from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Renewed International Efforts on Iran and Syria

February 17, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a new resolution Thursday calling for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to end the brutal attacks on the Syrian people. Initial vote counts indicate the resolution received 137 votes in favor, twelve against, and seventeen abstentions. The vote came as the Syrian military stepped up its assault against opposition strongholds, including severe bombardments of Homs, Hama, and Deraa. The resolution backs an Arab League peace plan announced last weekend, but without its call for a joint Arab League-UN peacekeeping force of three thousand (my analysis on that available here).

Just before the UNGA vote, UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon said that “we see almost a certain crime against humanity” being committed in Syria. Meanwhile, France announced that it is negotiating with Russia over a new UN Security Council draft resolution and has also expressed a desire to create humanitarian corridors to aid civilians, an idea that has not been universally accepted--most notably by Turkey, which shares a 566-mile border with Syria. Tunisia will host a conference of the “Friends of Syria” contact group on February 24 for nations seeking to forge an international consensus on ending the violence in Syria. Earlier in the week, Bashar al-Assad announced a series of token reforms and a national referendum to be held on February 26. Russia welcomed the move while Syria’s opposition and most countries derided it as too little too late.

Iran. Iran announced on Wednesday that it was willing to resume talks with the P5+1 group, which consists of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France) plus Germany. The announcement came  in the form of a letter from the senior Iranian nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, responding to an October letter from EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in which she had invited Iran to a new round of talks. French foreign minister Alain Juppe said on Thursday that the Iranian letter “remains ambiguous, but constitutes the start of opening up from Iran which says it is ready to talk about its nuclear program.” The offer to resume talks came as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced breakthroughs in Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel. Israeli officials were attacked in India, Georgia, and Thailand. On Monday a magnetic bomb was attached to the car of an Israeli diplomat’s wife in New Delhi and exploded, wounding the Israeli while killing several others; a bomb affixed to an Israeli embassy worker’s car was discovered and successfully defused in Tiblisi. On Tuesday, a third attempted attack on Israeli diplomats was discovered in Bangkok when explosives were set off by mistake in a house by a man carrying a bomb. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the attacks, a sentiment that was reiterated by Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak following the Thailand blasts. Two Iranian nationals were detained by Thai police, while a third was arrested in Malaysia. Thai police and the Israeli ambassador to Thailand said that the similarities between the explosive devices found in Bangkok to the ones used in the previous day’s attacks suggest that the attacks were connected.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

On Monday, President Obama proposed his budget for the next fiscal year and requested that Egypt’s military aid remain at $1.3 billion, the same level as recent years, despite the ongoing tension over Egypt’s preventing U.S. NGO officials from leaving the country. The crisis has led some members of Congress to call for cutting the aid completely.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Egyptian field marshal Hussein Tantawi on Saturday to discuss a range of security-related issues including the issue of U.S. NGOs. While Egyptian and U.S. officials were positive about the meeting, an Australian reporter and a U.S. student were detained the same day on suspicion of distributing cash to incite unrest. They were released on Monday but barred from leaving the country pending further investigation.

On Wednesday, the U.S. embassy in Cairo declared that Washington is not trying to destabilize Egypt, but Rashad al-Bayoumi, deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, published an article on the Muslim Brotherhood website in which he said, “The American-Zionist scheme cannot rest if the heralds of freedom hover over the Arab and Islamic societies, which is why this ambassador was chosen to incite sedition in Egypt.” And on Thursday, Essam al-Erian, the vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, warned that the U.S. aid “was one of the commitments of the parties that signed the peace agreement so if there is a breach from one side it gives the right of review to the parties.”

Quotes of the Week

  • “I have no problem with the Muslim Brotherhood staying as it is now. But if we allow a group with a particular objective to exist and operate without being registered or monitored by the government, we should give that right to all other segments in society.” – Adel Ramadan, a human rights lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said earlier this week following a request by a leftist lawmaker to question the government over the Muslim Brotherhood’s “illegal” status
  • "In a sense there is no ’opposition’ in Bahrain, as the phrase implies one unified bloc with the same views.” – Bahrain’s king Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Monday to the German news magazine Der Spiegel
  • “[The] gun is our only response to Zionist regime [sic]. In time, we have come to understand that we can obtain our goals only through fighting and armed resistance and no compromise should be made with the enemy." – Hamas “prime minister” Ismail Haniyeh said on Monday as reported by the Iranian news agency ISNA
  • "It’s actually quite laughable--it makes a mockery of the Syrian revolution." – White House spokesperson Jay Carney aboard Air Force One on Wednesday about President Bashar al-Assad’s proposed February 26 national referendum
  • "I will tell him that Russia is isolating itself within the international community... and it is not a good thing for her to isolate herself to this extent." – French foreign minister Alain Juppe said on Wednesday about trying to persuade Russia to support a resolution on Syria at the United Nations

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Bahrain. February 14 marked the one-year anniversary of uprisings in Bahrain. Protesters marked the anniversary with several demonstrations throughout the small island country although armored vehicles and security forces prevented demonstrators from marching to Pearl Square in Manama—the site where the first protests emerged last year. Some thirty people were arrested on the suspicion of being protesters including prominent actor Nabeel Rajab and six U.S. activists. They were in the country as a part of a Witness Bahrain group to observe how police deal with demonstrations.

Libya. This week also marked the one-year anniversary of the beginning of Libya’s uprising. On February 17, 2011, protests began that led to civil war and the eventual ouster of Muammar Qaddafi who had been in power since 1969. Libya is now grappling with the fallout. A report released yesterday by Amnesty International identified militias in Libya as being “out of control” and a huge source of instability in the country: "Armed militias operating across Libya commit widespread human rights abuses with impunity, fueling insecurity and hindering the rebuilding of state institutions." The current governing body, the National Transitional Council, is struggling to exert authority over the militias and to incorporate the rebel fighters into official state security forces. These efforts have moved slowly and have seen mixed success. Parliamentary elections are scheduled to be held in June.

This Week in History

Tomorrow marks the sixtieth anniversary of Turkey’s membership in NATO. Turkey joined NATO on February 18, 1952 in a move that set off the alignment of its military along Western lines. Turkey would go on to play a critical role during the Cold War by aiding in the containment of the Soviet Union. Turkey has played an active role in a number of NATO missions, including those in Afghanistan, Libya, and the Balkans. Though Turkey was initially hesitant about the NATO-led intervention in Libya, it ultimately relented and played an active role in the effort.

Statistic of the Week 

A recent Gallup poll found that Iranians are more likely to approve of Iran developing its nuclear power capabilities for non-military use (57%) than for military use (40%). Iranians are more mixed about military use, which Iran insists it is not pursuing, with 40% approving and 35% disapproving. Nearly one in four did not express an opinion either way.