The Middle East Channel

Suspected al Qaeda attacks on army targets in southern Yemen kill 40 people

Suspected al Qaeda linked militants launched simultaneous attacks on army targets in southern Yemen Friday killing at least 40 people. An estimated 30 soldiers were killed and many others wounded when two car bombs exploded at a military base in the town of al-Nashama in Shabwa province. In the town of Maifaa, gunmen killed 10 soldiers. While no one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, military officials believe they were carried out by Yemen's al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Islamist militants have taken advantage of political instability in Yemen since the 2011 uprising against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and have carried out numerous attacks against Yemeni security and military officers in the southern provinces. Friday's attacks were among the largest attacks against the Yemeni military and came after a recent statement by authorities warning of an expected increase in al Qaeda attacks and suicide bombings.

Syria

After days of fighting in the northern town of Azaz, near the Turkish border, the Free Syrian Army's Northern Storm Brigade and fighters from the al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) have negotiated a cease-fire. The Islamist Tawheed Brigade, based about 20 miles south in Aleppo, brokered the truce. The deal included the installation of a checkpoint between the two sides and an agreement that future disputes would be taken before an Islamic council. As the groups negotiated the cease-fire, Syria's main Western-backed opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, issued a statement criticizing the al Qaeda linked militants saying they are undermining the rebels' struggle for a free Syria. In an interview with the Guardian, Syria's Deputy Prime Minister Qadri Jamil said that the Syrian war had reached a stalemate, with neither side strong enough to win. Additionally, he said that the Syrian government would call for a cease-fire after a long-delayed peace conference in Geneva. However, Jamil insists that he was misquoted. Meanwhile, the United States is pushing for a U.N. resolution on Syria ahead of Saturday's deadline for the Assad regime to provide a list of its chemical weapons facilities.

Headlines  

  • Two bombs hidden inside air conditioning units at a Sunni mosque south of the Iraqi city of Samarra killed an estimated 15 people when they exploded during Friday prayers.
  • The U.S. administration has hinted at a possible meeting between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani as a top Iranian advisor said Iran's leaders are willing to negotiate in order to end sanctions. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Why Iran seeks constructive engagement' (Hassan Rouhani, The Washington Post)

"I am committed to confronting our common challenges via a two-pronged approach.

First, we must join hands to constructively work toward national dialogue, whether in Syria or Bahrain. We must create an atmosphere where peoples of the region can decide their own fates. As part of this, I announce my government's readiness to help facilitate dialogue between the Syrian government and the opposition.

Second, we must address the broader, overarching injustices and rivalries that fuel violence and tensions. A key aspect of my commitment to constructive interaction entails a sincere effort to engage with neighbors and other nations to identify and secure win-win solutions.

We and our international counterparts have spent a lot of time -- perhaps too much time -- discussing what we don't want rather than what we do want. This is not unique to Iran's international relations. In a climate where much of foreign policy is a direct function of domestic politics, focusing on what one doesn't want is an easy way out of difficult conundrums for many world leaders. Expressing what one does want requires more courage."

'Diplomacy may make Bashar disposable' (Michael Young, The Daily Star)

"Within a week, one story -- punishing Bashar Assad for his probable use of chemical weapons against civilians in the Ghouta region -- has been pushed aside by another: the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, even as Washington is coordinating its policies toward Syria with another adversary, Russia.

It's best in these cases not to get carried away by optimism. Diplomacy and dialogue are not ends in themselves. Yet the potential opportunities are great, whether for Syria or the rest of the Middle East, if broader understandings can be reached between the main regional and global actors. And tectonic shifts, if they occur, may ultimately ensure that Assad is politically disposable.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has made normalization with the West a central plank of his political program. Critically, he seems to have the support of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. On Tuesday, Khamenei endorsed Rouhani's position, saying Iran should embrace diplomacy over militarism and that it was time for ‘heroic leniency.'

In remarks to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei said, ‘[I]t is not necessary for the IRGC to be active in the political field, but defending the revolution requires that they understand political realities.' This appeared to be Khamenei's way of legitimizing Rouhani's opening in front of an institution that, potentially, may pose problems for the president down the road."

'Yemen: Corruption, Capital Flight and Global Drivers of Conflict' (Ginny Hill, Peter Salisbury, Léonie Northedge and Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House)

"Before the 2011 uprising, Yemen was better known as the target of two distinct -- and sometimes conflicting -- Western narrative frameworks for foreign policy. For more than a decade, it has been classified as a front-line state in the US-led 'war on terror', with Western and regional governments providing military aid to an increasingly sclerotic regime aligned with their counter-terrorism objectives. It is also routinely cited as a 'fragile state'. Western (as well as Arab) aid efforts to alleviate poverty and hunger are designed partly to mitigate the risk of an eventual full-scale state collapse. But as the report argues, policies which effectively helped to sustain the Saleh regime may well have hastened the arrival of such a collapse. Moreover, following more than three decades as a military republic dominated by an authoritarian leader, Yemen also belongs to the broader regional narrative of the ‘Arab Spring' that accompanied the downfall of Tunisia's President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and Libya's leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Iran at the UN from Khamenei to Rouhani

On September 24, Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani will make his debut at the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). He is far from the first Iranian president to make this appearance. For a quarter century, Iran's top elected leaders have all used the green marble dais in the cavernous General Assembly to lay out Iran's vision for the Islamic Republic, the Middle East, and the world. Indeed, before becoming the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, even then-President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei traveled to New York for the opening of the United Nations in 1987.

Rouhani's appearance this year may be particularly momentous. For the first time, both Iran and the United States are in sync about serious diplomacy -- and the bargaining may well begin in public but even more behind-the-scenes in New York. Rouhani has made clear that he will use the gathering of heads of state to announce a new era in Iran's relations with the outside word, especially with the United States and Europe. In his brief six weeks in office, the president has already talked extensively about moderation and "constructive engagement" on international disputes. 

The Scottish-educated cleric has openly talked about a "win-win" deal to resolve the controversy over Iran's nuclear program. He has vigorously defended Tehran's right to peaceful nuclear energy, while denying that the Islamic Republic is developing the world's deadliest weapon. But he has also pledged greater transparency to address unanswered questions about Iran's program. With Iran's economy in shambles, he is also looking for relief from punitive international sanctions imposed because of Iran's failure to comply with a series of U.N. resolutions. 

Rouhani will also be pressing for what amounts to a win-win compromise on Syria, Tehran's closest ally in the Arab world. The new president has repeatedly condemned the use of chemical weapons in Syria, without blaming the government outright. The use of chemical weapons is particularly sensitive in Iran because it suffered tens of thousands of casualties from Iraq's repeated use of several forms of chemical weapons during their eight-year war in the 1980s. But Iran has reportedly provided significant aid to the embattled regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic Republic has also supported Russia's effort to find a diplomatic outcome that will keep Assad in power. And Tehran has been outspoken in condemning a possible U.S. military strike.

Rouhani's appearance should be placed in the context of long years of experience with Iranian engagement at the United Nations. The UNGA openings have been a forum for some of the most dramatic exchanges between Iran and the international community.

"The foundations of the security supported by such a Security Council is nothing but a nice-looking house of cards... A big chapter of our history, a very bitter, bloody and evil chapter, is saturated with American enmities and grudging hostilities toward our nation... The system of world domination makes decisions for the whole world ... yesterday it was Hiroshima and today the president of the United States is proud of the horrendous behavior of his predecessors."

President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 1987 

Khamenei's attendance at the 1987 General Assembly marked the first visit by a senior Iranian official to the United Nations. Khamenei addressed fellow heads of state in the midst of the devastating Iran-Iraq war. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's military had invaded Iran in 1980 to overthrow the fledgling Islamic Republic. Iran was isolated and resented the U.N. Security Council's apathy toward the war. Khamenei had an opportunity to present Iran's case.

On the day before Khamenei's address, U.S. forces attacked the Iran-Ajr, an Iranian vessel caught dropping mines in the Persian Gulf. Five Iranians were killed and 26 crewmen were seized, four of whom were injured. Khamenei lashed out at the United States in his speech and claimed the Iran-Ajr was a merchant vessel, not a military speedboat. The incident derailed what might have been Tehran's moment of engagement with the outside world.

Khamenei's words, however, reflected more than his immediate anger about the attack on the ship. Khamenei outlined his broader worldview, which centered on criticizing the prevailing international order since World War II. Khamenei begrudged the status of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members -- the United States, Britain, China, France, and Russia -- and their ability to veto resolutions. Khamenei went on to repeat his call for a change in world order as president and later as supreme leader. Rouhani's posture will likely starkly contrast with Khamenei's only address to the general assembly.

"The failure of the Security Council squarely to face the Palestinian crisis and the constant aggressions against the Palestinian people, Lebanon and Syria, not to mention its intentional failure to enforce its own resolutions, are a sad illustration of the prevailing preference of political interests over peace, security, international law and equity."

Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, 1993

For the next decade, no Iranian president traveled to New York to deliver a U.N. address. Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati spoke for Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, president from 1989 to 1997. Velayati served as foreign minister from 1981 to 1997 and still holds considerable influence as chief foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Khamenei. In his addresses, Velayati repeatedly criticized the international order and accused the U.N. Security Council of maintaining double standards. In 1992, he condemned minimal international reactions to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, "decades-old aggression" by Israel against Palestinians, and Serbia's move against the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1996, Velayati accused the U.S. Congress of allocating money for terrorist activities against the Islamic Republic.

But President Rafsanjani was more than likely using Velayati's addresses to exhibit strength and independence to please the Iranian public. Back in Tehran, Rafsanjani quietly enacted pragmatic policies aimed at improving Iran's relations with the outside world. Early into presidency, Rafsanjani repaired relations with Saudi Arabia and reestablished relations with several Middle Eastern and North African monarchies. He in effect sided with the U.S.-led coalition to oust Iraq from Kuwait. And he helped win freedom for American hostages held by Lebanese allies. Rafsanjani also reached out to Egypt and signed a $1 billion agreement with the U.S. oil company Conoco to develop Iranian offshore fields. But former President Bill Clinton killed the deal with an executive order that barred U.S. investment in Iran's oil sector.

"If humanity at the threshold of the new century and millennium devotes all efforts to institutionalize dialogue, replacing hostility and confrontation with discourse and understanding, it would leave an invaluable legacy for the benefit of the future generations."

President Mohammad Khatami, 1998

When President Mohammad Khatami took office in 1997, he sincerely thought he could inaugurate a new era in Iran's relations with the international community. In a January 1998 interview, he first outlined his idea to have a "dialogue among the nations" to promote international cooperation and understanding. He acknowledged the "bulky wall of mistrust" that had gone up between Iran and the United States since the 1979 revolution. "There must first be a crack in this wall of mistrust to prepare for a change and create an opportunity to study a new situation," Khatami told CNN.

In September 1998, Khatami spoke at the U.N. General Assembly opening and became the first Iranian president to visit the United States in a decade. The reformist president was Iran's one hope for better relations with the international community. Khatami's address defied Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis, which argued that culture would be the primary source of conflict in the future. But Khatami's plans did not work out the way he intended, mostly due to domestic pressure. Hardliners did their best to disrupt and sabotage Khatami's efforts to reach out. U.S. outreach to Khatami was too cautious. And the international community did not reciprocate the way Khatami had hoped. 

Khatami, however, did achieve some success in foreign relations. He nullified Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's death decree against British writer Salman Rushdie, which had severely aggravated Iran's relations with Europe and even led to the withdrawal of ambassadors. Khatami agreed to suspend Iran's nuclear fuel enrichment program to allow negotiations with the Europeans to go forward under Rouhani, then-secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and chief nuclear negotiator.

"Today, the Zionist regime is on a definite slope to collapse, and there is no way for it to get out of the cesspool created by itself and its supporters... American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders... With the grace of God Almighty, the existing pillars of the oppressive system are crumbling."

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 2008

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president from 2005 to 2013, took a new approach to speaking in front of the U.N. General Assembly. The hardliner treated his appearances as an opportunity to play his preferred role as international bad boy, willing to challenge the West on almost any issue. Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric prompted many walkouts by Western countries each year. He predicted the collapse of American power, capitalism, and Israel. In 2010, Ahmadinejad suggested that the United States orchestrated the 9/11 attacks in order to "reverse the declining American economy" and "save the Zionist regime." In 2011, he claimed, "European countries still use the Holocaust after six decades as the excuse to pay (a) fine or ransom to the Zionists." Ahmadinejad also treated his U.N. audience to his bizarre religious views. He once predicted an early second coming of Jesus Christ side-by-side with the Shiite savior, the Mahdi. Ahmadinejad's performances were aimed at a domestic audience to an extent, but more importantly to a third-world one. He tried to emulate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and cultivate influence in developing countries. But in reality, Ahmadinejad did serious damage to Iran's credibility and international standing with his U.N. speeches.

After eight years of Ahmadinejad's confrontational leadership, Iran seems ready for a change in 2013. In the run-up to Rouhani's speech, the new president has already signaled his desire to chart a new, more flexible course in dealing with the outside world. "We do not seek war with any country. We seek peace and friendship among the nations of the region," he said in a September 18 interview with NBC. Rouhani also mentioned that he had received a "positive and constructive" letter from U.S. President Barack Obama that could be "tiny steps for a very important future." Rouhani's address could be the most substantive overture yet delivered by an Iranian leader to the United Nations.

Shaul Bakhash is the Clarence Robinson Professor of History at George Mason University.