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Syria

Syria has come under scrutiny after allegations of using chemical weapons against civilians came to light.

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By Paul Richter and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

UNITED NATIONS — Russia agreed Thursday to back a United Nations Security Council resolution that demands Syria relinquish its chemical weapons, but stops short of threatening President Bashar Assad with military force if he doesn’t comply.

The Obama administration hailed it as a “breakthrough” despite its failure after nearly two weeks to persuade Russia, Assad’s strongest international backer, to support a resolution that would invoke Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter and could have authorized the use of force or other action if Syria didn’t disarm.

If Assad doesn’t comply, the decision on how to punish him would go back to the Security Council, where Russia holds a veto. Moscow has steadfastly opposed military intervention in Syria and has questioned a U.N. investigation that determined chemical weapons were used in an attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus on Aug. 21, which the U.S. says killed more than 1,400 people. The U.S. and its allies say the U.N. report proves that the Assad government was behind the attack, but Russia has remain unconvinced.

Without the threat of force behind the deal, it’s unclear whether  Assad will live up to his promise to give up his stockpile of illicit chemical warfare agents, one of the world’s largest. U.S. officials say Syria possesses more than 1,000 tons of blister and nerve agents, including mustard, sarin and VX gases.

Supporters of the resolution say it will help advocates of strong penalties build support for action within the Security Council — or outside it — if Assad fails to comply with the disarmament deal.

U.S. officials say Assad’s forces have fired rockets or other munitions filled with chemical agents at least a dozen times against insurgents battling to overthrow him. The Aug. 21 attack, which involved sarin nerve gas, was the largest by far.

The State Department said the text that the five permanent Security Council members agreed to Thursday is “strong, binding and enforceable” and unites international opinion against the use of chemical weapons.

“This is historic and unprecedented because it puts oversight of the Assad regime’s compliance under international control,” according to a State Department statement attributed to an unidentified senior official.

“Equally as important, it makes absolutely clear that failure of the Assad regime to comply will have consequences,” the statement added.

U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted that the resolution legally obligates Syria to give up its chemical weapons and “creates a new norm” against the use of poison gas.

Security Council members — permanent members United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, and 10 rotating members — were due to discuss the draft resolution in a closed session late Thursday. A vote could occur by the weekend.

Diplomats said the draft resolution roughly mirrors the framework agreement reached by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Sept. 14.

The deal required Assad to reveal all his chemical weapons and production facilities to international inspectors, to allow inspectors into Syria by the end of November, and to agree to have the entire toxic arsenal seized or destroyed by mid-2014.

Assad met the first benchmark, submitting what officials have called a “serious” initial disclosure of his weapons program last Friday to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The international organization monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that Assad signed this month and that bans the production, storage or use of poison gas.

Details of how the weapons would be impounded or destroyed have yet to be finalized. U.S. officials said the OPCW, which is based in The Hague, soon would determine those specifics in a plan that would closely match the terms set out in the Security Council resolution.

“These two texts are a matched set,” a senior U.S. official said this week on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York. “They have to be congruent. They have to be mutually supporting.”

A Western diplomat, who requested anonymity to describe the draft resolution, said it calls chemical weapons use a threat to international peace and security, condemns the Aug. 21 attack in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, commits to endorsing the OPCW disarmament plan and demands accountability if Assad reneges.

But it doesn’t specify how Assad would be held accountable and includes no reference to the International Criminal Court, the world war crimes court, the official said.

john kerry

Photo courtesy of publicintegrity.org

Bashar_al-Assad_croppedBy Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian President Bashar Assad promised Monday to comply with international efforts to remove his chemical weapons, even as he sharply criticized the United States and other Western powers for proposing a United Nations resolution that add teeth to the deal.

In an interview in Damascus with Chinese state television, Assad said the U.S., France, and Britain want “to appear victorious in their battles against an imaginary enemy, which they assume is Syria.”

He also warned that rebels seeking to overthrow his government would attempt to disrupt the work of international inspectors seeking to catalog and impound Syria’s chemical weapons.  But, he said, “there is nothing to worry about” because the weapons — which Syria only recently acknowledged possessing — are “in secure sites” under the control of his army.

Under pressure from the United States and Russia, Syria agreed on Sept. 14 to commit to the international Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans the production, storage and use of chemical weapons.

“Since its independence, Syria has been committed to all the treaties it has signed,” Assad said in the interview. “We will honor everything that we have agreed to do.”

He lauded the role of Russia and China in removing any “justification for an attack on Syria,” saying that their cooperation had prevented a “much worse” situation in the country.

He also dismissed the strategic importance of the loss of chemical weapons from his arsenal, because “the Syrian army was built on the basis of conventional weapons … [and this] will not be affected.”

Russia and China have so far blocked the efforts by Western powers to invoke Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which would allow the use of force against Syria if it fails to comply with the chemical weapons agreement.

The United States, along with the armed rebels that have battled to overthrow Assad’s government for the last 2 1/2 years, has blamed the Syrian government for an Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb. The U.S. says the attack claimed more than 1,400 lives.

Assad has insisted that the rebels carried out the attack. Russia, his most powerful ally, has said that is the most likely scenario.

 

syrian rebels

Photo courtesy of CNN

Washington (CNN) — The Pentagon has “put a proposal on the table” for U.S. military forces to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces for the first time, two Obama administration officials told CNN.

If approved, it would dramatically increase the role of the U.S. military in Syria’s civil war and would for the first time put American troops in direct contact with opposition forces.

The idea has been under consideration since the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, which the United States says was carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

There are few specifics on troops or other aspects of the military proposal, but both officials said the effort envisions training taking place in a country near Syria.

“We have any number of options under development that could expand our support to the moderate opposition, but no decision has been taken at this point,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said when asked by reporters on Wednesday about the proposal.

U.N. chemical weapons inspectors to return to Syria

Until now, any training and equipping of Syrian opposition forces has fallen under the purview of the CIA and has not directly been acknowledged by the United States government.

The Obama administration has acknowledged providing logistical, humanitarian and some military assistance to rebels fighting al-Assad’s forces in a civil war now in its third year.

The training proposal was first floated in the days after the August attack as a means to step up U.S. support for the opposition.

The proposal envisions U.S. troops training certain rebels on small arms, command and control and military tactics, according to one of the officials.

Weapons however would not be directly supplied by the United States because legal authority does not exist for the Pentagon to arm the rebels.

Is the U.S. back to square one on Syria?

President Barack Obama, who blames al-Assad’s regime for the attack and threatened a limited military strike as punishment, has vowed not to put “boots on the ground” inside Syria.

The training idea, however, has run into trouble in recent days as the United States has focused on diplomatic efforts to turn Syria’s chemical weapons over to international control, sidelining at least for now Obama’s push for congressional support to take military action.

Both administration officials said the timing might be too sensitive now to engage in such an initiative.

Dempsey initially hinted at the plan during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month.

“The path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed capable moderate opposition, and we know how to do that,” he said.

Dempsey noted the focus on dealing with chemical weapons.

“I think that subsequent to that, we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a more overt way,” he said.

Both administration officials declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information.

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) — U.N. weapons inspectors returned “overwhelming and indisputable” evidence of the use of nerve gas in Syria, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday, calling the findings “beyond doubt and beyond the pale.”

The inspectors’ 38-page report was released after Ban briefed Security Council members on its contents. The team found what it called “clear and convincing evidence” that the nerve agent sarin was delivered by surface-to-surface rockets “on a relatively large scale” in the suburbs of the Syrian capital Damascus on August 21.

Ban Ki-moon“It is the most significant confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians since Saddam Hussein used them in Halabja in 1988, and the worst use of weapons of mass destruction in the 21st century,” Ban said. “The international community has a responsibility to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare,” he said.

Ban called the attack “a war crime” and a violation of treaties banning the use of chemical weapons that date back to 1925. But the inspectors’ mandate did not include assigning blame for the attack, and Ban would not speculate on who launched the attack.

The team did identify two types or rockets it said were used to deliver the gas and their trajectories, and international observers have said those weapons are not known to be in the hands of rebels battling the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Australian U.N. Ambassador Gary Quinlan, who is currently serving as president of the Security Council, said the report bolsters his country’s stance. It “confirms, in our view, that there is no remaining doubt that it was the regime that used chemical weapons.”

Read the report

And Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador, said a preliminary review of the report points toward forces loyal to al-Assad.

“The regime possesses sarin, and we have no evidence that the opposition possesses sarin,” Power said. “It defies logic” to think members of the opposition would have infiltrated a regime-controlled area to fire on opposition-controlled areas.

Britain, France, and NATO have also said al-Assad’s regime was behind the attack. But Russia is Syria’s leading ally, and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin maintained Moscow’s stance that Syrian rebels might be to blame.

Such suggestions “cannot be simply shrugged off,” Churkin said, and statements insisting that the opposition could not have launched the attack “are not as scientific and grounded in reality as the actual situation could be.” He questioned why rebel forces didn’t report major losses in the August 21 chemical attack, which the United States says may have killed more than 1,400, including hundreds of civilians.

Samples examined

The August 21 attack led to U.S. calls for military action against Syria, which denies its forces unleashed chemical weapons and blamed rebel fighters for the deaths. Syria has since agreed to join the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention and hand over its chemical arsenal to international inspectors, with the United States and Russia laying out a fast-paced framework for Damascus to follow.

Monday’s report presents a stark picture of the damage that can be inflicted by a nerve agent like sarin, one of three types of poison gas Syria is believed to have stockpiled.

“Survivors reported that following an attack with shelling, they quickly experienced a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, disorientation, eye irritation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and general weakness,” Ban said. “Many eventually lost consciousness. First responders described seeing a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of them dead or unconscious.”

The weather made things worse. Falling temperatures at the time of the attack meant the downward movement of air, allowing the gas “to easily penetrate the basements and lower levels of buildings and other structures where many people were seeking shelter,” Ban said.

Inspectors interviewed survivors and first responders, collected hair, urine and blood samples and took soil and environmental samples from the sites where the rockets fell. The secretary-general said the team “adhered to the most stringent protocols available for such an investigation, including to ensure the chain of custody for all samples.”

More than 100,000 people had already been killed in Syria before August 21, according to the United Nations. Another 2 million have fled the country, most of them taking refuge in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

It was not immediately clear how the report would affect events on the ground. The opposition Syrian National Coalition said the findings “demand a unified and decisive response by the international community.”

“If the world does not act now, this war will continue, and thousands more will die,” Najib Ghadbian, the coalition’s representative to the United Nations, said in a written statement. “The people of Syria look to the U.N. Security Council to do everything in its power to stop this conflict and hold the Syrian regime responsible for its criminal actions.”

In Washington, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would waive restrictions on exporting chemical protective gear to provide that equipment to the opposition and train “select, vetted members” in its use. American equipment will also be provided to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international body that monitors compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. It will be OPCW inspectors who are likely to carry out Syria’s promised disarmament.

Also Monday, Turkish fighter jets downed a Syrian helicopter near the border between the two countries Monday, Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolia News Agency reported, citing Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Syria’s state news agency SANA said the helicopter was watching for “terrorists” crossing the border and erroneously strayed into Turkish airspace, but was on its way back across the border when shot down.

 

john kerry

Photo courtesy of publicintegrity.org

(CNN) — The United Nations team investigating a chemical weapons attack last month in Syria has found that sarin was used.

“In particular, the environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used in Ein Tarma, Moadamiyah and Amalaka in the Ghouta area of Damascus,” a 38-page report says.

Chemical weapons “were used on a relatively large scale,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a briefing to the U.N. Security Council.

“The Mission adhered to the most stringent protocols available for such an investigation, including to ensure the chain of custody for all samples.

The team interviewed survivors and first responders, and collected hair, urine and blood samples.

“The Mission also documented and sampled impact sites and munitions, and collected 30 soil and environmental samples — far more than any previous such United Nations investigation,” Ban said.

The report presents a stark picture of the horrific events of August 21.

“Survivors reported that following an attack with shelling, they quickly experienced a range of symptoms, including shortness of breath, disorientation, eye irritation, blurred vision, nausea, vomiting and general weakness,” Ban said. “Many eventually lost consciousness. First responders described seeing a large number of individuals lying on the ground, many of them dead or unconscious.”

The weather made things worse. Falling temperatures at the time of the attack meant the downward movement of air, allowing the gas “to easily penetrate the basements and lower levels of buildings and other structures where many people were seeking shelter,” Ban said.

The U.N. mission has not completed its investigation of other alleged uses of chemical weapons in Syria, Ban said.

But there’s no doubt chemical weapons were used in the attack last month, he said.

“The United Nations Mission has now confirmed, unequivocally and objectively, that chemical weapons have been used in Syria.”

“This is a war crime and a grave violation of the 1925 Protocol and other rules of customary international law. I trust all can join me in condemning this despicable crime. The international community has a responsibility to hold the perpetrators accountable and to ensure that chemical weapons never re-emerge as an instrument of warfare.”

The U.N. mission’s mandate, however, did not include assigning blame for the attack.

It was not immediately clear whether the report will affect events on the ground in Syria, where more than 100,000 people have been killed in 2½ years of conflict, the vast majority by conventional weapons, according to U.N. estimates.

Turkish fighter jets downed a Syrian helicopter near the border between the two countries Monday, Turkey’s semiofficial Anatolia News Agency reported, citing Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc.

It’s unclear how the U.N. report may affect international dynamics of the Syrian conflict.

The United States, Britain, France, and NATO have said that the Syrian regime was behind the attack and that there’s no sign rebels had access to such weapons.

Still, Syria and its ally Russia have blamed rebels.

The United States and Russia reached an agreement over the weekend aimed at averting U.S. military action against the Syrian regime. President Obama, on Monday, called that “an important step.”

Syria: There’s a chemical weapons agreement. Now what?

Russia slams U.S. remarks on agreement

Even as the world awaited the report Monday, Russia openly bickered with the United States about the agreement.

The deal calls for a U.N. resolution demanding that Syria’s chemical weapons be placed under international control.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “and his Western allies” Monday of misunderstanding the deal, according to Russia’s state-run Itar-Tass news agency.

The deal does not say the U.N. resolution will be under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, Lavrov said.

Chapter 7 potentially authorizes the use of force.

Lavrov said comments by Kerry “show unwillingness to read the document” that Russia and the United States agreed to.

Kerry said Monday that a U.N. resolution will need to include the possibility of force. “If the Assad regime believes that this is not enforceable, then they will play games,” he said.

The agreement states that if there is noncompliance “or any use of chemical weapons by anyone in Syria, the U.N. Security Council should impose measures under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.”

It does not specifically state that the resolution being sought now will be under that chapter.

Russia, a Syrian ally, holds veto power on the council.

“A week ago, the Syrian regime did not admit that it even had chemical weapons,” Kerry told reporters Monday. “Today, that regime has agreed, at least through the Russians … to rid itself of those weapons.”

But he also noted that “nothing can be accepted at face value.”

According to the plan, Syria must submit a full list of its chemical weapons stockpile within a week. International inspectors must be on the ground in the country by November, and all production equipment must be destroyed by the end of November.

By the middle of next year, all chemical weapons material must be destroyed, according to the agreement.

Framework for eliminating Syrian chemical weapons

Syrian minister claims ‘victory’

Syria’s national reconciliation minister, Ali Haidar, called the framework a “victory” and thanked Russia for orchestrating a chemical weapons deal to avert U.S. military action, Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Haidar called the deal an achievement of Russian diplomacy and “a victory for Syria won thanks to our Russian friends.”

Western allies step up pressure

Top diplomats from the United States, France and Britain met in Paris on Monday and warned that Syria must take its commitment seriously.

“Should diplomacy fail, the military option is still on the table,” Kerry told reporters.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague said there’s no doubt the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons repeatedly against its people. And French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also said France is strengthening its support for the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition umbrella group.

The three Western allies are pushing for a binding timetable for Syria to dispose of its chemical weapons.

A daunting task

The process of securing and destroying Syria’s cache of chemical weapons — in the middle of a civil war — will be a logistical nightmare.

U.S. intelligence suggests that Syria has about 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons, most of it sarin and VX stored as unmixed components, Kerry said last week. Sarin and VX are nerve gases that can cause convulsions, paralysis, respiratory failure and death.

To complicate matters, both U.S. officials and Syrian rebels suspect the regime has been moving some if its chemical weapons.

So the Syrian regime is basically on the honor system.

Then there’s the matter of where the weapons will be taken, and how.

The U.S. and Russia say they’re working on the details. They say they’ll submit something in the next few days.

The destruction process will be carried out by personnel from both the United Nations and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which implements the international ban on chemical weapons use, according to the Kerry-Lavrov plan.

Syria’s government has denied using chemical weapons, saying instead that rebels used poison gas on its forces.

But in a report issued last week, Human Rights Watch said that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces “were almost certainly responsible,” citing photos and videos from the attack scene that pointed to weapons not known to be in rebel hands.

Opposition group wants more

Even if Syria’s chemical weapons disappear, that won’t stop the daily bloodshed on the ground, opposition activists say.

“The Syrian National Coalition insists that the ban of use of chemical weapons, which led to the loss of lives of more than 1,400 Syrian civilians, must be extended to ban the use of the regime air power and ballistic weapons against population centers,” the opposition group said in a statement.

Fabius and Kerry addressed concerns about future attacks by al-Assad’s forces.

“We understand that removing the chemical weapons still leaves him with artillery and airplanes, and he uses them indiscriminately against his people,” Kerry said. “And we are going to do everything in our power to continue to push towards the political resolution that is so critical to ending that violence.”

U.N. inspectors turn in report on Syria’s chemical weapons

CNN’s Joe Vaccarello, Nick Paton Walsh, Saad Abedine and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.

john kerry

Photo courtesy of publicintegrity.org

By Henry Chu, Los Angeles TimesLONDON – Secretary of State John F. Kerry has arrived in Geneva for hastily arranged talks with his Russian counterpart on a possible deal to impound Syria’s chemical weapons and avert a U.S. military strike on Damascus.

Kerry and a U.S. delegation are to hold talks Thursday and Friday with a team led by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The two sides will try to hash out details of a Moscow-backed proposal that the Syrian government, suspected of gassing rebel-held neighborhoods last month, give up its entire arsenal of chemical weapons to international inspectors for safekeeping.

The proposal has turned into a major diplomatic bid to forestall U.S.-led military reprisals against Damascus that seemed imminent just a few days ago.

But many Western nations, including the U.S., France and Britain, remain suspicious of the proposal, which they fear could be either a stalling tactic or such an impracticable idea as to be largely meaningless. Western governments have greeted Syrian President Bashar Assad’s apparent enthusiasm for the proposal with deep skepticism.

“Given their track record, any commitment made by the Syrian regime must be treated with great caution,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague told Parliament on Thursday. “This is a regime that has lied for years about possessing chemical weapons, that still denies that it has used them and that refused for four months to allow U.N. inspectors into Syria.”

Nevertheless, Hague added, “we have to take this proposal seriously, and we have to test its sincerity. … If the Syrian regime verifiably gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles, this would obviously be a major step forward.”

The idea of Syria turning over its chemical arsenal, estimated at 1,000 tons of ordnance, to international inspectors was casually broached by Kerry in a visit to London early this week. Moscow quickly seized on possibility and has led the push to make it reality.

Experts say that locating all the weapons, neutralizing them and storing them securely would present a staggering challenge in a country racked by civil war. Keeping the arsenal out of the hands of either rogue loyalists of the Assad regime or Islamic militants among the fighters trying to topple him would pose a particular problem.

The talks between Kerry and Lavrov come after a direct appeal by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the American people urging them to set aside their sense of “exceptionalism” in world affairs and to work with international bodies on the Syria issue.

He blasted the U.S. as a country that resorts too easily to military intervention, a tendency that has caused “millions around the world” to see “America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”

“If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust,” Putin, a staunch supporter of the Assad regime, wrote in an opinion piece published in Thursday’s New York Times. “It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

Iran’s foreign minister

Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has said that Washington and Tehran have exchanged private messages about the civil war in Syria. Photo courtesy Ahmad al Rubaye/Pool photo

By Paul Richter, Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — Signaling a possible thaw in long-frozen relations, the Obama administration and the new leadership in Iran are communicating about Syria and are moving behind the scenes toward direct talks that both governments hope can ease the escalating confrontation over Tehran’s nuclear program.

President Obama reportedly reached out to Iran’s relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, through an exchange of letters in recent weeks. The pragmatist cleric is scheduled to address the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, and after years of the United States cold-shouldering his ultraconservative predecessor, U.S. officials say it’s possible they will meet with Rouhani on the sidelines.

Beyond that, U.S. and Iranian officials are tentatively laying the groundwork for potential face-to-face talks between the two governments, the first in the rancorous 34 years since radical students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and founded the Islamic theocracy. Diplomatic relations have been broken ever since.

Both governments have issued conciliatory public statements in recent days that suggest a new willingness to scale back the tension.

Obama suggested in four TV interviews this week, for example, that Iran had played a constructive role in pushing Syrian President Bashar Assad to refrain from using chemical weapons. Iran is one of Syria’s closest allies and supplies conventional arms to Assad’s forces, so Rouhani may have considerable leverage in the Russian-led effort to disarm Syria of its toxic weapons.

“You know, one reason that this may have a chance of success is that even Syria’s allies, like Iran, detest chemical weapons,” Obama told CNN. “Iran, you know, unfortunately was the target of chemical weapons at the hands of Saddam Hussein back during the Iraq-Iran War…. And you know, I suspect that some of Assad’s allies recognize the mistake he made in using these weapons and it may be that he is under pressure from them as well.”

Washington and Tehran have exchanged private messages about the civil war in Syria, according to Iran’s new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, although he didn’t reveal the substance. Analysts say Iran is trying to avoid having the Syrian chemical weapons crisis damage prospects for a potential resolution of Tehran’s nuclear standoff with the West.

Zarif’s prominent role marks a clear shift in Tehran. The graduate of San Francisco State University and the University of Denver, and a popular diplomat when he was Iran’s envoy to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007, has been named to lead Iran’s nuclear negotiating team.

Rouhani was elected in June after promising voters he would allow greater personal freedom and strengthen the economy.

Since he took office, Iran has scaled back its anti-Western invective and muted the Holocaust denials associated with the previous president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In perhaps the most jaw-dropping sign of change, Rouhani apparently sent a tweet this month wishing Jews a happy Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.

White House officials said Wednesday that they wouldn’t confirm or comment on Obama’s private correspondence. But Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, said the administration was ready to talk if Iran was serious.

Rouhani’s election “presents an opportunity for Iran to act quickly to resolve the international community’s deep concerns over Iran’s nuclear program,” Meehan said. “Should this new government choose to engage substantially and seriously to meet its international obligations and find a peaceful solution to this issue, it will find a willing partner in the United States.”

News organizations closely tied to Iran’s ruling elite reported that in his letter, Obama proposed to “turn a new page” in relations, and held out a potential loosening of the economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy as part of an international effort to persuade Iran to give up nuclear development.

Obama urged Tehran to comply with the demands of the six world powers that have sought, unsuccessfully, to negotiate strict curbs on Iran’s production of enriched uranium. Iran denies it is seeking to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Obama’s letter was passed to Iranian officials in the final week of August, when Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman visited Tehran and met with Rouhani, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others, the reports said. Oman is close to both countries, and Qaboos has been eager to act as a mediator, even offering to hold U.S.-Iran talks in his country.

Iran replied with an undisclosed message, according to reports on the Tabnak website and the Fars News Agency. Both are linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military organization at the heart of the Iranian government.

It’s still unclear whether Tehran would give up uranium enrichment. It may be trying to drag out negotiations to avert more punishing economic sanctions while the country continues its drive to acquire nuclear capability, say U.S. officials and private analysts. Khamenei, the supreme leader, is considered extremely hostile to the United States.

But U.S. officials and experts say signs continue to accumulate that Iran intends to shift from a decade of stonewalling negotiations to at least a more open conversation.

Ray Takeyh, a former Obama administration advisor on Iran, said he believed the reported exchange of letters between Obama and Rouhani fit with other signals suggesting the two governments were serious about direct contact.

They “want to get together for talks, and perhaps for sustained ones,” said Takeyh, an Iran specialist at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations.

Takeyh said the White House outreach marked a shift from its position during international negotiations last year. At the time, U.S. officials pushed Iran to stop enriching uranium, ship its inventory of near-bomb-grade material out of the country, and close its deeply buried Fordow nuclear-enrichment facility.

If new talks take place, Takeyh said, the U.S. team must determine if Iran’s attempted image makeover suggests a willingness to give ground, or if it is aimed at evading the kind of oversight the West has been demanding.

“Maybe the plan is to rebuild the image and make themselves look like a trustworthy member of the international community,” he said. “Maybe the plan is to say: ‘You can trust us with a nuclear program.’”

Obama’s letter was probably made public by Iranian conservatives who are alarmed by Rouhani’s possible overtures and want to build public opposition to any concessions to the United States, analysts said. Though there is powerful public pressure for sanctions relief, elements of the conservative elite remain strongly opposed to concessions.

Zarif this week denied a report about the letters carried in Al Hayat, an Arabic-language newspaper based in London.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, an Iran specialist at Syracuse University, said Zarif’s denial “was probably a sign that he doesn’t want to be a target of the conservatives over this.” But Boroujerdi said he, too, believed the reports of the letters were credible.

Special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Washington contributed to this report.

Vladimir_Putin-6

Photo courtesy of wikipedia.org

By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times

He invoked God, the pope and the rule of law, and recalled a time when the United States and Russia were allies “and defeated the Nazis together.”

But don’t think for a moment that Vladimir Putin has lost his edge. In a bluntly worded commentary published in Thursday’s New York Times, the Russian president castigated the idea of American “exceptionalism,” essentially called the United States an international bully and said he “carefully studied” President Obama’s speech Tuesday to the nation on Syria, and determined that he disagreed with it.

Still, Putin said his “working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust,” and he welcomed Obama’s willingness to work with Russia on a plan to place Syria’s chemical weapons under international control.

“If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust,” he wrote. “It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”

It is unusual, but not unheard of, for a foreign leader to publish commentary in an American newspaper as a way of influencing U.S. public opinion. Putin began his piece by saying that the furor over Syrian chemical weapons “prompted me to speak directly to the American people and their political leaders.” He added, “It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.”

Putin warned that a unilateral U.S. military response to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons would undermine the United Nations and violate international law. “The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not,” he said — words that will no doubt be parsed by human rights campaigners in Russia who have accused Putin’s government of bending the law and court system to its own purposes.

In some of the most stinging criticism of the United States, Putin wrote that it was “alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States.” He added that “millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force.”

The Russian president ended with a critical discussion of Obama’s speech, in which the American president laid out the reasons for intervention in Syria but said he wanted to explore Russia’s idea for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. Obama also explained why the United States was uniquely equipped to act, and talked about its history of leadership in international crises.

“That’s what makes America different,” the president said. “That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Seizing on that, Putin said: “I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism. … It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. … We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”

Words seldom, if ever, heard from a Russian head of state.

To read the complete opinion piece by Putin, go here.

By Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli

Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON — President Obama did not appear to immediately change many minds in one crucial voting bloc that watched his national address Tuesday on Syria: Congress.

US President Barack Obama gives a live address to the nationLawmakers on both the left and right remained largely dug into their positions, or stayed undecided, after Obama urged the nation to back his bid to launch punitive missile strikes against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government for allegedly using chemical weapons against its people.

Obama said he had asked Congress to delay voting to authorize the use of force so the United Nations Security Council could consider a Russian diplomatic initiative to get Assad’s government to give up its chemical arsenal.

In a joint statement, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who are among the most outspoken in calling for a military response, said they regretted that Obama “did not lay out a clearer plan to test the seriousness of the Russian and Syrian proposal to transfer the Assad regime’s chemical weapons to international custody.”

Others seized on the Russian offer as a potential way out of the crisis.

A group of eight senators, including McCain and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), began writing an amended resolution that would authorize a U.S. military strike only if the U.N. failed to pass a resolution to empower the international community to remove Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.

“The president tonight made a forceful and persuasive case to the American people that confronting Syria’s use of chemical weapons will keep our people and our troops safer,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “I believe Congress can best support the goal of a diplomatic solution by approving a resolution that authorizes the use of force if Syria refuses to give up its chemical weapons.”

The White House outreach to both sides of the aisle picked up almost immediately after the speech.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who attended a meeting at the White House earlier Tuesday with Vice President Joe Biden, tweeted that he received a call from Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, only moments after the president finished his address to see if he had reconsidered.

He had not. “I am still a NO,” Chaffetz wrote.

Lawmakers are watching public opinion, and several sought input from viewers as they weighed the options before them.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the tea party conservative, said her office had been “flooded” with calls of opposition. She will vote against authorizing use of force.

“Pres. Obama’s speech didn’t convince me,” tweeted Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), among the most outspoken opponents of a U.S.-led military strike on Syria.

With next year’s midterm campaigns about to launch, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said earlier Tuesday that the 2014 elections would not be a referendum on the administration’s handling of Syria.

But Obama’s speech did little to sway potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbents in favor of a possible military strike.

Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.) said a military response was “something that we may ultimately need to consider” but that a diplomatic solution was preferable. “The choice to take military action is one of the most significant decisions a government can make and should only be used as a means of last resort,” he said.

Rep. Ann McLane Kuster (D-N.H.), a freshman who was an enthusiastic backer of Obama in the 2008 primaries, said she continued “to have very grave concerns about the unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention in the region.”

And Rep. Bruce Braley, the likely Democratic Senate nominee in Iowa, likewise said he was “still unconvinced that a limited U.S. military strike is the appropriate response to the atrocities committed in Syria.”

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