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March 31, 2009

As Israel installs new hardline PM, US and Iran meet on Afghanistan

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Today, Benjamin Netanyahu will become Israel’s newest Prime Minister, leading a hardline Likud government alongside Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist (and largely racist) Yisrael Betenyu party and incorporating Ehud Barak’s Labor party.  The newly-formed government will place Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in the awkward position of leading the pro-peace movement (Livni is not widely regarded as a dove by any standards, but is nowhere near as hawkish as PM Netanyahu).
I recently attended a very interesting blogger discussion at the New America Foundation that Steve Clemmons put on to discuss all of this, which you can read about over at the Washington Times’ Potus Notes.  Basically, I left the meeting with the extremely depressing notion that despite President Obama’s emphasis on the peace process, Israelis and Palestinians are farther away from a deal today than they were even a few months ago.
In slightly more positive news, the so-called “Big Tent” meeting on Afghanistan is going on today at the Hague, with both Iranian and American diplomats in attendance.  Secretary of State Clinton invited the Iranian delegation to cooperate on stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, which was the first of a series of very positive moves by the Obama administration to kick off its plan to engage with Iran.
As we heard from Hillary Mann Leverett at our briefing last week, it’s important for Iran to send a signal at this conference that it is capable of reciprocating positive moves from Washington.  Iran needs to make it clear that on issues of mutual interest, there is nothing standing in the way of their full cooperation.
Unfortunately, as Laura Rozen pointed out last night, it’s not off to a great start.  The US is sending Secretary of State Clinton to the meeting, but Iran will be represented by the deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Akhundzadeh.  According to Trita:

“They are talking, and they will be there at the table, but they are sending lesser representation that is not on the par” with the other delegations, notes Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington group that advocates for engagement between Washington and Tehran. “It does send a signal,” that Iran is holding back somewhat on regional cooperation talks until “they have practical indications of America’s [larger] strategic objective with Iran,” he says. Tehran’s response is “predictable,” if unfortunate, he says, adding that Tehran’s “emulating Bush’s insistence on preconditions would be a mistake.”

update: The Cable is reporting that Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke held a “brief and cordial exchange” with the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister.  Also, Sec. Clinton said that she ordered a letter to be delivered to the Iranian delegation asking for informaion on the whereabouts of Robert Levinson and calling for the release of Roxanna Saberi.
update 2: The Atlantic is reporting on an eye-popping interview with Netanyahu in which he told Obama in very stark language that if the US doesn’t stop Iran soon, Israel will.

“You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.”

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