|Southwest Asia News Digest
Bush Administration Blocking Syria-Israel Peace Pact
Speaking before the German-Syrian Society in Bonn April 18, Syria's ambassador to Germany, Dr. Hussein Omran, reported that Syria and Israel were close to a peace agreement, but the political will in the United States was lacking.
Certain events in the last weeks alone have pointed to how quickly peace could be reached in the region if Vice President Dick Cheney were impeached. The most recent occurred in Israel, where on April 12, for the first time in its history, a Syrian had addressed the Israeli Knesset with a message of peace from Damascus. Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian and naturalized American living in Maryland, who participated last year in Syria-Israeli back channel talks along with former Israeli senior foreign ministry official Dr. Alon Liel, briefed the Knesset's Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee on Syria's readiness for peace talks.
"Syria right now is ready to speak peace. I challenged the Israeli government to answer President Bashar's [Assad] call for peace and sit down together" Ha'aretz quoted Suleiman telling a press conference after his Knesset briefing. "I think it can happen in six months."
Both Suleiman and his Israeli counterpart Alon Liel briefed the Knesset committee on their secret talks, held between 2004 and 2006 (see last week's InDepth for "Bush Fiddles While Cheney Plots More Wars," by Jeffrey Steinberg). Suleiman, who reportedly enjoys good relations with the Assad family, presented various possibilities for a peace agreement based on a return to Syria of the Golan Heights in return for normalization of relations, and economic cooperation. He reportedly told the committee that Syrian President Assad has appointed a committee, headed by one of his army generals, to coordinate talks with Israel. He also conveyed messages from Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem.
Suleiman said, "I believe that only secret negotiations between Israel and Syria, far away from the eyes of the media, will lead to peace." Thanking the committee for inviting him, he said, "I'm very glad I came. I hope that both sides will begin to meet and we, as a private channel, will disappear. My presence here makes everything possible."
Knesset member Yahava Gal On, of the Meretz party, who initiated the Knesset briefing, said, "In a peace agreement, Syria would agree to stop supporting terror against us and cut ties with Hizbollah, and would demand that we return to 1967 borders in the Golan Heights." She added that the briefing "was a huge step, especially because it returns the Syrian option to public discourse.... It is important that Israel begin formal talks with Syria...."
Neither the Israeli Foreign Ministry nor the Prime Minister's office received Suleiman, for fear that they would incur the wrath of Washington.
While underscoring the significance of the Suleiman's visit to Israel, one Israeli intelligence source told EIR that as long as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert refuses to buck the Bush Administration, the prospects for a peace agreement are slim.
Israeli Defense Expert: Iran Threat Is Exaggerated
Addressing a security conference at Tel Aviv University on April 17, a senior Israeli defense expert said the nuclear threat from Iran is exaggerated. Dr. Yitzhak Ravid, former head of military studies at the Armament Development Authority (RAFAEL), said exaggerated assessments played straight into Iranian hands by aiding them in frightening Israelis.
"A 20 kiloton bomb over Tel Aviv would kill 20,000 to 25,000, not 250,000 as had been claimed," Ravid said. "Such an attack is very serious, but it is not the end of the Zionist dream." He added that Iran was now struggling to make a first-generation bomb, but once made, they would have another major challenge in attempting to fit it on a missile that could carry the weight. As for Iran's allegedly nuclear-capable Shahab missiles, Ravid said, "Never in human history has more than one Shiaab missile been successfully test-fired. And the Shahabs themselves are very limited. They are actually a Scud-sized missile."
Quoting Uzi Rubin, head of ballistic missile research for the Ministry of Defense, Ravid said, "The Iranians are almost frantic in volunteering information about their weapons capabilities, sometimes to the point of incredulity.... They are meant to impress before they are meant to be used in anger." As for the threat posed by missiles carrying chemical warheads, Ravid said, "More harm is caused to people by attempts to prepare for such an attack, than harm which would be caused by a direct hit by such a missile." "This exaggeration causes damage in terms of anxiety, and pressured diplomatic activity."
Ravid pointed out that more Israelis were killed through suffocation by mishandling gas masks during the 1991 Gulf War than by the Scud missiles that hit Israel.
Kuwait Prepares for Potential U.S. War Against Iran
Although it was officially announced on April 20 that Iranian chief negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana will meet on April 25, to start a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program, warnings of a coming war continue. Most significant is the report, by AFP on April 20, that Kuwait has announced a plan to prepare for such a war. Kuwaiti State Minister for Cabinet Affairs Faisal al-Hajji was quoted telling the al-Watan daily, that an emergency team "will devise a comprehensive contingency plan to deal with risks that may result in case a war breaks out in the Gulf on the back of the rising military escalation towards Iran."
The team, which will draw on officials from the Ministries of Defense, Interior, Health, and Oil, is to be set up by the Cabinet April 22, to hold its first meeting April 23. Then, on May 1, the Parliament will hold a special debate on the government's readiness for a possible confrontation. There are 15,000 U.S. troops now in Kuwait, which was used as the launching pad for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Tehran Seeks Bids for Two New Nuclear Power Plants
Despite the controversy over its nuclear program, the Iranian government announced April 16 that it is seeking bids for construction of two new nuclear power plants; it plans to site the plants near Bushehr. Ahmed Fayyaz-Bakhsh, the deputy chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, said companies worldwide, including U.S. companies, can bid on plants which would have a capacity from 1,000 mw to 1,600 mw, and cost approximately $1.7 billion each. The construction time is not to exceed ten years.
Meanwhile, the Director General of the IAEA Mohammed ElBaradei has called on Iran and Israel to join a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East. Reports indicate that ElBaradei made the appeal after his talks with King Abdullah of Jordan. ElBaradei also said the IAEA is ready to help Jordan to develop its nuclear energy for peaceful use.
Iran May Withhold Oil Exports Against Sanctions
At the 12th annual International Oil, Gas, and Petrochemical Expo, Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh insisted, "The Islamic Republic of Iran's policy is to supply energy as a responsibility. We are never seeking to cut the energy supplies to the world. But naturally, every country, which is subject to danger or attack, should use all its possibilities to defend itself, and this is every country's right." His comments were reported by Iranian television and the national news service IRNA on April 18.
The minister's statement concerning potential withholding of oil was made as new threats from some UN Security Council quarters, of a third sanctions resolution against Iran for its nuclear program, have surfaced. Ironically, Minister Vaziri-Hamaneh reported to the Expo that Iran has signed more than $38 billion in development deals during the past year and a half, in the oil, gas, and petrochemical industries. He added, "Signing deals shows firm determination of the Islamic Republic of Iran to make breakthroughs in the oil industry."
Mozart Festival Held in Occupied Palestine
During a two-week period spanning Easter, an extraordinary Mozart Festival was held in occupied Palestine, Ha'aretz reported April 18. The Palestinian Mozart Festival included 50 works, including almost everything from solos to operas and ensembles to orchestral works. Some 20 concerts, were held as well as films, master classes, and workshops, in cities throughout the West Bank where Palestinians had to run the gauntlet of checkpoints and security checks in order to reach concert halls.
In the city of Nablus, where, only a few weeks ago, the Israeli military conducted a series of brutal military incursions, the Choir of London held a concert at the Al Masri Cultural Center. The American clarinetist Douglas Metcalf performed a Mozart Quintet with a string quartet from England. Later in the evening, the choir performed Miserere K. 85, and the Ave Verum. The audience included a group of children aged 6 to 8 who, according to the Ha'aretz correspondent, "sat in total silence, staring wide-eyed" at a performance the likes of which they had never seen.
In Bethlehem, the Choir of London performed the Magic Flute, and in Ramallah, the Requiem. Many of the performers were Palestinians, including the international soprano and Jordanian native Dima Bawab, and 14-year-old violinist Jenna Barghouti.
John Harte, a member of the Choir of London and one of the musical directors of the festival, said, "This tour made us realize that music has far more roles than we imagined. Not only musical harmony, which is supposed to encourage harmony between nations, as many think, but also a means of objecting, a socio-political declaration, an expression of despair in politics and its failures and also an outlet from stress and worry."