Istanbul

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ISTANBUL — In a show of unity, Iran and the world’s big powers on Saturday hailed their first nuclear meeting in more than a year as a key step toward further negotiations meant to ease international fears over Tehran’s nuclear program.

The one concrete reflection of progress was an agreement to meet again on May 23 in Baghdad, a venue put forward by Iran.

But huge hurdles still lie in the way of a common understanding of what Iran should do to end suspicions of its nuclear activities. Those barriers may prove insurmountable considering the differences between Tehran and the six nations trying to persuade it to compromise on its nuclear efforts.

But the United States and other countries accuse Iran of repeatedly violating the treaty, and Tehran continues to expand enrichment despite four sets of U.N. Security Council resolutions and other penalties imposed by the U.S., Europe and others.

The talks in Istanbul on Saturday saw the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany sitting at the same table with Iran. Knowing the road ahead is tough, both sides focused on what they said was the positive tone of the talks, in contrast to the previous round 14 months ago.

That last session broke up with no progress after Iranian negotiators refused to even consider discussing enrichment.

Beyond the bite of sanctions, Iran is under threat of Israeli and possibly U.S. military attack unless it makes headway in persuading the international community it is not pursuing nuclear weapons.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s envoys are heading for nuclear talks with confidence that the chips are falling their way.

It could be dismissed as just political theatrics for the world powers that Iran will face in Istanbul on Saturday. After all, Iran has some serious matters on its plate: Tightening economic sanctions, near blacklist status from international banking networks and the threat that Israel or the U.S. could eventually opt for a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear program.

But think like the Iranian leadership. The baseline objective is to keep the centrifuges spinning in its uranium enrichment sites. That now seems within reach — and the Islamic Republic could even try to leverage a few concessions from the West along the way.

That’s because Iran has been very busy since the last attempts at negotiations nosedived more than a year ago with the same group: The five permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, France, China, Russia and Britain — plus Germany.

Iran is now churning out uranium at 20 percent enrichment at a regular pace. That level — compared to the 3.5 percent needed for Iran’s lone Russian-built energy reactor — is necessary to make isotopes for cancer treatment and other medical and research applications. But the U.S. and allies fear that higher-level enrichment puts Iran significantly closer toward possibly making weapons-grade material — a goal that Iran repeatedly claims is not on its agenda.

Yet the 20 percent material offers other opportunities for Iran.

It could agree — without any direct pain to its nuclear program — to Western demands to suspend the 20 percent production as an act of good faith that Iran would want reciprocated. Tehran could then ask ‘how about easing some of the sanctions?’

Iran also has started operations at a second enrichment site, buried deep into a mountainside south of Tehran to protect against air attacks.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says the new facility, known as Fordo, must be closed and on Thursday she called on Iran use the Istanbul talks to credibly address concern about its nuclear program.

Again, Iran could entertain the idea of closing Fordo without any real setbacks to its overall uranium enrichment. The far bigger labs at Natanz, in central Iran, provide almost all of Iran’s nuclear fuel.

Other demands and counterproposals are likely to be raised in Istanbul. They include what to do about Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium and access for future inspections by the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog agency.

But what’s not there is perhaps the most significant. The West — at least at this stage — no longer calls for an all-out halt to uranium enrichment as it did last year.

If this path stays, Iran can boast about outmaneuvering the Western demands and keeping the heart of the nuclear program intact. The U.S. and others will then have to sell this outcome to the Israelis. The pitch is that trying to whittle down Iran’s enrichment capabilities and stockpiles — coupled perhaps with stricter inspections — is a more prudent route than launching attacks and possibly opening up another Middle East war.

“We’re not going to prejudge these talks before they start, but the context going in is important,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.

Vietor said the rest of the world is more united than ever in opposition to an Iranian nuclear bomb, and noted that Iran is facing the toughest sanctions yet as a consequence of its nuclear program.

Some advance lobbying may already be under way. In an interview aired Sunday by CNN, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak appeared to focus on gaining outside control of the uranium stockpiles rather than trying to push Iran to give up its ability to make nuclear fuel — something that Iranian officials have said is nonnegotiable.

Uranium enrichment, in fact, has been wrapped tightly around the powerful themes of patriotism, scientific achievements and international justice by Iran’s leadership.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called it the “locomotive” for all other high-profile programs, such as Iran’s aerospace and biotech efforts. Enrichment is permitted under the U.N.’s treaty overseeing the spread of nuclear technology and the West’s attempts to shut it down brought a predictable outcry over perceived bullying.

It’s never said directly in Iran, but two scenarios are always background noise in Iran’s nuclear considerations.

Libya is the cautionary tale. Moammar Gadhafi’s decision to abandon his nuclear program is seen as weakening his bargaining power and opening his regime to NATO attacks and its eventual downfall last year. Pakistan tells another story to the Iranian leaders. Its development of nuclear arms is seen as sharply boosting Islamabad’s international standing and respect.

During a ceremony in February to put the first domestically made fuel rod’s in Tehran’s research reactor, Ahmadinejad spoke on national television next to photos of five nuclear scientists and researchers killed since 2010 as part of a suspected shadow war with Israel. Iranians also are linked to recent attacks and plots against Israeli officials and others in Bangkok, New Delhi and elsewhere.

Although Ahmadinejad does much of the political grandstanding for Iran’s nuclear program, he has little to say about any potential deals with world powers. Those big decisions rest with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Khamenei has two main talking points recently: Repeating that Iran will never consider giving up uranium enrichment, but claiming there is no intention to seek nuclear arms — even calling them against Islamic principles.

Khamenei has ever been much for bold policy gestures or initiatives toward the West, preferring to stick closely to Iran’s narrative that Western culture is morally bankrupt and on the decline. But he’s also not seen as inflexible.

The signals from the top in Iran in recent days appear to acknowledge that some movement is needed on the nuclear impasse. But if Iran has its way, the talks will be drawn out and incremental. This week in Istanbul is likely just the opening bid.

Iran is already proposing the venue for round two: Baghdad.

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Murphy is the Associated Press chief of bureau in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and has covered Iranian affairs for more than 12 years.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, second right, meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, fourth from front on left side, during a bilateral meeting at a hotel Saturday, March 31, 2012 in Istanbul, Turkey. Clinton is in Turkey to attend the second meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People.”

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ISTANBUL — A coalition of more than 70 partners, including the United States, pledged Sunday to send millions of dollars and communications equipment to Syria’s opposition groups, signaling deeper involvement in the conflict amid a growing belief that diplomacy and sanctions alone cannot end the Damascus regime’s repression.

The shift by the U.S. and its Western and Arab allies toward seeking to sway the military balance in Syria carries regional risks because the crisis there increasingly resembles a proxy conflict that could exacerbate sectarian tensions. The Syrian rebels are overmatched by heavily armed regime forces.

The summit meeting of the “Friends of the Syrian People” follows a year of failed diplomacy that seems close to running its course with a troubled peace plan led by U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan.

Indeed, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other participants at the conference in Istanbul uniformly expressed concern that Annan’s plan might backfire, speculating that Syrian President Bashar Assad would try to manipulate it to prolong his hold on power.

Clinton said she was waiting for Annan’s report to the U.N. Security Council on Monday on the status of his peace plan.

“There cannot be process for the sake of process. There has to be a timeline. If Assad continues as he has, to fail to end the violence, to institute a cease-fire, to withdraw his troops from the areas he has been battering ... then it’s unlikely he is going to ever agree,” she said. “Because it is a clear signal that he wants to wait to see if he has totally suppressed the opposition. I think he would be mistaken to believe that. My reading is that the opposition is gaining in intensity, not losing.”

Clinton said the United States is providing communications equipment to help anti-government activists in Syria organize, remain in contact with the outside world and evade regime attacks.

The Syrian regime agreed last week to Annan’s plan, which calls for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian access to besieged civilians and a political negotiation process led by Syrians. Since then, there have been daily reports of violence, including shelling Sunday in Homs that activists said killed more than two dozen people.

The uprising began in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring with peaceful protests calling for political reforms. Assad’s regime sent tanks, snipers and thugs to try to quash the revolt, and many in the opposition have taken up arms to defend themselves and attack government troops. The United Nations says more than 9,000 have died.

Conference participants in Istanbul said Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are creating a fund to pay members of the rebel Free Syrian Army and soldiers who defect from the regime and join opposition ranks. One delegate described the fund as a “pot of gold” to undermine Assad’s army.

Participants confirmed the Gulf plan on condition of anonymity because details were still being worked out. One said the fund would involve several million dollars a month. It is said to be earmarked for salaries, but it was not clear whether there would be any effort to prevent the diversion of money to weapons purchases, a sensitive issue that could prompt stronger accusations of military meddling by foreign powers.

The delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria’s beleaguered civilians is a key provision of Annan’s plan. Clinton announced $12 million in additional aid for Syria’s people — doubling total U.S. assistance so far.

The Saudis and other Arab Gulf states have proposed giving weapons to the rebels, while the U.S. and other allies have balked out of fear of fueling an all-out civil war. Washington hasn’t taken any public position on the fund, but it appears that it has given tacit support to its Arab allies.

Mohammed al-Said, a Syrian activist in the town of Duma, northwest of Damascus, said salaries might encourage further defections, but that only arms would turn the tide against Assad.

“What is clear to us is that only fighting can make this regime leave,” he said, adding the opposition wanted arms over intervention so they could topple Assad themselves.

Fayez Amru, a rebel who recently defected from the military and is now based in Turkey, welcomed the decision as a “humanitarian step in the right direction” but also said weapons were needed.

“We feel let down by the international community. I don’t know why there is hesitation by the West ... maybe this will help at least keep the rebels on their feet,” Amru said.

In Damascus, Syria blasted the conference, calling it part of an international conspiracy to kill Syrians and weaken the country. A front-page editorial in the official Al-Baath newspaper said the meeting was a “regional and international scramble to search for ways to kill more Syrians, sabotage their society and state, and move toward the broad objective of weakening Syria.”

Russia and China have twice protected the Assad regime from censure by the U.N. Security Council, fearing such a step could lead to foreign military intervention. Syria’s international opponents have no plans to launch a military operation similar to the Libya bombing campaign that ousted Moammar Gadhafi, especially without U.N. support, but they are slowly overcoming doubts about assisting scattered rebel forces.

The debate over arming or funding the rebels is being driven partly by the sectarian split in the region. The upheaval in Syria presents an opportunity for the Sunni Muslim states in the Gulf to bolster their influence, consolidate power and possibly leave regional rival Iran, led by a Shiite theocracy, without critical alliances that flow through Damascus.

Assad’s regime, which counts Iran among its few allies, is led by the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiism.

Last year, Saudi Arabia sent tanks to help fellow Sunni leaders in Bahrain crush a largely Shiite rebellion there, indicating that sectarian interests sometimes trump calls for democratic change in the Middle East.

Turkey hosts 20,000 Syrian refugees, including hundreds of army defectors, and has floated the idea of setting up a buffer zone inside Syria if the flow of displaced people across its border becomes overwhelming. Parts of the southern Turkish region near Syria are informal logistics bases for rebels, who collect food and other supplies in Turkey and deliver them to comrades on smuggling routes.

Delegates to the Istanbul meeting talked of tighter sanctions and increased diplomatic pressure on Assad, and Syrian opposition representatives promised to offer a democratic alternative to his regime. Yet the show of solidarity at the conference was marred by the absence of China, Russia and Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said military options might have to be considered if Syria does not cooperate with Annan’s plan and the U.N. Security Council does not unite against Assad.

“If the U.N. Security Council fails once again to bring about its historic responsibility, there will be no other choice than to support the Syrian people’s right to self-defense,” Erdogan said.

Burhan Ghalioun, leader of the opposition Syrian National Council, called for the strengthening of Syrian rebel forces as well as “security corridors” in Syria, a reference to internationally protected zones on Syrian territory that would allow the delivery of aid to civilians. However, the nations meeting in Istanbul failed to agree on such an intervention, which could involve the deployment of foreign security forces.

“No one should allow this regime to feel at ease or to feel stronger by giving them a longer maneuvering area,” he said, reflecting fears that Assad would try to use the Annan plan to prolong his tenure. “It’s enough that the international community has flirted with the regime in Syria. Something has to change.”

The Syrian National Council said weapons supplies to the opposition were not “our preferred option” because of the risk they could escalate the killing of civilians, but it appealed for technical equipment to help rebels coordinate.

“For these supplies to be sent, neighboring countries need to allow for the transfer via their sea ports and across borders,” the council said.

The one-day meeting followed an inaugural forum in Tunisia in February. Since then, Syrian opposition figures have tried to convince international sponsors that they can overcome their differences and shape the future of a country whose autocratic regime has long denied the free exchange of ideas.

In Istanbul, police used tear gas and batons to disperse a group of about 40 Assad supporters who tried to approach the conference building. Many held portraits of the Syrian leader. One man waved Chinese and Russian flags.

ISTANBUL — A year of sanctions, diplomacy and harsh rhetoric failed to stop Syria’s bloody crackdown and oust President Bashar Assad. With frustration running high, Turkey and other countries that have staked moral credibility on ending the violence are increasingly looking at intervention on Syrian soil, a strategy they have so far avoided for lack of international consensus and fears it could widen the conflict.

Diplomacy has not yet run its course, but more treacherous options, including aid to Syrian rebels, are likely to come up at a meeting of dozens of countries that oppose Assad, including the United States and its European and Arab partners, in Istanbul on April 1.

One prominent option floated by Turkey is a “buffer zone” on the Turkish-Syrian border, which could amount to a foreign military occupation, intent on regime change even if the aim is humanitarian in name. The risks of such an endeavor in a combustible region are evident in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon decades ago and Syria’s own military presence in Lebanon until 2005.

Yet, comparisons with international hesitation over the Balkans bloodshed in the 1990s make it ever harder to engage in seemingly endless, and fruitless, diplomacy.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed Syria with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday at a nuclear security conference in South Korea, and said it was not possible to tolerate events there. Earlier, Erdogan was asked by reporters on his plane whether a safe zone inside Syria was on the agenda.

“Studies are under way,” Erdogan said. “It would depend on developments. The ‘right to protection’ may be put into use, according to international rules. We are trying to find a solution by engaging Russia, China and Iran.”

Erdogan predicted that “everything could change” if those countries withdraw their support for Syria, and he accused Assad of reviving ties with and “protecting” rebels of the PKK, a Turkish Kurd group at war with the Turkish state. Turkey already hosts some 17,000 Syrian refugees, and casting the Syrian crisis in terms of Turkey’s national security strengthens the case for intervention.

U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan was discussing Syria on Sunday in Russia, which vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at pressuring Assad but has shown increasing impatience with him. His next stop is Beijing, which also blocked U.N. action.

Annan’s plan, endorsed by the U.N. Security Council, includes a cease-fire by Syrian forces, a daily two-hour halt to fighting to evacuate the injured and provide aid, and inclusive talks about a political solution.

But, there are still questions about how such an agreement would be overseen and enforced. An Arab League monitoring effort in Syria failed, labeled a farce by some who participated. The likelihood that a Syrian regime that has shelled cities would talk in good faith to the people it targeted is remote, and outgunned Syrian rebels say the time is long past for any negotiation.

The United Nations says more than 8,000 people have died. Many were civilian protesters.

Assad bucked the trend of relatively quick transitions to new governments in regional uprisings. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where a NATO bombing campaign helped oust Moammar Gadhafi, did not bear the same geopolitical tensions as the Syrian case. The conflict there comes as Israel considers a plan to bomb the nuclear facilities of Iran, a regional power and close ally of Assad, and further destabilization in Syria could set off lasting unrest.

Turkey and the United States, in an election year, “are reluctant to make more forceful moves because of the long-term costs of policing the sectarian violence that will surely happen following the collapse of the Assad regime,” said Arda Batu, professor of international relations at Yeditepe University in Istanbul and editor-in-chief of the Kalem Journal, a website about regional affairs.

The countries meeting in Istanbul hope to help the Syrian opposition coalesce into a more coherent movement that can show all Syrians, not only the majority Sunni Muslims, that they would have a place in a post-Assad future.

The “Friends of Syria” group of more than 60 countries made little headway at its maiden meeting in Tunisia in February, and countries are already talking about creating a subgroup to discuss military options more urgently. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are some of the strongest advocates of this approach.

One idea sees Arab countries and Turkey — with the U.S., ideally, but possibly without — establishing a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border that would serve as a humanitarian corridor and staging ground for the rebel Free Syrian Army. On the Syrian side of the border, it would entail army defectors and other guerrillas wresting control of land and holding it, which they have been unable to do.

Earlier this month, CIA chief David Petraeus met Erdogan in Ankara. Turkish media said the prime minister warned that deepening instability in Syria would provide a “living space” for militant organizations active in the region, including the PKK.

On Saturday, Turkey’s Yeni Safak newspaper, which is considered close to the government, said 500 military personnel have inspected areas close to the border for a safe zone that could stretch 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) inside Syria, and would end their “studies” before the meeting in Istanbul.

The newspaper did not provide sources, but the report contributed to a sense that the safe zone idea is slowly gaining traction despite the pitfalls.

“If the U.S. is not involved, there is no way Turkey would get involved in it,” said Osman Bahadir Dincer, a Syria expert at the International Strategic Research Organisation, a center in Ankara, the Turkish capital. However, he predicted “some kind of an intervention in the form of a buffer zone or a safe zone” within one or two months.

Dincer said a decision to arm the Free Syrian Army was unlikely at the Istanbul meeting amid questions over the composition of the ragtag militias, and divisions between fighters in Syria and the Syrian National Council, the opposition group based outside the country.

“The opposition is too fragmented, there is confusion as to which group represents who, or what they represent,” he said.

The U.S. and other key allies, however, are considering providing Syrian rebels with communications help, medical aid and other “non-lethal” assistance. Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication, said in South Korea on Sunday that communications assistance could be critical to the opposition’s efforts.

If any military intervention is to gain the international legitimacy that was accorded the Libya mission, it will need the U.N.’s stamp of approval. That requires the acquiescence of veto-wielding Security Council members Russia and China, an unlikely possibility that could only occur if they are included in the process and feel similarly betrayed by the Assad regime.

Without the U.N., the U.S. would be stretched to justify military involvement. It could help NATO ally Turkey in the event of a Syrian attack across the border, or make a U-turn on a doctrine of caution about intervention that Obama has insisted on since he was a presidential candidate.

“Of course, it is not possible to remain a spectator, to wait and not to intervene,” Erdogan said in South Korea, with Obama at his side. “It is our humanitarian and conscientious responsibility. We are engaged in efforts toward doing whatever is necessary within the framework of international law. We are happy to see that our views on this overlap.”