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Afghan Officials, Lawmaker Claim Iranians Fighting For IS In Afghanistan

A member of the Afghan security forces escorts alleged Islamic State fighters being presented to the media at the police headquarters in Jalalabad on May 29.

Afghan officials claim that some Iranian fighters have joined the ranks of Islamic State (IS) militants in Afghanistan.

A day after police paraded an alleged Iranian national before journalists in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, a lawmaker from the region said at least 10 Iranian IS fighters are active there.

“The information I now have says 10 or 12 Iranians are operating in the region comprising the homeland of the Shinwari tribe such as Achin district,” Hazrat Ali, a member of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament, told Radio Free Afghanistan on May 30. “In the past, the number of Iranian fighters in Daesh (local name of IS) exceeded 100, but I am not sure about where they went or what happened to them.”

It was not possible to independently verify his claims, but there is some evidence of the first reported presence of Iranian fighters in the IS ranks.

A day earlier, Nangarhar Police Chief Abdul Rahman Rahimi allowed journalists in the regional capital, Jalalabad, to interview one Iranian and a few Pakistani fighters he said they recently captured in the province.

“They are in front of your cameras. The nation and the world can judge for themselves who these fighters really are,” he told Afghanistan’s Tolo TV.

Kamal, a bearded young fighter, said he had spent two weeks with IS in Nangarhar.

“I joined Daesh through the Telegram [messaging app],” he said, adding he had crossed into Afghanistan in southern Nimroz Province.

“After I arrived in Kabul, I spent two nights in a hotel and then went to Nangarhar’s Chaparhar district [to join Daesh],” Tolo TV quoted him as saying.

This is the first time Afghan officials have claimed Iranian nationals are fighting for a radical Sunni group, which counts Tehran’s Shi’ite clerical regime among its foremost foes. The two are fighting against each other in Syria and Iraq.

Recent Afghan and international media reports say Tehran is allegedly supporting the Taliban to counter IS in Afghanistan. During the past two years, the Taliban have systematically eliminated IS cells in southern and western Afghan provinces bordering Iran. While most Iranians are Shi’a, some 10 percent of the country’s 80 million people are Sunni Muslims.

In Kabul, the Afghan Interior Ministry is not saying much.

“We are investigating the arrested individual who claims to be an Iranian citizen,” Interior Ministry spokesman Najib Danish told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Whatever his country, terrorists are just terrorists.”

The Iranian Embassy in Kabul said it will comment on the issue once Afghan authorities have wrapped up their investigation.

Afghan and U.S. forces have been battling IS militants in Nangarhar for nearly two years. In early 2015, the group overran several remote mountainous districts in Nangarhar’s east, which abuts Pakistan. The group dubbed itself IS Khorasan Province and began to mimic extreme atrocities -- a hallmark of IS rule in Syria and Iraq, where it still controls some regions.

IS Khorasan Province has been mostly active in Nangarhar, but its founding leader, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and most of the group’s fighters come from Pakistan. Many were members of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, an umbrella coalition of Pakistani Taliban factions that now appears to be in disarray following years of counterterrorism sweeps by the Pakistani military. While it is common for Pakistani fighters to be captured on the Afghan battlefield, Iranian militants are rare.

In recent months, Afghan and U.S. military officials have repeatedly claimed to have dealt severe blows to IS.

In a statement on May 19, Afghan and U.S. forces claimed to have killed more than a dozen IS leaders and over 750 of its fighters since March. Earlier in the month, the U.S. military confirmed Abdul Hasib, an IS leader in Afghanistan, was killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Nangarhar.

"These operations will continue until ISIS [IS] Khorasan is defeated in 2017," a statement by the U.S. forces in Afghanistan said while using the local name of IS’s Afghanistan-Pakistan affiliate.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nusrat Parsa contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.

Interview: U.S. Senator Booker Says Russia Trying to Destabilize Democracies Globally

U.S. Senator Booker Says Ukraine At Fulcrum Of Russian 'Aggression'
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KYIV -- Russia's interference in Ukraine is just one sign of a broad attempt to destabilize democracies around the world, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (Democrat-New Jersey) has told RFE/RL.

"When it comes to Russian aggression, let's be clear: The Russians are seeking to not just attack Ukraine, or attack the U.S., they are trying to undermine democracy," Booker said in an interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service in Kyiv on May 31.

"Their attempt is to create divisions and divisiveness between individual leaders as well as within nations. And that's unacceptable," said Booker, who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Russia seized control of Crimea in March 2014 after sending in troops without insignia, engineering a takeover of the regional legislature, and staging a referendum that was swiftly dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine, the United States, and a total of 100 countries at the UN General Assembly.

Moscow has portrayed its takeover of Crimea as necessary to protect ethnic Russians and other residents of the peninsula from oppression by pro-Western officials who came to power in Kyiv following the ouster of Russia-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

That narrative has been rejected by Ukraine and Western governments, which accuse Russian-backed authorities in Crimea of rights abuses against Crimean Tatars and others opposed to Moscow's rule there.

Since 2014, the EU and United States have maintained sanctions on Russia over its seizure of Crimea and its actions in eastern Ukraine.

Booker, who has advocated increasing sanctions against Russia, said that he believes relations with Moscow need to be improved but added that "the question is not if, it's how."

"Putin is somebody who is not going to negotiate with you if he thinks you're weak. Right now we need to show our strength....We need to show our strength through unity with our allies," Booker said.

"You cannot appease people who are showing aggression without meeting them with strength," he said.

"This is not just a Ukrainian fight, this is a transatlantic fight," Booker added.

At Least 90 Dead, Hundreds Wounded In Huge Kabul Blast

Dozens Killed In Huge Kabul Blast
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KABUL -- The Afghan government has raised the death toll from a huge truck-bomb blast in the center of Kabul to 90.

The May 31 explosion ripped through Kabul's diplomatic quarter at the peak of the morning rush hour during the holy month of Ramadan, shattering windows far from the site and sending black smoke into the sky.

"In this powerful attack 90 people have been killed and 400 wounded, including many women and children," the Afghan government's media center said, with the Health Ministry warning the toll would continue to rise as more bodies were pulled from the debris.

No group has so far claimed responsibility for the powerful blast. Similar attacks in the past have been carried out by the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) group.

Read the full story on RFE/RL website

Gulf Arab Row Could Harm Trump's Anti-Iran Axis

File photo-Heads of States of the Gulf Cooperation Council sit at a round table in Bayan Palace for the opening session of the 34th GCC Summit hosted by Kuwait

DUBAI/DOHA, May 31 (Reuters) - Just 10 days after President Donald Trump called on Muslim countries to stand united against Iran, a public feud between Qatar and some of its Gulf Arab neighbors is jolting his attempt to tip the regional balance of power against Tehran.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are incensed by Qatar's conciliatory line on Iran, their regional archrival, and its support for Islamist groups, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, which they regard as a dangerous political enemy.

The bickering among the Sunni states erupted after Trump attended a summit of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia where he denounced Shi'ite Iran's "destablising interventions" in Arab lands, where Tehran is locked in a tussle with Riyadh for influence.

The spat shows no sign of abating, raising the prospect of a long breach between Doha and its closest allies that could have repercussions around the Middle East.

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani visits Kuwait on Wednesday for talks with his counterpart Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah that are expected to address the rift. Kuwait, a past mediator between Gulf states, has offered to help ease tensions.

But few expect an early end to what is not their first feud. Three years ago Saudi Arabia and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Doha for similar reasons, although they returned after less than a year.

Analysts point to the unusual willingness of Qatari state-backed media on one side, and Saudi and Emirati media on the other, to trade rhetorical broadsides in public.

This suggests that point-scoring is taking priority over displays of unity among some members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a Saudi-dominated club of states that presents itself as an outpost of stability in a turbulent region.

In the Gulf's tightly-controlled media scene, attacks made by news outlets tend to be authorized by governments.

"The GCC could harm it own interests in this fight and is at risk of becoming more vulnerable to Iranian encroachment," said a Western diplomat based in Doha.

EMBOLDENED BY TRUMP

The spat's immediate cause was a purported Qatari state media report that the emir had cautioned against confrontation with Iran, as well as defending the Palestinian group Hamas and Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi'ite movement allied to Tehran.

Qatar denied the report, saying its news agency had been hacked, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE allowed their state-backed media to continue running it, angering Doha.

The squabble revives old accusations that Qatar backs the Brotherhood, which is present across most of the Muslim world and whose political ideology challenges the principle of dynastic rule. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi also suspect Doha is complacent about Iranian expansionism.

Some analysts speculate Riyadh and Abu Dhabi felt confident to authorise criticisms of Qatar by their deepening friendship with Trump, confident that his opposition to Iran and all Islamist armed groups reflects their views more than Qatar's.

"When Trump gave fulsome support in Riyadh and said, 'let's isolate Iran' that sent a signal to the UAE and Saudi, which felt emboldened and said: let's let loose everything we have on Qatar," said Gerd Nonneman, professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University in Qatar.

Acknowledging the tensions, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, wrote on Twitter on Sunday that the GCC countries "are passing through a new sharp crisis that carries within it a great danger".

Gulf officials and commentators outside Qatar said it did not matter whether the remarks were fake because they reflected Qatar's sympathies anyway.

"Doha's insistence in denying the issue is marginal because in reality, on the ground, Qatar confirms it adopts the policies that it is now trying to deny," an editorial in Saudi-owned newspaper Al-Hayat on Monday said.

RIFTS HAVE RAMIFICATIONS

A Gulf Arab official said patience had run out. "What is certain is the Gulf states led by Riyadh are not likely to tolerate such a deviation, if intentional, especially at this junction in our relationship with our hostile neighbour Iran."

Al Raya, a government-owned Qatari daily, hit back at Emirati reports on Friday by publishing pictures on its front page of UAE journalists it called "mercenaries".

Such animosities can have ramifications across the Middle East, where Gulf states have used their financial and political clout to influence events in Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen amid upheaval caused by the Arab Spring.

Nonneman said Kuwait and Oman clearly did not want a major rift. "It's not in the interests of anyone for this to grow into a clash beyond a media campaign - but sometimes these things take on a life of their own," he said.

Iran, which denies Arab accusations that it is engaged in subversion of Arab countries, appears to be gloating. Kayhan, a newspaper closely associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said on Tuesday the rift reflected Saudi Arabia's inability to "form an alliance against Tehran".

Rouhani Faces Pressure To Improve Human Rights In Iran

Supporters of Hassan Rouhani in a campaign rally in Mashhad, on Wednesday My 17, 2017.
By Babak Dehghanpisheh (Reuters)

In the week before the​ May 19 presidential election in Iran, the eventual victor, Hassan Rouhani, criticised the judiciary and the powerful Revolutionary Guards with rhetoric rarely heard in public in the Islamic republic.

Now, in the eyes of his supporters, it is time to deliver. Millions of Rouhani's followers expect him to keep pushing on human rights issues.

"The majority of Iranians have made it clear that they want improvement on human rights," said Hadi Ghaemi, the director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), a New York-based advocacy group. "Expectations are running high."

That message came through loud and clear shortly before Rouhani, who won re-election with more than 57 percent of the vote, took the stage at a gathering of supporters in Tehran last week.

"Ya Hussein, Mirhossein" went the thunderous chant, a reference to Mirhossein Mousavi, a presidential candidate in the 2009 election, who, along with fellow candidate Mehdi Karroubi disputed the results, spurring widespread protests.

Dozens of protestors were killed and hundreds arrested in the crackdown that followed, according to human rights groups.

Mousavi, his wife Zahra, and Karroubi, were placed under house arrest in 2011 after calling for protests in Iran in solidarity with pro-democracy uprisings across the Middle East.

The trio's continued detention is a divisive political issue in Iran and one that Rouhani has promised to resolve.

But if he keeps pushing, he will face a backlash from his hardline opponents which could undermine his second term, analysts say.

CLEAR MESSAGE

At the rally, it took several minutes for the announcer to quiet the crowd before another chant broke out: "Our message is clear, house arrest must be broken".

Along with those arrests, more than 20 journalists and activists were arrested in the lead-up to the elections according to CHRI, an issue which has also been raised by Rouhani supporters.

Many political prisoners are kept in solitary confinement and not allowed to see their families for long periods of time, according to human rights groups.

Iran has one of world's highest rates of capital punishment. At least 530 people were executed in 2016, according to a United Nations report.

Rouhani's supporters also expect him to fight for basic rights that affect their daily lives, like preventing security forces from harassing women for the way they dress or the judiciary from cancelling concerts.

During his first term, Rouhani made the signing of an agreement with Western powers, which lifted a large number of sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran's nuclear program, his top priority.

As a result, human rights issues were sidelined, analysts say. But now that the nuclear agreement is being implemented, his supporters are waiting for change.

Rouhani's decisive election win may have finally given him the opportunity to address human rights issues.

"As the head of the executive branch, Mr. Rouhani and his colleagues must use this opportunity to the maximum," parliamentarian Gholamreza Tajgardoon said last week, according to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA).

But signs are emerging that hardliners are ready for a fight.

Iran's judiciary chief hit back at Rouhani on Monday for bringing up the issue of the house arrest of opposition leaders during his campaign.

"Who are you to break the house arrests?" Larijani said without naming Rouhani, according to the judiciary news site Mizan.

Larijani said the Supreme National Security Council must take the initial decision to end the house arrests and then the judiciary would step in.

Any attempt to resolve this issue outside this legal procedure would be seen as an attempt to stoke up unrest similar to 2009, he said, according to Mizan.

"We're issuing a warning that they should wrap this issue up otherwise the judiciary, with authority, will wrap this issue up itself," Larijani said.

Meanwhile, the restrictions continue.

Mehdi Karubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Zahra Rahnavard under house arrest since 2011.
Mehdi Karubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi, and Zahra Rahnavard under house arrest since 2011.

Karroubi, 79, served as speaker of parliament before running for president in 2005 and 2009. He now stays largely on the upper floor of his house in Tehran and gets exercise by walking indoors, according to his son Mohammad Taghi. His only sources of information are local newspapers and state TV.

Security agents stay on the premises around the clock and do not allow him to have access to the phone or Internet.

Taghi, speaking by telephone, said the house arrest had backfired, raising the profile and importance of his father and the other detainees.

"If the goal is to cut off their political ties, what we've seen is that the passage of these six or seven years hasn't had any effect," he said. "In fact, the limitations and problems have increased their impact in society."

Little progress can be made on any human rights issue without the approval of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest power in the country.

"Since becoming Supreme Leader in 1989, Khamenei has sought to weaken every Iranian president in their second term," said Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment.

"Given how directly Rouhani challenged Khamenei during the campaign this tradition is likely to continue."

Inflation; A Big Challenge For Rouhani’s Second Term

President Hassan Rouhani in the meeting with top managers of National Development Fund, July 02, 2016.

In late March, the Iranian central bank announced that inflation in the previous Iranian calendar year, 1395, had dropped to 9%. The bank made a point in its announcement that for the first time in 26 years, Iran’s inflation rate had become single digit.

Only a little over three years earlier, Iran’s real inflation rate stood at 40%. Indeed, President Hassan Rouhani could claim an important economic victory in his first term.

However, economists did not believe that the downward trend could continue much longer.

As predicted, in the first Iranian month of 1396 (March 21-April 21, 2017), inflation crept up to 9.5%. More bad news followed. The Central Bank has now announced that in the second Iranian month inflation has reached 9.8%, or just a step-stone away from a double-digit rate.

Two observations are important here. First, even at 9%, Iran’s inflation rate, compared to most countries, is still very high. According to the World Bank data, average inflation in the world was 1.6% in 2016.

However, and as our second observation, it cannot be denied that the Rouhani government had a major achievement in establishing some control over inflation.

Fiscal discipline by the government has been one of the major factors in the inflation story. While during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government money was printed and pumped into the economy, Rouhani’s administration exercised a more restraint.

Better fiscal planning and an end to many crippling international sanctions also played important roles in during the last two years.

Why is it so hard to lower the inflation rate in Iran to a percentage closer to the international average?

The simple fact is that Iran suffers from many fundamental and structural economic problems that have become an inherent part of the governance system of the Islamic Republic.

The money supply in Iran surpasses the volume of economic activities – a recipe for inflation. A government that is always short of money, because of un-controlled spending, keeps printing money to pay for goods and services.

In countries with healthier economies, private and foreign investments oil the economic machine. In Iran, because of a big government and quasi-government sector and lack of foreign investments, that burden falls on the central bank, which has no political independence. Therefore, it has a hard time exercising fiscal discipline.

Lack of a healthy and growing private sector, weak fiscal planning and discipline and a currency, which has depreciated manifold in the past few years, will make it very hard for the second Rouhani administration to keep inflation relatively low.

Iran's Politics Colors Ramadan Prayer Dispute

A debate over the potential return of one of Iran's greatest classical singers for a prayer recitation has provided a fresh test of hard-line domination of state TV nearly a decade after unrest that roiled the country's establishment.

The performance of Rabbana by Mohammad Reza Shajarian was a Ramadan fixture for three decades before it was eliminated from programming after comments by Shajarian sympathetic to reformist critics of Iran's 2009 presidential election.

President Hassan Rouhani, who was reelected to a second four-year term earlier this month, has vowed to seek greater openness for Iranians in the face of hard-line control of state media through the country's powerful, unelected leadership.

The 76-year-old Shajarian's version of the prayer used to air on state TV and radio at sunset during the Islamic month of Ramadan, signaling that it was time to break the daily fast and begin the iftar.

But Shajarian expressed support for the opposition before the disputed reelection of then-President Mahmud Ahmadinejadi eight years ago and criticized the crackdown that followed -- hundreds were rounded up or jailed and several former opposition leaders remain under house arrest.

Last week, the government-controlled Iran daily reported that Culture Minister Reza Salehi Amiri had called on state television to air Shajarian's Rabbana during this year's Ramadan, which began on May 27.

But Javad Larijani, who represents the hard-line Judiciary on the national council that supervises state broadcasting, responded by saying airing the prayer would represent a violation of "Islamic norms of recitation."

Larijani suggested that because "defending [Shajarian] has become a political dispute," the prayer broadcast would be overshadowed, adding, "This is contrary to the Islamic principles of recitation."

Larijani's stance was sharply criticized by Hamid Reza Nourbakhsh, the head of the Iranian musicians' advocacy group House of Music, who suggested that Larijani lacked the religious authority to comment on the topic.

"I'd like to ask from which position of expertise is Larijani [commenting on] Maestro Shajarian's Rabbana?" Nourbakhsh asked. "Is he a recitation expert? A Koran expert? Or a commentator?"

President Rouhani, a political veteran whose rise has helped bring reformists and relative moderates back out of the political wilderness, responded by posting Shajarian's version of Rabbana on his Instagram page, which has 1.6 million followers.

Rouhani criticized the ban on the singer in a presidential debate ahead of the May 19 election that gave him a second term.

“How can we think of elevating science and culture when we refuse to air a Ramadan prayer and Rabbana that people enjoy?” Rouhani asked.

Criticism of Shajarian's ban has increased following reports that he is battling kidney cancer.

Shajarian’s Rabanna was earlier this month registered on Iran’s national-heritage list as compiled by Iran's Cultural Heritage, Tourism, and Handicrafts Organization.

OPEC Ponders How To Co-exist With U.S. Shale Oil

OPEC logo is pictured ahead of an informal meeting between members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Algiers, Algeria September 28, 2016.
Reuters Analysis (Vienna)

First, they ignored each other. Then, they went into a bruising fight. Finally, they are talking, albeit with opposing agendas.

The history of the relationship between OPEC and the U.S. shale oil industry has evolved a great deal since the cartel discovered it had a surprise rival emerging in a core market for its oil around five years ago.

U.S. shale bankers came to Vienna this week and OPEC is readying a trip for its top officials to Texas in a bid to understand whether the two industries can co-exist or are poised to embark on another major fight in the near future.

"We have to coexist," said Khalid al-Falih, Saudi Arabia's energy minister, who pushed through OPEC production cuts in December, reversing Riyadh's previous strategy to pump as much as possible and try to kill off U.S. shale with low oil prices.

OPEC and non-OPEC countries led by Russia agreed on Thursday to extend oil output curbs by nine months to March 2018, keeping roughly 2 percent of global production off the market in an attempt to boost prices.

But OPEC now realises supply cuts and higher prices only make it easier for the shale industry to deliver higher profit after it found ways of slashing costs when Saudi Arabia turned up the taps three years ago.

In the Permian Basin - the largest U.S. oilfield - Parsley Energy Inc, Diamondback Energy Inc and others are pumping at the fastest rate in years, taking advantage of new technology, low costs and steady oil prices to reap profits at OPEC's expense.

OPEC's latest calculus acknowledges the global clout of shale but seeks to hinder its growth by keeping just enough supply on the market to hold prices below $60 per barrel.

"All shale companies in the U.S. are small companies," said Noureddine Boutarfa, who represented Algeria at the meeting. "The reality is that at $50 to $60 a barrel, (the U.S. oil industry) can't break beyond 10 million barrels per day."

That is the level many analysts estimate U.S. oil production will reach next year, in what would be a 1 million bpd rise, a staggering jump for an industry marked during 2015 and 2016 by scores of bankruptcies and thousands of layoffs after a two-year price war with OPEC.

Still, that extra volume may not be enough to meet rising global demand or offset natural declines in traditional oilfields, which OPEC is banking on.

"For all OPEC members, $55 (per barrel) and a maximum of $60 is the goal at this stage," said Bijan Zanganeh, Iran's oil minister. "So is that price level not high enough to encourage too much shale? It seems it is good for both."

Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Iranian Minister of Oil Industry
Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, Iranian Minister of Oil Industry

Some OPEC members seem keen to show they have shed any prior naivete about shale, making it a key topic during Thursday's meeting after barely mentioning it before. Shale's limitations, including rising service costs, also were discussed.

"We had a discussion on (shale) and how much that has an impact," said Ecuador Oil Minister Carlos Pérez. "But we have no control over what the U.S. does and it's up to them to decide to continue or not."

Mark Papa, chief executive of Permian oil producer Centennial Resource Development Inc, was asked by OPEC delegates to give a presentation on shale's potential last week. He appeared to have played his cards close to his chest.

"In terms of the threat, we still don't know how much (U.S. shale) will be producing in the near future," Nelson Martinez, Venezuela's oil minister said after the talk.

WARNING FOR SHALE

By the same token, some U.S. shale leaders may also want a better insight into OPEC thinking and help OPEC understand that shale is not a flash in the pan.

"OPEC looks at shale and it scoffs," said Dave Purcell of Tudor, Pickering, Holt & Co, a U.S. shale investment bank that attended the OPEC meeting for the first time. "There's a rational skepticism globally, but it misses the mark."

For example, the UAE Energy Minister Suhail bin Mohammed al-Mazroui said he did not believe U.S. oil production would rise by 1 million bpd next year.

Some of OPEC's customers are happy to see an alternative. India, the world's third-largest oil consumer, said this week it is looking to the United States for greater supply.

"The new normal has to be accepted," Dharmendra Pradhan, India's energy minister said this week ahead of the OPEC meeting.

OPEC meets again in November to reconsider output policy. While most in the group now appear to believe that shale has to be accommodated, there are still those in OPEC who think another fight is around the corner.

"If we get to a point where we feel frustrated by a deliberate action of shale producers to just sabotage the market, OPEC will sit down again and look at what process it is we need to do," said Nigerian Oil Minister Emmanuel Kachikwu. (Additional reporting by Rania El Gamal, Ahmad Ghaddar, Dmitry Zhannikov, Alex Lawler, Shadia Nasralla; editing by Dale Hudson and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. To Mark 100th Birthday Of Slain President John Kennedy

President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at his inauguration.

Several events will be held in Hyannis, Massachusetts, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy.

Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1963, would have turned 100 on Monday, May 29.

Kennedy's 1,036 days in office saw many crises, including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, the Soviet Union's menace to West Berlin and, most dangerously, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

A Mass will be held on May 29 at St. Francis Xavier Church. A memorial service will also be held at the JFK Memorial.

Kennedy's parents, Rose and Joe Kennedy, lived in Hyannis in the massive Kennedy Compound, as did John Kennedy and brother Robert F. Kennedy, a U.S. senator, attorney general, and presidential candidate who was also assassinated.

The John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum will feature an exhibit called JFK at 100: Life & Legacy.

Also, a new book recounts his brief but eventful presidency — and the style and wit with which he shaped the hopes of a generation — through day-by-day reports drawn from coverage at the time, right up to his assassination in November 1963.

As former AP Washington Bureau Chief Walter Mears writes in the introduction to "JFK: A Daily Chronicle of the White House Years":

"It was a time of hope, youthful leadership — JFK's new generation in power — but with clouds. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war was beginning. Kennedy sent an increasing number of military advisers there, and they were the first Americans involved in combat. The civil rights issue was a growing problem. Kennedy sought legislation, but it would not come on his watch."

Kennedy's assassination shocked America and the world and has been the subject of countless debates, investigations and conspiracy theories.

Firm Alliance: Shah and Empress of Iran in the United States
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Based on reporting by The Cape Cod Times, WBUR and AP

"Deterring Iran": an interview with Michael Singh

As the U.S. State Department certified to House Speaker Paul Ryan that Iran is compliant with its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the Trump administration is “conducting across the entire government a review of Iran policy.”

The United States has to “look at Iran in a very comprehensive way in terms of the threat it poses in all areas, of the region and the world, and JCPOA is just one element of that,” Tillerson said on April 19th.

As the results of the U.S. government’s review is expected around the end of July, some experts have already weighing in on how the new U.S. administration should face Iran. Among those is Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Singh, who used to be senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, published a set of recommendations for the Trump administration called Deterring Iran. In this interview, Singh discusses different approaches toward the future of the nuclear deal, as well as Iran’s position in the Middle East.

RADIOFARDA: You write that the U.S. Strategy of Deterrence requires Iran to believe challenging U.S. interests will be costly but playing by the rules of regional and international order can be beneficial. How can playing by the rules be beneficial for Tehran?

Michael Singh: Just to give one example, we, the United States and our international partners (P5+1) signed a nuclear agreement with Iran. We had a robust debate about it in the United States as to whether the nuclear agreement was good, strong, and restrictive enough. But I don’t think there is much debate among experts about the general principle that if Iran is willing to really give up any aspirations to have nuclear weapons and accept limits and inspections of its nuclear program, we should be ready to offer sanctions relief.

To me, that’s a good example of receiving benefits for constructive actions and constructive policies. The idea that we are not sanctioning Iran simply to sanction Iran, not simply because we somehow don’t like Iran, but for specific actions, and if it stops those actions, we are willing to stop our sanctions.

RADIOFARDA: Among your recommendations, without mentioning the Sunset Clause, you highlight there is an end date to the deal and recommend the administration work with allies to extend the terms of JCPOA. What are Iran’s incentives for agreeing to the extension?

Singh: What the Iranian government needs to recognize -- something believed here in the West, and I think in Europe and Asia, as well -- is that Iran pursuing nuclear weapons capability, even if it doesn’t actually produce a nuclear weapon, simply having the capability on the shelf to produce a nuclear weapon, is destabilizing. It is destabilizing for the region; it creates an incentive for Iran’s neighbors to also pursue nuclear weapons capabilities. Because the United States and other countries are interested in stability in the Middle East and because of the impact that instability has on Europe and the rest of the world is something we simply can’t accept. We can’t simply tolerate this kind of destabilizing action in the Middle East. Therefore, I think what we would want is to see the expansion and an extension of the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.

In exchange, I think the benefit for Iran would be to avoid a crisis and the renewal of the tensions that we have seen over the past 10, 12 years over its nuclear activities, to see an extension of trade with Iran and its integration into the world economy and acceptance as a member of the international community of nations.

RADIOFARDA: In your opinion, did Iran reap the benefits it expected from the nuclear deal?

Singh: The nuclear deal removed the obstacles to economic growth and to improving relations with its neighbors and other countries. But these sanctions were not the only obstacles in Iran’s path. If Iran is really going to benefit from the nuclear deal, and for it to be a real opportunity, Iran will also need to engage in reforms at home, reforms in its economy. It also needs to change its behavior toward its neighbors in the region.

They were great benefits, especially if Iran takes these other steps to really maximize the opportunity and the potential represented by the nuclear deal.

RADIOFARDA: You highlighted that the U.S. should actively educate the international private sector regarding sanctions compliance obligations with respect to Iran. Do you see this in line with what Secretary of State John Kerry was doing in sitting down with representatives of businesses and international banks encouraging them to do business with Iran, which is also mentioned in JCPOA, or does it contradict that idea?

Singh: What we would want to see happen in the United States is for business that is illegitimate or illegal with Iran, according to our laws, not to take place. But business which is legitimate to go ahead. And the best way to encourage that is to provide information and clarity to companies.

If we still have sanctions on this or that entity or a certain type of sanctions on Iran, we need to be clear with businesses what those sanctions are, how they work, and to which entities they apply, so that business which is legitimate and allowed can go forward and the business which is illegitimate won’t happen.

RADIOFARDA: Another issue among your recommendations is to persuade IAEA to provide more public details in its reporting. How do you see this could help with verification of the Iranian program and avoiding further development?

Singh: Here in the West, there is a lot of skepticism and suspicion about Iran’s nuclear activities and Iran’s real intentions with regard to its nuclear program. Of course Iran claims it has no intentions to make nuclear weapons or pursue nuclear weapons capability. The best way to put suspicion to rest and build confidence is to have transparency; to be very clear, very detailed in reports about what exactly is happening in Iran’s nuclear program.

That is in the interest of anyone here in the West who does not want to see a nuclear crisis with Iran. It’s also frankly in the interest of the Iranian government and the Iranian people so that other countries will have confidence in their stated intentions.

RADIOFARDA: Why is public reporting needed, in your opinion? If the administration gets enough details to verify, wouldn’t that be enough?

Singh: In the West, because our countries are democracies, we have more than one branch of government; for example, the U.S. has Congress, which is very much active in Iran’s policy, especially in regards to sanctions policy. It is important this information be made public so independent experts can judge it. Our habit here, of course, is not simply to take our government’s word for things but to want to see the underlying information and judge it for ourselves.

Again, if there is in fact nothing illegal or illicit happening, then both the United States and Iran and the other parties in the agreement should welcome the judgments of independent experts to build that mutual confidence we need.

RADIOFARDA: But you well know Iran would say this is confidential information related to the security of the country which it is sharing with IAEA to comply with the deal and safeguards and the additional protocol, and it won’t support sharing in-depth details with the entire international community.

Singh: If Iran’s program is in fact purely civilian in nature, oriented toward power generators and the production of medical isotopes, as the Iranian government says it is, there is no potential compromise of defense information and military information possible by being transparent.

You also have to weigh priorities. In an ideal world, we would simply trust the IAEA, we would trust the Iranian government, but I think given the history of this issue that trust is simply lacking. As we go forward, what will be more important than protecting any potential sort of confidential information would be ensuring the stability of the agreement, the stability of Iran’s relations with the West and ensuring survival of the nuclear deal. That, to me, would have to take precedent, and hopefully the Iranian side would see that, as well.

RADIOFARDA: You mean not only Iran, but also trust in the IAEA is far from perfect?

Singh: It is absolutely far from perfect. Obviously, from the Western perspective, Iran has not been forthcoming in the past about its nuclear activities, so we are approaching this deal with a healthy degree of skepticism. With the IAEA, I think there is certainly trust in the IAEA’s intentions, but the fact is that we have seen in the past that the IAEA has missed things, whether in North Korea or other nuclear programs. That’s why it is important that we have not just one agency but also independent experts who can assess this information.

RADIOFARDA: In your report, you mention that Iran policy is far from being the only problem of the new U.S. administration in the Middle East, but in your opinion it is the most important one. Can you elaborate?

Singh: From the point of view of the United States and Washington, when you look at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and these crises that we see unfolding across the Middle East, invariably you have Iran and its proxies playing a role in these conflicts. Here in the U.S., the point of view is that in Syria, the Assad regime would be much more likely to be forced to bargain diplomatically if it weren’t for the military support provided by Iran that allows Assad sustain the conflict.

In Iraq, there is tremendous concern about the role Iran is playing in equipping and training militias, which may be are independent of the government’s authority. And in Yemen, there is tremendous concern about Iran providing arms to the Houthi rebels who have unseated the legitimate government.

We are concerned about all these problems, but in every one of these you see a common denominator, which is Iran playing a role in fomenting instability and sustaining these conflicts.

RADIOFARDA: In all these crises, do you think there is an opportunity for the U.S. to talk these matters over with Iran? I don’t mean as an ally, but as a country to work with in order to solve issues.

Singh: In some cases, the United States and Iran might share a short-term objective, like defeating ISIS in Mosul. But we don’t necessarily share the same long-term interests. What the United States would like to see in Iraq is an Iraq which is independent, democratic, strong, and pluralistic. There is suspicion in the United States that Iran doesn’t really share those interests. Iran is looking to assert more control over Iraq than we would like to see or is appropriate for one sovereign country to exert over another. So, certainly, in the short term there is a possibility of cooperation and working together, but I would say only if we can reconcile those longer-term interests. And right now we are very far away from that and there is a great deal of suspicion.

RADIOFARDA: Is that why when you suggest the continuation of engagement with Iran, you suggest having regional allies in mind or involving them in this process?

Singh: We have to have engagement as a tool. It’s not an end in itself. It’s something we use not just with Iran but with many countries to advance our objectives and interests and so forth, and we have to see it that way. When we think about engagement with Iran, I don’t think the problems of the region can be negotiated between the U.S. and Iran. I don’t think that’s appropriate. What is appropriate is that the countries in the region including Iran come together to talk multilaterally about these problems.

One issue we have experienced in recent years was that because the U.S. has been seen as dealing with Iran to the exclusion of its allies, there have been suspicions that have grown not just toward Iran but toward the United States from some countries in the region. Overall, that is negative for the atmosphere of the region.

RADIOFARDA: While the United States was busy with nuclear negotiations, it was also cooperating with allies and, for example, signing deals on arms and other things.

Singh: Yes, there was a lot of cooperation happening. But there was also some suspicion from the Arab states, from (Persian) Gulf states toward U.S. policy with regard to Iran. For example, if we talk about issues like Syria, like Yemen, it’s important we have our allies there with us because their interests are very much implicated by these issues. This is not a matter for the U.S. to deal directly with Iran or Russia. It is important that all the relevant interests are reflected at the negotiating table.

RADIOFARDA: One of your final recommendations was the continuation of visa issuance and people-to-people contact. We are discussing this at the time that President Trump signed an executive order twice on the temporary restriction for Travel of citizens of six countries including Iran, which it has been suspended by court orders. What are your thoughts?

Singh: This immigration executive order provoked a lot of debate and controversy in the United States, and what is important to recognize is that the suspension of visa issuance is described as temporary. While the new administration has a chance to review security procedures, and to take stock of where things stand, I think this is important to bear in mind because the immigration policy for the United States and for any country is about tradeoffs, balancing things like security against the need to have people come for tourism, etc.

These are the tradeoffs which the administration has to look at. With Iran, I think it has always been in the United States’ desire to welcoming the Iranian people, desire to reach out to them and perhaps desire to differentiate between the policies of a government and the attitudes of the people. My hope is that will continue in the future because I think that’s quite appropriate and also quite important for America.

Tehran Water Experts Warn of Dropping Supply

A Tehran water expert has warned of dangerously diminishing water supplies in the Iranian capital.

“The level of underground water supplies in the province of Tehran is dropping 1.30 meters (4.3 feet) each year,” said Mohammad Reza Bakhtiari, director of the Tehran Regional Water Department, according to the Fars News Agency. “As a result of overusing underground water resources, we have been witnessing a 16 centimeter (almost 6.30 inches) subsidence of the land, per annum.”

He also pointed out that out of the nearly 3,200 wells in Tehran Province’s Varamin Plain, only 1,760 of them are legal.

“A total of 370 million cubic meters of water is extracted, of 30 million cubic meters is illegal,” Bakhtiari said. “We have shut down 180 wells this year and, by doing so, have saved 10 million cubic meters of water.”

Underground water is one of the main resources in Varamin Plain, but it has suffered from mismanagement and over-extraction.

In 2015, water expert Mohammad Reza Fatemi had also warned about the dangerous drop in water resources in Tehran Province.

In 2014, “the overuse of supplies led to 1.5 meter drop in the level of underground water resources,” he said.

According to several assessments, the level in Iran’s watersheds has dropped half a meter, on average, over the past 15 years.

The assessments published on the National Geographic website in 2008 indicated that the level of underground waterbeds in Iran dropped about 15 meters between 1971 and 2001.

Iran is located in an arid region of the world, and many parts of it are covered by deserts. Furthermore, drought, substantial declines in rainfall, an overuse of resources, and water mismanagement have led to many of the country’s vital lakes, rivers, and ponds drying up in recent years.

In 2015, however, the head of Environmental Protection Organization, Masoumeh Ebtekar, declared Iran the best in the whole world for extracting underground water resources.

Two years earlier, Energy Minister Hamid Chitchian warned that Iran is relentlessly approaching a water crisis on a daily basis and that it is the stage of “water tension” where the level of national aquifers had dropped nearly 20 meters.

Academic studies in the United States have shown that underground resources provide 20 percent to 30 percent of the world’s drinkable water -- less than 1 percent of the total water resources on Earth.

Moreover, in an interview with the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), Mehdi Zare, a professor of earthquake engineering, reiterated that as a result of the land subsidence not only the infrastructure of the region -- including railways, houses, and buildings -- are prone to serious damage. He maintained that this increases the risk of a serious earthquake.

The Iranian Tasnim news agency quoted the director of the Iranian water resources management last October that 330 plains in the country face water crises.

Iran’s water crisis can be a huge drag on its economy, especially the agricultural sector. To deal with this looming danger, not only better planning, management and oversight are needed, but also the water transport infrastructure needs to be rebuilt in many places and well maintained.

Brzezinski, White House Adviser During Iran Hostage Crisis, Dead At 89

Zbigniew Brzezinski in 2013

Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to U.S. President Jimmy Carter in the tumultuous years of the Iran hostage crisis and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 1970s, died on May 26 at the age of 89.

Carter hailed him as "a superb public servant" as well as "brilliant, dedicated, and loyal."

Like his predecessor Henry Kissinger, Brzezinski was a foreign-born scholar with considerable influence in global affairs. He was born in Warsaw in 1928 and his family emigrated to Canada after the Soviet occupation of Poland following World War II.

Brzezinski was educated in Canada and the United States, earning his doctorate from Harvard University in 1953.

He was a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, an influential nonpartisan policy discussion group, in 1973 and served as its director from 1973 until 1976.

Brzezinski was viewed as a hawk in regard to the Soviet Union and consistently warned against Soviet expansion in Europe, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

He led the drive to include the so-called third basket focusing on human rights in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, committing the Soviet Union formally to observing human rights and international law. The third basket became a touchstone for dissident movements in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, including the Helsinki Movement and the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia.

As national security adviser, Brzezinski reversed a key détente policy from the administration of Richard Nixon and ordered increased power for the transmission of broadcasts of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty into the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union.

Late in the Carter presidency, Brzezinski offered support to the Solidarity movement in his native Poland and warned the Soviet Union against a military intervention in that country.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Brzezinski was a strong advocate of arming the Afghan resistance.

During the Iranian hostage crisis, which began in 1979, Brzezinski became convinced that negotiations to free American diplomats kidnapped by mobs in Tehran were going nowhere. Supported by the Pentagon, he began to push for military action.

Carter agreed to a long-shot plan to rescue the hostages. The mission, dubbed Desert One, was a complete military failure and was one of the developments that led to Carter losing his reelection bid against Ronald Reagan in November 1980.

After the Carter presidency, Brzezinski returned to academia and remained influential in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

In 1981, he was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In his 2012 book Strategic Vision: America And The Crisis Of Global Power, Brzezinski warned that a United States "unwilling or unable to protect states it once considered, for national interest and/or doctrinal reasons, worthy of its engagement...[could lead to a] protracted phase of rather inconclusive and somewhat chaotic realignments of both global and regional power, with no grand winners and many more losers."

In March 2014, Brzezinski authored an op-ed in which he compared Russia's annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea to Adolf Hitler's occupation of the Czechoslovak Sudetenland in 1938.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and The New York Times

News Analysis: President Trump's Debut Abroad Packs Unconventional Twists

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the start of the NATO summit at the alliance's new headquarters in Brussels on May 25.

Most U.S. presidents have made their first trip abroad to nearby destinations like Canada or Mexico. But if there’s one thing Donald Trump has proven over his first four months in office, it's that he’s no conventional president.

Instead of dipping his toes into safe diplomatic waters, the current U.S. commander in chief embarked on a nine-day whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe that included stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Brussels, Rome, and Sicily.

Amid bruising battles at home over a proposed budget, health care, his firing of an FBI director, and investigations into contacts with Russia, Trump was hoping to win over a global audience that is skeptical over his administration’s “America First” agenda.

His attempts to build relationships with leaders of key allies appear to have yielded mixed results, giving both supporters and critics plenty of ammunition.

Read the full story on RFE/RL

G7 Leaders Agree On Trade, Russia Sanctions, Split On Climate Change

French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald Trump, and British Prime Minister Theresa May (left to right) at the G7 summit in Sicily on May 26.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) leading global economies have vowed to fight against trade protectionism and expressed a readiness to impose further sanctions on Russia, but they failed to settle a disagreement with U.S. President Donald Trump on climate change.

A final communique issued on May 27 after a two-day summit in the resort town of Taormina, Sicily, said Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan reaffirmed their “strong commitment” to the implementation of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement.

However, the United States “is in the process of reviewing its policies on climate change and on the Paris Agreement and, thus, is not in a position to join the consensus on these topics," it added.

Trump, who has previously threatened to pull out of the Paris accord, announced in a tweet that he will make his final decision on the matter next week.

Read the full story on RFE/RL

Long Shunned By Foreigners, Iran Looks To Tourism To Boost Ailing Economy 

The sunset on the Persian Gulf from Kish Island

Stunning landscapes, famous hospitality, and numerous World Heritage sites.

Iran’s potential as a holiday destination is vast, but foreign tourists have largely avoided the country ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

The reasons are numerous. The visa process can be lengthy and complex. Some female visitors object to customary restrictions on dress. Alcohol consumption is heavily restricted. And, for many foreigners when considering a holiday in the Islamic republic, fears of detention and political upheaval enter the mind.

Under President Hassan Rohani, a relative moderate who won a second term in office with a convincing first-round victory in Iran's May 19 presidential election, the country has welcomed foreigners as part of an effort to improve its international image and boost an economy battered by low oil prices and years of crippling international sanctions imposed over Iran's contentious nuclear program.

A tour of ancient ruins in Iran.
A tour of ancient ruins in Iran.



Since the signing of a nuclear deal with world powers in 2015 that was the crowning achievement of Rohani's first term, tour companies have launched holiday packages and major European airlines have resumed regular flights to Iran. The number of foreign tourists has increased accordingly, and the cash-strapped government is planning to build on its tourism revival by easing visa restrictions and spending heavily to spruce up tourist accommodations and shabby transportation networks.

Read the full story on RFE/RL

A Reason Behind Rouhani's 'Glasnost'

Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, in his first press conference after victory in May 19 Election, on Monday May 22, 2017.

President Hassan Rouhani was well aware before the elections that the reform-minded voters who comprise his base would not necessarily rally around his meager record of economic accomplishments. He needed a decisive victory, writes Radio Farda analyst Reza Taghizadeh.

Rouhani chose a different tack. Winning by only a slim margin would not be enough to enact any real reforms in his second term, so he called upon voters to re-elect him with a big margin.

On the road to re-election, Rouhani shrewdly discovered that a decisive victory was unattainable through economic promises alone. His government was vulnerable on the topic of economy. His main challenger had promised to pay people implausibly generous cash handouts.

Inevitably, Rouhani restructured his campaign strategy and created a new platform a revised manifesto based on political openness, or glasnost.

Opening up the political atmosphere of Iran -- a deeply rooted popular notion among voters -- was a good omen welcomed not only by Iranians but also internationally.

Putting glasnost at the heart of his campaign was a move that practically checkmated his main challenger, mid-ranking cleric Ebrahim Raeisi. Raeisi, a notoriously hard-line judge, was in no position to match the incumbent on political openness.

Predictably, Rouhani won the election, with 57 percent of the popular vote, close enough to the margin he had aimed for.

Reform From The Top

The re-elected president now has no option left other than to implement the glasnost strategy.

In authoritarian regimes, short-sightedness is a common failure among leaders. Autocrats fail to recognize crises until they are right in front of their eyes, almost too late to be controlled.

Having prisons full of dissidents and political and ideological activists is another common characteristic of authoritarian regimes.

Freeing political prisoners and respecting freedom of expression -- allowing dissidents to assemble peacefully and ending censorship -- are the hallmarks of a crucial evolution that occurs in authoritarian regimes before an ultimate shift. Without such a full evolution, authoritarian regimes are doomed.

The Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev is a prime example. The USSR was on the verge of collapse, and Gorbachev prescribed the bitter pill of glasnost and perestroika, or restructuring, to save the Red Empire on its deathbed. Gorbachev’s reformist policies were thwarted midway and led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

In its Iranian example, the last shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, decided to offer the people a fairer share of power and wealth. He introduced his so-called White Revolution and immediately implemented it after it was decisively approved in a national referendum in 1963.

In his next step, in 1979, the late shah decided to create an atmosphere of political openness. He freed political prisoners and promised to hold free elections that same year.

In both cases, political openness quickly released pent-up pressure within the closed society, which turned into a lethal explosion for the regime. Also in both cases, the reforms from the top were out of desperation, forced on the system and its leaders. The symptoms of the crisis turned into real and tangible threats that brought down the two regimes.

When it comes to reforms from the top, Spain can be singled out as an exception. Its reforms started in 1975, following General Francisco Franco’s death, and in the early 1980s bloomed into democracy without being detrimental to the monarchy.

In contemporary history, Spain’s example is a rare case of an authoritarian system transforming into a democracy without being totally annihilated.

The First Step: Ending House Arrests

Political openness, despite its appeal for the people, has its own exclusive inner and outer pressures that drag ruling systems to the verge of a fatal abyss.

Rouhani has always been an insider of the Islamic regime from its very beginning until today. He perfectly knows the religious system’s points of weakness and strength.

As head of the government, Rouhani is more of a pragmatist than an idealist. In tackling problems, clearing bottlenecks and responding to people’s demands, he is quite aware of the system’s limitations. He also recognizes just where the presidency sits on the pyramid of power.

A week before the election, Rouhani, while reiterating that a 51 percent victory would not enough to tackle certain problems, said, “People should either vote for a judge or a lawyer.”

It was crystal clear that by using the word “lawyer,” he was referring to himself. Later, he also said he wanted to be the “people’s lawyer.”

Nevertheless, by using the word “judge,” he was not pointing to his challenger, Raesi, but rather the major judge, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in mind.

If Rouhani honestly want to reform the regime before its inevitable downfall, one might conclude he will use his re-election as a lever to force Khamenei to accept the necessity of implementing reformist policies and opening up the political atmosphere of the country.

However, Khamenei is at the top of the military-theocratic regime and, like other authoritarian rulers before him, strongly denies the existence of any crisis in Iran and says such claims are imaginary and smearing attempts. Therefore, he is not prepared to listen to Rouhani’s case of defense for the Iranian people.

Furthermore, Khamenei won’t easily relent and set free the prominent figures of the Green Movement who have been under house arrest for more than six years.

The only way for Rouhani could force the supreme leader to do so is to ask his supporters to besiege the major judge’s citadel and start a protest.

Former President Mohammad Khatami had the same chance that Rouhani has now, but, too scared of the consequences, he missed the opportunity.

Rouhani's Hardest Challenge May Be Iran's Hopes

Supporters of Iranian current president and presidential candidate Hassan Rouhani cheer in front of a huge election banner depicting him as they hold his pictures during an election campaign rally in Tehran, Iran, 13 May 2017.
AP Analysis:

For Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, winning re-election may have been the easy part.

His wide-margin victory over a hard-line rival shows a majority of Iranian voters prefer his promises of greater liberalization at home and deeper engagement with the world.

It is a win that brings hope to Iran's reform-minded urbanites and bulging youth population, who long to see their country move past its image as an oppressive and insular nation cut off from the West. That was clear from the throngs of chanting, clapping and dancing supporters who poured into Tehran's streets to celebrate his victory.

"I hope we can enjoy more freedom and security in the next four years," said one, Ramin Mirzai, a 21-year-old Tehran University student.

"I expect Rouhani to lift the house arrest" of opposition leaders, said another, drafting technician Farnoosh Kazemi, 26. "Work with neighboring and other international countries to make a better atmosphere in the country. We need more investment."

Meeting those expectations will be no simple task.

Among his toughest challenges will be to turn around the OPEC producer's sputtering economy.

Hard-line critics in parliament and elsewhere berated his administration as it worked to secure the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, which saw Iran accept curbs on its contested nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief. They argued it gave away too much for too little.

The economy has improved since the deal took effect last year. But to many ordinary Iranians, the hard-liners' argument rings true.

Although Rouhani scored some wins in the deal, including multibillion-dollar commercial aircraft agreements, the economy remains hobbled by excessive state control, a prolonged slump in global oil prices and extensive non-nuclear sanctions still in place. Unemployment is in the double-digits. Nearly a third of young people are out of work.

Foreign banks, wary of running afoul of continuing sanctions, remain wary of processing financial transactions involving Iran, let alone lending to or investing in Iranian companies.

"It's a kind of conditional lifting of sanctions," complained Shahabedin Yasemi, an executive at Tehran-based mining company Sabanour. "If borders were open, foreign investors would dare to come and start something here."

Rouhani also pushed boundaries during the campaign by taking unusually pointed swipes at hard-liners within the Iranian establishment.

During one presidential debate, he criticized the launch of a ballistic missile bearing the words "Israel must be wiped out" in Hebrew — an implicit critique of the Revolutionary Guard that controls the missile program.

It is a delicate path. Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Guard has grown into an immensely powerful force with its own navy and foreign operations arm. It controls key domestic sites including the country's airports.

The Guard also runs a vast, intertwined network of lucrative businesses that could suffer from economic reforms aimed at improving the economy.

That kind of power enables the Guard to sabotage a sitting president's agenda with embarrassing displays like the missile launch or harassing U.S. Navy ships transiting the Persian Gulf.

It's not letting up either. The Guard just this week boasted that it opened a third underground ballistic missile production site, mocking the threat of sanctions by saying it has no concern about "U.S. businessmen's fears."

Rouhani, no doubt mindful of the Guard's power, made a point of flattering the force and other conservative power centers such as the Basij volunteer militia during his first postelection news conference.

"The people say no to the downfall of the supreme leader, Guard, Basij and armed forces, because they belong to the entire Iranian nation," he said.

He also took care not to strain ties with another bastion of hard-line power: the country's judiciary. As with the Guard, Iran's president has no direct control over the courts.

That powerlessness is made clear whenever the jailing of Iranian dual nationals ratchets up tension with the West, like the 2014 detention of Iranian-American reporter Jason Rezaian. Rouhani's foreign minister, Mohammed Javad Zarif, at the time called the Washington Post journalist a fair reporter while expressing hope the case could be resolved.

Rezaian nonetheless ended up being tried by one of Iran's toughest judges and convicted of charges including espionage in a closed-door trial. He was eventually released in a prisoner swap with the U.S.

The judiciary's influence could also make it hard for Rouhani to see through another of his supporters' goals: securing the release of Green Movement opposition leaders confined to house arrest following Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election.

Rouhani's supporters frequently broke out in chants supporting detained reformist Mir Hossein Mousavi at recent rallies supporting the president.

Rouhani made clear after the election he remains concerned about the detentions. But he also acknowledged his limits, saying that the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government each "have to work within their frameworks."

Sitting above everything is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, arguably the biggest check on Rouhani. Khamenei has the final say on all state matters. He is not known for his embrace of major reform.

"Khamenei and conservatives in his office still run the show, are close to vested interests, and will make structural change difficult," Iran watcher Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, wrote shortly after Rouhani's win.

So too could U.S. President Donald Trump's renewed push to isolate Iran — a policy likely to embolden hard-liners.

Rouhani seems well aware of that threat. During his news conference this week, he leavened talk of international outreach "based on mutual respect ... and mutual interests" with some biting barbs aimed at the U.S. — perhaps to outdo the hard-liners themselves.

"The U.S. leaders should know that whenever we need missile tests ... we will test. We will not wait for them and their permission," he said.

As for the Trump administration? He said he was "waiting for this government to become stable intellectually" before making a judgment.

G7 Leaders Agree On Terror Fight, Remain Split On Climate Change

(Left to right:) French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald Trump and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at the G7 summit in Sicily on Amy 26.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialized nations say they have agreed to do more to fight terrorism and narrowed their differences on trade, but they failed to settle a disagreement with U.S. President Donald Trump on climate change.

A joint statement signed by G7 leaders meeting on May 26 in the resort town of Taormina, Sicily, demanded that Internet providers and social media firms take action against extremist content online.

"The G7 calls for Communication Service Providers and social media companies to substantially increase their efforts to address terrorist content," it said.

The leaders also pkedged a joint effort to track down and prosecute foreign fighters from conflict areas such as Syria.

The move comes four days after a suicide bombing in Manchester killed 22 people. The extremist group Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.

The G7 consists of the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, but EU representatives are also attending.

Climate Policies 'On Hold'

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, host of the two-day summit, said the leaders were narrowing their differences on trade ahead of the release of the official summit declaration.

"We are still working" on the content of the trade declaration, "but it seems to be that today's straight discussions have highlighted common points of views on which we can work," he said.

He said climate policies remain "on hold" as Trump has still not decided whether to fulfill his vow to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement, which all other G7 members support.

"There is one open question, which is the U.S. position on the Paris climate accords," Gentiloni said. "All others have confirmed their total agreement on the accord."

"We are sure that after an internal reflection, the United States will also want to commit to it," he added.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that Trump was urged by all the other leaders to back the Paris accords.

British Prime Minister Theresa May said the G7 leaders made clear that Russia and Iran must push for a cease-fire in the six-year civil war in Syria. Moscow and Tehran support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the United States and Turkey support differing rebel groups.

May also said they agreed to put additional pressure on North Korea to halt its illegal ballistic-missile tests.

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) speaks with the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at the G7 summit.
U.S. President Donald Trump (left) speaks with the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, at the G7 summit.

Earlier, President Donald Tusk said the gathering would "no doubt" be "the most challenging G7 summit in years."

Some of the participants hold "very different positions on topics such as climate change and trade," Tusk said before the two-day summit opened on May 26 in the resort town of Taormina.

"Most importantly, unity needs to be maintained when it comes to defending the rules-based international order," he said, warning that "if our group is not determined and united enough, the situation in the world can really get out of hand."

The G7 summit in Taormina is the first such meeting for U.S. President Donald Trump, who took office in January. Trump is expected to face questions from other leaders about his positions on issues such as trade, climate change, and the conflict in Ukraine.

The leaders are also due to discuss security cooperation following the May 22 bombing at a concert in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people and was allegedly carried out by a 22-year-old Briton of Libyan descent.

Tusk said that he "totally agreed" with Trump "when he said the international community, the G7, the United States, Europe should be tough, even brutal, with terrorism" and the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

Russia Sanctions

Tusk also called on G7 leaders to maintain sanctions on Russia over its aggression in Ukraine.

"Since our last G7 summit in Japan, we haven't seen anything that would justify a change in our sanctions policy towards Russia," Tusk, who coordinates policy for the EU's 28 leaders, told reporters.

"I will appeal to the other G7 leaders to reconfirm this policy," he added.

Since 2014, the EU and the United States have maintained sanctions on Russia over its seizure of Crimea and its actions in eastern Ukraine, where a war between Russia-backed separatists and government forces has killed more than 9,900 people.

Tusk spoke a day after a U.S. official, asked whether Trump plans to extend the U.S. sanctions, indicated that the president had not decided.

"I think the president is looking at it. Right now, we don’t have a position," White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters on Air Force One en route to Sicily for the summit. He added that Trump has "many options."

However, later on May 26 at the G7 summit, Cohn came out strongly in favor of sanctions.

“We are not lowering our sanctions on Russia," he told reporters. "If anything, we would probably look to get tougher on Russia."

WATCH: G7 Leaders Stroll Through Taormina

G7 Leaders Stroll Through Taormina
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The G7 summit kicked off with a ceremony at an ancient Greek amphitheater overlooking the sea, where the leaders stood together for a family photo against the backdrop of the Mediterranean.

"Getting ready to engage G7 leaders on many issues including economic growth, terrorism, and security," Trump tweeted before the summit."

Western news agencies quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Trump and the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada had similar views on many issues, but that Washington remained isolated on commerce and the environment.

Ahead of the summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rejected reports that Trump had aggressively condemned German trade policies during a meeting in Brussels on May 25.

German media reports said Trump had denounced Berlin's policies as "very bad" and had signaled that he wanted to limit sales of German cars in the United States.

"He did not say that the Germans were behaving badly," Juncker said in Sicily ahead of the G7.

Juncker called the media reports exaggerated, saying it was "not true" that Trump had been aggressive toward Germany in the talks.

'Fairly Robust Talks'

An unnamed senior Italian diplomat said Trump and the heads of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada had similar views on many issues ahead of the two-day summit, but Washington remained isolated on commerce and the environment.

European Union states want a clear U.S. pledge "to fight all forms of protectionism," the diplomat said. But they were struggling to convince the U.S. president of the merits of free trade.

"We will have a very robust discussion on trade and we will be talking about what free and open means," White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters late May 26.

He also predicted "fairly robust" talks on whether Trump should honor a U.S. commitment to cut greenhouse-gas emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

He said the president, who has dismissed global warming as a "hoax," would make a final decision when he returned home, but stressed that he would put economic development first.

European diplomats expect their leaders to put pressure on Trump about the Paris emissions deal, which has comprehensive support across the continent.

After visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, Trump met Pope Francis in Rome on May 24 and held talks May 25 with the heads of the European Union and the NATO military alliance in Brussels.

In a tweet on May 26, Trump said his first trip abroad had been "very successful."

"Just arrived in Italy for the G7. Trip has been very successful. We made and saved the USA many billions of dollars and millions of jobs."

Originally published on RFE/RL with reporting by Reuters,AP, and AFP

In Remote Iranian Province, Women Make Gains At Ballot Box

Iranian women cast their ballots for the presidential election at a polling station in Tehran on May 19.

Iran's sprawling southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province is notorious for insecurity, poverty, drug trafficking, and deadly clashes between security forces and militants.

More recently, however, it made headlines this month for sweeping a record number of women onto city and village councils.

Officials say the number of women elected to local councils in the Sunni-majority province, which shares borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan, more than doubled.

"Four hundred and fifteen women have been elected to the city councils in the province," Governor Ali Osat Hashemi was quoted by Iranian media as saying on May 23, up from just 185.

Read the full story on RFE/RL

Leaders Gather In Sicily For 'Most Challenging G7 Summit In Years'

U.S. President Donald Trump (right) takes part in a bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the G7 summit in Taormina on May 26.

Leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) leading industrialized countries met on the Italian island of Sicily for what European Council President Donald Tusk said would "no doubt" be "the most challenging G7 summit in years."

Some of the participants hold "very different positions on topics such as climate change and trade," Tusk said before the two-day summit opened on May 26 in the resort town of Taormina.

"Most importantly, unity needs to be maintained when it comes to defending the rules-based international order," he said, warning that "if our group is not determined and united enough, the situation in the world can really get out of hand."

The G7 summit in Taormina is the first such meeting for U.S. President Donald Trump, who took office in January. Trump is expected to face questions from other leaders about his positions on trade and climate change.

The leaders are also due to discuss security cooperation following the May 22 bombing at a concert in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people and was allegedly carried out by a 22-year-old Briton of Libyan descent.

Tusk said that he "totally agreed" with Trump "when he said the international community, the G7, the United States, Europe should be tough, even brutal, with terrorism" and the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.

The summit kicked off with a ceremony at an ancient Greek amphitheater overlooking the sea, where the leaders stood together for a family photo against the backdrop of the Mediterranean.

"Getting ready to engage G7 leaders on many issues including economic growth, terrorism, and security," Trump tweeted before the summit."

Western news agencies quoted diplomatic sources as saying that Trump and the leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada had similar views on many issues, but that Washington remained isolated on commerce and the environment.

Ahead of the summit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker rejected reports that Trump had aggressively condemned German trade policies during a meeting in Brussels on May 25.

German media reports said Trump had denounced Berlin's policies as "very bad" and had signaled that he wanted to limit sales of German cars in the United States.

"He did not say that the Germans were behaving badly," Juncker said in Sicily ahead of the G7.

Juncker called the media reports exaggerated, saying it was "not true" that Trump had been aggressive toward Germany in the talks.

An unnamed senior Italian diplomat said Trump and the heads of Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and Canada had similar views on many issues ahead of the two-day summit, but Washington remained isolated on commerce and the environment.

European Union states want a clear U.S. pledge "to fight all forms of protectionism," the diplomat said. But they were struggling to convince the U.S. president of the merits of free trade.

"We will have a very robust discussion on trade and we will be talking about what free and open means," White House economic adviser Gary Cohn told reporters late May 26.

He also predicted "fairly robust" talks on whether Trump should honor a U.S. commitment to cut greenhouse-gas emissions under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

He said the president, who has dismissed global warming as a "hoax," would make a final decision when he returned home, but stressed that he would put economic development first.

European diplomats expect their leaders to put pressure on Trump about the Paris emissions deal, which has comprehensive support across the continent.

After visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian Territories, Trump met Pope Francis in Rome on May 24 and held talks May 25 with the heads of the European Union and the NATO military alliance in Brussels.

In a tweet on May 26, Trump said his first trip abroad had been "very successful."

"Just arrived in Italy for the G7. Trip has been very successful. We made and saved the USA many billions of dollars and millions of jobs."

With reporting by Reuters,AP, and AFP

Trump 'Looking At' Sanctions On Russia Over Aggression In Ukraine

(L-R) US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US President Donald Trump and US Defense Minister James Mattis attend a meeting with EU leaders, at the European Council, in Brussels, May 25, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump is "looking at" the series of sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration over Moscow's interference in Ukraine and has no position right now on whether to maintain them, a senior official said.

White House economic adviser Gary Cohn said that European leaders who met with Trump n Brussels on May 25 asked whether he plans to extend the sanctions, first imposed in 2014 over Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea.

Trump's response was that he hasn't decided what to do yet, Cohn said in a briefing for reporters on Air Force One en route to a Group of Seven summit in Sicily after a NATO meeting.

"I think the president is looking at it. Right now, we don’t have a position," Cohn said, adding that Trump has "many options" he is considering.

Trump said during the presidential campaign that he would "be looking at" the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia if elected, and also suggested he would also consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia.

But senior members of his administration have said clearly that sanctions would remain in place unless Russia takes steps that would prompt the United States to consider easing them.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, has said the administration would not lift the sanctions imposed over Russia's seizure of Crimea unless Russia returns the peninsula to Ukrainian control.

After Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Washington on May 10, the State Department said that Tillerson told Lavrov that "sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them."

Sanctions were imposed separately by the United States and European Union in 2014 and have been repeatedly extended and expanded since then.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014, after sending in troops, ensuring control of the regional legislature, and staging a referendum denounced by the United States and the majority of UN members as illegitimate. Russia also fomented unrest against the government in eastern and southern Ukraine and has backed separatists in a war that has killed more than 9,900 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014.

After talks with Trump on May 25 in Brussels, European Council President Donald Tusk said he was "not 100 percent sure...that we have a common position, common opinion about Russia. Although when it comes to the conflict in Ukraine it seems that we were on the same line."

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Iran Cleric Calls For Sunnis In Government

The leader of Friday Prayer in the majority Sunni-populated city of Zahedan has called for qualified Sunnis to be employed in the new government of President Hassan Rouhani, who was re-elected last week.

Speaking at a gathering of Rouhani’s campaign managers on May 24, Mawlana Abdol-Hamid said the government should “focus on Iran, regardless of religious and ethnic differences.”

Employing a tone similar to that of secularists, the Sunni leader reminded the audience that “religion is a personal matter, a matter between an individual and their Allah (God).”

“Your Sunni sisters and brothers think about the honor of Islam and Islamic Iran. The whole society of Iranian Sunnis’ priority is the honor and security of Iran and Iranians,” Abol-Hamid told the audience, which included Rouhani.

He emphasized that Sunnis are members of the great body of the Iranian nation.

“Iranian Sunnis are ready to do whatever they can to defend Iran’s honor and reverence, as well as its territorial integrity,” said Abol-Hamid, the highest-ranking Sunni cleric in the country.

His comments were warmly welcomed by the audience, which chanted, “Hail to Mawlavi!”

Referring to Iranian Sunni demands, the cleric reiterated, “One of the most important requests of the Iranian Sunnis is asking the president to only focus on the fatherland and Iranians as a [whole and unified] nation. They demand Rouhani avoid considering sectarian and ethnic issues in national services.”

He then directly addressed the president.

“Employing qualified Sunnis [in the government] leads to the promotion of Iran’s honor in regional and international equations. Wherever Rouhani’s government see fit, Iranian Sunnis are ready to serve there, with their hearts and souls,” he said.

In the May 19 presidential election, Iranian Sunnis overwhelmingly voted for Rouhani. Prior to the election, Abdol-Hamid had expressed his open support for the incumbent.

“Most Sunnis are inclined to vote for the current president, Hassan Rouhani, despite their complaints about his government,” he said, prior to the vote. “We hope that if Rouhani is elected, more serious attempts will be made to resolve existing difficulties.”

Four years ago, regions with substantial Sunni populations, such as Kurdish and Turkmen areas and Sistan-Baluchistan Province, gave the highest vote to Rouhani, according to the Iranian Sunni Online website.

“In Iran, Sunnis have been denied certain civic rights, including appointment to high-level government positions, although two years ago, a Sunni was appointed for the first time as [Iran’s] ambassador to Vietnam and Cambodia,” the website said. “The Rouhani government has also appointed another Sunni, Emad Hosseini, as deputy oil minister.”

However, Abdol-Hamid is not allowed to travel anywhere except for the capital, Tehran. Other high-ranking Sunni clergy from Kurdistan, the Turkmen region, Khuzistan, and the port city of Bandar Abbas are also banned from visiting each other’s regions, as well as Sistan and Baluchistan Province, where Abdol-Hamid is based.

Sunnis have also not been allowed to have their own mosque in Tehran.

NATO Leaders Arrive In Brussels Seeking U.S. Commitment

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg (right) welcomes U.S. President Donald Trump upon his arrival for the NATO summit in Brussels on May 25.

BRUSSELS -- Leaders from the 28 NATO member states gathered in Brussels on May 25 to press for a strong show of support from U.S. President Donald Trump, who once characterized the security alliance as "obsolete."

The alliance's leaders are hoping to prove to Trump as he visits their new billion-dollar, state-of-the-art headquarters that the alliance is more relevant than ever and ready to combat terrorism against the backdrop of the May 22 bombing in Manchester, England, that killed 22 people.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said earlier on May 25 that alliance members will agree to NATO's participation in the international coalition against the extremist group Islamic State (IS), one of the main themes the U.S. president is expected to stress during the summit.

Read the full story on RFE/RL.org

Rouhani: Four Million Votes Were Not Cast

People waiting outside of one of the main voting stations in Tehran, to cast their ballot on Friday May 19, 2017.

President Hassan Rouhani has again implicitly blamed the Guardian Council for preventing his votes from rising to 28 million in the May 19 presidential election.

“I am sorry that about 4 million people weren’t able to cast their ballots [because of time restraints],” he said on May 24 at a gathering of his campaign managers.

It was the second time in a week Rouhani had referenced the 4 million people who did not get a chance to cast their ballot in the recent election due to the Guardian Council’s strict rules.

By all accounts, at least a million people were not able to vote due to long lines. Some estimates say that more than four million were affected.

“Somebody sent me a message saying he waited in line for five and a half hours to cast his ballot, but he was deprived of his right to vote,” Rouhani said.

“I am sorry that 4 million votes were not cast. Nevertheless, a high number of votes should not be a source for concern” for the Guardian Council, he added sarcastically.

According to the president, it took the Guardian Council 12 hours to accept the National Registry number of each voter as sufficient proof of identity for casting ballots.

However, Guardian Council (GC) spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodaei denied Rouhani’s comments.

“Contrary to what the president has said, it took only two hours for the GC to approve National Registry numbers as sufficient ID for casting votes,” he said.

Due to the drawn-out identity checks, long lines formed at many voting stations, which left people still waiting when the polls closed at midnight. Iranian election laws state that voting cannot be extended beyond midnight on election day.

Rouhani also praised the elections and the voters and touched upon other issues. But was interesting was the reaction of his audience.

While Rouhani was addressing his campaign managers, the audience repeatedly roared, “Our message is clear, the house arrests must end!”

They were referring to the prominent figures of the Green Movement -- Mir Hossein Mousavi; his wife, Zahra Rahnavard; and Mehdi Karroubi -- who have been under house arrest since the 2011. They were labelled “troublemakers” after the June 2009 bloody uprising of millions of protesters who accused the regime of engineering the presidential election in favor of Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Mousavi and Karroubi were Ahmadinejad’s challengers in the controversial election.

Rouhani’s promises to end the house arrest was a main theme of his first campaign for the presidency -- a promise that has yet to be fulfilled.

Can An International Troop Surge Reverse The Taliban Momentum?

FILE: U.S. soldiers patrol during a month-long anti-Taliban operation by the Afghan National Army.

As U.S. President Donald Trump meets the leaders of 28 NATO member countries this week, they will be weighing in on a key question: how many troops to send back to Afghanistan two years after the alliance ended major combat operations there and more than 100,000 of its troops withdrew.

More crucially, will such an increase reverse the Taliban’s gains over the past two years when the insurgents have overrun large swathes of the countryside and attempted to capture large population centers?

Jawid Kohistani, a Kabul-based security analyst, says the deployment of fresh NATO troops to Afghanistan will be a boost for the Afghan forces in their fight against the resurgent Taliban.

He backs the reported recommendation of senior U.S. security officials asking Trump to increase their country’s forces by 3,000 because such recommendations are informed by facts on the ground.

“Such [recommendations] give us hope for the future,” he said. “We hope that such demands encourage the U.S.’s NATO allies to be more active and address the issue of extremism within the geography of Afghanistan.”

Kohistani said the Taliban are not capable of seizing and holding provincial centers this year, but he added that the group is trying to make more gains in rural areas.

The insurgents, however, appear to be aiming high. Even before announcing their annual spring offensive, named Operation Mansuri, the Taliban were clearly pressing for a battlefield advantage by massacring more than 130 Afghan Army soldiers in the 209th Corps headquarters, Camp Shaheen, on April 21.

Since then, the insurgents have stepped up their onslaughts in different parts of Afghanistan and continue to make headlines. Last week, Taliban fighters attacked the city of Ghazni in central Afghanistan from three directions but failed to seize territory. On May 6, the insurgents seized and held for 10 days the center of district of Qala-e Zal in northeastern Kunduz Province. The propaganda machine is churning out constant stories of battlefield successes.

The apparent insurgent momentum has forced U.S. officials to revise their threat assessment. In February, General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, spoke of a security stalemate in Afghanistan but added that the equilibrium favored the Afghan government.

What makes things even more complicated now is that the insurgents do not only enjoy safe havens and support inside Pakistan but are receiving weapons and backing from Russian and Iran.

“Russia has become more assertive over the past year, overtly lending legitimacy to the Taliban,” Nicholson told journalists on April 24.

They are doing this “to undermine NATO efforts and bolster belligerents using the false narrative that only the Taliban are fighting ISIL-K,” he added, referring to the Islamic State militants’ local branch by its self-styled name, Islamic State Khorasan. “Similarly, neighboring Iran is providing support to the Taliban.”

A recent report by the office of the U.S. director of national intelligence also sees a worsening security situation in Afghanistan.

“The overall situation in Afghanistan will very likely continue to deteriorate,” the report, issued on May 11, noted. “Even if international support is sustained. Endemic state weaknesses, the government’s political fragility, deficiencies of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), Taliban persistence, and regional interference will remain key impediments to improvement.”

Cornelius Zimmermann, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, however, sees the Afghan security forces capable of defending the majority of Afghan territory and two-thirds of the Afghan population who live in those regions.

“Last year, the security forces prevented eight major attempts to seize provincial capitals. And they continue to prevent the Taliban from achieving their stated objectives,” he said. “Further assistance provided by [NATO’s] Resolute Support [mission] will certainly have a positive impact on the security forces’ ability to stabilize the country.”

General Mohammad Radmanish, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, agreed. He said more 350, 000 Afghan forces are becoming more capable every day and they will prove a bulwark against the Taliban tide this year.

He pointed to the recent recapture of Zebak and Qala-e Zal districts in the northeastern provinces of Badakhshan and Kunduz as a proof of Afghan forces rising capabilities. The two districts were briefly overrun by the Taliban in recent weeks.

Radmanish says the inclusion of new planes and helicopters is making the Afghan Air Force more effective.

“We are certain that with building our capacities we will be able to defuse the activities of the Taliban, whatever name that they are giving to those activities, Omari or Mansuri,” he said, referring to the Taliban offensives during the previous and current years.

Michael Kugelman, a regional specialist at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, however, is not convinced that an increase in U.S. and NATO troop numbers can help in ending the latest round of the Afghan war that began in late 2001 when Western forces toppled the hard-line Taliban regime.

“We tried the military option for a number of years. We had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at the height of the troop surge in 2010-2011.That clearly did not end the war,” he noted. “It did not make the Taliban sue for peace.”

Kugelman urged Washington to take a deeper look at reconciliation. “We really need to see what type of things the U.S. might be willing to do that it was not willing to do before that would increase the possibility that the Taliban would be willing to sit down for negotiations,” he said.

But back in Kabul there is little hope for peace talks. Security analyst Asadullah Walwalji says Trump has no viable alternative to adding more forces in the hope of breaking the Taliban’s momentum.

"If Afghanistan is defeated and terrorists re-emerge in the country, it will pose a grave danger for the international community," he noted.

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