Iran, U.S. waiting for other side to make nuclear compromise


The presidency of moderate cleric Hassan Rouhani has opened a window of opportunity in Iran's delicate nuclear diplomacy with the West but Tehran-watchers say that window could close as each side waits for the other to make the first move.

Cautious optimism about talks between Iran and six world powers due to restart in September is a stark contrast to the gloom over on-off negotiations under eight years of previous President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In that time, ever more stringent U.N., U.S. and European Union sanctions on Iran's energy, shipping and banking sectors have helped weaken its currency, contributed to a steep rise in inflation and nearly halved oil exports since 2011.

Meanwhile the Islamic Republic has continued to enrich uranium, edging towards Israel's “red line” after which it says it will launch military strikes on Iranian facilities.

The leadership of Rouhani, who defeated more conservative rivals in a June 14 election with just over 50 percent of the vote, appears to offer the prospect of an alternative to the worst case scenario.

“We are prepared, seriously and without wasting time, to enter negotiations which are serious and substantive with the other side,” Rouhani said at his first news conference as president on Tuesday, and in answer to a question did not rule out direct talks with the United States.

The United States, which has said it would be a “willing partner” if Iran were serious about resolving the problem peacefully, was careful in its response.

“There are steps they need to take to meet their international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, and the ball is in their court,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

KHAMENEI'S SUPPORT?

The fact that Rouhani has been able to reach out to Washington even in a limited way indicates he has at least the tacit support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful figure in Iran's complex and often opaque power structure.

Khamenei has publicly voiced scepticism of the West's willingness to compromise, but for now appears to be giving Rouhani room to make a deal. If there is a lack of progress, that could easily change.

Western powers must demonstrate that they are willing to engage or Rouhani's ability to negotiate might be undercut by conservative elements at home, said Dina Esfandiary, a research associate at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“If faced with inertia or a blind insistence on increasing sanctions, then hardliners will discredit him and Iran will revert back to a policy of resistance,” Esfandiary told Reuters.

Rouhani's key appointment so far has been Mohammad Javad Zarif as foreign minister. Zarif has been involved in back-channel talks and behind-the-scenes negotiations with the United States dating back to the arms-for-hostages deal of the 1980s, and has had contacts with top U.S. officials, including U.S. President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

A new head of the Supreme National Security Council, who has traditionally acted as Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, has yet to be appointed. The delay has led some Iran-watchers to speculate Rouhani may want to the bring the job of nuclear negotiator under the foreign ministry, giving an even stronger signal that he wants to streamline the talks process.

The basis of a deal is just about visible.

The two governments appear closer to holding direct talks than they have been in many years, perhaps even reviving the idea of a “grand bargain” to resolve all the issues between them dating back to the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rouhani has signalled he would be willing to allow more transparency in Tehran's nuclear activities in return for the acceptance of Iran's right to enrich for peaceful purposes.

WHO WILL MAKE THE FIRST MOVE

But both the United States and Iran appear to be waiting for the other side to make the first big concession, which is likely to stall any breakthrough.

Rouhani said on Tuesday Iran retained the “right” to enrich uranium, a position that has scuttled past talks and is likely to be a sticking point again.

World powers have demanded Iran cease the enrichment of uranium up to 20 percent and U.N. Security Council resolutions require Iran to suspend all enrichment.

“It was always going to be unlikely that Iran would happily give up enrichment – the Islamic Republic of Iran has painted itself into a corner by elevating the issue to one of national resistance and pride,” Esfandiary said.

And there are those on both sides arguing for their government to take a tougher stance.

Some in the United States believe it is the strict sanctions that have brought about Iran's new willingness to negotiate and the opportunity should not be lost to press the advantage home.

A large majority of U.S. senators urged President Barack Obama in a letter this week to step up sanctions to strengthen Washington's hand in talks. The House of Representatives also passed a bill aiming to choke off Iranian oil exports altogether last week. The full Senate is expected to debate the bill after the summer recess.

Rouhani blamed what he called a “war-mongering group” in U.S. Congress that he said was doing the bidding of Iran's sworn foe Israel.

“The key issue remains the insistence in both camps that the other side must make the first move,” said Jamie Ingram, Middle East analyst at IHS Country Risk.

“There is inherent mistrust between the U.S. and Iran and each are reticent to make any firm commitments on the back of what they fear may just be 'rhetoric',” he told Reuters.

“I think there is some willingness in the Obama administration which sees the potential to make a massive achievement in its final term – conversely, they will be wary of being seen to make a huge mistake.”

Additional reporting by Marcus George; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

Russia to send Syria air defense system to deter ‘hotheads’


Russia will deliver an advanced air defense system to the Syrian government despite Western opposition because it will help deter “hotheads” who back foreign intervention, a senior Russian official said on Tuesday.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov also accused the European Union of “throwing fuel on the fire” by letting its arms embargo on Syrian expire, saying it would complicate efforts to arrange an international peace conference.

His remarks toughened Russia's defiance of the United States, France and Israel over the planned sale of precision S-300 missile systems to President Bashar al-Assad's government, which is battling a Western and Gulf Arab-backed insurgency.

“We think this delivery is a stabilizing factor and that such steps in many ways restrain some hotheads … from exploring scenarios in which this conflict could be given an international character with participation of outside forces, to whom this idea is not foreign,” he told a news conference.

Western experts say the air defense system could significantly boost Syria's ability to stave off outside intervention in the more than two-year civil war that has killed more than 80,000 people.

The S-300s can intercept manned aircraft and guided missiles and their delivery would improve Assad's government's chances of holding out in Damascus. Western nations say the Russian arms deliveries could increase tension and encourage Assad.

Moscow is standing firm on the sale, despite a trip to Russia by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this month in which he pleaded with President Vladimir Putin to halt the delivery, and a veiled warning of a military response by Israel.

“I can say that the shipments are not on their way yet,” Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Tuesday at a conference near Tel Aviv. “I hope they will not leave, and if, God forbid, they reach Syria, we will know what to do.”

POWERFUL ALLY

Russia has sent anti-missile defense systems to Syria before, but says it has not sent offensive weapons or arms that can be used against the anti-government forces. A source close to Russia's state arms exporter said a contract to supply Syria with fighter jets had been suspended.

Ryabkov was unable to confirm whether S-300s had already been delivered but said “we will not disavow them”.

Russia has been Assad's most powerful ally during the conflict, opposing sanctions and blocking, with China, three Western-backed U.N. Security Council resolutions meant to pressure the government to stop fighting.

Moscow opposes military intervention or arming Syrian rebels and defends its right to deliver arms to Assad's government.

Ryabkov said the failure by the EU to renew its arms embargo on Syria at a meeting on Monday would undermine the chances for peace talks which Moscow and Washington are trying to organize.

“The European Union is essentially throwing fuel on the fire in Syria,” he said of the EU compromise decision which will allow EU states to supply arms to the rebels if they wish.

His comments were echoed by Putin's press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who also criticised a visit to Syria on Monday by U.S. Senator John McCain, who met rebels fighting Assad's government.

Britain and France, which opposed renewing the arms embargo, have made clear they reserve the right to send arms immediately, despite an agreement by European countries to put off potential deliveries until August 1, but have made no decisions yet.

A senior French official said the S-300 was brought up at talks between French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Paris on Monday.

“Obviously it poses a huge problem for us because if they deliver these weapons – they are ground-to-air missiles – and if we were to set up air corridors, then you can see the contradiction between the two,” the official said.

Israel says Russian weapons sent to Syria could end up in the hands of its enemy, Iran, or the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

Israeli Strategic Affairs and Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said the S-300 could reach deep into the Jewish state and threaten flights over its main commercial airport near Tel Aviv.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Alison Williams

The Turkic Islamic world uniting with Israel as a sovereign entity


Over the last few years, one of the questions that I have been often asked is: Is Turkey leaving the West? Is Turkey's axis shifting? Is Turkey turning its back on the West? The simple answer is no. Turkey is a democratic, free and secular country with a majority Muslim population, friend with the West and this will stay as it is. However, Turkey has realized her responsibilities as the natural leader in the Turkic Islamic world. Turkey as a soft power, like an elder brother, can and will be a unifying entity, a model to the Islamic countries to inspire a new vision where people can see that Islam does not conflict with democracy, fundamental freedoms and human rights. What is more it can initiate key solutions to end conflicts in the region by bringing these countries under the same umbrella with a new spirit of brotherhood. Let me tell you how.

Imagine a union among the countries of the Middle East, the Caucasus and North Africa; not a materialistic or economic union like the European Union, not the kind of unity where they want to get rid of you when you are in trouble or weak, but a spiritual union, ready to serve, to help, with a consciousness of self-sacrifice in which one will not sleep in comfort when her neighbor has a problem. Imagine living with open borders, traveling between countries as you travel among cities. No visa procedures, no passports.

In fact it is quite natural to expect a union between the Turkic countries and the Islamic countries because these countries share so much in common and what is unnatural is the division among them. However what is more important and unique about this unity is that it will include Israel and Armenia, and even Russia in the later stages. In the same way that a family is made strong and healthy by its members helping one another, this unity will constitute a family.

The immediate establishment of this Union is essential for the entire region. This Union does not imply any racial superiority nor will it impose any religion. It will rather be one that treats Muslims, Christians, Jews and all others with great affection, and recognizes their right to exist as first class citizens. Indeed, the ones who would benefit most from this would be non-Muslims; Armenians, Greeks, Jews. It will constitute a social role model with a democratic and secular structure that attaches the proper value to human rights and fundamental liberties. Not only believers, but also Buddhists, Zoroastrians, atheists – in short everyone – will be free to express their opinions and live as they choose in the climate of freedom established.

One important characteristic of this Union is the member states preserving their national identities as sovereign nation states. No one will interfere in anyone's foreign or domestic affairs. So we are not talking about a repressive or despotic regime. There will be nothing about it that damages or interferes in the internal matters of the states. Member states will preserve their own governments and will be guaranteed their sovereign status.

This model may cause one to immediately think of the Ottoman Empire, but it is not an attempt to resurrect that concept. What I am talking about is something else. We do not regard the Ottoman era as perfect; we know they had defects and made mistakes. Since this will be a union of brotherhood, a union of love, not a concept of racial superiority or the classic model of an empire built by military conquest , the radical voices will have to behave themselves. This great unity will also be a deterrent force and the radical elements will be deterred from pursuing their extravagant and nefarious goals. There will therefore be no terror and anarchy in the region. All the money currently spent for the military will instead be directed to people's comfort, and will be spent on ensuring a high quality of life for all. It will help the region to get rid of the scourges of terror, economic troubles or of the torment of confinement, and it will provide economic support, by enriching them through the sharing of natural resources. The aim is for these states to come together under a single roof and establish joint security and welfare. This is a Union that will watch over and protect all nations, that will embrace Muslims, Christians and Jews in the same way. 

None of the countries in the region is currently comfortable. For one thing, just like the other countries, it will come as a huge relief to Israel. This Union means the salvation of Israel. Israel will be able to relax, dwell in tranquility and trade freely to the fullest extent in the region, and will enjoy a peace and security it has never known before in its history. Israelis will live in the utmost peace, security, joy and abundance just like the others in their respective countries. Jews will be able to worship as they wish, they will continue to live in that region, and will do business and worship as they see fit. It also means Armenia attaining a high quality of life and bounty. It means people in Armenia being freed from their current woes and confinement in the region. It means a new beginning for the whole region.

Yes there is pain and angst at the moment, but these are birth pains, and the birth of this Union will be a glad tiding to the entire world. What the region needs is not cold political agreements with temporary solutions, but a new vision, a new spirit that will bring true peace and brotherhood. There is already a step by step progress in that direction. What we need to do is remove the artificial obstacles and accelerate this process.

I can already hear the critics saying that this is either a dream or simply wishful thinking; however, I would like to remind everyone that many things we take for granted in today's world used to look like naive dreams in the past. After all, it has only been 67 years since the end of World War Two, and today people travel freely throughout Europe and have created a union that would have been impossible as little as three decades ago. The border between Netherlands and Belgium in Baarle-Nassau passes by a café; there are no soldiers, no barbed wire, no mines. Also, many will recall that the USSR and the Berlin Wall were perceived of as a regrettable reality that seemed so strong that nothing could change it; the rapid dissolution of the Eastern Bloc and the Soviet Union came as a distinct shock to many observers of geopolitics and indeed to many intelligence services throughout the world, none of whom had anticipated that particular chain of events. Until the last moment, many people were deeply suspicious of German unification, fearing aggression; former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famously skeptical of the idea, as was former French President Francois Mitterrand. Things that may seem like a dream today can come true tomorrow morning. If we honestly believe in such a vision, and strive toward transforming that vision into reality, any idea can be realized far sooner and with greater ease than anyone could possibly imagine.

Russia warns West over Syria after Obama threats


Russia warned the West on Tuesday against unilateral action on Syria, a day after U.S. President Barack Obama threatened “enormous consequences” if his Syrian counterpart used chemical or biological arms or even moved them in a menacing way.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after meeting China’s top diplomat, said Moscow and Beijing were committed to “the need to strictly adhere to the norms of international law…and not to allow their violation”.

Syrian Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil, also speaking in Moscow, dismissed Obama’s threat as media fodder.

“Direct military intervention in Syria is impossible because whoever thinks about it … is heading towards a confrontation wider than Syria’s borders,” he told a news conference.

Jamil said the West was seeking an excuse to intervene, likening the focus on Syria’s chemical weapons with the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S.-led forces on what proved to be groundless suspicions that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction.

Russia and China have opposed military intervention in Syria throughout a 17-month-old revolt against President Bashar al-Assad. They have vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions backed by Western and Arab states that would have put more pressure on Damascus to end violence that has cost 18,000 lives.

In one of the latest battle zones, Syrian troops and tanks overran the Damascus suburbs of Mouadamiya on Tuesday, killing at least 20 young men and burning shops and houses before pulling back, residents and opposition activists said.

The bodies of the men, mostly shot at point-blank range, were found in basements and looted premises, bringing to 50 the death toll from the army’s two-day-old offensive to drive rebels from the Sunni Muslim suburb in the southwest of the capital.

“People are just starting to get out of their homes to see the destruction,” said one activist who gave her name as Hayat.

Opposition sources said Free Syrian Army rebels left Mouadamiya at dawn under heavy aerial and ground bombardment.

State-imposed curbs on media made it impossible to verify the reports of the violence, which followed another bloody day on Monday, when about 200 people were killed across the country, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“RED LINE”

The United States and its allies have shown little appetite for intervention to halt the bloodshed on the lines of last year’s NATO campaign that helped topple Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

But Obama used some of his strongest language yet on Monday to warn Assad not to use unconventional weapons.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is (if) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus.”

Syria last month acknowledged for the first time that it had chemical or biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries attacked it.

“We cannot have a situation where chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama said, perhaps referring to Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah group, an Iranian-backed ally of Assad, or to Islamist militants.

The U.S.-based Global Security website says there are four suspected chemical weapons sites in Syria producing the nerve agents VX, sarin and tabun. It does not cite its sources.

Israel, still formally at war with Syria, has also debated whether to attack the unconventional arms sites which it views as its gravest peril from the conflict next door.

Obama has been reluctant to embroil the United States in another war in the Middle East and refuses to arm Syrian rebels, partly for fear that some of those fighting the Iranian-backed president are Islamist radicals equally hostile to the West.

Rebels have seized swathes of territory in northern Syria near Turkey, which now hosts 70,000 Syrian refugees and which has suggested that the United Nations might need to create a “safe zone” in Syria if that total topped 10,000.

But setting up a safe haven would require imposing a no-fly zone, an idea which U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week was not a “front-burner” issue for Washington.

With diplomatic efforts to end the war stymied by divisions between world powers and regional rivalries, Syria faces the prospect of a prolonged conflict that increasingly sets a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against Assad’s Alawite minority.

That sectarian faultline also flared in neighboring Lebanon, where two people were killed and more than 60 wounded in the northern port city of Tripoli, a mainly Sunni city with a staunchly pro-Assad Alawite minority.

Gunmen in the Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and their Alawite rivals in Jebel Mohsen exchanged gun and grenade fire in sporadic fighting overnight and into the day, despite action by Lebanese army troops deployed in the port city, residents said.

The wounded included 10 soldiers, the army said.

Additional reporting by Nazih Siddiq in Tripoli, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Steve Gutterman in Moscow and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Iran’s parliament speaker Larijani calls for end to West, Israel


An Iranian official said the West and Israel should disappear.

“Today, the time has come for the disappearance of the West and the Zionist regime (Israel)—which are two dark spots in the present era—from the face of the universe,” Ali Larijiani the speaker of Iran’s parliament, told a news conference in Iran on Thursday, Iran’s PressTV reported.

“The U.S. and the Zionist regime are the prime sources of tyranny and gloom in the current age. The Muslim world is fed up with the injustice and abuse by these governments,” he added.

Larijani also said the West’s interference in Syria “is merely due to Syrian resistance against the Zionist regime; the U.S., therefore, tries to employ such notions as reforms to harm the resistance front in this nation,” Press TV reported.

Iran says it’s ready to resolve nuclear issues


Iran is ready to resolve all nuclear issues in the next round of talks with world powers if the West starts lifting sanctions, its foreign minister said on Monday.

In an interview with the Iranian student news agency ISNA, Ali Akbar Salehi also hinted that Iran could make concessions on its higher-grade uranium enrichment, a key concern of Western powers which suspect Iran is covertly developing a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies the accusations.

Both sides said they were content with progress made in Saturday’s talks in Istanbul which did not go into detail but, unlike earlier rounds of negotiations, stayed on the subject of Iran’s nuclear programme.

“If the West wants to take confidence-building measures it should start in the field of sanctions because this action can speed up the process of negotiations reaching results,” Salehi was quoted as saying.

“If there is goodwill, one can pass through this process very easily and we are ready to resolve all issues very quickly and simply and even in the Baghdad meeting,” he added, referring to a second round of talks with world powers scheduled to take place in the Iraqi capital on May 23.

It is unclear whether the Iranian foreign minister was suggesting the lifting of sanctions prior to Iran taking steps to reassure the West over its nuclear activities, but Washington has said that would not be acceptable.

“Dialogue is not sufficient for any sanctions relief, one has to get to concrete actions that are significant,” said a senior Obama administration official after the talks on Saturday.

“One only begins to look at those issues when there are sufficient concrete steps taken that warrant any changes in our approach to sanctions,” the official said.

Denmark, holder of the European Union’s rotating presidency, also said sanctions should not be eased until Tehran takes steps to comply with the demands of the major world powers.

“I think it would be very dangerous to create a situation where we say to Iranians we might lift part of the sanctions,” Danish Foreign Minister Villy Sovndal told reporters. “They are world champions in making very long negotiations lead nowhere.”

Salehi asserted Iran’s right to process uranium for peaceful purposes but that there might be room for a compromise on higher-level enrichment.

“Enrichment is Iran’s right but we can negotiate on how we obtain uranium with different enrichment levels,” he said.

“Making 20 percent (enriched nuclear) fuel is our right as long as it provides for our reactor needs and there is no question about that,” he said, but added: “If they guarantee that they will provide us with the different levels of enriched fuel that we need, then that would be another issue.”

The comments indicate that Iran may be prepared to consider an updated proposal of a 2009 fuel swap deal that collapsed when the two sides failed to agree on the details of implementation.

The 2009 deal would have seen Tehran export an agreed amount of its lower enriched uranium in return for fuel made from higher grade uranium which is required for the Tehran research reactor (TRR).

Iran says it started enriching uranium to a purity of 20 percent to fuel the reactor but many countries see that as a dangerous step towards the 90 percent enrichment required for an atomic bomb.

A Western diplomat said the Iranian delegation brought up the 2009 deal in Istanbul and described it as a “missed opportunity”.

“This talk of the TRR could be a positive sign,” he said. “We are ready to put the TRR back on the table, but with adapted quantities because things have moved since that offer.”

The 2009 agreement envisaged Iran handing over 1,200 kg of low enriched uranium (LEU) in exchange for a sufficient quantity of higher-grade enriched fuel plates to feed the Tehran reactor.

Western experts estimate Iran’s present stockpile of refined uranium is enough for four atomic bombs if processed much further.

While Salehi’s comments strike a positive tone, the diplomat said perspective was needed: “There is no mystery, Baghdad will be complicated. It’s not about opening talks for the sake of talks but moving towards Iran meetings its obligations.”

Many analysts and some diplomats say both sides must compromise for any chance of a long-term settlement: Iran would be allowed to continue limited low-level enrichment if it in return accepts much more intrusive U.N. nuclear inspections.

Another Western diplomat said he believed the Iranians were trying to create momentum in a deal revolving around uranium enriched to 20 percent and Salehi’s comments were more than just words.

“It has been quite a long time since the issue has been raised in such terms. I don’t know where it could lead … but it could at least be a good starter for the next meeting,” he said.

But Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear plans as an existential threat, has demanded that the Islamic Republic halts all its enrichment, activity which can have both civilian and military purposes.

U.S.: Time for reaching diplomatic solution to Iran nuclear standoff limited


Time is not infinite for nuclear talks between Iran and the West, a White House said on Monday, five days before a planned round of talks was set to begin, adding that the window of opportunity in which a diplomatic solution can be reached is closing.

In a briefing by White House press secretary Jay Carney, the U.S. official said that, as a first priority ahead of nuclear talks, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama put the cessation of Iran’s enrichment of 20 percent grade uranium in its underground facility in Fordo.

However, Carney added, the “bottom line” in upcoming talks would be to get Tehran to relinquish its nuclear aspirations altogether, ceasing all enrichment activities in the country.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Former IDF chief Ya’alon: West can hit all of Iran’s nukes


The West could carry out a military strike on any of Iran’s nuclear facilities, former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon said.

Ya’alon, the country’s deputy prime minister and minister of strategic affairs, told the 2012 Herzliya Conference Thursday that all of Iran’s nuclear facilities are within striking range.

“Any facility defended by a human being can be penetrated,” he said. “Any facility in Iran can be hit, and I speak from experience as the IDF chief of staff.”

Ya’alon added that “the West has the ability to strike, but as long as Iran isn’t convinced that there’s a determination to follow through with it, they’ll continue with their manipulations.”

The Wall Street Journal last week cited American military officials as saying that they did not have arms strong enough to penetrate all of Iran’s nuclear installations.

Ya’alon did not discount the idea that international sanctions could serve as a deterrent against an Iranian nuclear attack.

Earlier Thursday, Israel’s director of military intelligence, Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, told the conference that Iran has enough enriched uranium to produce four nuclear bombs and that Israel is threatened by some 200,000 missiles at any moment.

In Burmese Chanukah celebration, signs of Myanmar’s openness to the West


In almost any other community from Moscow to Washington, it would have been just another public Chanukah menorah-lighting ceremony providing an opportunity for the local government and Jewish community to showcase their strong ties.

But in Myanmar, where the government has been run by a military junta and the Jewish community numbers just a handful of families, the occasion last week of a public Chanukah lighting ceremony involving government officials was remarkable.

On Dec. 27, the last night of Chanukah, Myanmar’s eight Jewish families were joined by government officials, diplomats and former ambassadors at a Chanukah celebration in Yangon, also known as Rangoon. In all, about 100 people were on hand for the party at the Park Royal Hotel.

Earlier, Jewish community leader Moses Samuels visited the home of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and pro-democracy advocate who until a year ago had been under house arrest for most of the last two decades. At the meeting, Suu Kyi reportedly said that she once had visited the country’s century-old synagogue, Musmeah Yeshua (Hebrew for Instills Hope), which is still open.

Suu Kyi had been invited to the Chanukah event but said she could not attend because it conflicted with a prayer ceremony she was holding at her home for her late mother.

The visits to Suu Kyi and the Yangon Chanukah party were signs of the changes taking place in Myanmar, also known as Burma, where the last year has seen significant economic and political reforms and new openness to the West. Last month, in an affirmation of those changes, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country, the first such visit by a U.S. secretary of state in more than half a century.

“The United States is prepared to walk the path of reform with you if you keep moving in the right direction,” Clinton told Myanmar’s president, Thein Sein, during her visit.

Samuels, whose Burmese name is Than Lwin, has been instrumental in keeping alive the Jewish presence in Yangon.  Every morning he opens the well-kept blue-and-white synagogue, even though most of the time there is no official prayer service—unless there is a yahrzeit anniversary for the deceased or a visiting Jewish tourist group. Samuels and his son Sammy, who lives in New York, run a tour company in the country called Myanmar Shalom Travel and Tours.

Until this year the community’s Chanukah ceremonies were quiet affairs in the synagogue, according to Samuels. But with Myanmar opening up to the West, the community decided to make the event bigger this year, holding the rite at a hotel and including a photo exhibit of Israel-Burmese relations.

Among the Burmese officials present were Daw Yin Yin Myint, the director general of the Foreign Ministry; U Tin Oo, a former commander in chief of the armed forces who is the vice chairman of the opposition National League for Democracy party; Maung Maung Swe, chair of the Myanmar Travel Association; and U Hein Latt, vice chairman of the newspaper Popular Journal.

Diplomats from the United States, France, Russia, India, Singapore, Britain, Italy and Israel came, and the celebration involved not just Jews but also Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Baha’i.

Several thousand Jews once lived in Burma. The first known Jew to live in the country was Solomon Gabirol, who served as a commissar to the army of King Alaungpaya, who ruled from 1752 to 1760.

Growing numbers of Jewish merchants came to Burma over the years, and in the mid-19th century a group of Baghdadi Jews led by David Sassoon settled in Burma, India and other lands in the Far East. Burma’s synagogue was built in 1854 and rebuilt in 1896. The community supports a cemetery; its oldest grave is dated 1876.

After the Japanese invasion in 1941, many Burmese Jews fled to India.

Both Burma and Israel achieved independence in 1948, and the two countries enjoyed cordial relations for the first two decades of their existence. That included a warm friendship between prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and U Nu, who was the first head of state to visit Israel. A daughter of U Nu, Than Than Nu, attended last week’s Chanukah party.

When a military junta took over Burma in 1962, installing a repressive regime and nationalizing businesses, most Jews left.

In a recent interview, Israel’s ambassador to Myanmar, Yaron Mayer, told JTA that relations between the two countries had “remained good over the years.” He noted that in 2011 a Myanmar delegation attended an energy conference in Israel.

Some of the few Jews left in Myanmar said they hope that with time and a continual opening of Myanmar’s political system, the Jewish community here will grow.

“No matter what religion we practice or what beliefs we value,” Sammy Samuels said at the Chanukah party, “when we light the candles tonight it reminds all of us to rededicate ourselves to improving the lives of those around us, to spread the light of freedom and to believe that miracles are possible even in times of darkness.”

Ben G. Frank is the author of the newly published “The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond” from Globe Pequot Press.

West must find political solution to Iran’s nuclear program


The Israeli president’s recent threat to bomb Iranian nuclear sites focused world attention on Iran’s nuclear program even before the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) shocking report on the country’s efforts to get the bomb was published.

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says his country would not step back one iota. He was backed by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warning that possible Western attacks on Iranian nuclear sites would be met with “iron fists.”

Who would prevail if there were such an attack? I think Ahmadinejad.

To carry out such an attack, two elements are essential: military or technical might and political will. Neither one seems to exist.

Iran’s nuclear facilities are mostly buried in a vast country covered with mountains. Sure, there are open facilities, like the uranium enrichment compound in Natanz, but the scattered locations decrease vulnerability, so the military challenge is immense.

But, even before the technical issues could be seriously addressed, political ones should be set. Israel is, like it or not, part of the West. It is supported by the United States and has to act, in many ways, according to general guidelines set by the latter and the rest of the Western community. The West, especially the United States, has never had any intention of standing firm against the regime in power in Iran, and they have not yet shown any sign of a policy change. Ahmadinejad understands this.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is an existential challenge to the regime. Deprived of popular support and engulfed in internal threats following the Arab Spring, the regime is in dire need of a stabilizing factor. The long-sought bomb is life insurance for the clerics. Being part of the famous “axis of evil,” the Iranian regime is convinced that to avoid the fate of Iraq they should follow the North Korean example. So, Ahmadinejad’s vow of not stepping back should be taken at face value. The regime is not able to tep back. The strong support by Khamenei, these days usually at loggerheads with his president, confirms their seriousness.

The West’s political dilemma lies in wanting an Iran without the bomb.

But Iran’s longtime efforts — revealed for the first time after 19 years of secret existence by their main opposition movement in 2002 and confirmed by the recent report of the IAEA — show clearly that a nonnuclear Iran would soon belong to the past. So the technically difficult military attack to wipe out Iran’s nuclear capacity requires, in the long run, a new Western policy based on the concept of a regime change. That is where the West stands undecided, and the clerics in power in Iran understand this. Strong words will not frighten where sound policies do not exist. The West has to choose between a nuclear Iran and a different regime in that country. The policy of kowtowing to the regime is counterproductive and should be stopped. 

A political consensus around a true regime change in Iran should be built before any serious action can be taken. Only after this consensus is built can there be any forward movement. And then, it is wise to include in that consensus Iranian democratic forces opposed to the nuclear ambitions of the clerical regime. A necessary step toward a final resolution would be talking seriously to those forces inside the country that have stood up to the nuclear program. To this day, the United States position toward the true opposition has been calculated to avoid antagonizing the regime. (See “U.S. Should Support Iranians’ Right to Oppose Regime,” Nov. 11.)

Because everybody has to settle with a nuclear Iran, militarily, or look beyond the current regime, any credible internal opposition to the regime should also be expressed in terms of opposition to its nuclear program.

There is no popular support for nuclear power in Iran. In a country rich in oil and gas reserves, no one has any doubt about the regime’s military ambitions under the guise of a peaceful nuclear program. The best sign is that the regime has never been able to mobilize great masses in a bid to show “popular support” for its nuclear program.

In a country where even the smallest opposition is crushed in blood, there are no “nationalistic” feelings toward the clerics’ trump card for staying in power.

We are not the enemy


To read a response to this essay by Jordan Elgrably, click here.

If I were in a position to go on Al Jazeera this week and deliver a message to the people of the Middle East, including Israelis, I would proudly declare myself an Arab Jew and remind everyone that Jews have been an integral part of the Middle East mosaic for millennia. We are not the enemy, and often we speak the same languages—Arabic, Farsi, Turkish etc. Our ancestors have lived in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and even Afghanistan for hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.

Today most Jews of Arab/Muslim lands live outside the region, or in Israel where we have experienced a history of discrimination from European-origin Jews who believe that their cultures are superior to ours.

I would tell Al Jazeera listeners that not all Jews support the Occupation policies of Israel’s military and government; and I would insist that the historic expulsions of Palestinians from their homes, businesses and properties in 1948, and 1967, were illegal, inhumane, and did not occur with our knowledge nor blessing. Yitzhak Rabin and other Israelis have admitted in Hebrew-language documents that there was a deliberate policy of expulsion or ethnic cleansing of Arabs from their homes. And the military policies of the State of Israel since 1967, combined with the extensive building of settlements, have undermined so-called peace processes where good faith efforts are required of all participating parties.

The peoples of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, not to mention Bahrain and Yemen, are indeed in a historic period. They are rising up against autocracy and repression, against oppression by the state, calling for new freedoms.

Palestinians under Israeli rule in the West Bank have the same desire to live freely, to escape the oppression of occupation, and recover their human and civil rights. They have a right to enjoy their independence. The original U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 proposed a state for Palestinians and a state for Jews. This is the time when all Arabs and all Arab Jews who support peace, justice and democracy should speak out and say enough to state oppression. Stop building settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank; end the siege of Gaza; apologize to the Palestinian people for the historic wrongs Israel inflicted in the 1948 Nakbah; and let us enter a new era of peace as equals who take responsibility for our actions.

Israelis and Palestinians and all reasonable people around the world have understood that there is no military solution to the conflict. Violence will never solve anything.

As a country, Israel should be an integrated into the mosaic of the Middle East. It’s time to end the conflict that began with the belief that Arabs and Jews are historic enemies. This was never true, yet decades of brainwashing have many Jews believing that Arabs and Muslims hate Israel because we are Jews. Instead, we should realize that Arabs/Muslims are like people everywhere, who want the same human rights that Americans enjoy. Those rights must extend to the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, and to Israel’s Arab citizens.

If Israel wants to preach peace, it should walk the walk. Apologize for its wartime mistakes and missteps; compensate its victims; and reform its military and occupation policies—as well as laws in Israel that discriminate against non-Jews.

In other words, let’s help Israel get on the same page as Americans who could never live under the kind of oppression Palestinians experience on a daily basis.

Jordan Elgrably is the executive director of the Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

Converso cowboys who tamed the U.S. frontier


Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West” by Deanne Stillman ($25, Houghton Mifflin).

In 1998, while finishing up her book “Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave,” Deanne Stillman learned that 34 wild horses had been gunned down outside Reno, Nev., and two of the accused were Marines. One of them was stationed at Twentynine Palms. Having grown up around horses, Stillman was immediately drawn to the story, and began exploring the wild horse trail. One of the things she learned is that horses are indigenous to this country, died out in the Ice Age and then returned with conquistadors. Among the conquistadors were Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, some of whom became America’s first cowboys. Stillman writes about them — and the horses of the conquest — in the first chapter of her new book, “Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West.” The following is an excerpt from that chapter.

They must have known they were coming home for nothing else can explain their survival and perhaps only that knowledge deep in their cells sustained them. Horses are animals of prey and they like the wide open and to be constrained on the decks in the hot sun or between decks without light or means of escape for two or three months would have overloaded their circuits. Threats hung in the air and everything was new and strange. Where once they smelled land and grass and legumes, they now would smell salt air mixed with the galleon stench; where once they were calmed by the nuzzling of their band in each other’s manes and necks on the fields of Europe, they now were held in place with slings and hoists, touched and reassured not by their own kind but by the men who were in charge of making sure they had safe passage.

These were the horses which carried Spain to victory in the New World. On April 21, 1519, 16 of them accompanied Hernando Cortes and his crew, which included Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, up an inlet on the east coast of Mexico to begin the assault that launched the American entrada.

As the galleons closed in, the horses would have sensed that change was in the air. They had already picked up the strange scent from a distant jungle blowing through their nostrils, and their large ears had heard the call of tropical birds from a far-off grove of palms. Now, as they were brought into the sunlight, their wide-ranging eyes might have perceived a figure, or many, with vibrant feathers, ducking between rocks or hiding in trees. The ship would have slowed just offshore and the men would have scurried along the decks, preparing for exactly what no one knew and as horse and man alike tasted the perfume of the New World, the conquistadors donned their chain mail and some helpers hauled the heavy wooden cross that would accompany them through the empire of the Aztecs into a bark and it was dropped and they rowed ashore. It was Good Friday, and the priest said a prayer.

Hernando Alonso, the Hebrew blacksmith who was one of the many conversos on board, also said a prayer as he checked the shoes of the horses, perhaps fitted some with new ones for the tough days ahead; the Spaniards had a special incantation which was designed for such occasions — the length of time it took to utter permitted the iron to get as hot as it should before it was shaped and nailed to the horses’ hooves — “for Christo y Santiago,” Alonso said, and then repeated it several times, perhaps adding in a furtive whisper as he hammered, “Shma Israel Adonai Elohenu” — and then the horses were saddled, their breastplates bedecked with bells, and they were lowered into shallow water, for there were no piers or point of debarkation awaiting the visitors, and they swam ashore. It was difficult for them, as their legs were stiff from the containment during the passage but instinct prevailed and the little band that would change the world forever scrambled on to the land their masters would call Eldorado.

For the next several decades, the warriors kept coming. When the battles were over, millions of Indians had perished. Upon his return to Spain, Cortes received much fame and fortune. But his life was said to be empty. Many of his old compadres turned against him, accusing him of war crimes and misappropriating Montezuma’s gold. Others had remained in Mexico, particularly the Jews who had been hiding as Catholics. The farrier Alonso, who uttered the special prayer while fitting the horses of the conquest with shoes, established the first ranch in the New World, outside Mexico City. But by 1529, the Inquisition had ranged across the ocean. What prayer did he utter when the soldiers came for him in the jungles of Mexico? Of course we do not know, for there is no record of his last words as a free man, but we do know that the church rendered him another sort of pioneer — the first Jew to be burnt at the stake in the New World, carried to the outdoor furnace in a procession on a horse, draped in the dun-colored sambenito of shame that might have matched the coat of his four-legged companion. Although the sambenito looked like a priest’s garment with its chasuble and long pointed hat, its purpose was to mock the wearer; its name means to brand or disgrace, and it was yellow — a color that is most significant in terms of this story because its use as a slander dates from a Medieval superstition about dun, or yellow, horses. They were considered inferior.

After his auto-da-fe in Mexico City, other secret Hebrews who had fled Spain as conquistadors volunteered for assignments in the most rugged parts of Mexico where they thought they could be safe. And so was established another first — the biggest ranch in the New World, in the sere province of Nuevo Leon, near what became the modern city of Monterrey. It was started by the Carvajal family, a famous converso dynasty that bred the first horses and cattle in the conquered lands, supplying the foundation stock for missions along the Rio Grande, and in turn some of these horses found their way to the Native Americans of Texas and beyond. Yet, the Inquisition pressed on and the Carvajals — father and nephew, wife and nieces — were burnt at the stake in the late 16th century. Some secret Hebrews eluded their tormentors, and within another hundred years they had headed north and become the first cowboys in the New World — yes, the original high plains drifter of American legend was not Clint Eastwood but a son of Moses who had been kicked out of Spain.

Pink Floyd’s Waters Caught Red-Handed


“No thought control.”

The famed lyrics from rock band Pink Floyd’s much beloved “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” make for a powerful statement regardless of context. Scrawled last week in red paint on a concrete segment of Israel’s security fence in the Palestinian town of Bethlehem by Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters himself, though, the poignancy of the verse is undeniable.

Waters visited Israel to play a concert June 22 at Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (literally Oasis of Peace), a cooperative Jewish-Palestinian Arab village between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Originally scheduled to perform at the much more mainstream Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv, Rogers moved the concert to the fields of Neve Shalom in response to pressure from pro-Palestinian musicians.

“I moved the concert to Neve Shalom as a gesture of solidarity with the voices of reason — Israelis and Palestinians seeking a non-violent path to a just peace between the peoples,” Waters said in a press release.

According to the Jerusalem Post, the concert in its makeshift venue drew more than 50,000 attendees and became the cause of one of Israel’s worst traffic jams to date. Waters performed the album “Dark Side of the Moon” in its entirety, along with many of Pink Floyd’s greatest hits, including “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” “Wish You Were Here” and the especially iconic “Another Brick in the Wall.”

“We need this generation of Israelis to tear down walls and make peace,” Waters told the audience before his post-midnight encore.

Waters’ performance received much acclaim in Israel, but it is his spray-painting stint at the security fence in the West Bank the day before the showcase that is making lasting waves there and abroad. The artist’s paint and pen additions to the already graffiti-laden wall marked Waters’ first stop after arriving in Israel. According to reporters present at the Palestinian town of Bethlehem when he made the markings, Waters likened the barrier to the Berlin Wall, adding that “it may be a lot harder to get this one down, but eventually it has to happen, otherwise there’s no point to being human beings.”

The musician’s deliberately provocative gesture prompted right-wing activists Baruch Marzel and Itamar Ben-Gvir to call for the artist’s detainment.

The pair submitted an accusation to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court June 23 alleging that Waters destroyed Israel Defense Forces property, according to Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Israeli authorities have not yet issued a response to the singer’s graffiti or to Marzel and Ben-Gvir’s retaliatory petition.

The fence that Waters dubbed “a horrible edifice” is being constructed in the hopes of preventing Palestinian suicide bombers and other attackers, who have killed and wounded hundreds of Israelis in the last six years, from entering Israel proper.

Additional information courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz.

 

Couple Fights Harassment


"Be Careful," Jill Jacobson said.

An odd warning given to a reporter heading to the relatively safe neighborhood of West L.A., to investigate what might be a matter of bad neighbors, or a more noxious case of anti-Semitism. Jacobson’s accusations come at a time when anti-Semitism is flaring up around the world, and here at home — two teenage boys were attacked only last month in Beverlywood.

The trouble for Jacobson began last June, when her husband, Paul Dorman, moved in. Until then, Jacobson, an actress who has appeared regularly in such TV series as "Falcon Crest" and "Star Trek: Deep Space 9," had lived on the quiet cul-de-sac near Pico and Sepulveda boulevards for over seven years, mostly at peace with her neighbors.

Jacobson says she casually mentioned to next-door neighbor Ruben Haro that her new husband was a cantor at Sinai Temple. The harassment reportedly began soon after. Haro forbade the couple from parking their car on the part of the curb that adjoined his property, Jacobson says. Soon after, the taunting, the yelling and the videotaping began, according to the couple.

Across the street, Barbara Robbs lived with her grown children, one of whom had a criminal record and a violent past. Her son, Leonard Robbs, is now in jail for threatening the lives of Jacobson and Dorman. On Robbs’ front lawn, a sign reads "God bless my son Leonard aka Juice. He went to jail for the lie to the police of my Jewish neighbor."

Jacobson and Dorman have installed a security system and now keep a video camera by the door, which they take whenever they leave the house. They are afraid of their neighbors, and the tapes they have made show good reason to be.

What they have captured on the tapes reveals clearly that Haro and Robbs have a problem with their Jewish neighbors. Dorman’s camera has captured some disturbing incidents and documented the angry signs and pictures that clutter Robbs’ front lawn. Haro can be heard taunting Dorman with "Jew boy, Jew boy," followed by an unclear statement that Dorman claims is "Monster with the horns."

Barbara Robbs, standing in the street, complains loudly in a video that, "when I forget my god, dealing with you and your god, I have a problem." From her own front lawn, she appears on the video waving a copy of The Jewish Journal at the camera and yelling, "Satan in your church, in your synagogue."

On Sept. 1, 2001, while arguing about the patch of grass on city property between their homes, Haro sprayed Jacobson in the face with a garden hose. The incident was reported to police and classified as battery.

In January, the couple sought and won a restraining order against Leonard Robbs (who later went to jail in part for violating that order). In March, restraining orders were obtained covering Haro, other members of the Robbs family and a third neighbor.

Tensions continued to build until, in March, police returned to the cul-de-sac when a friend of Barbara Robbs reportedly swung a tire iron at the couple as they walked their dogs past Robbs’ home. The incident allegedly took place prior to the latest restraining orders.

Police have been called to the cul-de-sac many times, when Jacobson or Dorman feared their neighbors’ harassment would escalate to violence. Jacobson and Dorman themselves have also had a complaint filed against them. The same day as the reported tire iron incident, the Department of Animal Regulation served a notice to Jacobson and Dorman for their two dogs’ excessive barking. Barbara Robbs would later be cited by police for violating her restraining order by barking at Jacobson.

Though Jacobson and Dorman believe the harassment stems from anti-Semitism, it is not clear, either from the tapes or the police reports, that anti-Semitism is a motivating factor in the harassment, as much as a tool of harassment.

Police reports refer to "an ongoing neighbor dispute over property." Neither Haro nor the Robbs were available for comment.

After the reported incident with the tire iron, Jacobson and Dorman could no longer wait for the police to enforce the restraining orders. They called the FBI, and agents spent five hours at their home reviewing Dorman’s tapes and police reports.

"The FBI is making a determination" about a hate crimes prosecution, Dorman says. "[The neighbors] are clearly anti-Semitic and clearly harassing, but it’s a chicken or the egg question."

With the restraining orders reportedly not stopping the harassment, and fearing that the ambiguity of this neighborhood dispute as a hate crime will keep the police from effectively protecting them, Dorman and Jacobson are trying another tactic: They have filed a civil suit against their neighbors.

Their lawyer, Robert Canny, is seeking approximately $4.5 million in damages for emotional distress and punitive claims.

Though Dorman and Jacobson "just want this to go away," says Canny, they will stop the harassment through any channels they can.

"[The neighbors] own their houses. We want a levy on the houses," Canny says. "We’re gonna take their houses away if that’s what it takes."

After nearly a year feeling trapped in her home due to anti-Semitic taunting and threats, Jacobson still has trouble believing this is happening.

"You think it can never happen to you," she says, "then you find out it’s just sitting under the surface. Next door."