themselves in the army, which is — I hate to say it — it’s bullshit. Everybody knows it’s bullshit …

ISIS is a very serious, complicated mission for the Kurdish guerrilla. It’s not that you’re looking for the most macho male. No. Sometimes it is the women who are doing all the jobs. And Mahmour was liberated only by women. They left more than 300 bodies of ISIS behind, and ISIS ran away, even from the neighboring region. And what is amazing is that women happen to frighten the [ISIS] men because, according to their perception, the theological perception of ISIS, if you get t killed in a combat, what is called “jihad”, you go to heaven.

Rob: Right, right.

Itai: But if a woman kills him, because a woman is not exactly a human being according to their perception of Islam, so you will not go to heaven. And therefore the ISIS panic by the presence of women. So if they engage in a battle they will try to kill the women first, and they’re thinking would be, as an ISIS fighter, “I have to kill the women, because if later on I would be killed by a man it’s okay because I would be in heaven. If a woman would kill me, then this is really the end. So, you know, I will try to make the effort to kill the women.” The women know that the ISIS fighters are getting panicked when they are out, so they signal them that they are there. We call it in Hebrew, if you’re like at an Oriental wedding, we call it hululu.

Rob: The war cry.

Itai: Yeah. So this is what the Kurdish women are doing. I think it’s a very, very crazy situation that these women make this scream you know only from—

Rob: Weddings, right.

Itai: —Parties. It was so crazy. And at night, when we were sitting by the fire one km from the ISIS lines.  And I told them that I was Israeli and that these voices, you know, we call it hululu. We shout it at wedding and parties. They were laughing because they told me, “Listen, it’s not hululu, it’s pilili. That’s the way they call it. And it’s not so fun. It’s like a—

Rob: —War cry.

Itai: Yeah. Exactly.  Even in the funerals — unfortunately you have a lot of funerals of male and female fighters there. It’s very emotional.

Rob: That was part of the documentary.

Itai: Yeah. You hear in the megaphone they make this pilili, because that’s a cry to show ISIS, “You can kill us, but we’re not backing off. We will put up a fight.”  

Rob: The other really powerful part of the documentary is the interrogation of the ISIS fighters. 

Itai: They were prisoners. And to me is very emotional because, you know, I knew, not as a friend, but I saw him as a filmmaker three times, James Foley. James Foley was the first one to be beheaded by them.

Rob: Right.

Itai: And when he entered Syria it was November 2012. He entered from Turkey to Syria, and this is exactly what I’ve done in November 2012, four or five days after he did it. Me and my colleague found out what is the distance between the route he had taken and mine: About a kilometer and half. So back then we realized it was very lucky. 

But when we came in — because I saw him, you know, like three times and it was only, “Hey, take care. How are you? Take care.” We were not trying to mingle or to make friends in those places, because you know, I’m an Israeli and I want the least number of  people to know about it.

Rob: Right.

Itai: My friend told me that he was a great guy and you could trust him.. So I tell him of this specific situation in our country. And then, you know, you hear that he has gone.  When they [the prisoners] came in, you know, immediately I thought about him. What they might have done with him or not. 

And then they’re talking so openly about how they beheaded, and how killed, how they just decided to tell, which was completely crazy, completely crazy, but I have to tell you it was also very, very, very interesting. I mean, besides the initial shock of mine, it was so interesting. 

And I was given 20 minutes to talk to them, because even the process of getting this interview was, it was very abrupt. So we did the interview, and asked all the possible questions. And I can speak Arabic, but my Arabic is okay enough to get by. It’s not perfect, as I cannot understand every word, especially Iraqi Arabic. 

Rob: What drugs did they take?

Itai: Hallucinogens. He was hallucinating. This is what he was saying. And one of them told that he remembers that he killed specifically three under drugs and he cannot tell how many women he raped. The one that was in Iraq told me that he doesn’t remember exactly if it’s 60, 70 or 80 people beheaded and killed.

Rob: But they almost said it with almost no emotion. Like nothing, just like kids talking about a book report or something? Was that shocking?

Itai: No, it was not shocking. You undergo under such a brainstorming. You do what God wants you to do.  And they use a knifewhich is not so sharp, in order to increase the suffering of the one you’re beheading, “This is exactly what prophet Mohamed would’ve done, would’ve like you to do,” which, you know, according to any other Muslim in the world is completely far from it. According to them this is it. So they are good and they are fine.

Rob: They didn’t seem to be that educated. They didn’t seem to be that learned or even that religious.

Itai: Most of the soldiers anyplace are exactly like that, if you think about it. Most, the great mass of soldiers are people like that. But never in the history of the Middle East  was such a conquest of territory in such a short period of time. They inflict terror among the population with a video clip. So all the people who are supposed to go out and fight them, watch it and run  away in order to not to be burned or not to be beheaded. And the Kurds are the only ones to fight, which is amazing,  the female and male fighters.

Rob: When I lived in Israel I knew some Jewish Kurds.

Itai: The Kurds are a nationality, and this is most important to more than 90 percent of the Kurds. But when you talk about religion, most of them by the way by origin are Muslim. But for them religion is not relevant. If they’re in guerilla, [religion] doesn’t even exist. 

So you have the majority are Sunni Muslim, you have some Shia Muslim, you have Yazidi, and you have almost 200,000 Jews now in Israel and maybe in Jerusalem. And by the way, the relationship between Jews and Kurds over the years was amazing. Look at even the US warfare in Iraq. You had like 4,500 Americans killed, not one in Kurdish territory. I mean, it’s something there within this darkness of region you have like a light.

Rob: Are they observant at all?  

Itai: No. I mean, they have mosques, you know, when you go to like big cities like Erbil. You hear them. But, you know, it’s not a factor. In the guerrilla army  it doesn’t exist at all. 

Rob: It’s all about the nationality.

Itai: It does exist, and you have also Christians by the way. And you have a very, very tiny minority who even go to ISIS. So you have some Muslim Kurds who are going to ISIS but then it’s a very tiny minority, but it exists.

Rob: When you told the ISIS prisoner  that you were Jewish or Israeli, it looks like he couldn’t even process it.  

Itai: Yeah.  Unlike what people think in Israel and the government, we are not like the first priority of ISIS.

Rob: Right.

Itai: They told me, “Listen, we never encountered anything like it.” And when I ask them they specifically said, “Yeah, Israel is a Muslim territory, so we have to fight and kill the Israelis.’ But this is something they would say about Sweden and China and whatever.

Rob: Did the two ISIS prisoners, the two of them did they think they were going to be killed or executed?

Itai: I don’t know. Good question. When they were brought to the room they were blindfolded. And I think by then they realized that the Kurds are not killing them, but they didn’t know what they are coming to. And when my translator told them, “Listen, we’re journalists and I’m the translator.” “Okay, okay.”  They realized that the Kurds are not killing them, not executing them.

Rob: So the Kurds really do just keep their prisoners. 

Itai: A translator of mine walked out while the interview took place. Apparently she couldn’t go on sitting there when they were explaining how they take women, kidnap women and provide these women to the commander. And now they’re being raped and now they’re being sold for $20 if a woman is old, or $70 for a [12-year-old] because she’s worth more. She went out of the room and she was very, very emotional and upset. She’s very liberal and very intellectual. She said [just shoot them]. Why provide them with good conditions and later on, you know, there will be a prisoner’s exchange. 

Rob: As an Israeli, it has to be surreal for you walking through Syria. I’m assuming you were alive in ‘73 or…? How old are you?

Itai: I’m 46. 

Rob: But you remember the ’73 war, right?

Itai: Yes, I was 5 years old.

Rob: But, I mean, it must be surreal, right? 

Itai: Totally. I was growing up with the idea that all Iraqis want to kill you, that all Syrians want to kill you. And then when I went to these places and see the reality  to be different from what was being said. And I liked it very much, because they realized that the journalist every time I go to a place I learned something new and my knowledge multiplies by ten.

So I become only more curious every time there is place I think I  know something about … I know it when I will be there. I will know for what is going on. And obviously there is a great curiosity.

Rob: And even, you’re giving these people voices. 

Itai: Yeah, definitely.

Rob: Even the ISIS fighters, you’re not so much yelling at them or screaming. You’re just letting them talk.

Itai: Never. I mean, I’m talking a place where to me it was very clear the good guys and the bad guys, but normally it doesn’t exist. I gave a lot of voice to Palestinian because I’ve been a lot to Gaza and the West Bank from people from all over. Even when I began, in Bosnia. Each and every faction has something interesting to tell me. Because I’m coming from a land of disputes, so I know that there is not one complete black and white story.  So I go to all the warring factions. There’s only two times I was not able to do that. I was not able to go into ISIS territory, but I was able to talk to the prisoners. I was listening to them, not proving them wrong, I’m hear to understand what they are doing. 

Rob: Right. Do you have family?

Itai: No, I do not have children yet. I hope, you know, it will come soon. I have a girlfriend. But not married. You know, children hopefully, you know, will come soon. In this way of life it is very difficult–

Rob: I was going to say–

Itai: [But] … I still have something to do with this world regarding this job of mine.

Rob: Are you worried that ISIS knows how to use the internet just like you know how to use the internet. Are you worried they’ll see this and it’ll be harder to be discrete and go to these places without being recognized?

Itai: Well, obviously I’m burning myself little by little. I mean in Israel, where I’m more  famous and everybody knows me, they think I’m committing suicide.  But again it’s like everybody in Israel is thinking everybody in the world is watching Israeli television. No, nobody is watching. Only intelligence services. And I go only to countries where the intelligence in the country itself is completely in chaos. All the places I’ve been to — and I’ve been to dozens of places — are only in the moment where everything is crashed, the system is crashed, and anybody who is supposed to spot me is running away for his life.

Rob: So the safest time for you is when everything is in chaos?

Itai: Chaos is my heaven.

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

Cartoon: The journey ahead will be long


Facing Islamist threats, Arab nations tilt toward Israel


Between the war in Gaza and gains by Islamic militants in Iraq, Syria and Libya, there’s plenty of cause these days for pessimism about the Middle East.

But amid all the fighting, there’s also some good news for Israel.

If it wasn’t obvious before, the conflagrations have driven home just how much the old paradigms of the Middle East have faded in an era when the threat of Islamic extremists has become the overarching concern in the Arab world. In this fight against Islamic militancy, many Arab governments find themselves on the same side as Israel.

A generation ago, much of the Middle East was viewed through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Then, during the Iraq War era of the 2000s, the focus shifted to the Sunni-Shiite divide and the sectarian fighting it spurred. By early 2011, the Arab Spring movement had become the template for the region, generating excitement that repressive autocratic governments might be replaced with fledgling democracies.

Instead, the Arab Spring ushered in bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya, providing openings for violent Islamists. Egypt’s experiment in democracy resulted in an Islamist-led government, prompting a backlash and coup a year ago and the restoration of the old guard.

After witnessing the outcomes of the Arab Spring, the old Arab order appears more determined than ever to keep its grip on power and beat back any challenges, particularly by potent Islamist adversaries.

The confluence of events over the summer demonstrates just how menacingly Arab regimes view militant Islam. A newly declared radical Islamic State, known by the acronym ISIS, made rapid territorial gains in Syria and Iraq, brutally executing opponents and capturing Iraq’s second-largest city. In Libya, Islamic militants overran the Tripoli airport while Egypt and the United Arab Emirates carried out airstrikes against them.

Concerning Gaza, Arab governments (with one notable exception) have been loath to offer support for the Islamists who lead Hamas.

Let’s consider the players.

Egypt

Having briefly experienced a form of Islamist rule with the election and yearlong reign of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the pendulum has swung back the other way in Egypt.

The Egypt of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, who seized power from Morsi, is far more hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood than Hosni Mubarak’s was before the coup that toppled him from the presidency in 2011. Sisi’s Egypt has outlawed the Brotherhood, arrested its leaders and sentenced hundreds of Brotherhood members to death.

The Brotherhood’s pain has been Israel’s gain. During the Morsi era, Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula became a staging ground for attacks against Israel and a conduit for funneling arms to Hamas, a Brotherhood affiliate. But after Sisi took charge, he all but shut down the smuggling tunnels between Egypt and Gaza, clamped down on lawlessness in the Sinai, and ended the discord that had taken hold between Cairo and Jerusalem.

When Hamas and Israel went to war this summer, there was no question about where Cairo stood. For weeks, Egyptian mediators refused to countenance Hamas’ cease-fire demands, presenting only Israel’s proposals. On Egyptian TV, commentators lambasted and mocked Hamas leaders.

With its clandestine airstrikes in Libya over the last few days, Egypt has shown that it is willing to go beyond its borders to fight Islamic militants.

Saudi Arabia

It may be many years before Israel reaches a formal peace agreement with the Arab monarchy that is home to Islam’s two holiest cities, but in practice the interests of the Saudis and Israelis have aligned for years – particularly when it comes to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah.

Saudi and Israeli leaders are equally concerned about Iran — both are pressing the U.S. administration to take a harder line against Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program. With Iran’s Shiite leaders the natural rivals of Saudi’s Sunni rulers, the kingdom is concerned that the growing power of Iran threatens Saudi Arabia’s political, economic and religious clout in the region.

Saudi antipathy toward Iran and Shiite hegemony accounts for the kingdom’s hostility toward Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group that serves as Iran’s proxy in Lebanon. After Hezbollah launched a cross-border attack that sparked a war with Israel in 2006, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal blamed Hezbollah for the conflict.

Hezbollah’s actions are “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible,” Saud said at the time. “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we simply cannot accept them.”

More surprising, perhaps, was Saudi criticism this summer of Hamas, a fellow Sunni group. While former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al Faisal condemned Israel’s “barbaric assault on innocent civilians,” he also blamed Hamas for the conflict overall.

“Hamas is responsible for the slaughter in the Gaza Strip following its bad decisions in the past, and the haughtiness it shows by firing useless rockets at Israel, which contribute nothing to the Palestinian interest,” Saud told the London-based pan-Arab newspaper A-Sharq Al-Awsat.

Saudi rulers oppose Hamas because they view it as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, which they believe wants to topple Arab governments. Likewise, when ISIS declared earlier this summer that it had established an Islamic caliphate, al-Faisal called ISIS “a danger to the whole area and, I think, to the rest of the world.”

The Wahabbis who rule Saudi Arabia may be religiously conservative, but they’re not so extreme as to promote overtly the violent export of their fundamentalist brand of Islam through war, jihad and terrorism.

Of course, just because their interests are aligned doesn’t mean the Saudis love Israel. The Saudi ambassador to Britain, Prince Nawaf Al-Saud, wrote during the Gaza war that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “will answer for his crimes before a higher authority than here on earth.”

But common foes increasingly are bringing Saudi and Israeli interests together.

Qatar

At first glance, Qatar may seem like a benign, oil-rich emirate of 2 million people living in relative peace, spending heavily on its media network, Al Jazeera, and planning to wow the world with construction for the 2022 World Cup.

But Qatar is also a major sponsor of Islamic extremism and terrorism. The country funnels money and weapons to Hamas, to Islamic militants in Libya and, according to Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, to groups in Syria affiliated with al-Qaida.

In an Op-Ed column in Monday’s New York Times, Prosor disparaged Qatar, which is home to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal and serves as a base for Taliban leaders, as a “Club Med for Terrorists.”

“Qatar has spared no cost to dress up its country as a liberal, progressive society, yet at its core, the micro monarchy is aggressively financing radical Islamist movements,” Prosor wrote. “Qatar is not a part of the solution but a significant part of the problem.”

Syria

When the uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad began, champions of democracy cheered the revolution as yet another positive sign of the Arab Spring. It took a while, but the Obama administration eventually joined the chorus calling for the end of the Assad regime.

In Israel, officials were more circumspect, fretting about what might come next in a country that despite its hostility had kept its border with Israel quiet for nearly four decades.

Three years on, the conflict in Syria is no longer seen as one of freedom fighters vs. a ruthless tyrant. Assad’s opponents include an array of groups, the most powerful among them Islamic militants who have carved out pieces of Syrian territory to create their Islamic State.

Now the Obama administration is considering airstrikes to limit the Islamists’ gains — and trying to figure out if there’s a way to do so without strengthening Assad’s hand.

For Israel, which has stayed on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict, the prospect of a weakened but still breathing Assad regime seems a better alternative than a failed state with ISIS on the march.

Iran

Where is the Islamic Republic in all this? Compared to the newest bad boy on the block, this one-time member of the “axis of evil” looks downright moderate.

Iran is negotiating with the United States over its nuclear program, and both view ISIS as a foe and threat to the Iraqi government (which Iran backs as a Shiite ally).

Last week, State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf indicated that the United States may be open to cooperation with Iran in the fight against ISIS, which is also known by the acronym ISIL.

“If they are interested in playing a constructive role in helping to degrade ISIL’s capabilities, then I’m sure we can have that conversation then,” Harf said.

Whether working with Iran is good or bad for Israel depends on one’s view of the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

If you think the talks have a realistic chance of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran diplomatically, the convergence of U.S.-Iran interests may ultimately serve the goal of addressing this existential threat to Israel. If you think Iran is merely using the negotiations as a stalling tactic to exploit eased sanctions while it continues to build its nuclear project, then Iran-U.S. detente may distract from the larger issue.

Where all this turmoil will leave the region is anyone’s guess. One thing is certain, as made clear by the U.S. decision to intervene against ISIS: Ignoring what’s happening in the Middle East is not an option.

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


One of the crazy things about following the Middle East is trying to keep track of all the bad guys. Remember when Iran was the big bad Islamic wolf? Or al-Qaida? Or Hezbollah? Or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Hamas?

Now, as if in a flash, along comes ISIS to become the evil flavor of the month. Seriously, how much evil can one region generate?

A screenwriter couldn’t make up such a cocktail of hatred. Just for starters, you have Shias against Sunnis, Persians against Arabs, Arabs against Turks, Turks against Persians, Iraqis against insurgents, Syrians against insurgents, insurgents against insurgents, Lebanese against Syrians, Egyptians against Qataris, Saudis against Iran — and everyone against the Jews.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to explain how each shade of evil differs from the next. I know that a lot of people these days are into the “Who’s worse? Hamas or ISIS?” game, but from where I sit, whether you chop people’s heads off or hide behind children to murder other children, evil is evil.

Even that old standby, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend,” doesn’t really hold up anymore. Just look at ISIS and Syria.

One of the sworn enemies of ISIS just happens to be … yeah, the biggest murderer of the new century, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 of his own people.

I know ISIS is the height of evil, but can I really cheer for that Syrian butcher against anybody?

Same with the Jew-hating Holocaust deniers in Iran – they also hate ISIS. Aside from the fact that we belong to the same species, do I really want to have anything in common with the nuclear mullahs of Persia—even if it’s a common enemy?

It’s hard to fathom that one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel – Hezbollah – could now be fighting in Syria against one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel—ISIS.

Consider also Saudi Arabia, presumably in the “moderate” camp of the Mideast jungle. We’re now supposed to be buddy-buddies with the Saudi royalty because they’re the enemies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But wait. Guess who for years has been funding the most violent strains of Islam in the region? That’s right, the Ferrari-driving House of Saud.

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

The craziness is everywhere. Remember when the Muslim Brotherhood was running the show in Egypt and helping smuggle lethal weaponry to their Hamas brothers in Gaza? Well, the Brotherhood became so hated in Egypt that most of them are now in jail. So, guess who’s now Egypt’s sworn enemy? That’s right, Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian people are not exactly crowding into Tahrir Square to cheer on the Zionist army as it fights Hamas. But cheering privately? Highly likely.

We saw another example of the new Middle East craziness a few weeks ago when Egypt first tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

On one side you had Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and (yes!) Israel—all sworn enemies of Hamas– and on the other side you had Turkey, Qatar and (yes!) the United States. Why would the U.S. be on the “wrong” side?

The best analysis I’ve read is that President Obama is obsessed with closing a nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Egyptian-led coalition is strongly opposed to Iran, Obama was reluctant to poke Iran in the eye by empowering the anti-Iran coalition on any issue.

In any event, now that ISIS has crossed the line by beheading an American journalist, Obama is facing some serious cognitive dissonance: Should he align with the evil mullahs of Iran or the butcher of Damascus against the evil killers of ISIS, at least covertly? Good luck with that one.

I knew things were getting hairy when I asked my daughter in Tel Aviv how she was holding up with all the latest Hamas rockets, and she replied: “We’re worried about ISIS now.”

This is what the new Middle East has come down to– an embarrassment of evils. ISIS may be a new brand of evil, but when I look at longtime murderous entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or Syria, all I can think is: Pick your poison, folks.

If a sinister game designer wanted to create a new video game to capture what’s going on right now in the Middle East jungle, that’s a good name right there: “Pick your poison.”

There wouldn’t be any good guys in this game– just an orgy of bad guys. The whole fun would be in deciding who the baddest guy is at any moment, and knocking down as many of these guys as possible.

The ultimate goal would be to take down the baddest “bad guy” of them all, the one the whole world really hates: Israel.

Don’t lose sight of the Iranian threat


The bloody sectarian warfare in Iraq and Syria and the swift takeover of wide swaths of territory by the Sunni fundamentalist ISIS — now calling itself a “caliphate” — has triggered calls to cooperate with Shiite Iran as a counterweight.

Yet we must not allow our justified concerns about ISIS to blind us to the even greater danger to regional security posed by a nuclear Iran.

We must remember that a nuclear Iran could credibly threaten our allies with destruction — especially Israel, which Iran has promised to wipe off the map — furnish Hezbollah and other non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons, and start a nuclear stampede as other countries in the area initiate nuclear programs of their own.

International negotiators resumed talks in Vienna on July 2 to address this danger to world peace. With a July 20 deadline looming, it is the latest — and, unless they are extended, the final — round of negotiations between Tehran and the P5+1 nations (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany) aimed at preventing Iran from achieving military nuclear capacity, in return for which the international community will end the economic sanctions that have been placed on the country.

This series of talks was agreed upon in an interim agreement, announced on November 24, 2013, after Hassan Rouhani, viewed as a comparative moderate, assumed the presidency of Iran. When the interim accord went into effect in January, Iran froze elements of its nuclear program and the U.S. eased some of the sanctions.

Since it was the economic sanctions that had forced Iran to the negotiating table, Sens. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) proposed legislation, to take effect after the July 20 deadline, that would hold Iran’s feet to the fire by ratcheting up sanctions if the current talks collapsed or Iran violated its obligations. But when the Iranians protested this threat of new sanctions, the administration convinced the senators to stand down. Nevertheless, Secretary of State John Kerry publicly stated that the sanctions would be re-imposed and strengthened should the talks fail.

The key issue separating the two sides is Iran’s enrichment of uranium, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes, but the P5+1 warn can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran today has some 10,000 operating centrifuges, the mechanisms that do the actual enrichment, and the “breakout time” — how long it would take Iran to produce a nuclear bomb should it decide to do so — is estimated at a few months.

Western observers say that little progress has been made toward a comprehensive agreement due to Iranian defiance and refusal to diminish its nuclear facilities already built. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, has issued several reports raising questions about the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program. On June 2, the IAEA’s director general, Yukiya Amano, called Iran’s posture a “jigsaw puzzle” and made clear that the IAEA’s inquiries would not be completed by the July 20 deadline.

“That is not our timeline. It is their timeline,” said Amano, referring to the P5+1. “We will take the necessary time to resolve all the outstanding issues.”

Leading figures in the American administration have said — almost like a mantra — that “no deal is better than a bad deal.” And Secretary of State John Kerry, in a June 30 Washington Post opinion article, noted that the “public optimism” shown by the Iranian negotiators “has not been matched, to date, by the positions they have articulated behind closed doors.”

Emphasizing the large gap between Iran’s professions of peaceful intentions and “the actual content” of its nuclear program, Kerry cited numerous previous instances of the country’s violation of international obligations. He wrote that the P5+1 will not agree to an extension of the July 20 deadline “merely to drag out negotiations,” and warned that should Iran not satisfy the demands of the international community, “sanctions will tighten and Iran’s isolation will deepen.” If that doesn’t deter Tehran, the administration has said that “all options are on the table.”

Should the deadline pass without an agreement or a time-specific extension, we must be prepared to follow through on the administration’s wise words, and encourage the international community to follow suit. Nothing that is happening in Syria or Iraq mitigates the specter of a nuclear Iran.

(Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications.)

 

U.S. considers air strikes, action with Iran to halt Iraq rebels


The United States said it could launch air strikes and act jointly with its arch-enemy Iran to support the Iraqi government, after a rampage by Sunni Islamist insurgents across Iraq that has scrambled alliances in the Middle East.

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have routed Baghdad's army and seized the north of the country in the past week, threatening to dismember Iraq and unleash all-out sectarian warfare with no regard for national borders.

The fighters have been joined by other armed Sunni groups who oppose what they say is oppression by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite.

Joint action between the United States and regional Shi'ite power Iran to help prop up their mutual ally in Baghdad would be unprecedented since Iran's 1979 revolution, demonstrating the urgency of the alarm raised by the lightning insurgent advance.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the advance an “existential threat” for Iraq. Asked if the United States could cooperate with Tehran against the insurgents, Kerry told Yahoo News: “I wouldn't rule out anything that would be constructive.”

As for air strikes: “They're not the whole answer, but they may well be one of the options that are important,” he said. “When you have people murdering, assassinating in these mass massacres, you have to stop that. And you do what you need to do if you need to try to stop it from the air or otherwise.”

The Pentagon said that while there might be discussions with Iran, there were no plans to coordinate military action with it.

Britain, Washington's ally in the 2003 war that deposed Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, said it had reached out to Iran in recent days. A U.S. official said meetings with Iran could come this week on the sidelines of international nuclear talks.

Iran has longstanding ties to Maliki and other Shi'ite politicians who came to power in U.S.-backed elections.

ISIL seeks a caliphate ruled on mediaeval Sunni Muslim precepts in Iraq and Syria, fighting against both Iraq's Maliki and Syria's Bashar al-Assad, another ally of Iran. It considers Shi'ites heretics deserving death and has boasted of massacring hundreds of Iraqi troops who surrendered to it last week.

Its uprising has been joined by tribal groups and figures from Saddam's era who believe Maliki is hostile to Sunnis.

ISIL fighters and allied Sunni tribesmen overran yet another town on Monday, Saqlawiya west of Baghdad, where they captured six Humvees and two tanks, adding to an arsenal of U.S.-provided armor they have seized from the disintegrating army.

Eyewitnesses said Iraqi army helicopters were hovering over the town to try to provide cover for retreating troops.

“It was a crazy battle and dozens were killed from both sides. It is impossible to reach the town and evacuate the bodies,” said a medical source at a hospital in the nearby city of Falluja, largely held by insurgents since early this year.

Overnight, the fighters captured the mainly ethnic Turkmen city of Tal Afar in northwestern Iraq after heavy fighting on Sunday, solidifying their grip on the north.

“Severe fighting took place, and many people were killed. Shi'ite families have fled to the west and Sunni families have fled to the east,” said a city official.

Tal Afar is a short drive west from Mosul, the north's main city, which ISIL seized last week at the start of its push. Fighters then swept through towns and cities on the Tigris before halting about an hour's drive north of Baghdad.

Iraq's army is holding out in Samarra, a Tigris city that is home to a Shi'ite shrine. A convoy traveling to reinforce the troops there was ambushed late on Sunday by Sunni fighters near the town of Ishaqi. Fighting continued through Monday morning.

An Iraqi army spokesman in Baghdad reported fighting also to the south of Baghdad. He said 56 of the enemy had been killed over the previous 24 hours in various engagements.

OBAMA WEIGHING OPTIONS

President Barack Obama pulled out all U.S. troops in late 2011 and rules out sending them back, although he is weighing other options such as air strikes. A U.S. aircraft carrier has sailed into the Gulf along with a warship carrying 550 marines.

The only U.S. military contingent on the ground is the security staff at the U.S. embassy. Washington said on Sunday it was evacuating some diplomatic staff and sending about 100 extra marines and other personnel to help safeguard the facilities.

The sprawling fortified compound on the banks of the Tigris is the largest and most expensive diplomatic mission ever built, a vestige of the days when 170,000 U.S. troops fought to put down a sectarian civil war that followed the 2003 invasion.

Iraqis now face the prospect of a replay of that extreme violence, but this time without American forces to intervene.

Potential cooperation between the United States and Iran shows how dramatically the ISIL advance has redrawn the map of Middle East alliances in a matter of days.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani, a relative moderate elected last year, has presided over a gradual thaw with the West, including secret talks with Washington that led to a preliminary deal to curb Iran's nuclear program. But open cooperation against a mutual threat would be unprecedented.

A spokesman for British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed that London had already made overtures to Tehran in recent days. A U.S. official said talks over Iraq between U.S. and Iranian officials could take place this week in Vienna, where both sides are attending nuclear negotiations.

SAUDI FEARS

Any rapprochement between Washington and Tehran over Iraq could anger U.S. allies Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arab states. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf's main Sunni power, said it rejected foreign interference in Iraq, and blamed Baghdad's “sectarian and exclusionary policies” for fuelling the insurgency.

ISIL fighters' sweep through the Tigris valley north of Baghdad included Saddam's hometown Tikrit, where they captured and apparently massacred troops stationed at Speicher air base, once one of the main U.S. troop headquarters.

A series of pictures distributed on a purported ISIL Twitter account appeared to show gunmen from the Islamist group shooting dozens of men, unarmed and lying prone. Captions said they were army deserters captured as they tried to flee fighting. They were shown being transported in the backs of trucks, led to an open field, laid down in rows and shot by several masked gunmen. In several pictures, the black ISIL flag can be seen.

“This is the fate of the Shi'ites which Nuri brought to fight the Sunnis,” a caption to one of the pictures reads.

ISIL said it executed 1,700 soldiers out of 2,500 it had captured in Tikrit. Although those numbers appear exaggerated, the total could still be in the hundreds. A former local official in Tikrit told Reuters ISIL had captured 450-500 troops at Speicher and another 100 elsewhere in Tikrit. Some 200 troops were still believed to be holding out in Speicher.

Washington has urged Maliki to reach out to Sunnis to create unity, but the prime minister has spoken more of retaliation than reconciliation. He was shown on television on Monday meeting military chiefs, vowing to crush the uprising and root out politicians and officers he blamed for betraying Mosul.

“We will work on purging Iraq of the traitors, politicians and those military men who were carrying out their orders,” he said. “Betrayal and treason have made us more determined and strong, and I swear a sea of men will march to put an end to this black page in Iraq’s history.”

Shi'ites, who form the majority in Iraq based mainly in the south, have rallied to defend the country, turning out in their thousands to join militia and the security forces after a mobilization call by the top Shi'ite cleric, Ali al-Sistani.

A leading Sunni cleric, Rifa al-Rifaie, said Sistani's call amounted to sectarianism. Sistani is known as a moderate who never called his followers to arms during the U.S. occupation.

“Sistani, that lion, where was he when the Americans occupied Iraq?” Rifaie said. He gave a list of Sunni grievances: “We have been treated unjustly, we have been attacked, our blood had been shed and our women have been raped.”

ISIL emerged after Saddam's fall, fought against the U.S. occupation as al Qaeda's Iraq branch and broke away from al Qaeda after joining the civil war in Syria. It says the movement founded by Osama bin Laden is no longer radical enough.

Its cause has also been taken up by many other Sunni groups who share its view that Maliki's government oppresses them.

Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni who was vice president until fleeing the country in 2012 after Maliki accused him of terrorism, said Maliki must go: “What happened is an uprising by the Sunni Arabs in Iraq to confront oppression and materialization,” Hashemi told the BBC. “Resolving the conflict in Iraq comes through excluding Maliki from power.”

Iran says does not seek indefinite power for Assad


Iran, Syria's main regional ally, does not see President Bashar Assad staying in power indefinitely but neither does it want “extremist forces” to replace him, a senior Iranian diplomat said on Wednesday.

Amir Abdollahian, deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs, added in an interview Iran hoped to have talks in a month or so with Saudi Arabia, Tehran's regional rival, to address their differences about the Middle East.

Asked about Iranian activities in several Arab countries, he told Reuters that stability, peace and development “in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria and any other country in the region will help the interests and security of the Islamic Republic of Iran”.

Abdollahian, on a tour of some Gulf Arab states for talks about regional issues, said: “In order to answer your question in another way: We have a deep relation with Syria. It's a strategic ally against Israel.”

He added: “We aren't seeking to have Bashar al-Assad remain president for life. But we do not subscribe to the idea of using extremist forces and terrorism to topple Assad and the Syrian government.”

Syria's conflict has drawn in thousands of foreign fighters who fight either for the mostly Sunni Muslim rebels, which include radical Islamist militias aligned to al Qaeda, or for Assad, whose Alawite sect is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey back some groups fighting Assad's forces. In turn, Assad gets political support from Iraq and Algeria, weapons from his old ally Russia, and military backing and advice from Iran, diplomats say.

POLITICAL SOLUTION

Abdollahian insisted Iran's aid to Syria was limited to humanitarian goods such as food and medicine and said military aid would not end the three-year-old war, which has cost an estimated 140,000 lives and uprooted millions.

“The situation vis-à-vis Syria has changed regionally,” he said, adding it was necessary now for a “parallel track” to failed peace talks held in Switzerland earlier this year.

He did not elaborate on that or on what he has previously described as a four-part plan for Syria developed by Tehran and U.N. Special Representative for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi.

But he said Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey “have all started to believe in a diplomatic process and are now more than ever working towards a political solution.”

Diplomatic efforts, focused on the political rather than religious factors driving Syria's conflict, have made no headway..

Abdollahian was speaking after talks with United Arab Emirate's Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, which he said covered Syria, as well as Bahrain, Yemen and Egypt. He held talks in Kuwait on Tuesday.

“MISUNDERSTANDINGS” WITH SAUDI

Abdollahian expressed readiness to meet his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, but said Iran was waiting for Saudi Arabia to specify the exact date.

“Misunderstandings” between Saudi Arabia and Iran about Syria, Iraq and Bahrain could be solved through discussions, he said, adding: “We are hopeful to having discussions in the next month, or at the earliest possible moment.”

Turning to efforts to resolve a long-running dispute over Iran's disputed nuclear programme, Abdollahian expressed hope that negotiators for Iran and major powers would reach a final settlement by a deadline of July 20.

The talks were hard but “important steps” had been taken, he said.

The Islamic Republic has long denied accusations from Israel, Western powers and their allies that it has tried to develop the capability to produce atomic weapons under cover of a civilian nuclear energy program.

In November, Iran and the six powers struck an interim deal under which Tehran shelved higher-grade uranium enrichment and agreed to other constraints in exchange for modest relief from punitive economic sanctions.

The next set of nuclear negotiations are slated to take place in Vienna on April 7-9.

Abdollahian added that Noor Ahmad Nikbakht, an Iranian embassy official kidnapped in the Yemeni capital last year, was alive and in good health. “We have formed a joint committee with the Yemen security forces and their foreign ministry,” he said without elaborating.

In January, another Iranian diplomat was fatally wounded when he resisted gunmen who tried to kidnap him.

Kidnappings of foreigners in Yemen are common, often carried out by al Qaeda-linked militants or by disgruntled tribesmen seeking to put pressure on the government to free jailed relatives or to improve public services.

Editing by William Maclean and Tom Heneghan

Israel tests Arrow missile shield, sees Hezbollah threat


Israel successfully tested its upgraded Arrow missile interceptor for the second time on Friday, pushing forward work on a U.S.-backed defense against ballistic threats it sees from Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas as well as from Iran and Syria.

One of several elements of an integrated Israeli aerial shield, Arrow III is designed to deploy kamikaze satellites – known as “kill vehicles” – that track and slam into ballistic missiles above the earth's atmosphere, high enough to safely disintegrate any chemical, biological or nuclear warheads.

Iran and Syria have long had such missiles, and Israel believes some are now also possessed by their ally Hezbollah, whose growing arsenal in Lebanon, stocked in part by Damascus, preoccupies the Israelis as their most pressing menace.

Friday's launch of an Arrow III interceptor missile over the Mediterranean was the second flight of the system, but did not involve the interception of any target, officials said.

Israel deployed the previous version, Arrow II, more than a decade ago, rating its success in live trials at 90 percent.

“The Arrow III interceptor successfully launched and flew an exo-atmospheric trajectory through space,” Israel's Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Yair Ramati, head of the ministry's Israel Missile Defense Organization, told reporters that as part of the test, which was attended by U.S. officials, the interceptor jettisoned its booster and “the kill vehicle continued to fly in space (and) conducted various maneuvers … for a couple of minutes”.

Israel predicts Arrow III could be deployed by next year. The Pentagon and Boeing are partners in the project run by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI).

MISSILE SHIELD

Arrow is the long-range segment in Israel's three-tier missile shield. This also includes the successfully deployed “Iron Dome”, which targets short-range rockets and mortar bombs favored by Palestinian guerrillas in Gaza, and the mid-range “David's Sling”, which is still under development. They can be deployed alongside U.S. counterpart systems like the Aegis.

In a Facebook posting, U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro called Friday's trial “another step forward in US-Israel cooperation in ballistic missile defense and ensuring Israel's security”.

The United States and Israel have been jointly working on Arrow since 1988. Washington says helping Israel build up the capability to shoot down missiles staves off escalatory wars – or preemptive Israeli strikes – in the Middle East.

Israel also sees it as a means of weathering enemy missile salvoes while it brings its offensive capabilities to bear.

“Developing such systems will let Israel maintain routine life despite the threats facing us, and will assist the IDF (Israeli military) in prevailing in combat quickly and efficiently, if required,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Twitter.

Israel is assumed to have the region's sole atomic arsenal, as well as delivery systems including long-range missiles, and has been bolstering defenses as potential threats proliferate.

It worries about Iranian ballistic missiles, whose number it estimates at around 400 – especially given the possibility Tehran could eventually produce nuclear warheads for them. Iran, which denies seeking the bomb, is negotiating with world powers about curbing its disputed nuclear program.

BALLISTIC MISSILES

The civil war in Syria has raised questions about President Bashar al-Assad's control over his own ballistic Scud missiles. Israel says Damascus has used around half of these against Syrian rebels. Separately, Assad is decommissioning chemical weapons with which Syria's missiles might have been armed.

Hezbollah is helping Assad battle the insurgency. Fearing the guerrillas might get advanced Syrian weaponry, Israel carried out at least three military strikes on suspected Lebanon-bound convoys last year, security sources said.

Such efforts may have had limited efficacy, however.

Briefing Reuters, a senior Israeli official estimated that Hezbollah now has between 60,000 and 70,000 rockets and missiles deployed throughout Lebanon, including a few dozen Syrian-supplied Scud Ds with ranges of 700 km (440 miles).

Hezbollah may also have hundreds of Fateh-110 missiles with ranges of 250-300 km (160-190 miles), the official said. Among the targets of the Israeli strikes on Syria last year, security sources said, was a shipment of Fateh-110s meant for Hezbollah.

“It's the most significant threat facing Israel today,” the official said of the Hezbollah missiles.

“We believe more than half the rockets and missiles are operational. They are on launchers, ready for launch. It's just a matter of a decision.”

Hezbollah confirms building up its arsenal since its 2006 border war with Israel. It does not give details of the arms.

The Israeli official, who declined to be identified by name given the sensitivity of the issue, was circumspect on how Israel's three-tier shield would function in a major missile exchange, which single-interception trials do not simulate.

“You need to pass this test – of a few dozen of them landing, in real time – to be able to speak about it with more certainty,” the official said.

Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Patrick Graham and Giles Elgood

The tweets heard round the world


Is there a line between the much-ballyhooed Rosh Hashanah greetings from the Iranian leadership and a U.S.-Iran accommodation on Syria?

At the New Yorker, George Packer draws that line

The clearest path to a settlement now may be not through Moscow but through Tehran. Iran has a lot at stake in Syria—in money, arms, lives, and regional strategy. The Revolutionary Guard has always tried to carry out foreign policy with no fingerprints, through proxies and covert operations, but Syria is becoming an Iranian quagmire.

The Obama Administration has refused to allow Iran a seat at the Geneva talks, but Iran has a new President, Hassan Rouhani, a seemingly pragmatic centrist whose top priority is to ease tensions with the U.S. and to end Iran’s international isolation. He and his foreign minister, Javad Zarif, issued conciliatory tweets on the Jewish New Year, while former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Rouhani’s political patron, dared to blame Assad for the chemical attack.

… and then more or less erases it:

None of this is likely. It would take imaginative diplomacy of the kind that the [Obama] Administration has shown little taste for in the Middle East. Iran would have to be convinced that it can’t win but also that it needn’t lose, and this would not be possible without deeper American engagement.

Embedded in those Rosh Hashanah wishes are the seeds of obstacles to whatever reconciliation might ensue.

First, a spokesperson for Rohani, while not denying the tweet per se, said that Rouhani does not even have a Twitter account. As Max Fisher outlined in the Washington Post (scroll down to the update), there are layers of plausible deniability plastered onto Rohani’s alleged English-language Twitter account. It seems to boil down to this: It’s not his, but he doesn’t mind that exists, and if he minded, it wouldn’t exist. (Iran’s rulers maintain tight controls on social media and its uses, evidenced by the restoration today of filters controlling access to Twitter and Facebook.)

Then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a critical player in whatever U.S.-Iranian engagement might emerge — is emphatically not impressed. “The Iranian regime will be examined only by its actions and not by salutations,” he said, declaring that the “only goal” of such greetings is to “divert attention” from Iran’s nuclear capability.

The fly in Netanyahu’s actions-not-salutations ointment is that one of the Rosh Hashanah exchanges included a repudiation of Holocaust denial. Christine Pelosi — the daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives — replied to Zarif’s “Happy Rosh Hashanah” with “The New Year would be even sweeter if you would end Iran’s Holocaust denial, sir.”

Zarif, a moderate who unabashedly acknowledges control of his Twitter account, replied: “Iran never denied it. The man who was perceived to be denying it is now gone. Happy New Year.”

“The man,” of course, is Rohani’s predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Netanyahu (and Israel’s government and the entire pro-Israel movement) made a major, major issue of Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial. Israeli officials have endorsed calls to indict Ahmadinejad on charges of incitement to genocide. Saying that the repudiation by today’s Iranian leaders of Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial is just a “diversion” implies, however unintentionally, that all those Israeli complaints about Ahmadinejad also were meaningless.

Bonus trivia: Christine Pelosi is one of two Pelosi daughters married into the tribe. Hence her familiarity with Days of Awe terminology.

The cost of doing nothing in Iran


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