Surprise U.S.-Iran talks risk deepening fears that Western allies being outmaneuvered


Iran officials over the weekend acknowledged plans to hold meetings with the United States and Russia outside of ongoing negotiations between the P5+1 global powers and Tehran, a development that media outlets described as everything from evidence that the parties were scrambling to reinvigorate faltering talks over the Islamic republic's atomic program to a breakthrough in bilateral relations. Reuters characterized the meetings, which began Monday, as coming "after the most recent round of nuclear talks between Iran and the six powers in Vienna last month ran into difficulties, with both sides accusing the other of having unrealistic demands." Agence France-Presse (AFP) for its part quoted Iran's official IRNA news agency, which was in turn quoting Iran's Foreign Ministry, announcing Tehran's intentions to hold "negotiations with... American counterparts," which the wire characterized as "unprecedented." AFP read the Iranian move against recent remarks from Tehran's leaders "urg[ing] western powers to resist pressure from third parties not directly involved in negotiations," and told readers that "Israel and lawmakers in the US Congress have repeatedly warned against lowering the pressure... on Iran." Calls by Arab states for a hard line on Iran, some of which have included transparent threats of nuclear proliferation across the region, were not mentioned by the outlet. That the Iranians use divide-and-conquer tactics in nuclear negotiations has become somewhat commonplace. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani bragged in his autobiography that he had managed to divide the Americans and Europeans in the early 2000s as Iran's nuclear negotiator, and that the moves had enabled Iran to lock in nuclear progress. Last April, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani urged European nations to "chart an 'independent' foreign policy course" from Washington. Two weeks ago rumors emerged that the White House was considering potential bilateral negotiations with Iran - which would partially freeze out France and Britain - with the news breaking just a week after Reuters assessed "with concerns rising among Iran's foes, especially Israel and the Gulf states, that the United States has turned softer on Iran, France has become a key player in defending their interests." Evidence that U.S. diplomats are being outmaneuvered by Iranian counterparts would likely become an issue as Congress gears up for a series of hearings evaluating the progress of the nuclear negotiations.


An official visit to Turkey by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani triggered a flurry of diplomatic statements and economic agreements celebrated by both sides on Monday, announcements that were read by observers as straightforward evidence that relations between the two sometimes rivals were on the upswing. Turkey's office of the presidency issued a press release - and linked to it from the office's official Twitter account for good measure - declaring that "Rouhani’s visit will open a new chapter in our bilateral relations." The mostly Persian-language Twitter account thought to speak for Rouhani boasted that "Turkish and Iranian presidents signed 10 documents of cooperation" during the visit. Ankara has come under increasingly public criticism from Washington over literally years of sanctions-busting transactions with Iran, and the Washington Free Beacon quoted Jonathan Schanzer - vice president for research at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies (FDD) - explicitly contextualizing Monday's events as coming amid "massive sanctions busting facilitated by Turkey on behalf of Iran.... some $12 billion in oil sales... followed up by revelations of sanctions busting on the part of Iranian businessmen in Turkey to the tune of 87 billion [Euro]." Relations between Ankara and Tehran have in recent years been complicated as each sought to maneuver within and across three regional blocs - a camp of Washington's traditional Arab and Israeli allies, an Iranian-dominated Shiite crescent, and a Turkish/Muslim Brotherhood/Qatari axis - but Schanzer told Bloomberg that "there appears to be far more drawing these two neighbors together than driving them apart... [t]his, of course, raises questions about Turkey’s reliability as a U.S. ally and as a NATO ally." Reuters was a little more terse in conveying the same dynamic, publishing its article under the headline "Iran, Turkey pledge cooperation despite split over Syria." Merve Tahiroglu and Behnam Taleblu - respectively a research associate and an Iran research analyst at FDD - assessed that "Iran appears intent to peel Turkey away from the Western block."


Egyptian media outlets hailed the Sunday inauguration of the country's former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as a victory for democracy and the rule of law, even as various Western powers continued to respond with something less than warmth to last month's election, which saw Sisi win 97 percent of the popular vote. Publishing under a staff byline, Al Arabiya opened by declaring that "For the first time in Egypt's history an outgoing president has peacefully handed out power to an elected leader," and describing how "the 'unprecedented' ceremony in Egypt’s modern political history saw both men signing the 'handover of power document' in the presence of dozens of local and foreign dignitaries." Outgoing interim president Adly Mansour - whom the outlet noted is "known by some as the 'man of the law'" and will not take back his post as chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court - became the only president in modern Egyptian history to leave his post voluntarily. Reuters noted however that the West has continued to be cool to Sisi, who last year led army moves that ousted the country's Muslim Brotherhood-linked former president Mohammed Morsi amid unprecedented mass demonstrations calling for the resignation of Morsi's Islamist government. Al-Monitor revealed last week that the Obama administration has continued to withhold counter-terrorism assets from Cairo, which have been partially frozen over concerns stemming from the overthrow and the interim government's subsequent actions against the Brotherhood. The freeze has been blasted by analysts from across the ideological spectrum for among other things abandoning seven decades of bipartisan U.S. policies aimed building alliances that would block out Russia and other rivals from the Middle East. Washington Institute Managing Director Michael Singh two weeks ago outlined ways to restabilize U.S.-Egyptian relations, while warning that "Egypt has had the upper hand in the relationship despite its troubles, mainly because it believes it can turn to others to meet its needs in the short run -- Russia for military equipment, the Persian Gulf states for aid, and the international community for validation. Washington, in contrast, has no geopolitical substitute for Egypt."


Hamas is using the current period of political and military calm - most recently locked in by a unity pact between the terror group and its rival Fatah faction - to build a missile arsenal that can blanket population centers throughout Israel during any future conflagration, according to remarks made by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz on Monday. The Israeli leader described "a dramatic increase in medium- and long-range rockets." The recent Palestinian unity deal - publicly aimed at paving the way for elections throughout the Gaza Strip and West Bank - saw Fatah abandoning its long-standing demand that Hamas put its fighters and missile arsenal under Ramallah's control. Hamas officials quickly bragged that they had secured a kind of "Hezbollah model," boasting that the Iran-backed Lebanese group had used a similar arrangement - allowing the central government to establish civil authority, even while maintaining an overwhelming military presence - to dominate the political and security institutions of Lebanon. Meanwhile a top Israeli security source revealed on Sunday that Hamas was also moving to establish a shadow civilian infrastructure throughout the West Bank, which would leverage a rebuilt socio-economic infrastructure to "enable the replacement of the PA’s secular government with an Islamic government whose ideology will be similar to that of Hamas."

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