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Analysts emphasize policy consequences of anti-Western, anti-Jewish Khamenei speech

Posted by Albert Gersh - March 24, 2014

A speech last Friday by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei - in which the Shiite cleric questioned the existence of the Holocaust and committed to never recognizing the Jewish state - continued to draw commentary and analysis over the weekend and into Monday, with Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney noting that while she supported robust diplomacy with the Islamic Republic, she parted ways with fellow engagement advocates who "discount[ed] Khamenei's repeated indulgences in intolerance" or suggested that he was "a fading figure in Iran's convoluted power structure... [or] likely to refashion himself at this late date as a liberalizer." Instead Maloney emphasized that "Iran's ultimate authority harbors a vicious, conspiratorial, wicked… [and] erroneous… view of the West." Maloney also gestured to traditional Western readings of Iranian Holocaust denial as a proxy for regime intransigence, though some analysts have given far less attention to that indicator since the Obama administration began vigorous outreach to Tehran in the aftermath of President Hassan Rouhani's June 2013 election. Both Lebanon's Daily Star and Israel's Jerusalem Post noted that Khamenei used the same speech to equate how the West approaches Holocaust denial with how Iran treats anti-government dissidents. Human rights groups regularly blast Tehran for its treatment of regime critics, who are subjected to institutionalized arrests, tortures, rapes, and a recent a surge in executions. Top United Nations officials, including the body's Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran and Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have recently noted that there has been no fundamental change in Iran's human rights situation since Rouhani's election.

Arab League officials over the weekend predicted that the bloc's upcoming meeting in Kuwait will revolve around "rifts" dividing the Arab world - the phrase was used both by international wires and regional outlets - amid converging reports that a Friday visit by President Barack Obama to Saudi Arabia will see the President seeking to reassure Riyadh that Washington appreciates those dynamics and can be relied upon to side with its traditional allies. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy reemphasized the point on Monday, more explicitly highlighting a "deep" divide between Egypt and Qatar, with the countries split across two out of the three regional camps that analysts have seen emerging in recent years. A bloc of traditional U.S. allies - Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and most of the Gulf countries - has become aligned opposite a second bloc of Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Both are in conflict across various theaters with Iran and Iranian-backed proxies. Cairo - followed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - pulled its ambassador from Qatar over Doha's ties to the Brotherhood, and the Egyptians and the Saudis for good measure also formally outlawed the Islamist group as a terrorist organization. The divisions have complicated U.S. diplomacy toward the region across a range of issues. Traditional U.S. allies have taken to openly expressing frustration with the Obama administration over what they insist is reckless disregard for the dangers posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, with Saudis have publicly signaling that they intend to have a candid discussion with the President over Washington's approach to Egypt. The administration has been accused of being too quick to abandon then-strongman Hosni Mubarak amid Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring, which subsequently saw the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government. The concerns come alongside similar frustration regarding the administration's diplomacy toward Iran, which Riyadh views as marked by inappropriate eagerness to cut a deal over Tehran’s nuclear program. The State Department and the White House have been heavily courting the Arab League for support on among other things the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Secretary of State John Kerry has more specifically sought assistance in overcoming Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas's ongoing rejection of a U.S.-backed framework.

Reuters on Monday conveyed statements from Secretary of State John Kerry expressing his "hope" that the Ukraine crisis, which has pitted Washington against Russia, would not impact the international effort to degrade Syria's chemical weapons arsenal, a context in which the Obama administration had gambled heavily on extensive cooperation from the Kremlin. A separate Reuters report quoted Ahmet Uzumcu, head of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, noting that Syria might miss its final deadline for the destruction of that arsenal. Uzumcu was the first OPCW official to publicly air the possibility, though the assessment was not unexpected. Kerry's statements came after weeks of assurances from the State Department, made both to lawmakers and to journalists, assessing that the Russians would be able to "compartmentalize" hostilities in Crimea and continue cooperating with the West not just in Syria but also in Iran. Analysts had been skeptical of the claims, a view subsequently reinforced by Russian statements - issued last Wednesday by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov - threatening to "rais[e] the stakes" of events unfolding in Ukraine by altering Moscow's stance on Iran talks.

Turkish officials over the weekend and on Monday deepened their efforts to cut the country off from Twitter, despite being met with quite literally global ridicule last week for trying and conspicuously failing to stifle public use of the popular microblogging service. The country's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had vowed to "eradicate" Twitter. The effort was quickly characterized as designed to stifle discussion of a still-widening graft investigation that had long ago expanded to include top elites from Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP), including the Prime Minister and his family. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News reported Monday that Ankara's efforts to block Twitter had expanded to include the service's URL shortener t.co, "making it harder for those who successfully circumvent the ban reach the content shared elsewhere." Hurriyet had reported over the weekend on a previous series of moves designed to thwart efforts to circumvent the ban, including an IP-level block that defeated one popular way of sidestepping the restriction. From a strictly technical perspective Ankara's efforts are a non-starter: technological penetration in Turkey is too extensive, and the central government's control over that technology is too weak, for the ban to hold up. However Fadi Hakura, the manager of the Turkey Project at London's Chatham House think-tank, assessed today that Erdogan is unlikely to see his political support significantly eroded by the move. Hakura emphasized that "[w]hat the Twitter ban indicates is that the Turkish leadership psychology is incapable of tackling effectively the myriad serious political, economic and external challenges facing the country."

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