People walk in front of a monitor showing news of North Korea's fresh threat in Tokyo, Japan, August 10, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Will you risk Los Angeles to deter North Korea?


Every discussion of North Korea ought to begin with a short reminder. In the last thirty years, policy towards North Korea has been a resounding failure. American policy specifically, but also the policies of other countries dissatisfied about the prospect of a rogue and incomprehensible regime armed with nuclear warheads.

It was a failure that rests on two main pillars.  There was a lack of urgency – the crisis with North Korea never reached a point that compelled the U.S. to use its much superior force, and make the necessary sacrifices, to stop this country’s rush to arm itself.  There was also the belief in the power of diplomacy – time and again American leaders and diplomats fooled themselves into thinking that North Korea is a problem they can negotiate away.

Obviously, they could not. Writing earlier this week, David Ignatius described American  objectives as follows: “Washington’s diplomatic goal, although it hasn’t been stated publicly this way, is to encourage China to interpose itself between the United States and North Korea and organize negotiations to de-nuclearize the Korean Peninsula. The U.S. threat is that if China doesn’t help the United States find such a diplomatic settlement, America will pursue its own solution – by military means if necessary”.

This of course sounds reasonable, except for the fact that this has been Washington’s  diplomatic goal for three decades, to no avail. It did not succeed with either Democratic presidents, like Clinton, who thought (or pretended to think) that his understanding with North Korea will hold,  or with Republican presidents, like Bush, who thought that mixing in a more aggressive approach would deter the leaders of North Korea. Successive administrations failed to achieve their objective, and now it might be too late. North Korea achieved its own objective, of having the ability to shoot a nuclear armed missile far enough to reach the United States. The bizarre, seemingly irrational, misunderstood, ridiculed, clownish leaders of North Korea proved more cunning and determined than the empire foe.

Defending past presidents, we should admit that North Korea was never an easy problem to solve. It is even more complicated today, as Reva Goujon of Stratfor explained in a long article about the U.S.’ looming foreign policy crisis. “In trying to forgo military action”, he wrote, “the United States will be forced to rely on China’s and Russia’s cooperation in sanctions or covert action intended to destabilize the North Korean government and thwart its nuclear ambitions. Yet even as Washington pursues this policy out of diplomatic necessity, it knows it is unlikely to bear fruit. Because as much as they dislike the idea of a nuclear North Korea on their doorstep, China and Russia do not want to face the broader repercussions of an unstable Korean Peninsula or open the door to a bigger U.S. military footprint in the region”.

There are lessons to be learned from this developing situation, and priorities to be set. The main lesson – relevant to Israel no less than it is to the US – is that diplomacy and international pressure cannot prevent determined countries from getting beyond the point of no return. What North Korea did Iran can also do. What Iran can do, other countries in the Middle East can do. The only obstacle standing between countries and nuclear weapons is their own risk assessment – how much they need the weapons, and what price they are willing to pay to get it. If, like North Korea, they come to the conclusion that their survival depends on getting the weapons, North Korea proves the world is not competent,  unified and determined enough to prevent this from happening.

What then should be done now? Prioritization is key. And telling North Korea that it will be obliterated if it launches a nuclear attack on the US is not a priority. The leaders of Korea seem wise enough to understand this on their own – and don’t seem to have any inclination to attack the U.S. Like all other countries who have nuclear weapons, they need this measure as a deterrent against attacks, not as a mean with which to initiate war.

Disarming the North is a desirable goal, but it does not seem to be feasible at this time. The current crisis is not “analogous to the Cuban missile crisis,” as one of President Trump’s advisors said, because the North, unlike the USSR, is no superpower battling against America. Thus, disarming Korea is not the most urgent goal now. A more urgent goal is to draw the red lines for which the world (that is, the U.S.) will be going to war against Korea.

On principle, these red lines are not complicated to draw:

North Korea cannot use its newly acquired capabilities to attack its neighbors, or blackmail them.

North Korea cannot become a proliferator of nuclear weapons.

In practice these red lines invite North Korean provocation, and involve risks of miscalculation. What if the U.S. topples an airplane carrying nuclear scientists from Pyongyang to Syria? Will the Koreans respond in taking down an American military base? And how will the US respond to such action? Will it go as far as risking a nuclear attack on Los Angeles to prevent Syria from getting the knowhow and material to build nuclear weapons?

I have no answer to such a question, but there is one thing I do know. The leaders of North Korea must believe that there is such possibility – that the US is willing to take huge risks to prevent Korea from crossing these two red lines. That is where the bold language and infamous temper of Donald Trump could be useful. As scary as this sounds, the leaders of Korea must believe that the leader of the U.S. is bold and aggressive enough to ignite a nuclear war. Otherwise, they will eventually call America’s  bluff as they have been doing for the last thirty years.  And they will cross yet another point of no return.

Obama administration ‘concerned’ about Iran’s deployment of anti-aircraft missiles


The Obama administration expressed “concern” over the deployment of powerful anti-aircraft missiles near an Iranian enrichment facility ostensibly shuttered under the Iran nuclear deal, but said it did not violate embargoes.

Iran over the weekend announced the deployment of the Russian-made S-300 missiles around the Fordow facility.

“We’re concerned about the provision of sale to Iran of sophisticated defense capabilities such as this S-300,” John Kirby, the State Department spokesman, said on Monday.

“As we get more information, obviously, we’re going to stay in close consultation with partners going forward,” he said. Russia, like the United States, is one of the six major powers that negotiated the sanctions relief for nuclear rollback deal reached last year.

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, speaking separately at the White House, also expressed concerns but said the sale did not violate arms embargoes on Iran.

“The arms embargo that had been in place under the previous regime would not have been applied to the S-300 system because it’s a defensive system,” Rhodes said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have concerns with any increased Iranian military capability, and we’ve expressed those concerns.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., an architect of the sanctions regime, said in a statement he believed Russia may be subject to sanctions because of the sale. “The Administration is failing to enforce U.S. laws that mandate sanctions against countries that export destabilizing advanced conventional weapons to Iran,” he said.

President Barack Obama in 2009 exposed Fordow as a bunker-style underground uranium enrichment facility and used its existence, kept secret for years by Iran, to persuade an alliance of nations to sanction Iran.

The sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table, and once the deal was reached last year, Russia lifted a ban on the sale of the S-300s to Iran in place since 2010, when Israel and the United States prevailed on Russia not to make the sale.

Iranian regime statements said the deployment of the missiles was “defensive.” Iran maintains civilian uranium enrichment capabilities, but has shut down military-level enrichment.

Rhodes said that United Nations nuclear inspectors continue to monitor Fordow, and that Iran has kept its part of the deal, saying enrichment has stopped and centrifuges “have been, in many cases, removed and put under monitoring and storage.”

Iran nuclear talks extended a week


Iran nuclear talks have been extended a week past their deadline for a final deal.

The talks, which were to have reached an agreement by Tuesday, were extended to July 7, Marie Harf, a State Department strategic expert attending the talks in Vienna, said on Twitter.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Javad Zarif, are leading the teams in the Austrian capital. Both have described the negotiations in positive terms.

Zarif returned Tuesday from consulting with leaders in Iran.

“I am here to get a final deal and I think we can,” Zarif was quoted as saying by Al Monitor.

A deal would exchange sanctions relief for guarantees that Iran is not advancing toward a nuclear weapon.

Israel objects to the emerging deal, saying its terms will leave Iran a nuclear threshold state and increase its ability to disrupt the region.

Bibi, you’re no Moses


So, he spoke.

And while his rhetoric soared, his ideas sank.

He gave us a thousand reasons why the deal whose details he may not know is a flawed one. He gave us not a single pragmatic better option.

Not one.

And life, they say, is not about what’s ideal. It’s about what’s possible. 

Bibi said he wants Iran to abandon its nuclear program, renounce its desire to obliterate Israel and stop supporting terrorism. Ideally the Iranian regime would react to continuing or increased sanctions by doing those things.  

But expert after expert tells us that if these talks fail, there’s a far better chance the sanctions regime, which is dependent on the cooperation of Russia, China and other ornery nations, will fall apart, and whatever hobbles are now on Iran’s nuclear development will fall away. 

In other words, the most dangerous thing for Israel, America and the world might possibly be for Bibi to get his way.

If Iran is as crazy, messianic and violent as Bibi spent a good third of his speech asserting — then his proposal makes even less sense. The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from crazy people is first keep them away from dangerous weapons — not make them promise to change. Maybe Bibi has the right ideas, but they’re in the wrong order.

In fact, Bibi’s speech — solid, stirring as it was — left me more perplexed than convinced. I couldn’t agree more with him about the historic levels of support the Obama administration has shown for Israel, and about the very real, existential danger the Iranian regime poses for Israel.  

But these other applause lines made me wonder:

“Now we’re being told that the only alternative to this bad deal is war,” Bibi said. “That’s just not true.”

Note that Bibi said, “war,” not “military action.” It is more likely a breakdown in talks will compel the latter, even if Israel and the United States are able to avoid the former. But in any case, unless Bibi can say — and he couldn’t — what a better deal is, his words here ring hollow. 

Remember Colin Powell testifying in the run-up to the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein was trafficking in yellow cake uranium — an assertion that proved false and helped lead us into a disastrous war? If Bibi’s planless plan fails, well, this might be Bibi’s yellow cake moment.

“The alternative to this bad deal is a much better deal. A better deal that doesn’t leave Iran with a vast nuclear infrastructure and such a short break-out time. A better deal that keeps the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program in place until Iran’s aggression ends.”

And that better deal is …? 

Barack Obama, as opposed to his predecessors, worked to get the world on board for a sanctions regime predicated on getting Iran to agree to a reasonable deal. 

If those countries aren’t on board, those sanctions, in the words of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “are going to get leaky very soon.” 

With no deal and no sanctions, Iran will continue to develop its nukes uninspected. 

“Imagine 10 years of no deal,” said Zakaria, “and where will Iran be at that point?”

My friends, for over a year,” Bibi said, “we’ve been told that no deal is better than a bad deal.

Actually, the administration has made clear the opposite is the case.

“I have repeatedly said that I would rather have no deal than a bad deal, but if we are successful in negotiating, then in fact this will be the best deal possible to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” Obama said, reacting to Bibi’s speech. “Nothing else comes close. Sanctions won’t do it. Military action would not be as successful as the deal that we have put forward.”

“Now, if Iran threatens to walk away from the table — and this often happens in a Persian bazaar‘— call their bluff,” Bibi continued. “They’ll be back, because they need the deal a lot more than you do.”

Bibi likes to paint Obama as the over-eager suitor to the borderline offensive stereotype of the wily Oriental bargainer.  But in doing so, he ascribes great rationality to a regime he just convinced us was nuts. The truth is, there is ample historical precedent for Iran choosing principle over payout. 

“This is why … as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.”

This hubris played well in Congress and perhaps back home — though we won’t know how well until Election Day in Israel two weeks from now.

There was a time in Jewish history when Israel tried to stand alone: It’s called Masada.  In modern Israeli history, Israel has never stood alone — it couldn’t survive five minutes without the backing of a superpower. Every prime minister has understood this.  That Bibi pretends otherwise — and, in recent weeks, has acted otherwise — endangers Israel’s security.

Bottom line:  Bibi provided a clear path away from negotiations, but not toward a non-nuclear Iran. 

At the end of his speech, he pointed to a painting of Moses that adorns the Capitol. You have to love the irony. Moses, you’ll remember, had a speech impediment. He never could have been as eloquent as Bibi. Then again, great speeches alone don’t get you to the Promised Land.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Day 1 at AIPAC: Trusting Congress, expecting little from White House and anxious about Bibigate


The marching orders to the reported 16,000 attendees were clear on the first day of this year’s AIPAC policy conference: push legislators to pass a proposed bill that would give Congress the right to approve or reject any nuclear agreement signed between the Obama administration and the Iranian regime.

And the implications, too, were clear: AIPAC, an organization built on fostering bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and the White House, all but expects the president to sign a “bad” deal with Iran, one that the group believes would make Iran a threshold nuclear power and would endanger Israel’s existence.

This dynamic—relying on Congress to counterbalance the White House—along with the anticipation and anxiety over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Tuesday address to Congress, characterized the first day of AIPAC’s three-day conference in Washington, D.C.

While AIPAC’s top brass and politicians addressing the conference did not ignore the drama surrounding the circumstances of the speech—which has further frayed an already troubled relationship between Obama and Netanyahu—the focus was on the two bills AIPAC and its army of citizen lobbyists will push when they pack Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

First, the “Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015”, a bill introduced on Jan. 27 that would automatically introduce new sanctions on Iran if nuclear talks collapse. Second, the “Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015”, introduced last Friday, which would require Obama to obtain Congressional approval over any nuclear deal with Iran.

As Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s CEO, said, “Thank goodness for Congress.”

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.), appearing together on stage Sunday morning in symbolic bipartisan fashion, praised the AIPAC members for what the two said is their influence on lawmakers.

“To my AIPAC friends, you’re going to make more difference than any speech any politician could deliver,” said Graham, a crowd favorite. “AIPAC is the glue that holds this relationship together.”

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) (R), interviewed by Director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University Frank Sesno in Washington on March 1. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

The South Carolina senator said that he will be in the “front row” of Netanyahu’s Tuesday speech to a joint session of Congress, which news reports have suggested he will use as an opportunity to inform lawmakers of particularly risky and dangerous elements of the deal.

“Let us commit ourselves to get as many eyes as possible on this deal before it becomes binding,” Graham said.

Cardin, stating that Israel must never become a “political wedge issue”, also helped pump up the crowd in preparation for their Tuesday lobbying mission. “We need you on Capitol Hill. We have to keep strong sanctions against Iran,” Cardin said. “We could use your help.”

For all the talk, though, about how support for Israel cannot become a Republican or Democratic issue, by putting its weight and resources behind Congress as a sort of nuclear negotiations watchdog, AIPAC's message is clear—the White House is headed toward a dangerous deal, and only Congress can stop it.

“There are some real strains in the relationships,” Kohr admitted. “There is a serious policy difference, particularly over Iran.”

About 30 Democrats reportedly plan to skip Netanyahu's Tuesday speech to Congress, which has further worsened an already toxic relationship between the current governments in Washington and Jerusalem. Netanyahu critics have argued that he’s using the speech as a political tool for upcoming elections in Israel, that he disrespected the Obama administration by not informing it beforehand of the address, and that he’s turning Israel into a partisan issue in Washington.

Netanyahu’s office has repeatedly said that he has an obligation to speak up for Israel because it stands the most to lose from a bad deal with Iran, and that it was not the responsibility of Netanyahu’s office to inform the White House, but of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s office, which officially invited Netanyahu. Boehner’s office reportedly informed the White House of Netanyahu’s acceptance two hours before it was publicly announced.

Sunday at AIPAC, although Kohr and politicians in attendance stressed the importance of attending Netanyahu’s speech to Congress, there were few, if any, public endorsements of his decision to address lawmakers.

“There’s no question that the way this speech has come about has created a great deal of upset among Democrats in Congress—House and Senate,” Kohr said. “It’s created some upset, frankly, outside the Capitol and, frankly, it may have upset some people in this room.”

On Feb. 26, Al-Monitor columnist Ben Caspit reported that AIPAC’s top officials “were in shock” after they learned of Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress, and that the group warned Netanyahu that some Democrats would “boycott” the speech.

And even though Kohr did not endorse Netanyahu’s decision, he stressed that AIPAC believes “it’s an important speech.”

“We have spent active hours lobbying for members of the House and Senate to attend this speech,” Kohr said. “When the leader of our greatest ally in the region comes to Washington to speak about the greatest challenge of our time, we hope and urge members of Congress to be there to hear what he has to say.”

Cardin, striking a similar tone, said that the “circumstances surrounding the invitation are not how it should’ve been.”

“But don’t lose focus,” he continued. “The bad guy is Iran.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Ca.), who represents a district in Los Angeles and sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an afternoon panel session about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, that the “personal and partisan” nature of the hostility between Obama and Netanyahu makes it harder for Democrats to go against Obama and vote on sanctions while negotiations with Iran are ongoing.

“Back home they view this as a personality contest between two people, Bibi Netanyahu and President Barack Obama,” Sherman said. “It's hard for people in districts where the president got 60, 70, 80 percent of the vote to vote against Obama's position on sanctions now that it's such a personal, high profile issue.”

“It is much more difficult for me to go to Democrats,” he said.

Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei sent Obama secret letter


Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has responded to overtures from U.S. President Barack Obama amid nuclear talks by sending him a secret letter, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.

Citing an Iranian diplomat, the paper said the Iranian cleric had written to Obama in recent weeks in response to a presidential letter sent in October.

Obama's letter suggested the possibility of U.S.-Iranian cooperation in fighting Islamic State if a nuclear deal was secured, the paper said, quoting the diplomat.

Khamenei's letter was “respectful” but noncommittal, it quoted the diplomat as saying.

Both the White House and the Iranian mission at the United Nations declined to comment on the report.

Khamenei said this week he could accept a compromise in the nuclear talks and gave his strongest defense yet of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's decision to negotiate with the West, a policy opposed by powerful hardliners at home.

The nuclear talks with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany are aimed at clinching an accord that would ease Western concerns that Tehran could pursue a covert nuclear weapons program, in return for the lifting of sanctions that have ravaged the Iranian economy.

Negotiators have set a June 30 final deadline for an accord, and Western officials have said they aim to agree on the substance of such a deal by March.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is due to address the U.S. Congress on Iran on March 3 – to the annoyance of the Obama administration – has vowed “to foil this bad and dangerous agreement.”

Obama: Helping terror go nuclear


Last Tuesday’s terror attack on a Jerusalem synagogue killed five people: four rabbis (including three born in the USA) and a Druze police officer. Two Palestinians entered during morning prayers and attacked worshipers with knives, meat cleavers, and a handgun. Congress showed moral clarity when blaming the horrors on Hamas and Palestinian Authority incitement, but Obama’s statements were perfunctorily “balanced.” Obama warned of a “spiral” of violence – an obtuse refrain of those suggesting moral equivalency between terrorism and the fight against it. Obama also misleadingly claimed that “President Abbas…strongly condemned the attacks” omitting that Abbas did so only after pressure from the administration and with equivocation (Abbas suggested a link between recent terrorism and visits by Jews to the Temple Mount, as if to justify the attacks). It’s also worth noting that Palestinians celebrated the massacre (as they did after the 2013 Boston bombing and the 9/11 attacks).

Obama’s weak reaction is consistent with his mostly impotent response to ISIS terrorists who behead Americans and Mideast Christians and grow their Islamist empire by the day. Frighteningly, his approach to Iranian nukes follows the same meek pattern, but the stakes are exponentially higher, because when Iran goes nuclear, so does terrorism.

Iran is already the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, without nuclear weapons. Iran-supported Hamas has already tried to commit nuclear terror: last summer, Hamas launched rockets at Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor. How much more dangerous will Iran become when it has nukes? Even if Iran doesn’t directly commit nuclear terrorism, an Iranian nuclear umbrella will embolden the regime and the terrorist organizations it sponsors. 

Obama has a long record of weakness towards Iran. In 2009, when Iran’s Basij paramilitary force brutalized demonstrators protesting Iran’s fraudulent presidential election, Obama kept his response irrelevantly mild for the sake of “engaging” Iran. That surely helped Iranian voters understand the risks of protesting the “free” election of 2012 (involving eight regime-picked candidates). It was indeed a very orderly rubberstamp.

In 2011, when a U.S. drone went down on Iranian soil, Obama cordially requested it back. The regime recently scoffed at such impotence by showcasing its knock-off based on that drone and some U.S.-made helicopters that it purchased,  highlighting just how useless sanctions have become.

President Hassan Rouhani’s election vastly improved the public face of Iran’s nuclear program, and Obama was charmed too. Obama has been unilaterally weakening the sanctions against Iran by not enforcing them. He has threatened to thwart any Congressional attempt to limit his nuclear generosity by simply lifting sanctions without Congressional approval. Yet despite these concessions and Rouhani's smiles, human rights abuses in Iran have actually worsened.  

Obama declared in 2012 (while running for reelection) that he doesn’t bluff when it comes to stopping Iranian nukes, and that containment was not an option, unlike military force. But the credibility of that statement collapsed after Obama shrunk away from his “red line” against Syrian chemical weapons use. In 2013, Basher Assad gassed his own people and Obama took no military action. So if Obama cowers against a disintegrating state, what are the chances that he’ll militarily prevent Iranian nukes?

And Obama has dangerously undermined the only military threat to Iranian nukes that anyone still takes seriously: Israel. On the Iranian nuclear issue, Obama has isolated Israel on how close Iran is to a nuclear capability with estimates that are far laxer. And as long as Obama continues negotiating (even if Iran is clearly playing for time as the U.S. offers ever more desperate proposals) or reaches a deal allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear weapons state, an Israeli military option to defang Iranian nukes appears less legitimate. 

The media’s anti-Israel bias is well known (they can’t even get a simple story about vehicular terrorism against Israelis correct (compare how The Guardian writes accurate headlines when Canada suffers an Islamist car attack but not when Israel does). So if Obama accepts Iran’s nuclear program and Israel then attacks it, the media will be even harsher on Israel (even though the world will be silently relieved, if Israeli courage succeeds at neutralizing what scared everyone else).

Downgrading US-Israel relations seems to be part of Obama’s détente with Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei recently tweeted his plan for destroying Israel, but Obama grows even more determined to reach an accord that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear program. And the Obama administration’s diplomatic abuse of America’s closest Mideast ally is unprecedented – from his humiliation of Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2010, to Secretary of State John Kerry’s betrayal of Israel during Operation Protective Edge, to calling Netanyahu a “chickenshit” a few weeks ago, without even apologizing later (note the irony of calling Netanyahu a coward anonymously). Obama seems far more concerned by Israeli construction of apartments in Jerusalem than a nuclear Iran. And he has been pressuring Israel to retreat from more disputed territory, effectively rewarding Palestinians for launching the third missile war against Israel from Gaza in five years last summer and now the third Intifidah inside Israel in 17 years. That puts Obama just behind the European appeasers who think Palestinian bellicosity merits statehood. They all naively think — at Israel's peril — that peace is possible with raw hatred.

Obama indeed appears desperate to get a nuclear accord with Iran at any price. He has written letters asking for Iran’s help against ISIS after they hinted at an ISIS-for-nukes exchange, and has pursued an agreement at all costs. Obama’s top aide, Ben Rhodes, was caught saying how a nuclear accord is as important to Obama as “healthcare”; at least there’s a fitting slogan to sell the deal to Americans: “If you like your nukes, you can keep them.”

Russia, the serial spoiler, suggested extending nuclear talks past the November 24th deadline. Iran will undoubtedly agree to more enrichment time (while it keeps stonewalling the IAEA’s investigations into it nukes), as it did last July. For Obama, a bad agreement or an extension looks far better than concluding that talks have failed and issuing more empty threats to stop Iran militarily. And so U.S. foreign policy will continue its freefall, as the world’s bad actors will want to see what they can extort from a leader even weaker than President Carter. While Carter permitted Iran to hold 52 American diplomats and citizens hostage for 444 days, Obama may allow Iran to hold the world hostage with nuclear terrorism. It's now dreadfully obvious: without massive public pressure, Obama will help Iran get nukes. Anyone concerned about nuclear terrorism should sign this petition: http://www.nobombforiran.com

Noah Beck is the author of The Last Israelis, an apocalyptic novel about Iranian nukes and other geopolitical issues in the Middle East.

Russia, Iran sign nuclear construction deal


Russia will build two new nuclear power plant units in Iran under an agreement signed in Moscow on Tuesday between subsidiaries of the two countries' state atomic agencies.

The agreement precedes a Nov. 24 deadline for a deal at talks between Iran and world powers that would curb Tehran's nuclear program, which the West says may be aimed at building atomic weapons but Iran says is for peaceful purposes.

Russia, which is involved in those talks, will also cooperate with Tehran on developing more nuclear power units in Iran, and consider producing nuclear fuel components there, according to a memorandum signed by the heads of the state atomic bodies, Sergey Kirienko of Russia's Rosatom and Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI).

Iran already runs one Russian-built reactor in its Bushehr power plant.

Reporting by Andrei Kuzmin, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Timothy Heritage

Netanyahu to Obama: Israel cannot allow nuclear Iran


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Obama that Israel cannot let Iran get a nuclear bomb and said an end to uranium enrichment is an Israeli demand of any agreement with Iran.

“If Iran is prevented from enriching uranium and dismantles fully its military nuclear capability,” Israel would accept the deal, the Israeli prime minister told Obama on Monday when they met at the White House in the Oval Office.

Obama and U.S. officials have said that Iran is likely to be left with a limited enrichment capability as part of any deal.

“Israel cannot permit such a state to have the ability to make a bomb,” Netanyahu said. “We just cannot be brought back to the brink of destruction. I as the prime minister of Israel will do whatever I must to defend the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu also appeared to push back against warnings from Obama in an interview published Sunday by Bloomberg View that Israeli settlement expansion and a failure to achieve a peace agreement with the Palestinians would lead to Israel’s international isolation.

“Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say the Palestinians haven’t,” Netanyahu said, saying he expected an end to Palestinian incitement and recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

“That’s what the people of Israel expect me to do, to stand strong against criticism, against pressure.” he said.

Obama refrained from pushing back in the Oval Office appearance, confining his remarks to pledging to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and commending Netanyahu for his commitment to the peace process.

White House talks Iran deal with Jewish groups


The White House held at least two phone calls with Jewish leaders to explain aspects of the interim sanctions-for-nuclear-rollbacks deal between Iran and major powers.

Among the speakers on the conference calls Monday with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Federations for North America were Tony Blinken, a deputy national security adviser, and David Cohen, the top Treasury official in charge of implementing sanctions.

The off-the-record calls were a signal of the importance that the administration attaches to keeping pro-Israel groups on board for the six-month interim deal achieved over the weekend in Geneva, however skeptical the groups may be of the deal.

Generally, according to participants, questioners pressed the U.S. officials on the degree to which the deal impacts sanctions and whether the concessions to Iran could be reversed should Iran renege.

The officials said the deal’s sanctions relief affected only the “margins” of the Iranian economy, and that the main sanctions, targeting Iran’s energy and financial sectors, would remain in place.

The White House officials acknowledged differences with Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described the deal as “very bad,” but said the endgame was the same: incapacitating Iran’s nuclear capacity, according to call participants.

Another White House call was held Tuesday for leaders of faith groups; Jewish leaders joined the call.

Separately, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in a memo on Monday expressed concerns about the interim deal. AIPAC noted that the agreement allows Iran to keep enriching uranium, albeit at low levels, even though U.N. Security Council resolutions have called for a suspension of enrichment pending a final deal, and that it appears to preemptively allow Iran an enrichment capacity as part of a final status deal.

Also problematic, AIPAC said in the memo, is that the deal “includes an option to extend the negotiating window beyond an initial six-month period,” which “creates the possibility that the initial agreement will become a de-facto final agreement.”

The memo called on Congress to pass legislation that would impose penalties should Iran renege on the deal.

At G.A., Peres and Netanyahu strike different tones on Iran


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continued his hard line against Iran’s nuclear program in an address to the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly, repeatedly telling the gathering of American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem that the compromise being formulated is a “bad deal.”

“What is being proposed now is a deal in which Iran retains all of that capacity” to build a nuclear weapon, Netanyahu said Sunday. “Not one centrifuge is dismantled; not one. Iran gets to keep tons of low enriched uranium.”

Netanyahu’s comments came as negotiations between Iran and Western powers failed over the weekend to reach an agreement that would ease sanctions in return for the Islamic Republic freezing its nuclear program for six months.

Netanyahu said he would continue to criticize such an agreement and called on his audience to join him in advocating against it. Later he suggested that Iran has plans to attack the United States.

The prime minister’s sharp comments underscored what some perceive as a widening gulf between Israel and the United States on the Iranian issue — speculation that Israeli President Shimon Peres sought to downplay in his address to a plenary session at the G.A. on Monday.

“The United States is our best friend, and the friendship of the United States to us is deep and meaningful,” Peres said. “[Obama] committed himself not to permit the Iranians to become a nuclear power, not just for the sake of Israel but for the sake of humanity.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who also addressed the Monday plenary, took a similar line, emphasizing that the alliance between the two countries is “as close as it has ever been.”

“There is no greater priority for the United States and Israel than preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” Shapiro said. “On this issue the United States and Israel share an identical objective. [Obama] will not permit Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon, period.”

In his speech Sunday, Netanyahu repeated his demand that in order for Israel to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians, the Palestinian leadership must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. He also called for a continued strong bond between Israel and the North American Jewish community.

“When it comes to Jewish survival and the survival of the Jewish state, I will not be silenced, ever,” he said to loud cheers from the crowd. “We are the Jewish state. We are charged with defending ourselves and speaking up. All of us, all of us, have to stand up and speak up.”

Netanyahu also said that Israel must have “robust security arrangements” in order to be confident that a peace with the Palestinians will last, and referred to Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided capital.” The Palestinians claim the eastern half of the city as their capital and have slammed recent Israel announcements of building in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, as have the United States and others.

“The minimum thing we can demand is that the official position of the Palestinian leadership recognizes the Jewish state,” Netanyahu said. “This will be a long process but it must begin with that.”

At the end of the speech, Netanyahu praised the strong relationship between Israel and the U.S. and Canadian Jewish communities. He noted his government’s efforts to reach a compromise between feuding factions at the Western Wall, long a high priority of American Jewish leaders.

“The Kotel is in Israel, but the Kotel belongs to all the Jewish people,” Netanyahu said, using the Hebrew term for the wall. “We have to consult together and reach a solution together.”

Netanyahu appeared relaxed during the speech, cracking jokes, leaning on the podium and calling out audience members by name. And conference delegates speaking before Netanyahu echoed his speech’s main points, especially on Iran.

Speaking at a reception for the Ruderman Family Foundation before Netanyahu’s speech, former Netanyahu adviser Dore Gold called for the Jewish people “to unite on this issue of Iran.”

And introducing the prime minister, Jewish Federations Chairman Michael Siegal said the international community must oppose the Iranian nuclear program.

“A nuclear Iran is an unacceptable position,” he said. “It is unacceptable to Israel, it is unacceptable to the U.S., it is unacceptable to the world.”

On Sunday morning, at the start of the Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu called the deal on the table between the world powers and Iran “bad and dangerous.”

“It is dangerous not just for us, it is also dangerous for them [the world powers],” he said.

U.N. inspectors hold ‘very productive’ nuclear talks with Iran


The U.N. nuclear watchdog and Iran held “very productive” talks this week on how to advance a long-blocked investigation into Iranian atomic activities and will meet again in Tehran next month, they said in a rare joint statement on Tuesday.

The relatively upbeat announcement by Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency may further buoy hopes for a negotiated solution to the international standoff over Tehran's nuclear ambitions after the June election of moderate President Hassan Rouhani, who is seeking to reduce tension with the West.

The U.N. agency wants to resume an investigation, long stymied by Iranian non-cooperation, into what it calls the “possible military dimensions” of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. Tehran says it is enriching uranium solely for electricity generation and medical treatments.

The IAEA and Iran “had a very productive meeting on past and present issues”, Tero Varjoranta, the agency's deputy director general in charge of nuclear inspections, told reporters at the end of the two-day session in Vienna.

Iranian Ambassador Reza Najafi said Tehran presented new ideas to overcome the dispute, which revolves around the U.N. watchdog's suspicions that Iran researched how to build nuclear bombs despite being part of a global non-proliferation treaty.

“I believe that, with the submission of these new proposals by Iran, we have been able to open a new chapter of cooperation,” he said, standing next to Varjoranta. The next meeting will be held in Tehran on November 11.

Their conciliatory comments marked a change in tone after a string of meetings since early 2012 failed to yield a deal giving the IAEA access to sites, files and officials in Iran relevant to its investigation.

The IAEA talks are distinct from Iran's negotiations with world powers, but both diplomatic tracks center on suspicions that Tehran may be seeking the capability to assemble nuclear bombs behind the facade of a civilian atomic energy program.

Rouhani, a pragmatist, took office in August promising to try to resolve the nuclear dispute and secure an easing of sanctions that have severely hurt Iran's oil-dependent economy.

The fact that the next meeting will be held in the Iranian capital may help raise expectations that Iran would start to resolve the IAEA's concerns, said David Albright of the U.S. Institute for Science and International Security.

But, he added, “I've been disappointed many times before.”

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said in Vienna on Monday that he had put forward proposals to IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano and pledged a “new approach” in dealings with the U.N. agency. But he gave no specifics.

IAEA SEEKS ARMY BASE ACCESS

Tuesday's joint statement said: “Iran presented new proposals of practical measures as a constructive contribution to strengthen cooperation and dialogue with a view to future resolution of all outstanding issues.”

Expectations for this week's Vienna talks, the first at such high level since Rouhani's election, had been relatively high. Diplomats believed Iran might soon offer concessions, perhaps by permitting U.N. inspectors to visit its Parchin military base southeast of Tehran – long an IAEA priority.

Taking advantage of the diplomatic opening enabled by Rouhani, Iran and six world powers have revived separate negotiations towards a broader political settlement of the nuclear dispute to head off any risk of a new Middle East war.

The last meeting between Iran and the United States, France, Britain, Germany, China and Russia was held on October 15-16 in Geneva, and another one is scheduled for November 7-8, just a few days before the next Iran-IAEA meeting.

An end to Iran's higher-grade enrichment of uranium is a central demand of the powers. Refining uranium to 20 percent is sensitive as it is a relatively short technical step to raise that to the 90 percent needed for a nuclear bomb.

Israel, believed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed power, wants arch-foe Iran to cease all enrichment and Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned on Tuesday “against concessions that are liable to concede to the regime's charm offensive”.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich

David Suissa: On bombing Iran


“The Iranian regime supports violent extremists and challenges us across the region. It pursues a nuclear capability that could spark a dangerous arms race and raise the prospect of a transfer of nuclear know-how to terrorists. … The danger from Iran is grave, it is real, and my goal will be to eliminate this threat.”

Those powerful and unambiguous words were spoken by presidential candidate Barack Obama at the 2008 AIPAC convention. 

Since then, the danger from Iran has only gotten more “grave” as the regime has moved significantly closer to its nuclear dream.

How urgent is the threat? As Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently wrote in the Atlantic: “That Iran’s nuclear challenge poses the most urgent threat to peace and security today is widely agreed across the national security community.”

Allison quotes former Mossad head Efraim Halevy saying that “Israel has long believed that mid-2013 would be an hour of decision in its dealings with Iran,” while Henry Kissinger warned that “we are in the last year where you can say a negotiation can conceivably succeed. … If nothing happens, the president will have to make some really tough decisions.”

We’ve seen how Iran has been resolute in its mission to become a nuclear power. But what about President Obama’s mission to “eliminate this threat”?

The president has done an admirable job of rallying the global community to enforce tough economic sanctions on Iran. The problem is that these sanctions haven’t convinced the Iranian regime to stop or end its nuclear program.

I’m no expert on centrifuges and uranium enrichment, but I do know something about human nature. When a bad guy shows you his evil intentions, it’s best to assume the worst, especially when the stakes are so high.

But instead of assuming the worst, we’ve been hoping for the best.

In particular, we’ve hoped that the sanctions we’ve imposed on Iran are tough enough to induce its leaders to abandon their dream of ruling the region and bringing Islamic glory back to Persia. That’s a big hope.

The latest instance of wishful thinking is that Iran’s new, more “moderate” president, Hassan Rohani, will decide that the bomb is really not worth all the tsuris and, voila, no more nuclear threat!

White House spokesman Jay Carney put it a little more diplomatically:

“The inauguration of President Rohani presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program. Should this new government choose to engage substantively and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

Yes, and should Hamas choose to reform its anti-Semitic charter and seek Israeli investment to build a Riviera on the Gaza coast, it will find many willing partners.

Remember, Rohani is the same sneaky guy who “struck a conciliatory posture as Iran’s top nuclear negotiator under another reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, while presiding over the secret advance of the nuclear program,” as international jurist Irwin Cotler wrote recently.

Cotler even quotes Rohani boasting about it: “While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan [a crucial nuclear site]. In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan.”

Well, it looks like the shmoozing mullah is at it again, charming the West with wily words of reason while buying Iran more time to “complete the work.”

If the Obama administration was looking for an excuse to kick the can down the road and avoid making tough decisions, it certainly found it in Rohani.

So, this is where things stand: Even as Secretary of State John Kerry invests enormous energy trying to create a Palestinian state that he hopes won’t become another terror regime, a real terror regime dedicated to Israel’s destruction is continuing its headlong push for a nuclear bomb.

Is there anything the United States can do to get Iran’s attention, short of bombing its nuclear facilities?

I heard a good answer the other day from a prominent Jewish leader.

During a recent visit to the Jewish Journal offices, American Jewish Committee head David Harris explained that in this game of high-stakes poker, the crucial thing is to show Iran that you’re not bluffing — that you’re deadly serious about preventing a nuclear weapon. 

His idea? Explode a bunker-buster bomb — the kind of weapon the United States would use to take out the nuclear facilities — as a military “exercise,” and make sure everyone knows about it.

Could the move backfire and rally the Iranian people and the Shiite world behind the Persian regime? Sure, there are always risks, and the Iranian crisis has always been about picking the best of bad options.  

But here’s the essential point: An Iranian nuclear bomb is a deadly threat to Israel and the world. You can make all the tough speeches you want, and impose all the tough sanctions, but in the end, until the bad guy sees that you really mean business, he won’t take you seriously.

I think they call that human nature.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Report: Iran has new rocket site, ballistic missile tests possible


Iran has constructed a rocket-launching site that could be used for testing ballistic missiles, a report from a military intelligence publication said on Thursday.

Satellite imagery analyzed by Jane's Intelligence Review showed extensive construction over the last three years at a site of what Jane's says is a launch tower and pad, an area to prepare rockets for launch and an administration and support section.

The Islamic Republic has pursued ambitious goals to develop its space program in recent years. In January this year it demonstrated its missile delivery systems by launching a live monkey into space and returning it safely, officials said.

Western countries are concerned that long-range ballistic technology used to propel Iranian satellites into orbit could be put to delivering nuclear warheads.

Assertions about the site, near the town of Shahrud some 100 km (62 miles) northeast of Tehran, come weeks after Iranian officials said they would inaugurate a new space centre to launch satellites.

Jane's says the Shahrud site is one of three that will ultimately serve Iran's space program.

“Imagery analysis of the Shahrud site suggests it will be a strategic facility used to test ballistic missiles, leaving the other two sites free to handle Iran's ambitious program of satellite launches,” said Jane's editor Matthew Clements.

Iranian officials were not immediately available for comment.

Iran's efforts to develop and test ballistic missiles and build a space launch capability have contributed to Israeli calls for pre-emptive strikes on Iranian nuclear sites and billions of dollars of U.S. ballistic missile defense spending.

Reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

House overwhelmingly votes to add new Iran sanctions


The U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to add new sanctions on Tehran that would drastically reduce Iran’s trade.

The bill, which passed Wednesday evening by a vote of 400-20, would expand sanctions to shut down U.S. trade with any entity that trades substantively with Iran. Until now, such sanctions were imposed on entities that traded with Iran’s energy sector. The law maintains humanitarian exceptions for food and medicine.

The House bill on sanctions will not be taken up by the Senate until September, after the congressional recess. The bill, initiated by Reps. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the committee’s senior Democrat, comes days before Iran’s new president, Hassan Rohani, is inaugurated.

[Related: Rohani or no Rohani, we must increase the pressure on Iran]

Rohani has said he wants to talk with the United States about making Iran’s nuclear program more transparent. The Obama administration has indicated that it might consider an alleviation of some existing sanctions.

Some 131 House members last week wrote Obama urging him to take up Rohani’s offer, and most of them also voted for the new sanctions. However, 14 House members, all Democrats, urged the House leadership to delay the vote, saying it would embolden Iranian extremists who seek to marginalize Rohani.

Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, said in his floor speech that conciliatory gestures should come after substantive moves by Iran, and not just as a result of statements.

“America’s policies must be based on facts and not some hope about a new government in Iran that will somehow change the nature of the clerical regime in Tehran,” Cantor said. “We must respond to Iran’s policies and behavior, not to its rhetoric.”

In a statement praising the House vote, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee urged the Senate to quickly take up the new sanctions.

“The window is rapidly closing to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” the AIPAC statement said.

Snowden says U.S., Israel created Stuxnet virus


Whistleblower Edward Snowden told a German magazine that Israel and the United States created the Stuxnet computer virus that destroyed nuclear centrifuges in Iran. 

Snowden made the statement as part of an interview with the German news magazine Der Spiegel in which he answered encrypted questions sent by security software developer Jacob Appelbaum and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Excerpts of the interview were published Monday on the Spiegel website.

Snowden was asked if the U.S. National Security Agency partners “with other nations, like Israel?” He responded that the NSA has a “massive body” responsible for such partnerships called the Foreign Affairs Directorate.

He also was asked,  “Did the NSA help to create Stuxnet?” Snowden responded, “NSA and Israel co-wrote it.”

Stuxnet in 2010 wrought havoc on equipment at Iran’s Natanz nuclear plant and complicated the manufacture of highly enriched uranium, which the West suspects is intended for making atomic weapons. The virus temporarily disabled 1,000 centrifuges being used by the Iranians to enrich uranium.

Snowden, a former technical contractor for the NSA and employee of the CIA, last month revealed the existence of mass surveillance programs by the United States and Britain against their own citizens and citizens of other countries.

He said Germany and most other Western nations are “in bed together” with the NSA.

Snowden said a private citizen would be targeted by the NSA based on Facebook or webmail content.

“The only one I personally know of that might get you hit untargeted are jihadi forums,” he said.

Snowden is a fugitive of the United States who is believed to be in Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. Three Latin American countries — Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia — have offered him asylum, NBC reported.

Congressmen tell Obama to increase pressure on Iran over nukes


In the wake of Iran’s recent election, a bipartisan group of congressmen are calling on President Obama to increase pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The new Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, was perceived to be the most moderate of the candidates and “while this was not a free and fair election, judged by international standards, its outcome reflected considerable dissatisfaction by the Iranian people with an autocratic and repressive government that has internationally isolated Iran,” the letter from the congressmen to Obama noted.

The June 28 letter was signed by Reps. Ed Royce, (R-Calif.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and 43 other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The letter pointed out that “Iran’s election unfortunately has done nothing to suggest a reversal of Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capacity.” It also noted that Rouhani previously served as his country’s nuclear negotiator and had indicated his support for the program in a post-election news conference.

“Our diplomatic goal must be to reach a negotiated settlement in which Iran agrees to verifiably dismantle its nuclear weapons program. For this outcome to be realized, Iran must face intensifying pressure,” the congressmen wrote.

Time to enter the Iranian bazaar on the nuclear issue


Nuclear enrichment among Iran’s ‘inalienable rights,’ new president says


Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rohani said he would strive for transparency in his country’s nuclear program but would not stop enriching uranium.

Rohani, in his first news conference following his upset victory over the weekend, also said he wants to reduce tension with the United States but would not talk directly with U.S. leaders until economic sanctions were lifted, The New York Times reported.

He said his government would continue to protect the country’s “inalienable rights,” including Iran’s nuclear rights.

“First, we are ready to increase transparency and clarify our measures within the international framework,” Rohani said during the news conference. “Of course our activities are already transparent, but still we increase it. Second, we will increase the trust between Iran and the world.”

In 1994, when he served as a nuclear negotiator, Rohani agreed to suspend nuclear enrichment as a trust-building measure. He called 2013 ” a different situation.”

Rohani will take office on Aug. 3.

Iran says its nuclear program is for domestic use only; the western world believes the program is leading to a nuclear weapon.

[Iran’s president-elect Rohani:
More of the same or a bridge to the West?]

Iran’s new president still Khamenei-approved, Netanyahu says


The election of cleric Hassan Rohani as president of Iran does not change anything, since he was shortlisted by the country’s radical Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Candidates who did not conform to Khamenei’s extremist outlook were not able to run for the presidency, Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting, a day after Rohani’s election.

Netanyahu pointed out that “among those whose candidacies he allowed was elected the candidate who was seen as less identified with the regime, who still defines the State of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan.’ ”

It is Khamenei who ultimately determines Iran’s nuclear policy, the Israeli leader said.

“Iran will be judged by its actions,” Netanyahu said. “If it continues to insist on developing its nuclear program, the answer needs to be very clear — stopping the nuclear program by any means.”

Rohani, who is seen as much more moderate than the incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will take office in August after receiving slightly more than 50 percent of the vote. Some 72 percent of the 50 million eligible voters turned out.

The combative Ahmadinejad was barred from running for reelection due to term limits.

“This victory is a victory of wisdom, a victory of moderation, a victory of growth and awareness, and a victory of commitment over extremism and ill temper,” Rohani said Saturday on state television.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that “Iran must abide by the demands of the international community to stop its nuclear program and cease the dissemination of terror throughout the world.”

In its statement on Saturday, the White House congratulated the Iranian people for participating in the political process and “their courage in making their voices heard.” The statement said it respected their vote.

“It is our hope that the Iranian government will heed the will of the Iranian people and make responsible choices that create a better future for all Iranians,” the White House said.

On Sunday, the British newspaper The Independent reported that Iran will  send 4,000 Revolutionary Guard troops to Syria to aid President Bashar Assad against rebel forces in his country’s two-year civil war. The decision reportedly was made before the start of the presidential election.

Iran also proposed opening up what it called a “Syrian front” against Israel in the Golan Heights, according to the Independent.

Russia’s Putin says Iran nuclear push is peaceful


Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday he has no doubt that Iran is adhering to international commitments on nuclear non-proliferation but regional and international concerns about Tehran's nuclear program could not be ignored.

Putin, whose country is among six world powers seeking to ensure that Iran does not seek to develop nuclear weapons, also said Iranian threats to Israel's existence were unacceptable.

His remarks appeared aimed to strike a balance between the interests of Iran, on the one hand, and on the other, Israel and global powers seeking to ensure Tehran does not acquire nuclear weapons.

“I have no doubt that Iran is adhering to the rules in this area. Because there is no proof of the opposite,” Putin, whose country is one of six leading those diplomatic efforts, told Russian state-run English-language channel RT.

But he criticised Iran for rejecting a Russian offer to enrich uranium for Tehran's nuclear programme and took aim at aggressive Iranian rhetoric about Israel, with which Putin has been improving ties in recent years.

“Iran is in a very difficult region and when we hear … from Iran that Israel could be destroyed, I consider that absolutely unacceptable. That does not help,” Putin said.

Putin suggested that Washington was exaggerating dangers posed by Iran, saying “the United States uses Iran to unite Western allies against some real or non-existent threat”.

Putin said that concerns about Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely for peaceful purposes including power generation, must be addressed.

Last week, Russia joined China, the United States, Britain, France and Germany in pressing Iran to cooperate with a stalled investigation by the U.N. nuclear agency into suspected atomic research by the Islamic state.

In a June 5 joint statement intended to signal their unity in the decade-old dispute over Iran's nuclear programme, the six powers said they were “deeply concerned” about the country's atomic activities.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Writing by Steve Gutterman, Editing by Michael Roddy

Hosting U.S. defense chief, Israel hints at patience on Iran


Israel suggested on Monday it would be patient before taking any military action against Iran's nuclear program, saying during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel there was still time for other options.

With Iran's presidential election approaching in June there has been a pause in hawkish rhetoric by Israel, which has long hinted at possible air strikes to deny its arch-foe any means to make an atomic bomb, while efforts by six world powers to find a negotiated solution with Tehran have proved fruitless so far.

“We believe that the military option, which is well discussed, should be the last resort,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon told reporters at a news conference with Hagel.

“And there are other tools to be used and to be exhausted,” Yaalon said, listing diplomacy, economic sanctions and “moral support” for domestic opponents of Iran's hardline Islamist leadership.

Iran has denied seeking nuclear weapons capability, saying it is enriching uranium only for domestic energy purposes while calling for the elimination of the Jewish state. Israel is widely believed to have the Middle East's only nuclear arsenal.

U.S. President Barack Obama has in the past clashed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how urgent the need may be to consider military action against Iran. Washington has suggested more time should be given for concerted diplomacy combined with sanctions pressure to produce a peaceful solution.

But with Obama recently installed in his second term, and Netanyahu in his third, the allies have publicly closed ranks. The United States projects more defense aid for Israel after the current disbursements of some $3 billion a year expire in 2017. And Hagel unveiled the planned sale to Israel of missiles, warplane radars, troop transport planes and refueling jets.

“These decisions underscore that the military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel is stronger than ever, and that defense cooperation will only continue to deepen in the future,” Hagel said.

By contrast, the Bush administration in 2008 declined to provide Israel with refueling tankers and missiles that might be used in a strike on Iran.

MILITARY OPTIONS REMAIN ON TABLE

Before taking the helm at the Pentagon, Hagel had stirred ire among pro-Israel Americans for remarks including skepticism about the feasibility and desirability of such military action.

But in Israel, the second foreign country he has visited as defense secretary after Afghanistan, Hagel hewed to Obama's line. “All military options and every option must remain on the table in dealing with Iran,” he said.

“I support the president's position on Iran. And it's very simple and I have stated it here … Our position is Iran will not be allowed to develop a nuclear weapon – the prevention of Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Period.”

Iranian media reported on Monday that Iran and officials from the United Nations nuclear watchdog would hold a new round of talks on May 21 in Vienna. The International Atomic Energy Agency wants inspectors to restart a long-stalled investigation in Iran's suspected atomic bomb research.

From Israel, Hagel travels to Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The latter two Gulf Arab countries, which are also wary of Iran's nuclear ambitions, stand to win a major U.S. arms sale.

After lengthy disagreement, Israeli and U.S. estimates of when Iran might be able to produce a first nuclear weapon now largely dovetail to a time frame of about a year.

Hagel also said that non-military pressure on Iran has yet to be exhausted. “The sanctions on Iran are as potent and deep and wide a set of international sanctions that we have ever seen on any country. And those will continue to increase,” he said.

“Whether it leads to an outcome that we desire remains to be seen … and as I said, the military option is always an option.”

After the news conference, Hagel boarded an Israeli military helicopter for an aerial tour of the Golan Heights frontier.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Iran moves to speed up nuclear program despite sanctions


Iran is increasing the number of advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges installed at its Natanz underground plant, despite tightening international sanctions aimed at stopping Tehran's nuclear progress, diplomats said on Wednesday.

Iran has for years been trying to develop centrifuges more efficient than the erratic 1970s era IR-1 machines it now uses, but introducing new models has been dogged by technical hurdles and difficulty in obtaining key parts abroad.

If launched and operated successfully, the new machines would enable the Islamic state to sharply speed up sensitive atomic activity which it says is for peaceful energy purposes but which the West fears may be aimed at building nuclear bombs.

“It is clear Iran can build them. The question is how many and how good are they,” one Western envoy said.

The planned deployment of next generation centrifuges underlines Iran's refusal to bow to pressure to curb its nuclear program, and may further complicate efforts to resolve the dispute diplomatically and avoid a spiral into war.

Iran announced early last month that it would build about 3,000 advanced centrifuges. But experts and diplomats said it was unclear whether it had the capability and materials needed to make so many, and also to run them smoothly.

Although still far from the target number, one diplomatic source estimated that roughly 500-600 so-called IR-2m centrifuges and empty centrifuge casings had now been put in place at the Natanz enrichment facility in central Iran.

That compares with 180 two months ago, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog's latest report on Iran, issued in February. At the same time, Iran had more than 12,000 old-generation centrifuges installed at Natanz, but not all were enriching.

Two other envoys in Vienna, where the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based, also said the number of installed IR-2m machines was growing but they did not have details. The next IAEA report on Iran is expected in late May.

The diplomats said the new centrifuges were not yet operating, but the increase in installation was still likely to add to Western alarm over Iran's nuclear advances. Centrifuges spin at supersonic speed to increase the fissile concentration.

How many Iran can make depends upon whether they have all the parts and materials they need, nuclear expert Mark Hibbs of the Carnegie Endowment think-tank said: “It is possible that they have accumulated an inventory of these things.”

NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY BREAKTHROUGH?

Iran says it is enriching uranium to fuel a planned network of nuclear power plants, but the material can also provide the core of a nuclear bomb if processed to a high fissile level and the West wants it to suspend the work.

Talks between Iran and world powers this month failed to yield a diplomatic breakthrough, and the United States and Israel, widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed power in the Middle East, have not ruled out military action to prevent Tehran obtaining nuclear weapons.

If hundreds of new centrifuges had now been installed, “it indicates that Iran has made a significant breakthrough both in mastering the technology and in acquiring the raw materials,” said nuclear expert Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank.

“This development will be of major concern to countries that are worried about Iran's growing ability to quickly produce nuclear weapons.”

Iran had previously been believed to face a shortage of the high strength metals necessary to produce the new centrifuges in large numbers but it might have been able to obtain them on the black market, Fitzpatrick added.

One of the Vienna-based diplomats said the IR-2m machine was designed to reduce sanctions-related problems “in that they replace some hard-to-get materials with what are in theory easier to get or make materials.”

Editing by Jon Hemming

In Iran talks, North Korea parallel goes only so far


If you have nuclear weapons, all sorts of bad behavior will be tolerated.

That’s the lesson some are worried Iran may be learning from North Korea’s increasingly confrontational stance against South Korea and the United States.

Pyongyang has stepped up its belligerent rhetoric in recent days, threatening to strike targets in South Korea and America, shuttering the joint North-South industrial park at Kaesong and warning foreigners to leave South Korea to avoid possible nuclear war. The Obama administration has scrambled to tamp down tensions, in part by delaying some planned military exercises.

Combined with the latest failure to reach any accord in talks between the major powers and Iran on Tehran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, some Iran watchers are worried the Islamic Republic is learning that truculence pays off — at least if you have nuclear capabilities.

“I would imagine the lessons they’re drawing are not the ones the Western powers would like,” Valerie Lincy, who directs the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, told The New York Times. “That you can weather sanctions and renege on previous agreements, and ultimately if you stand fast, you’ll get what you’re looking for.”

But Iran experts caution that there are some fundamental differences between North Korea and Iran that undercut parallels between them.

For one thing, said Alireza Nader, a senior Iran analyst at the Rand Corp., the impasse in the most recent round of negotiations with Iran held in Kazakhstan was the result of political uncertainty in Iran, not the situation in North Korea.

Iran is scheduled to hold elections on June 14. Ayatollah Ali Khameini, the country's supreme leader, is maneuvering to replace outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with someone who is more loyal to the theocracy and less prone to distracting outbursts, Nader said.

Nader also said Tehran is much more likely to be influenced by sanctions than Pyongyang because North Korea is totalitarian and Iran, while authoritarian, still is susceptible to public pressures.

“North Korea has suffered from sanctions, but its regime does not care about its population the way the Islamic Republic has to consider its population,” Nader said.

Michael Makovsky, a Pentagon official who helped shape Iraq policy during the George W. Bush presidency and has been critical of the Obama administration’s handling of Iran, said the big question is whether Iran is drawing dangerous lessons about America’s will to stop regimes from obtaining or using weapons of mass destruction.

“There's still a big question mark about the U.S. using force” to stop the use of unconventional weapons, said Makovsky, now the director of foreign policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “We have to make abundantly clear we're serious about not having a nuclear Iran.”

President Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 last month just prior to his visit to Israel that he believed he had a year’s window to resolve the Iran crisis through pressure and diplomacy. He emphasized during his visit that he would not count out a military strike should that process fail. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry repeated that message this week during a visit to Israel.

“The clock that is ticking on Iran’s program has a stop moment, and it does not tick interminably,” Kerry said Tuesday in Israel. “We have said again and again that negotiations are not for the sake of negotiations, they are to make progress. And negotiations cannot be allowed to become a process of delay, which in and of itself creates greater danger.”

Kerry also raised the North Korea parallel in addressing reports that Iran was reopening mines for yellowcake, which can be used to prepare uranium fuel for nuclear reactors.

“Clearly, any effort — not unlike the DPRK, where Kim Jong-un has decided to reopen his enrichment procedures by rebuilding a facility that had been part of an agreement to destroy — in the same way as that is provocative, to open up yellowcake production and to make any step that increases the rapidity with which you move towards enriched fissile material raises the potential of questions, if not even threat,” he said. “And I think that is not constructive.”

Heather Hurlburt, the executive director of the National Security Network think tank, said Iran is more susceptible to international opinion than North Korea, particularly because Tehran is seeking to enhance its international influence.

“There's a political cost to an Iranian regime becoming perceived the way North Korea is perceived,” she said. “Iran’s regime is acutely aware of it.”

Quake hits near Iran’s nuclear city Bushehr, 30 dead


A powerful earthquake struck close to Iran's only nuclear power station on Tuesday, killing 30 people and injuring 800 as it devastated small villages, state media reported.

The 6.3 magnitude quake totally destroyed one village, a Red Crescent official told the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA), but the nearby Bushehr nuclear plant was undamaged, according to a local politician and the Russian company that built it.

“Up until now the earthquake has left behind 30 dead and 800 injured,” said Fereydoun Hassanvand, the governor of Bushehr province, according to ISNA.

Many houses in rural parts of the province are made of mud brick, which can easily crumble in a quake.

Across the Gulf, offices in Qatar and Bahrain were evacuated after the quake, whose epicenter was 55 miles southeast of the port of Bushehr, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The early afternoon shock was also felt in financial hub Dubai.

Abdulkarim Jomeiri, a member of parliament for Bushehr, told IRNA that “the distance between the earthquake focal point and the Bushehr nuclear power plant was about 80 km and, on the basis of the latest information, there has been no damage to the power plant.”

The Russian company that built the nuclear power station,  11 miles south of Bushehr, said the plant was unaffected.

“The earthquake in no way affected the normal situation at the reactor. Personnel continue to work in the normal regime and radiation levels are fully within the norm,” Russian state news agency RIA quoted an official at Atomstroyexport as saying.

One Bushehr resident said her home and the homes of her neighbors were shaken by the quake but not damaged.

“We could clearly feel the earthquake,” said Nikoo, who asked to be identified only by her first name. “The windows and chandeliers all shook.”

Tuesday's quake was much smaller than the 9.0 magnitude one that hit Japan two years ago, triggering a tsunami that destroyed back-up generators and disabled the Fukushima nuclear plant's cooling system. Three of the reactors melted down.

Iran is the only country operating a nuclear power plant that does not belong to the Convention on Nuclear Safety, negotiated after the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl which contaminated wide areas and forced about 160,000 Ukrainians from their homes.

Western officials and the United Nations have urged Iran to join the safety forum.

REPEATED WARNINGS

Tehran has repeatedly rejected safety concerns about Bushehr – built in a highly seismic area – that began operations in September 2011 after decades of delays.

Iran sits on major fault lines and has suffered several devastating earthquakes in recent years, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 which flattened the southeastern city of Bam and killed more than 25,000 people. In August more than 300 people were killed when two quakes struck the north west.

A report published last week by U.S. think-tanks Carnegie Endowment and the Federation of American Scientists said that “ominously” the Bushehr reactor sits at the intersection of three tectonic plates.

“Iran's sole nuclear power plant is not at risk of a tsunami similar in size to the one that knocked out the electricity and emergency cooling systems at Fukushima. But, repeated warnings about the threat of earthquakes for the Bushehr nuclear plant appear to have fallen on deaf ears,” the report said.

The quake happened on National Nuclear Technology Day when Iran's leaders celebrate the technological advances they say will reduce the country's reliance on fossil fuels, leaving more of its abundant oil for export.

Israel, Gulf Arab states and many Western countries fear Tehran is seeking a nuclear weapons capability and the Islamic Republic is under international sanctions aimed at forcing it to curb some of its atomic work.

Iran denies it wants nuclear arms and says its atomic work is for electricity generation and other peaceful uses.

Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Vienna, Regan Doherty in Doha, Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Robin Pomeroy; Editing by Jon Hemming

Budget, Iran top priorities for new Israeli government


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new government will face the immediate task of passing an austerity budget and the time-sensitive challenge of preventing what it believes is Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.

Following is a list of the coalition's main priorities as Netanyahu started his third term in office on Monday:

PASSING A BUDGET

After clinching coalition agreements last week, Netanyahu said his government's first task would be “passage of a responsible budget” – shorthand for widely expected spending cuts and tax rises.

The budget deficit rose to 4.2 percent of gross domestic product in 2012 – double the original target. It was cabinet infighting over the 2013 budget that led Netanyahu to call an early election.

Netanyahu now has 45 days to put together a budget and win parliamentary approval, or face another general election. Parliament could, however, use special legislation to extend the deadline to 120 days.

IRAN

Netanyahu has said his government's “paramount task” would be “to stop Iran from arming itself with nuclear weapons”.

Last year, Netanyahu announced a “red line” for Iran's nuclear program, saying Tehran should not be allowed to obtain 240 kg of 20 percent enriched uranium, a point it could reach, he said, by spring or summer of 2013.

It was another heavy hint from Netanyahu that Israel could attack Iran's nuclear sites. But officials and analysts say Iran has slowed its mid-level uranium enrichment to stay beneath the Netanyahu threshold.

U.S. President Barack Obama, in an interview with Israel's Channel Two television last week, said it would take Iran more than a year to develop a nuclear weapon. Tehran denies seeking atomic arms.

SYRIA

Israel is closely watching Syria's civil war, with occasional spillover mortar fire into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Netanyahu has voiced concern that Syria's chemical weapons and other advanced arms could fall into the hands of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

In January, according to a Western diplomat and a source among Syrian rebels, Israeli planes bombed a convoy near Syria's border with Lebanon carrying weapons to Hezbollah.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE

Netanyahu has said that Obama's visit this week would put the Israeli-Palestinian peace issue on his new government's agenda earlier than expected.

Beyond an oft-repeated call to the Palestinians to return to peace talks they abandoned in 2010 over Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank, Netanyahu has not voiced any new ideas on how to restart the negotiations.

Israel's new housing minister, a settler himself, said on Sunday the cabinet would keep expanding settlements to the same extent as Netanyahu's previous government.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robin Pomeroy

In Iranian New Year message, Obama warns Iran of isolation but not strikes


President Obama warned Iran of further isolation but stopped short of threatening military action should the country not cooperate with the international community on its nuclear program.

Obama in his annual message marking the Iranian New Year, known as Nowruz, addressed Iranians and their leaders.

“If, as Iran’s leaders say, their nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, then there is a basis for a practical solution,” Obama said in a video message posted Monday, two days before he travels to Israel to discuss Iran strategy with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“It’s a solution that would give Iran access to peaceful nuclear energy while resolving once and for all the serious questions that the world has about the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program,” the president said, referring to offers by major powers to reduce sanctions in exchange for more transparency and access to Iran's nuclear facilities.

“Finding a solution will be no easy task. But if we can, the Iranian people will begin to see the benefits of greater trade and ties with other nations, including the United States. Whereas if the Iranian government continues down its current path, it will only further isolate Iran. This is the choice now before Iran’s leaders.”

Netanyahu, some U.S. pro-Israel groups and a number of U.S. lawmakers of both parties have called on Obama to make more explicit the threat of military action that will be taken to stop an Iranian bomb.

Obama has not discounted the military option, but has estimated that Iran is about one year away from obtaining such a device and prefers to press forward with diplomacy and economic pressure for now.

Lots of listening, no grand initiatives expected on Obama’s Mideast trip


When President Obama visits Israel next week, Gavriel Yaakov wants him to jump-start the peace process.

“I’m excited,” said Yaakov, 67, sitting in a Tel Aviv mall. “I want negotiations to get to an agreement on a long-term peace with the Palestinians.”

Yaakov said he trusts Obama, but his friend, Yossi Cohen, is more skeptical.

“I’m not excited,” said Cohen, 64, who charged that the president supports Islamists and “hasn't done anything” to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No one has helped,” Cohen said. “Whoever thinks there will be peace, [it will take] another 200 years.”

Their views reflect two of the president's overriding concerns as he prepares to embark on a three-day trip to Israel next week.

Obama remains deeply unpopular in Israel, with approval ratings of about 33 percent last year, and Jewish leaders and local analysts are urging him to try to improve his relationship with the Israeli public. But the president also is seen as wanting to promote a renewed effort at Middle East peace, though administration officials, wary of a top-down push for peace, have emphasized that the president is leaving such initiatives up to the parties there.

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama conceded that the short-term outlook for a peace agreement is “bleak,” but that prospects could improve in the coming months. Instead, the president was focused on how best to reach out to Israelis, participants said, asking for input about what he should say and whom he should try to reach.

Obama held a similar meeting with Arab-Americans, soliciting their input about his trip and expressing his “commitment to the Palestinian people” and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to establish “a truly independent Palestinian state.”

“It creates an opportunity not only for a new beginning between the president's second term and the prime minister of Israel, who is beginning a new term — assuming he puts together a government, which I think he will,” Dennis Ross, Obama's top Iran policy adviser in his first term, said at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, before Netanyahu had established his coalition.

“But I think it also is a chance to create a connection with the Israeli public and to demonstrate unmistakably when the president says that he's determined to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, he isn't saying that from a distance. It's not an abstraction. He can go and he can address the Israeli public directly.”

Obama will land at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 20. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Peres will present Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor.

His itinerary includes a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery, the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After departing Israel on March 22, Obama will travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.

The night before his departure, he will address thousands of Israeli students at Jerusalem's convention center. The speech is consistent with Obama's history of directly addressing the public during his trips abroad, and specifically young people.

“I think this is consistent with his town squares,” said Alan Solow, a top Obama fundraiser and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He recognizes that in the future, the world will be flatter than today and it's essential that future leaders understand the good intentions of the United States to promote a better and more peaceful world.”

Obama's engagement with Mideast peacemaking was turbulent in his first term. His relationship with Netanyahu has been rocky at best, and his previous attempt to restart the peace process, in 2010, failed after three weeks.

The president's low approval rating in Israel is likely only to complicate matters. The 33 percent rating is actually a significant improvement over his first term, when pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank helped push his approval numbers below 10 percent.

“Obama needs to reestablish a relationship of trust with the Israeli public,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Whether Obama likes it or not, Netanyahu is the elected leader of the State of Israel, and whether Netanyahu likes it or not, Obama is the elected leader of the U.S. It’s time for the two leaders to accept the inevitable and learn to work together.”

U.S. administration officials have aimed to lower expectations for any concrete outcome to the Obama trip, denying recent reports in the Israeli media that the president is preparing a major peace initiative and emphasizing that he intends to do a lot of listening. Analysts say in order to make progress on the peace front or the Iranian nuclear threat, another issue much on the minds of Israelis, Obama needs to be more candid about past failures.

“For a game-changing speech, you need to speak realistically,” said Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor who is also a Hartman fellow. “You can’t pretend it’s the start of the Oslo peace process. You need to move forward based on the failures. I think Israelis are primed for it.”

Klein Halevi said a similar honesty should be evident in Obama's treatment of the Iran issue. Israelis are doubtful of the president's repeated assertion that all options are on the table in addressing the nuclear threat, he said, and urged the president to speak directly to the Iranian leadership in his convention center address.

“When Obama speaks on Iran, he shouldn’t be speaking only to the Israeli public,” Klein Halevi said. “He should be directly addressing the leadership of Iran from Jerusalem.”

Despite the caution coming from the White House, Israelis are anything but unified in their skepticism of a new peace push. On Facebook, 23,000 people have “liked” a push to have Obama address the masses at Rabin Square, the emotionally charged plaza where the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords was assassinated in 1995.

“We want to send the message that there’s a public desire to turn the page and strive for peace,” said Amit Youlzari, 31, the lead organizer.

With Obama set to speak in Jerusalem, Youlzari has helped arrange for the speech to be shown on large projection screens in the square.

“We want to tell the U.S. that we support Obama and the messages we hear from him,” Youlzari said. “And we want to send the world a picture of a full plaza of people who want peace.”

Ben Sales reported from Tel Aviv and Ron Kampeas from Washington.

Kerry: Obama would prefer to ‘avoid considering’ Iran strike


Secretary of State John Kerry said President Obama would prefer to avoid considering military action against Iran, but Iran's failure to seriously negotiate makes “confrontation more possible.”

Kerry, interviewed by ABC News in Doha, Qatar, during his first overseas trip in his new job, refused to discuss differences between the United States and Israel over “red lines” that could trigger a military strike.

“I’m not going to get into red lines and timing publicly except to reiterate what the president has said again and again, which is he prefers to have a diplomatic solution,” Kerry said.

“He would like to see the P5+1 process, the negotiation process, be able to work, and avoid any consideration of any military action,” Kerry said, referring to the major powers negotiating with Iran.

Kerry said he expected a serious proposal from the Iranians when they meet with representatives from the United States, Russia, China, Germany, France and Britain in Istanbul later this month.

“If they keep pushing the limits and not coming with a serious set of proposals or are prepared to actually resolve this, obviously, the risks get higher and confrontation becomes more possible,” he said.

In a separate interview with NPR, Kerry said Egypt's role in brokering last November's cease-fire between Israel and Hamas and keeping the peace on its border with Israel informed his decision to release $190 million in assistance funds to the Egyptians. That decision was made over the objections of some in Congress who are concerned about the course that Egypt's Islamist government is taking.

“Egypt has been — was critical in helping to bring out peace in the Gaza Strip,” Kerry said. “President [Mohamed] Morsi personally intervened. President Morsi has personally helped to make sure that that peace has held, and he is cooperating with Israel on the security in the Sinai and cooperating with Israel in terms of extremism and intelligence.”

“So for the American people, the amount of money that we’re investing in Egypt compared to its importance to us in the region for stability, for peace, for the future possibilities, is minuscule,” he said.

Iran nuclear talks show progress, Western diplomat says


Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers this week were more constructive and positive than in the past, but Iran's willingness to negotiate seriously will not become clear until an April meeting, a senior Western diplomat said on Thursday.

The diplomat was more upbeat about the talks in Kazakhstan than other Western officials have been, suggesting there could be a chance of diplomatic progress in the long standoff over Iran's nuclear activities.

“This was more constructive and more positive than previous meetings because they were really focusing on the proposal on the table,” said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi struck an upbeat note about the talks, saying they had reached “a turning point” this week and suggesting a breakthrough was within reach.

“I call it a milestone. It is a turning point in the negotiations,” Salehi told Austrian broadcaster ORF during a visit to Vienna for a United Nations conference.

“We are heading for goals that will be satisfactory for both sides. I am very optimistic and hopeful,” he said, according to a German translation of remarks he made in English.

Years of on-off talks between Iran and the six powers have produced no breakthrough in the dispute over the nuclear program, which Iran says is peaceful but that Western powers suspect is aimed at developing a nuclear bomb capability.

Iran has faced tightening international sanctions over its nuclear program and Israel has strongly hinted it might attack Iran if diplomacy and sanctions fail.

At the latest talks, the six powers offered modest sanctions relief in return for Iran curbing its most sensitive nuclear work.

“We show a way into the easing of sanctions. We don't give away the crown jewels in the first step,” the diplomat said.

The two sides agreed to hold expert-level talks in Istanbul on March 18 to discuss the powers' proposals, and to return to Almaty for political discussions on April 5-6.

STEP-BY-STEP

The March meeting will be a chance for experts to explain in detail what the six powers' offer means, the senior Western diplomat said, adding that the April meeting would be key.

“This will be the important meeting. We'll see if they are willing to engage seriously on the package,” the diplomat said.

Western officials said the six powers' offer included easing a ban on trade in gold and other precious metals and relaxation of an import embargo on Iranian petrochemical products.

In exchange, a senior U.S. official said, Iran would among other things have to suspend uranium enrichment to a fissile concentration of 20 percent at its Fordow underground facility and “constrain the ability to quickly resume operations there”.

The U.S. official did not term what was being asked of Iran as a “shutdown” of the plant, as Western diplomats had said in previous meetings with Iran last year.

The senior Western diplomat denied the six powers had softened their position on Fordow, but conceded: “We may have softened our terminology.”

The diplomat sketched out a step-by-step approach, saying the six powers' proposals offered Iran the prospect of further steps in return for Iranian actions beyond a first confidence-building step. “There has to be a clear sequencing,” the diplomat said, without giving details.

Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili said on Wednesday the six powers had tried to “get closer to our viewpoint”, which he said was positive.

Editing by Roger Atwood

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