TRUMP CALLS FOR PEACE IN THE REGION, TOUGHER LINE AGAINST IRAN

 

US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a joint press conference at the premier’s residence in Jerusalem Monday.

The event marked the last of three public appearances that the president made before the media since landing at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport earlier in the day.

 

Trump told the premier that he was “honored” by the invitation extended by Netanyahu to visit Israel before calling for a renewed peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians.

“We want Israel to have peace… and we must seize [opportunities] together and take advantage of the situation,” Trump said.

Trump then echoed earlier statements he made during the day concerning Iran, and the need to rein in Tehran’s spreading influence in the region.

America and Israel, along with allies in the region, need to begin “facing the threat from the Iranian regime, which is causing so much suffering in the region,” the president said.

Trump also mentioned the need to stamp out “terrorism and extremism from the Muslim world,” and aim at “eradicating the violent ideologies that have been responsible for much of the killing around the world.”

Trump made headlines in his previous press conference when he denied mentioning Israel in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak earlier this month.

Trump reportedly shared sensitive intelligence with the Russians about ISIS, with speculation that the information shared came from Israeli intelligence sources.

“I never mentioned the word or the name Israel,” he said before meeting Prime Minister Netanyahu at the King David Hotel, in response to a question by a reporter. “They are all saying I did, so you have another story wrong. Never mentioned the word Israel”.

Netanyahu told reporters that “intelligence cooperation is terrific, never been better.”

Last week, according to a New York Times report, two US officials, one current and one former, said Trump shared the intelligence supplied by Israel in the fight against Islamic State with the Russian officials during an Oval Office meeting earlier this month, which the American press was barred from attending.

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Iran says it will continue missiles tests ‘if necessary’

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Monday that Iran does not need the permission of the United States to conduct missile tests, which would continue “if technically necessary.”

“Our missiles are for our defense and for peace, they are not offensive. Know that while there is a technical need to conduct missile tests, we will do so and we will ask the permission of no one,” Rouhani told reporters in Tehran, following renewed criticism from US President Donald Trump.

The Islamic Republic has continued to test-fire ballistic missiles, including with explicit threats to attack Israel, since the Iran nuclear deal was clinched in 2015. The missile launches have been condemned by the Trump administration and Israel.

Upon his arrival to Israel on Monday from Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia, Trump vowed that the Islamic Republic would never obtain nuclear weapons.

“The United States and Israel can declare with one voice that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon — never ever — and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias,” Trump said.

“And it must cease immediately.”

US President Donald Trump (center-left), Saudi Arabia's King Salman (center-right), and other leaders pose for a group photo during the Arabic Islamic American Summit at the King Abdulaziz Conference Center in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. (AFP/MANDEL NGAN)

While in Saudi Arabia, Trump accused Iran of fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” while calling for its international isolation.

Rouhani on Monday dismissed Trump’s summit with Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia as “just a show. ”

“The gathering in Saudi Arabia was just a show with no practical or political value of any kind,” Rouhani said at a press conference.

In a jibe at the billion-dollar deals signed between Trump and the Saudi government, Rouhani said: “You can’t solve terrorism just by giving your people’s money to a superpower.”

He said Friday’s election in Iran that saw Rouhani convincingly defeat hardline challenger Ebrahim Raisi had been a message to the world that Tehran was ready for engagement.

“We wanted to tell the world that on the basis of mutual respect and shared interests, we are to ready to have interaction,” he said.

Rouhani called relations with the United States “a curvy road,” saying he hoped the Trump administration will “settle down” enough for his nation to better understand it.

“The Americans do not know our region, that’s what the catch is,” Rouhani said in response to a question from The Associated Press. “Those who provide consultations or advice to the Americans, unfortunately, they are the rulers who either push America awry or with money, they just buy some people in America.”

Rouhani said that Iranians are “waiting for this (US) government to be civil” and that “hopefully, things will settle down … so we could pass more accurate judgments.”

Trump, Saudi king excoriate Iran as ‘spearhead’ of world terror

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and US President Donald Trump sharpened their rhetoric against Iran on Sunday, accusing it of spearheading global terror and calling for the Islamic Republic to be shunned.

Delivering a landmark speech to Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia, Trump on Sunday called for international isolation of Iran, which he accused of fueling “sectarian conflict and terror.”

“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” Trump said.

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a partner for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate it… and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they so richly deserve.”

The Iranian people have “endured hardship and despair under their leaders’ reckless pursuit of conflict and terror,” he added, saying Iranians were the region’s longest suffering victims.

Trump said Syrian President Bashar Assad had committed “unspeakable crimes” bolstered by Iran, calling upon countries around the world to work together to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

Speaking before Trump, Salman also lashed out at the regional rival, accusing Tehran of exporting extremist Islamic movements around the world.

“The Iranian regime has been the spearhead of global terrorism since the (Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini revolution” in 1979, King Salman said in the speech.

“We did not know terrorism and extremism until the Khomeini revolution reared its head,” he said.

The United States and Saudi Arabia on Saturday announced an arms deal worth almost $110 billion, described as the largest in US history.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the deal was aimed at countering “malign Iranian influence.”

On Friday, Iranian reformers swept national elections, giving Hassan Rouhani, seen as a relative moderate open to increased engagement with the West, a second term as president.

Rouhani Wins Re-election in Iran by a Wide Margin

 

TEHRAN — Riding a large turnout from Iran’s urban middle classes, President Hassan Rouhani won re-election in a landslide on Saturday, giving him a mandate to continue his quest to expand personal freedoms and open Iran’s ailing economy to global investors.

Perhaps as important, analysts say, the resounding victory should enable him to strengthen the position of the moderate and reformist faction as the country prepares for the end of the rule of the 78-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

With most of the votes from Friday’s election counted, the Interior Ministry said Mr. Rouhani had won 22.8 million, soundly defeating his chief opponent, Ebrahim Raisi, who received 15.5 million. Iranian state television congratulated Mr. Rouhani on his victory.

Turnout was heavy, with about 40 million of Iran’s 56 million voters, more than 70 percent, casting ballots.

Despite the healthy margin of victory, Mr. Rouhani, 68, will face considerable headwinds, both at home and abroad.

He badly needs to demonstrate progress on overhauling the moribund economy. While he accomplished his goal of reaching a nuclear agreement with the United States and Western powers in his first term, that has not translated into the economic revival he predicted because of lingering American sanctions.

He must also deal with an unpredictable and hawkish Trump administration that this week only reluctantly signed the sanctions waivers that are a central element of the nuclear agreement. At a summit meeting this weekend in Saudi Arabia between President Trump and leaders of predominantly Muslim countries, Iran was pointedly not invited.

The Trump administration’s national security officials are on record as considering Iran the source of most of the Middle East’s troubles, while the Republican-controlled Congress is not about to loosen the unilateral sanctions that are frightening off foreign banks and businesses.

Mr. Rouhani, who has managed to mend ties with the European Union, is undaunted, saying only last week that, “We will break all the sanctions against Iran.”

He also has some cards to play in relations with the United States. Iran provides crucial support to the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Iraq — an American ally — and any effort to roll back Iranian influence there and in Syria could jeopardize efforts to retake the cities of Mosul and Raqqa from the Islamic State extremist group.

Mr. Raisi, a conservative cleric, waged his campaign as a champion of poor and deeply religious Iranians, many of whom felt left out of Mr. Rouhani’s vision for the future. However, analysts said Mr. Raisi fared well enough to maintain his status as a potential successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.

In defeating Mr. Raisi, Mr. Rouhani proved once again that Iran’s electorate prefers the moderate reformist path over the rigid ideology and harsh social restrictions favored by the conservative clergy and security establishment.

Iranians lined up on Friday in Qum to cast their ballots in municipal and presidential elections. Voting hours had to be extended. CreditAli Shaigan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Despite controlling most unelected councils, the conservative clerics and Revolutionary Guard commanders — backed by state television — have suffered a string of political defeats, starting with Mr. Rouhani’s election in 2013. That led to direct talks with their archenemy, the United States, and ultimately to the nuclear deal, which they opposed. Then moderate and reformist candidates made strong gains in last year’s parliamentary elections.

Nevertheless, as supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei remains the ultimate arbiter in Iran’s opaque political system, and he must approve any further changes sought by Mr. Rouhani.

Yet, the supreme leader has demonstrated a surprising flexibility in recent years. While he publicly defends the hard-liners, he has permitted Mr. Rouhani to break some decades-old ideological canons when public pressures grow too intense.

Thus, most Tehran residents have satellite dishes that enable them to watch foreign news broadcasts and entertainment, and couples often walk hand-in-hand through the city’s parks without fear of arrest or harassment.

As much a victory for Mr. Rouhani and his team, the election result also reflects the political coming-of-age of urban Iranians who voted in high numbers to thwart the candidacy of Mr. Raisi, whom they viewed as a second coming of the Holocaust-denying former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Mr. Raisi, 56, is a hard-line judge who leads one of the wealthiest religious foundations in the Middle East campaigned as a corruption fighter and called on Iran to solve its economic problems without help from foreigners. He presented himself as a champion of the poor and the pious.

Progressive Iranians had vowed not to repeat the mistake they made in 2005, when many of them boycotted that year’s election out of disillusionment with the hard-liners’ thwarting of the reformist agenda of the outgoing president, Mohammad Khatami. That allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and conservative clerics to elect Mr. Ahmadinejad, who poisoned relations with the West.

This time, prominent intellectuals, actresses, Instagram stars and sports figures waged social media campaigns to urge people to go out and vote for Mr. Rouhani.

One of those, Reihane Taravati, 26, who has 175,000 followers on Instagram, achieved a measure of fame in 2014 when she and some friends were arrested after making a video of them dancing to the song ‘Happy’ by the American rapper Pharrell.

She was sentenced to 91 lashes and jail time, though the rulings were later suspended. “At the time, Mr. Rouhani tweeted saying the country needed happiness,” she said. “That was a great help.”

This year, she decided she wanted to help Mr. Rouhani win re-election.

“I looked at what he has achieved for us in the past four years and decided I had to do something”, she said in an interview over the messenger app Telegram.

The nuclear deal has been hugely important in bringing Iran with all its talented young people out of its isolation, she said. “But what he has done for the internet has been revolutionary. He increased the speed and now we no longer need state television as a platform. We are our own media now.”

Iranians at a polling station on Friday in Tehran. CreditBehrouz Mehri/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

So Ms. Taravati opened up her Instagram account and started posting pictures in support of Mr. Rouhani. “We do not want to lose what we have gained and his win is a big victory,” she said.

Over the past week of campaigning, streets in Iranian cities were filled with supporters of both candidates, often friendly but at times arguing over the future of the country.

The election campaign emphasized a split between those favoring an overhaul of the quasi-socialist economy and expanded personal freedoms and those wanting to adhere to the ideological precepts of the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

“I am voting for Raisi because he is a ‘seyed,’” said Fazlolah Bahriye, using the honorific given to those believed to be descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. Mr. Bahriye, who said he thought he was in his early 70s (many in Iran are unsure of their birth dates), then offered a diatribe against politicians, saying that they promised many things but never delivered.

Other voters, especially younger ones, said they favored Mr. Rouhani. “I want more freedom, a relaxation of the strict rules,” said Muhammad Badijan, 19. He was wearing bright blue contact lenses that matched his shirt. “I just want to live a normal life,” he added.

In the end, analysts said, the biggest impact of Mr. Rouhani’s victory will be felt if Ayatollah Khamenei, who has had some health issues in recent years, should die or step down.

“A big margin victory, and god forbid the supreme leader passes in the coming four years, Rouhani will, at least temporarily have a better command to run the country,” said Fazel Meybodi, a Shiite Muslim cleric from the city of Qum, and a supporter of Mr. Rouhani.

“Of course in the long term it is the Expert Assembly that will decide,” he said of the 86 member council that will choose the next leader. “But Mr. Rouhani will be more influential there, after this victory,”

Polls open in first Iran presidential vote since atomic deal

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iranians began voting Friday in the country’s first presidential election since its nuclear deal with world powers, as incumbent Hassan Rouhani faced a staunch challenge from a hard-line opponent over his outreach to the West.

The election is largely viewed as a referendum on the 68-year-old cleric’s more moderate policies, which paved the way for the nuclear accord despite opposition from hard-liners.

Economic issues also will be on the minds of Iran’s over 56 million eligible voters as they head to more than 63,000 polling places across the country. The average Iranian has yet to see the benefits of the deal, which saw Iran limit its contested nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of some sanctions.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the most powerful man in Iran, symbolically cast the election’s first vote and called on Iranians to turn out in huge numbers for the poll.

“Elections are very important and the fate of the country is in the hands of all people,” he said.

Iranian women queue to vote for the presidential and municipal councils elections, in the city of Qom, south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

After casting his ballot, Rouhani said whomever the voters elect as president should receive all of the nation’s support.

“Any candidate who is elected should be helped to accomplish this heavy responsibility,” Rouhani said. “Anyone who is elected must be helped from tomorrow with unity, happiness and joy.”

Rouhani has history on his side in the election. No incumbent president has failed to win re-election since 1981, when Khamenei became president himself.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy, however. Rouhani faces three challengers, the strongest among them hard-line cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56.

Iranian presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi greets his supporters during a campaign rally at Imam Khomeini Mosque in the capital Tehran on May 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Atta Kenare)

Raisi, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an influential religious charitable foundation with vast business holdings, is seen by many as close to Khamenei. Raisi has even been discussed as a possible successor to him, though Khamenei has stopped short of endorsing anyone.

Raisi won the support of two major clerical bodies and promised to boost welfare payments to the poor. His populist posture, anti-corruption rhetoric and get-tough reputation — bolstered by his alleged role condemning inmates to death during Iran’s 1988 mass execution of thousands of political prisoners — are likely to energize conservative rural and working-class voters.

Iranian voters queue at a polling station for the presidential and municipal council election in Tehran, Iran, Friday, May 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Mostafa Hashemitaba, a pro-reform figure who previously ran for president in 2001, and Mostafa Mirsalim, a former culture minister, also remain in the race.

Iran’s political system combines conservative clerical oversight and state control over large parts of the economy with tightly regulated but still hotly contested elections for key government posts. All candidates for elected office must be vetted, a process that excludes anyone calling for radical change, along with most reformists. No woman has been approved to run for president.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani gives an address at a campaign rally in the northeastern city of Mashhad on May 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/Behrouz Mehri)

The president of the Islamic Republic oversees a vast state bureaucracy, is charged with naming cabinet members and other officials to key posts, and plays a significant role in shaping both domestic and foreign policy. But he remains subordinate to the supreme leader, who is chosen by a clerical panel and has the ultimate say over all matters of state.

The race has heated emotions and pushed public discourse in Iran into areas typically untouched in the tightly controlled state media. That includes Rouhani openly criticizing hard-liners and Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard, a paramilitary force now involved in the war in Syria and the fight against Islamic State militants in neighboring Iraq. Rouhani also found himself surrounded by angry coal miners who beat and threw rocks at his armored SUV during a visit to a northern mine struck by an explosion earlier this month that killed at least 42 people.

Iranian president and candidate in the upcoming presidential elections Hassan Rouhani speaks during a campaign rally in the northwestern city of Ardabil on May 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/Behrouz Mehri)

But authorities worry about tempers rising too high, especially after the 2009 disputed re-election of former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that saw unrest, mass arrests and killings. Authorities barred Ahmadinejad from running in Friday’s election, and Khamenei days ago warned anyone fomenting unrest “will definitely be slapped in the face.”

That hasn’t stopped those at Rouhani rallies from shouting for the house-arrested leaders of the 2009’s Green Movement. Opposition websites have said Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi both have endorsed Rouhani against Raisi. Rouhani promised in his 2013 campaign to free the men, but that pledge so far remains unfulfilled.

Mohammad Khatami, another reformist who served as Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005, also has endorsed Rouhani.

Supporters of the two leading candidates honked, blared music and held pictures of the hopefuls out of car windows on the traffic-clogged and heavily policed streets of Tehran late into the night Thursday, ignored a ban on campaigning in the final 24 hours before the vote.

Voting is scheduled to run until 6 p.m., though Iran routinely extends voting for several hours in elections. Iranian authorities say they believe the vote will exceed a 70 percent turnout.

US extends Iran nuke sanctions relief, leaves 2015 deal intact for now

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration took a key step Wednesday toward preserving the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran, coupling the move with fresh ballistic missile sanctions to show it isn’t going light on the Islamic Republic.

The State Department said Iran would continue to enjoy relief from decades-old economic measures punishing Tehran for its nuclear program. Under the 2015 nuclear agreement, the US lifted those sanctions. But Washington must issue periodical waivers to keep the penalties from snapping back into place and the most recent one was set to expire this week.

Donald Trump as a candidate vowed to renegotiate or tear up the nuclear deal. As president, he has altered his position, insisting he is still studying the accord and hasn’t made a final decision. The move to extend the sanctions relief in the meantime was another indication Trump may be laying the groundwork to let the deal stand.

Still, the US paired the announcement with new, unrelated sanctions that go after Iran for a ballistic missiles program that Washington fears could target American interests in the Middle East or key allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Wednesday’s sanctions target Iranian military officials along with an Iranian company and China-based network accused of supplying Iran with materials for ballistic missiles, the State Department said.

The dual moves — ensuring old sanctions on Iran don’t return while imposing new ones — appeared aimed at undercutting the impression that Trump’s stance on Iran has softened since he took office.

Stuart Jones, the top US diplomat in charge of the Middle East, said the US is still forming a “comprehensive Iran policy” that includes its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and militant groups in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

“This ongoing review does not diminish the United States’ resolve to continue countering Iran’s destabilizing activity in the region, whether it be supporting the Assad regime, backing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah, or supporting violent militias that undermine governments in Iraq and Yemen,” Jones said. “And above all, the United States will never allow the regime in Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

In a similar move last month, Trump’s administration certified to Congress that Iran is complying with the terms of the deal — a requirement for Iran to keep receiving the economic benefits of the deal. At the same time, Trump dispatched Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to issue a scathing critique of Iran in which he also cast doubt that the nuclear deal would achieve its objective of keeping Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

On Wednesday, Iranian state media said four passenger airplanes were being delivered as the first installment of a deal with French-Italian manufacturer ATR that was finalized after the nuclear agreement. Iran is buying 20 of the ATR 72-600 planes. It also has clinched bigger deals with trans-Atlantic rivals Airbus and Boeing.

Under the 2015 deal, the US and other world powers eased sanctions after the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran had taken a series of steps to pull its nuclear program back from the brink of weapons capability.

The deal doesn’t prohibit the US or other countries from imposing new sanctions on Iran for its missile program, terrorism or other reasons, although Tehran has threatened to pull out of the deal if the US and other countries do so.

In another attempt to ramp up pressure on Tehran, the State Department released a new report criticizing Iran for human rights abuses, including its alleged mistreatment of prisoners.

Russia, Turkey, Iran ink deal on safe zones in Syria

ASTANA, Kazakhstan (AFP) — Syrian regime allies Russia and Iran and rebel supporter Turkey on Thursday signed a memorandum on a Moscow-backed plan to create safe zones in Syria to bolster a fragile truce.

An AFP reporter at peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana saw the heads of the delegations, representing the three countries sponsoring the negotiations, sign the document.

However a member of the rebel delegation left the room, shouting against regime ally Iran, the AFP reporter saw. The Syrian government and rebel delegations are not signatories.

The Kremlin has been touting a plan to create safe zones in Syria that is aimed to “further pacification and cessation of hostilities.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, (r), and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands after a news conference following their talks in Putin's residence in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, Wednesday, May 3, 2017. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)

“Over the past two days, the participants in the Astana talks reviewed the implementation of the ceasefire agreement and the cessation of hostilities,” Kazakhstan’s foreign minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said of a frail truce brokered by Moscow and Ankara in December.

“As a result the guarantor countries agreed to sign a memorandum on the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria.”

An Arabic-language version of the Russian draft proposal seen by AFP calls for the creation of “de-escalation zones” in rebel-held territory in the northwestern province of Idlib, in parts of Homs province in the center, in the south, and in the opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta near Damascus.

The aim is to “put an immediate end to the violence” and “provide the conditions for the safe, voluntary return of refugees” as well as the immediate delivery of relief supplies and medical aid, the document said.

But issues including which countries could police any safe zones remain unclear.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that ways to monitor the zones would be an issue for separate talks.

Boosting ceasefire

Syrian rebels said earlier Thursday that they had resumed participation in the talks after having suspended their involvement a day earlier over air strikes against civilians.

After talks with Turkey counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the safe zones were meant to lead to “further pacification and cessation of hostilities.”

Syrian regime negotiator Bashar al-Jaafari (C) attends the fourth round of Syria peace talks in Astana on May 4, 2017. (STANISLAV FILIPPOV / AFP)

He also said the proposed zones would also be no-fly areas if fighting on the ground there stopped entirely.

The Kremlin’s plan echoes calls by US President Donald Trump to establish safe zones in Syria.

Putin said Wednesday that “as far I could tell” the US leader broadly supported the idea in a phone call they held on Tuesday.

Erdogan said in comments published Thursday that Moscow’s plan to set up these zones in Syria would “50 percent” solve the six-year conflict.

Damascus supports the Russian plan, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

EU TRAPPED BETWEEN TRUMP AND TEHRAN

 

Wary of US President Donald Trump’s tough talk on Iran, the European Union is courting Tehran to show Iranians preparing to vote in a May 19 presidential poll that it is committed to a nuclear deal and they stand to benefit, EU diplomats say.

Europe’s energy commissioner is leading more than 50 European firms in a business forum in Tehran over the weekend – the latest bid to foster new ties in the 16 months since Iran curbed its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.

 

Katz: Iraqi Hezbollah’s ‘Golan Liberation Brigade’ increases Iran risk
Israeli defense minister warns of Iranian presence in Golan Heights

Of the six major powers who engineered the deal – the United States, Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia – EU nations bore the brunt of the oil embargo on Iran and stand to gain the most from a thaw they view as a victory for European diplomacy.

Meeting with Iran’s atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi, Commissioner Miguel Arias-Canete echoed the EU’s mantra that it is “fully committed” to the 2015 deal and expects the same from all other parties.

But the bloc’s leverage remains limited – particularly if it is not able to shield European firms from the risk of remaining US sanctions and encourage big banks to reverse over a decade of Iran’s exclusion from the international financial system.

The latter was a theme of another big conference in Tehran on Saturday attended by Germany and Iran’s central banks.

Some Western companies have returned – plane-makers Airbus and Boeing and car-makers Peugeot–Citroen and Renault – but many more have hung back, fearing Trump will tighten the screws on an already complex set of rules for engaging with Iran.

The pace and scale of Western investment is at the heart of a challenge by hardline rivals of pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, who is seeking re-election in May.

Iran’s ultimate authority, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and his loyalists have criticized Rouhani’s policy of rapprochement with the West, arguing the 2015 nuclear accord had not yielded the benefits he promised.

“He needs more time… He has to be given a chance,” Iran’s vice president, Masoumeh Ebtekar, told Reuters in an interview.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm about working with Iran now and … I hope that the American administration wakes up to these realities,” she added.

The Trump administration said on April 18 it was launching an inter-agency review of whether the lifting of sanctions against Iran was in the United States’ national security interests, while acknowledging that Tehran was complying with the deal to rein in its nuclear program.

CONFRONTATION RISK

EU diplomats voiced concern that a more confrontational stance by the Trump administration could empower Iran’s hardliners ahead of the elections – although there is no sign the United States intends to walk away from the deal.

EU diplomats say they share US concerns over Iran’s human rights record, its ballistic missiles tests, its funding of blacklisted militant groups and its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“We disagree that we have to address these issues by ditching the (nuclear) deal,” one EU diplomat told Reuters. “This will only empower those (in Iran) with a more confrontational stance – bring out the worst in the system.” For now, Iranian leaders have kept their cool, with Salehi saying Iran will only take “reciprocal action” if the US is found in breach of the deal – leaving EU diplomats caught in a balancing act between the two long-time rivals.

In recent months, European leaders have been frequent visitors to Tehran with businessmen in tow – in an effort to keep alive the 2015 accord, which also has the support of Russia and China, rivals for influence in the Islamic Republic.

The bloc’s trade with Iran has partially recovered – much of that due to oil exports from Iran in what one EU official called “a direct incentive to stick to the deal”.

The International Monetary Fund this year applauded Iran’s “impressive recovery”, with growth expected over 6 percent for the last 12 months and low inflation – a record that Rouhani has been keen to defend.

But the hoped-for a boom since the EU and United Nations sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program were lifted a year ago has been hampered by separate US measures in place over Iran’s missile program.

“The Europeans want to at least create the optical impression they are politically invested in this deal working,” said Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Even if from a commercial perspective, companies are essentially on hold.” The risk of falling afoul of US measures has been enough to persuade major Western banks to stay away from Iran, and Tehran accuses Washington of undermining the nuclear deal by scaring investors away from Iran.

While acknowledging domestic criticism, Salehi told reporters Tehran will remain committed to the deal regardless of the outcome of next month’s vote. There are also signs that the EU’s firm stance has given US officials pause, with senators saying they delayed a bill to slap new sanctions on Iran due to worries over how the bloc would react and the Iranian presidential elections.

Israel’s intelligence minister urges US to team up with Russia against Iran

WASHINGTON — The Israeli government wants the United States to negotiate with the Russians to ensure Iran does not gain a permanent military foothold in Syria, Israel’s Intelligence and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said.

In meetings with senior-level administration officials and high-ranking members of Congress, Katz urged the US to get the Russians to remove Iranian forces from the country, which is in the sixth year of a devastating civil war.

“We discussed how the Americans can negotiate with the Russians,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s in the common interest not only for Israel, but for the Sunni Arab countries in the region.”

Katz, who is a member of the high-level security cabinet, was sent to Washington by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss Syria and other matters with American officials.

“In our region, there are two different things, but the things that are existing now are, on the one hand, big threats and dangers, and on the other hand, big chances for cooperation,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israel believes that Trump is signaling a new policy toward the Middle East — evident in his ordering a missile attack on a Syrian airfield over an Assad regime chemical weapons attack, and his rhetoric toward Tehran — that will possibly include shifts in how Washington deals with the Iranian challenge, Katz said.

“There is a new policy in the United States, and Iran is on the bad side, not the good side,” he said. “It’s very clear. You see it in declarations and acts.

“Because of the next American policy against Iran, against the Shi’ite axis that Iran leads with the backing of Russia, this is a big opportunity to bring real changes to the regional security situation,” he added.

Katz came to Washington after visiting New York, where he addressed the World Jewish Congress.

‘There is a new policy in the United States, and Iran is on the bad side and not the good side’

In the capital, he met with North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr (R), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and New York Rep. Adam Schiff (D), ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee.

He discussed with them Israel’s hope that the US will negotiate with the Russians to remove an Iranian military foothold in Syria.

Katz insisted that Trump could apply pressure to Russian President Vladimir Putin to soften his resolve to prop up Assad.

“If the Russians want to keep Assad, they have to push Iran out of Syria,” Katz said. The White House is “very close to deciding that Assad has to go,” he added, “so if the Russians want to have the chance to keep Assad in his job, they have to act and to help move Iran out of Syria. Because if they will not do it, they will move Iran out or we will move Assad out.”

On Wednesday, Katz also met with Trump’s Special Envoy for International Negotiations Jason Greenblatt to discuss his plan to develop a regional transportation system that would link Israel to Saudi Arabia by railroad via the West Bank and Jordan.

Assistant to the President and Special Representative for International Negotiations, Jason Greenblatt, left, meets Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

“We are maybe going to call it not a truck rail, but a Trump rail,” he said.

Katz said he believes the administration will support his initiative, not necessarily as a component of its hope to broker a “conflict-ending” Israeli-Palestinian accord, but to improve the region, which could foster greater conditions for a peace deal.

“If the United States would support it — and we want them to support it — it would be very much in their interests, because it would be good for Jordan’s economy, its stability, and for the Palestinians’ [economy] as well,” he said.

He also said there was “a strategic logic” to solidify ties between the Sunni world and Israel, which share an interest in countering the Iranian-led Shiite axis.

After the meeting in which Katz presented his plan to Greenblatt, the former lawyer tweeted: “I look forward to discussing the possibilities with all parties.”

ANALYSIS: GERMANY’S SOCIAL DEMOCRATS PIVOT TOWARD PLO AND IRAN

 

German Foreign and Vice Chancellor Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s move to pick a fight with Benjamin Netanyahu come as no surprise to longterm observers of Gabriel and his Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) explicit pivot toward Fatah and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Netanyahu told Gabriel he was not prepared to meet with him if he went ahead with meetings with organizations (i.e. Breaking the Silence) that seek to delegitimize the Jewish state and the IDF.

Gabriel refused to pull the plug on his meetings and the row mushroomed into a full-blown diplomatic crisis.

 

“Gabriel’s deliberate uproar” was the title of Alex Feuerherdt’s article on the website of the Mena Watch think tank. Feuerherdt, a journalist and expert in German-Israel relations, hammered away at the SPD’s growing anti-Israel tendencies and the largely monolithic media and political criticism in Germany of Netanyahu’s cancellation.

He noted the double standard in Germany: There was not a bleep of protest over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to punish Israel for construction of buildings in the disputed territories by canceling her May trip to Israel, noted Feuerherdt.

Gabriel is, of course, no stranger to slashing language that assaults Israel’s raison d’être, namely, political Zionism.

He termed Israel’s presence in Hebron an “apartheid regime.” His partisan views are clearly written on the wall. For Gabriel, Mahmoud Abbas is a “friend’ and his SPD party declared itself to be in a “strategic partnership” with Abbas’s Fatah party.

Moreover, the SPD hosted a Breaking the Silence exhibit in 2012 at the party’s Willy Brandt headquarters in Berlin.

The current president of Germany, the Social Democrat’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier, waxed lyrical about the Breaking the Silence, a group that uses anonymous testimonies to claim Israel’s army commits war crimes.

All of this helps to explain why Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsman, rejected just days ago a German mediation role (i.e, Gabriel) in the Israel-PLO conflict.

The chairman and candidate for chancellor of the Social Democratic Party, Martin Schulz, described Abbas’s speech to the European Parliament last year as “stimulating.”

During the June 2016 speech, Abbas accused Israeli rabbis of urging the government to poison Palestinian water. The New York Times wrote at the time that Abbas’s claim about lethally contaminating water used by the Palestinians echoed “antisemitic claims that led to the mass killings of European Jews in medieval times.”

Gabriel has scarce experience in the Middle East. The vice chancellor – his party sits in a coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party – is a hardcore economic nationalist who prioritizes his country’s business interests over historical responsibility toward the Jewish people.

He rushed to Iran with a large business delegation just weeks after the nuclear accord was reached in July 2015.

Gabriel appears to not have met with any organizations critical of the Islamic Republic while in Tehran. He dashed off to Iran again in 2016 with another business group.

Gabriel’s predecessor, Steinmeier, tagged Netanyahu as “very coarse” for his piercing criticism of the Iran nuclear deal. As a result of the atomic pact, German companies are expected to secure a multi-billion dollar windfall from trade deals with the mullah regime.

And key leaders within the Social Democrats have been frothing at the mouth over Israel’s opposition to the Iran nuclear weapons deal and over Netanyahu’s opposition to concessions to the Palestinians.

As the former economic affairs minister and current foreign minister, Gabriel has not stopped German taxpayer funds from going to the Palestinian Authority, and likely going to convicted Palestinian terrorists and their families.

The German government has provides millions of euros to NGOs in the West Bank, the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, and Israel that are engaged in political warfare against Israel, according to the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor.

Prof. Gerald Steinberg, president of NGO Monitor, said “German funding to organizations like B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence is a small part of the problem; the government also provides money to radical organizations that delegitimize the right of the Jewish people to sovereign equality. This controversy [over Gabriel’s visit] is an opportunity to hold a serious dialogue between elected officials to solve the problems arising from the paralleled European links with Israeli political groups and NGOs.”

The shift of the Social Democrats toward the PLO and Iran’s regime will continue to be a source of friction between Israel and Germany.

The likely continuation of the current SPD coalition with Merkel after this fall’s election will keep the diplomatic tension high for the German government’s next five-year term.

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.