EU sets course for U.S. clash with law blocking Iran sanctions

The Guardian reports:

The EU has put itself on a collision course with the US over Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran, as major European firms started to pull out of the country to avoid being hit by sanctions.

In an attempt to shield EU companies doing business with Iran, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said he would turn to a plan last used to protect businesses working in Cuba before a US trade embargo was lifted on the Latin American country.

“We will begin the ‘blocking statute’ process, which aims to neutralise the extraterritorial effects of US sanctions in the EU. We must do it and we will do it tomorrow [Friday] morning at 10.30,” he said at the end of a summit in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.

The EU is seeking to keep Iran in the 2015 accord by safeguarding the economic benefits Tehran gained in return for giving up its nuclear programme.

The “blocking statute” is a 1996 regulation that prohibits EU companies and courts from complying with foreign sanctions laws and stipulates that no foreign court judgments based on these laws have any effect in the EU. [Continue reading…]

In rebuke of Trump, Tillerson says lies are a threat to democracy

The New York Times reports:

In a veiled but powerful rebuke of President Trump, former Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson warned on Wednesday that American democracy is threatened by a “growing crisis in ethics and integrity.”

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” he said in a commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.

Even small falsehoods and exaggerations are problematic, Mr. Tillerson said. (Mr. Trump is prone to both.)

“When we as people, a free people, go wobbly on the truth even on what may seem the most trivial matters, we go wobbly on America,” Mr. Tillerson said.

“If we do not as Americans confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both the public and private sector — and regrettably at times even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years,” Mr. Tillerson warned. [Continue reading…]

North Korea stands by its past assessment of John Bolton

The Washington Post reports:

Trump and his top aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, have repeatedly said that the United States wants the “complete verifiable irreversible denuclearization of North Korea” — a high standard that Pyongyang has previously balked at.

Bolton, known for his sharply hawkish views, has said that North Korea must commit to a disarmament similar to “Libya 2004.” He was undersecretary of state for arms control in 2004, when Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

But this is not a tempting model for North Korea. Seven years after surrendering his nuclear program, Gaddafi was overthrown, then brutally killed by opponents of his regime.

North Korea lashed out at Bolton, whom the regime derided as “human scum” while he worked in the George W. Bush administration, and at the suggestions that North Korea should be dealt with in the same way that the Bush administration dealt with Libya and Iraq.

“This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move[s] to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq, which had been collapsed due to the yielding of their countries to big powers,” Kim Gye Gwan said.

The “world knows too well that our country is neither Libya nor Iraq, which have met a miserable fate,” he said, harking back to North Korea’s previous criticism of Bolton. “We shed light on the quality of Bolton already in the past, and we do not hide a feeling of repugnance towards him,” the vice minister said. [Continue reading…]

Time reports:

With just one month until a scheduled sit-down with North Korea’s leader, President Donald Trump hasn’t set aside much time to prepare for meeting with Kim Jong Un, a stark contrast to the approach of past presidents.

“He doesn’t think he needs to,” said a senior administration official familiar with the President’s preparation. Aides plan to squeeze in time for Trump to learn more about Kim’s psychology and strategize on ways to respond to offers Kim may make in person, but so far a detailed plan hasn’t been laid out for getting Trump ready for the summit.

Even with North Korea threatening to scrap the meeting over long-planned U.S.-Korean military exercises, Trump’s aides in the White House and State Department are continuing to prepare briefing material in advance of the June 12 summit in Singapore. When asked Wednesday if he thinks Kim is bluffing, Trump responded, “We’ll see what happens.” He told reporters he still plans to insist on North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

Noura Erakat: Palestinians aren’t pawns of Hamas


In Gaza, Palestinians feel abandoned to their fate by an indifferent world

Ian Black writes:

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are desperate. Not only because they are burying their dead while marking the anniversary of the Nakba (catastrophe) of 1948 that saw their grandparents flee or expelled from homes in what is now Israel, but also because their lives under blockade are intolerable, as is the sense that they have been abandoned to their fate by an indifferent world.

Israel was their main enemy before and after the 1967 war. It unilaterally dismantled settlements and withdrew its forces from Gaza in 2005 but still controls its borders, airspace and waters.

Meanwhile Egypt’s crossing point at Rafah is often closed and Cairo uses access to put pressure on Hamas and the 2 million people in the territory it rules. Mahmoud Abbas, the West Bank-based Palestinian president, condemned Monday’s killings from Ramallah, but he is hostile too, withholding the salaries of Gazan Palestinian Authority employees because of a row over taxes and legitimacy dating back to Hamas’s takeover in 2007.

Efforts at reconciliation between Abbas’s Fatah movement and Hamas have got nowhere since a flurry of excitement last year. Abbas’s demand for disarmament was unacceptable to Hamas. In the 2014 war, when 2,300 Gazans including hundreds of civilians and Hamas fighters were killed, Abbas was accused of nodding and winking at Israel to continue attacking and thus weaken his rivals.

Abbas’s popularity has hit rock bottom in the last few months, and not only because of his authoritarian style. The overwhelming reason is that the Palestinian national liberation movement he has led since Yasser Arafat’s death in 2004, with a strategy of non-violence, negotiations and, crucially, security coordination with Israel, has failed to liberate anything. [Continue reading…]

Iraq’s shock election result may be turning point for Iran

Simon Tisdall writes:

The unexpectedly poor showing of Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, in parliamentary elections has dealt a blow to US influence in the country. It was a poor return for American backing for the Baghdad government’s drive to extirpate Islamic State and regain lost territory.

But the bigger loser may be Iran, whose allies in Iraq’s Shia militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces were pushed into second place by Moqtada al-Sadr, the veteran nationalist. Put simply, Sadr believes Iraqis should run Iraqi affairs – not Washington, not Tehran and not their proxies.

The pressing question now, for Iraqis and the wider Arab world, is whether the election marks the high watermark of Iranian influence that has grown steadily across the region since the 2003 US invasion. Recent events have blown large holes in the prevailing narrative of an inexorable Iranian advance. In short, have we reached “peak Iran”?

Evidence the tide may be turning emerged last week after Donald Trump, in effect, tore up the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed sweeping sanctions.

Tehran’s fractured leadership seemed caught off-guard by the full force of the US president’s denunciation. It has failed so far to articulate a clear response. [Continue reading…]

Al Jazeera reports:

Commenting on the results, Rend al-Rahim, a former Iraqi ambassador to the United States told Al Jazeera: “The ascendancy of the list sponsored by al-Sadr shows that anti-establishment sentiment and anti-corruption have driven the choice of most voters.”

But according to Rahim, Sadr’s rise to victory was also based on emotionally-driven voting.

“None of the lists had an electoral programme that outlined priorities and a plan of action. All used vague terms to lure voters. Many of the lists also used populist and demagogic tactics that played on the emotions of voters.

“The success of Sairoon and Fatah clearly show that voters were ideologically and emotionally driven,” said Al-Rahim.

Move away from Iran, US?
Unlike Abadi, a rare ally of both the US and Iran, Sadr is an opponent of both countries, which have wielded influence in Iraq since a US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003 and thrust the Shia majority into power.

Sadr has led two uprisings against US forces in Iraq and is one of the few Shia leaders to distance himself from Iran.

He has instead sought to broaden his regional support, meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah last year.

Because Sadr did not stand as a candidate and therefore cannot head the government, he appears set to play kingmaker.

Even Sadr’s bloc might not necessarily form the next government, as the other winning blocs would have to agree on the nomination.

In a 2010 election, Vice President Ayad Allawi’s group won the largest number of seats, but he was blocked from becoming premier for which he blamed Tehran.

In a similar fashion, Iran has already publicly stated it will not allow Sadr’s bloc to govern. [Continue reading…]

Iran, Saudi Arabia and modern hatreds

Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel write:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear agreement is likely to add fuel to the fires of sectarianism in the Middle East.

From the cataclysmic wars in Syria and Yemen to the volatile assemblages of Iraq and Lebanon, Sunni-Shiite relations are at a breaking point. But the cause of this spike in tensions is recent, not ancient. It is rooted in politics, not piety.

To stop it from aggravating, we need a clearer understanding of the forces driving sectarian conflict. The Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry is central to it, and the Trump administration — in both its rhetoric and its policies — is aggravating rather than ameliorating it.

Saudi Arabia and Israel had aggressively discouraged the Obama administration from pursuing the Iran nuclear deal. The Saudis were thrilled when Mr. Trump — who attacked the Iran deal during his campaign — was elected. Last May, during his visit to Riyadh, Mr. Trump echoed the Saudi view that Iran alone was to blame for all of the region’s troubles and must be stopped at any costs.

Ditching the Iran nuclear accord should be seen as a coordinated United States-Israeli-Saudi shift toward isolating and confronting Iran.

The conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia is widely described — by columnists, policymakers and journalists — as rooted in a primordial and intractable hatred that, as a Times opinion writer put it, goes back to “the seventh-century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis.”

Even President Barack Obama, who staked a lot of political capital on the nuclear deal with Iran, invoked the specter of “ancient sectarian differences” to explain the turmoil in the Middle East. In his final State of the Union address, Mr. Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the region are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.”

Projecting current conditions back and imagining they are this way because they have always been this way is a grave mistake. This convenient, Orientalist narrative has become the new conventional wisdom in the West — one with very real political consequences. [Continue reading…]

Ecuador spent millions on spy operation for Julian Assange

The Guardian reports:

Ecuador bankrolled a multimillion-dollar spy operation to protect and support Julian Assange in its central London embassy, employing an international security company and undercover agents to monitor his visitors, embassy staff and even the British police, according to documents seen by the Guardian.

Over more than five years, Ecuador put at least $5m (£3.7m) into a secret intelligence budget that protected the WikiLeaks founder while he had visits from Nigel Farage, members of European nationalist groups and individuals linked to the Kremlin.

Other guests included hackers, activists, lawyers and journalists.

In the lead-up to the US presidential election in 2016, his whistleblowing website WikiLeaks released several batches of emails connected to the Democratic party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Last month, the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit against the Russian government, Donald Trump’s campaign and WikiLeaks, alleging a conspiracy to help swing the election for Trump. [Continue reading…]

Israelis kill 58 Palestinian protesters, over 2,700 wounded, as U.S. opens Jerusalem embassy

NPR reports:

Tens of thousands of Palestinians are protesting the opening of the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and Israeli army forces have killed 52 protesters, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The ministry also says some 2,400 people have been hurt in demonstrations and clashes.

More than 35,000 people are protesting along the Gaza border, the Israel Defense Forces say. The army says it killed three protesters who were trying to set a bomb next to the security fence in Rafah. It’s the most deaths in one day the area has seen since the summer of 2014, when more than 2,000 Palestinians died.

The number of casualties rose steadily on Monday, as the opening of the American embassy at 4 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET) neared. The health ministry published a list of the dead, showing that their ages ranged from 14 to 39 years old.

As news of the violence spread, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres – who is slated to visit President Trump in Washington on Friday – said he is “particularly worried” about what he called “the high number of people killed,” according to the AP.

The embassy’s controversial opening comes as Israel marks its creation 70 years ago – an event that Palestinians refer to as Nakba – Catastrophe – because that development also turned more than 700,000 Palestinians into refugees.

“A great day for Israel!” President Trump tweeted on Monday. He also told his followers to watch Fox News for coverage of the embassy’s opening.

Discussing the dozens of deaths today, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that the rising number “doesn’t indicate anything – just as the number of Nazis who died in the World War doesn’t make Nazism something you can explain or understand. There is one truth.” [Continue reading…]

Chemi Shalev writes:

The more the casualties in Gaza mounted, the more those assembled at the site of the new American embassy in Jerusalem seemed arrogant, detached and mainly devoid of compassion. As more and more reports and tweets came in about the mounting casualties in Gaza’s day of bloodshed, the worst since the 2014 Protective Edge operation, the more the claim that the embassy move could actually help achieve peace seemed both cynical and ridiculous.

The knockout to Israel’s image was built-in in the script. When a modern, sophisticated and armed-to-the-teeth army confronts unarmed masses sporting kites and stones, the propaganda debacle is inevitable. Even the best hasbara points – sorely lacking in this case, except for domestic consumption – cannot contend with so many killed and wounded. [Continue reading…]

How the idea of return has shaped the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for 70 years

Nathan Thrall writes:

On the afternoon of May 14, 1948, hours before Britain’s Royal Navy flotilla would sail from Haifa harbor, marking the end of Britain’s mandatory rule over Palestine, leaders of the local Jewish community hastily assembled at the Tel Aviv Museum to hear the head of the Zionist leadership, David Ben-Gurion, declare, “The Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people. …We hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State … the State of Israel.” Palestine was then in the midst of a civil war. The U.N. had decided, six months earlier, to partition the land into an Arab and a Jewish state. The Jews of Palestine accepted the plan, which gave them a majority of the land despite their making up less than a third of its inhabitants. The Arabs rejected it.

But the Jews were better organized and better armed. By May 14, they had expelled or encouraged the flight of some three hundred thousand Palestinians. The war that followed ended in 1949 with Israel expanding its boundaries to 78 percent of what had been Palestine. Within that territory, eighty percent of the Arab population had been exiled and Jews now made up a majority. To preserve it, Israel prevented the non-Jewish refugees from returning, in defiance of the U.N.’s call to allow them to come home.

Both Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism came to be defined by the idea of return. Israel, which was founded on the principle that Jews had a 2,000-year-old connection to the land and a right to return to it, established unlimited immigration for any Jew in the world—regardless of national origin. At the same time, Israel denied return to Palestinians who had been exiled from homes they inhabited in their own lifetimes. [Continue reading…]