The Middle East Channel

Iran’s foreign minister says Iran is open to direct talks with the U.S.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Iran welcomes a renewed offer from the United States for direct talks on its nuclear program. Salehi's statement came on Sunday at the Munich Security Conference a day after Vice President Joe Biden said the United States is ready to hold bilateral talks "when the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] is serious." Salehi said that the United States should show an "authentic, fair and real intention to resolve the issue" and should stop making threats against Iran while offering negotiations. As foreign minister, Salehi does not have the authority to commit to talks with the United States, which is a decision made by the supreme leader, and western officials remain skeptical. Iran has repeatedly backed out of talks, and while Salehi said Iran looks favorably upon a proposal for another round of talks with the United Nations Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany on February 25 and 26 in Kazakhstan, it has not yet committed to sending a delegation. If talks do resume at the end of February, it would mean the end to eight months of stalled diplomacy.

Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accused Israel of trying to "destabilize" Syria while Iran said Israel will regret its "latest aggression." Assad spoke on Syrian TV on Sunday, for the first time commenting on last Wednesday's reported Israeli attack. Syrian media claimed an Israeli strike hit a military research facility, while anonymous U.S. officials said an airstrike hit a military weapons convoy headed to supply arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Also on Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak alluded to his country's responsibility for the airstrike saying while he cannot add to anything stated in the news about the attack in Syria, that it is "proof when we said something we mean it." Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Saeed Jalili said Israel "will regret this recent aggression" at a news conference in Damascus a day after a meeting with Assad. Jalili did not specify as to whether Syria or Iran have planned a military response. Jalili also said that Iran supports talks in Damascus between Assad and the Syrian opposition. Iran participated along with Russia and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in talks with the head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Moaz Alkhatib, on Saturday. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, "This is an important step" as previously the coalition rejected any talks with the Syrian regime. However, Walid al-Bunni, a member of the opposition coalition, said the meeting "was unsuccessful."

Headlines

  • An estimated 19 people have been killed and over 40 injured in a suicide bombing targeting pro-government militiamen in the Iraqi town of Taji, north of Baghdad, a day after suicide attacks in Kirkuk killed at least 35 people.
  • Israeli forces arrested 23 members of Hamas in the West Bank in overnight raids, including three members of the Palestinian Parliament.
  • Egypt's prosecutor-general has ordered an investigation into the case of a protester who blamed security forces for stripping and beating him.
  • An academic study funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department analyzing the content of Israeli and Palestinian textbooks undermines claims that Palestinian children are taught "to hate." 

Arguments and Analysis 

Groundhog Day in Cairo: A Brutal Video Raises the Political Stakes in Egypt (Ashraf Khalil, Time)

"The last few weeks in Egypt have been a period of Groundhog Day-style revolutionary déjà vu. The images are familiar: protesters battling through clouds of tear gas on the outskirts of Tahrir Square and in front of the Information Ministry; a state of emergency declared; the army deployed in three major cities along the Suez canal; and the embattled president promising to take radical steps to preserve public order. For many of Egypt's original revolutionaries, it has felt like February 2011 all over again.

But Friday's night's violent and chaotic scene outside the presidential palace brought to mind yet another disturbing memory: the savage December 2011 assault on protesters in Tahrir Square. That attack yielded a virtual mountain of video allegedly showing army and police officers beating helpless protestors-including women-and firing weapons at point-blank range.

This time, there's only one such piece of evidence-video apparently showing Central Security riot police beating the limp body of a naked man before dragging him into one of their vans. But the reaction has sent the administration of President Mohamed Morsi into spasms of spin-doctoring and produced even more bad blood in the country's seemingly intractable political standoff."

Assad's scorched-earth policy precludes real negotiations (Robin Yassin-Kassab, The National)

"Actions speak louder than words. The regime's aim does not appear to be to negotiate a transition. If it can't retain total power, it will create a splintered and permanently ungovernable country. In this way Mr Al Assad hopes to survive as a warlord among warlords. Talking about talks provides him with time while distracting attention from his real aim.

Peace plans have been proposed by the Arab League, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, and Assad has scuppered the lot. Not for a day have his guns fallen silent.

Yet with resistance advances in the north, east and now south, the tide is flowing steadily against Mr Al Assad. Continuing reverses may allow the regime's more intelligent minds to prevail over the bitter-enders (although to anticipate this would be naive). Mr Al Khatib's meeting on Saturday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov may or may not be a sign that Russia, finally recognising that the Assads will never regain control of Syria, is about to twist the regime's arm towards serious, rather than theatrical, negotiations."

-- By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

CHRISTOF STACHE/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s Al-Azhar talks

At a press conference following the emergency national dialogue meeting held between members of the opposition and Islamist parties, prominent activist and revolutionary figure, Wael Ghonim said, "The aim of this meeting is not political, but rather to launch an initiative to stop the violence. It's a moral initiative aimed at stopping the bloodshed. That is why the Egyptian April 6 youth movement called on Al-Azhar to hold this meeting and gather together all Egypt's political forces and parties." Despite the positive first step in political reconciliation and Ghonim's encouraging words, an unspoken (yet glaring) gap stands out in this meeting: the absence of government or any other representative of the security apparatus. Although representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) attended the dialogue, no formal authority from the most significant party to the "bloodshed" -- the ministry of interior -- to which Ghonim refers could be found. Sadly, the discrepancy renders the resulting signed document committing the parties to nonviolence moot. 

In a sudden about-face, after consistently rebuffing government calls for dialogue, Mohamed ElBaradei, chief coordinator of the National Salvation Front (NSF) and the largest bloc of Egypt's opposition, called for a national dialogue to bring an end to the violence plaguing Egypt's streets for nearly a week. He called for a meeting with President Mohamed Morsi, members of the government, and leaders of the country's political parties and Islamist movements. The announcement was soon followed by a meeting between one of the largest Salafi movements, al-Nour party and the NSF, while al-Nour party's offshoot, al-Watan, commended ElBaradei's stance.

Despite Morsi's absence, the national dialogue meeting went ahead on Thursday in the presence of Al-Azhar's Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, along with members of the NSF, leading figures from the three Egyptian churches, as well as leaders of the Strong Egypt, Wasat, Free Egyptians and Reform and Development Parties, among others. The meeting ended with the signing of Al-Azhar's 10-point document calling on political actors to renounce violence. The document emphasized the state's and its security institutions' obligation to protect its citizens, their constitutional rights and freedoms, as well as protect public and private property. With the document, the signatories also expressed their commitment to serious national dialogue between all parties, and agreed to the formation of a committee under the auspices of Al-Azhar. The president's office issued a statement, albeit on its Facebook page, welcoming the initiative.

Many can agree that the most immediate need entails an end to the ongoing violence in the streets that has left almost 60 Egyptians dead in the past week. The Azhar agreement, however, means precious little when the ministry of interior that is party to the street conflict remains absent. In a statement published by State Information Services on Wednesday, Prime Minister Hisham Qandil expressed his support for Egypt's police force, and approved equipment requested by policemen to perform their jobs. While the state news outlet did not clarify with what he had promised to equip them, the statement followed news that the ministry of interior is considering arming security forces who guard state institutions with live ammunition. At a time when the worst of the violence thus far saw casualties to civilians by gunshot, a commitment to nonviolence from the police would bear more weight with the average Egyptian protester.

Another question is how much influence do these political parties have over a highly volatile street movement? While some of the revolutionary youth rallied behind parties such as the Free Egyptians Party or the Egyptian Social Democratic Party early in the transition, they were quickly disillusioned with personality politics, and consequently withdrew from the political scene, returning to the street as an expression of their own political demands. In fact, a leaderless revolution has been a source of pride for many young Egyptian activists, and they have little desire to grant the mantle of revolutionary legitimacy to a political actor. At one point in time, ElBaradei was seen as a potential representative for the revolutionary youth. His arrival on the political scene in 2010 galvanized the youth but his behavior throughout the transition -- meant to preserve his credibility -- left him appearing noncommittal. As a result, his support is as reliable as he is. The presence of April 6 Movement leaders may strengthen the call for calm, particularly after having shown their support for the Ultras' cause, however the motivations for civil unrest are varied and -- contrary to Ghonim's stance -- inherently political.

While violence on the street has dissipated, it has not come to a complete end, as clashes continued in Cairo and Kafr El Sheikh with four additional deaths reported on Wednesday. As political parties on either side of the spectrum attempt to find common ground, trying to move past this deadlock also entails finding a way to appeal to the youth movements that have long disassociated themselves from Egypt's political parties. To do so, these groups must focus their efforts on security sector reform as a major component of reconciliation. Morsi's government, like the SCAF before it, has been unable to bring about true accountability for protester deaths dating back to January 2011, the latest acquittal announced on the same day as the talks. Without accountability and a commitment from the ministry of interior to nonviolence in the face of peaceful protests, Egypt's political forces are faced with a tough sell when appealing to the street.

Tarek Radwan is the Associate Director for Research at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. He previously reported on the Middle East with Human Rights Watch's MENA division and served as a Human Rights Officer for the United Nations/African Union Hybrid Operation in Darfur. Mr. Radwan specializes in Egypt, with a focus on civil society, human rights, the constitution, and judicial issues.

Nancy Messieh is the Associate Director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and editor of EgyptSource, a blog following Egypt's transition. Follow @EgyptSource on Twitter for the most recent news and analysis.

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images