Officials expressed cautious optimism at the end of two days of talks between six world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Iran and the U.N. Security Council's permanent five members, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany, agreed for technical experts to meet in Istanbul on March 18, and to reconvene full negotiations in Kazakhstan on April 5 and 6. The P5 +1 offered to reduce some sanctions on Iran if the country scales back its nuclear program, which the West fears is intended for weapons development. European Union foreign policy chief and the P5 +1 lead negotiator Catherine Ashton said, "The proposals we put forward are designed to build in confidence and enable us to move forward." Iran's lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili said there was a long way to go, but this was a "positive step" and stated, "Some of the points raised were more realistic compared to what they [P5 +1] said in the past." The six world powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which can more easily be turned into weapons grade material, and export its current stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. Additionally, they want Iran to shut down its underground Fordo enrichment plant. Western diplomats cautioned that there was no substantive progress, but some analysts say there was an important development, and a major breakthrough was not expected in this round of talks. Meanwhile, the U.S. lawmakers will introduce a bill on Wednesday that will expand sanctions on Iran, and images released Wednesday raised suspicions that Iran is working toward producing plutonium at its Arak facility.
The United States is considering a shift in policy on Syria as Russia looks to the United States to urge the Syrian opposition to participate in peace talks. According to U.S. officials, the administration is considering sending opposition fighters body armor and armed vehicles, and additionally might provide military training. The United States has avoided sending weapons to the rebels, but has provided communications equipment to the opposition and given millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. In a meeting in Berlin between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia called for the United States to urge for the Syrian opposition to drop President Bashar al-Assad's resignation as a precondition for direct talks with the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday, the Syrian government fired at least four ballistic missiles last week, hitting civilian neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo. Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 141 people were killed in the strikes including 71 children. This is the first time in the two-year conflict that the regime has fired as many missiles into residential areas.
- After several months of talks with the Turkish government, imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan has drafted a ceasefire proposal to end the 28-year insurgency.
- Egypt's main opposition party, the National Salvation Front, said it will boycott parliamentary elections scheduled to begin in April. They have been criticizing the election law for favoring Islamists.
- Former Iranian chief prosecutor and close ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saeed Mortazavi, is being charged over the deaths of anti-government protesters in 2010.
- Egypt has suspended hot air balloon flights in Luxor as the investigation continues into Tuesday's deadly crash, the company's second in 18 months.
Arguments and Analysis
John Kerry should challenge the hawks on Syria (Jonathan Steele, The Guardian)
"Arming the rebels is not going to change the military situation, which is stalemated. The government army cannot win nor can the rebels. Adding more weaponry will merely raise the amount of killing, and make it even harder to deliver aid to the millions who have had to flee their homes. It also risks putting more guns in the hands of the jihadis and Salafis who are conducting most of the attacks as well as planting bombs in Damascus and Aleppo that kill civilians. No doubt, if there is a change of US policy, it will be argued that the aim is to arm the "moderates", but with the chaos on the ground, where a hundred disparate local brigades compete for the best weaponry, there is little to stop US arms gravitating to the most ruthless.
Little can save Syria now. Even if talks started and were eventually successful in producing a government of national unity and a democratic constitution, the hardline jihadis would not accept the result. The country will probably be condemned to bloodshed on the pattern of Iraq, where car bombs and suicide bombs kill hundreds every month. But even that would be better than the all-consuming civil war that is Syria's fate today.
As a man who saw the folly of the Vietnam war in his youth, Kerry should have the wisdom to choose a better course. Where his predecessor was a hawk on the issue, he needs to confront the SNC and the Washington rightwingers who back them, and say Khatib had the better vision."
The Royals' New Rules: Backsliding In Bahrain (Amy Austin Holmes, The Cairo Review of Global Affairs)
"The Al Khalifas of Bahrain, the Sunni family which has lorded over the Shia-majority population since 1783, has a long history of thwarting revolutionary uprisings. They've recently added five new tactics to their repertoire. My own experience with their new strategy happened on January 29, when I landed at the airport in Manama. Although wary of the fact that a number of journalists, NGOs, European MPs, and activists had been denied entry into Bahrain, I thought I was low profile enough to get in. Other than speaking about Bahrain at a few small academic conferences, I didn't think I had done anything to earn a spot on anyone's blacklist. And thanks to the glacially slow nature of academic publishing, my research on Bahrain had not yet appeared in print. I found it therefore all the more disconcerting when I was denied entry and instead put on a flight to Qatar for "security reasons." When I attempted to protest the decision, telling them that I was allowed in during my last visit, I was simply told: "Everyone knows about your last trip." While nation-states have the right to decide who may or may not cross their borders, the government of Bahrain has been systematically denying access to virtually any outside observers."
--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey