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Mon, Apr 21, 2014

 
  Leader: Strife Among Muslims Is Haram

TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei here on Sunday warned against plots hatched by the enemies to create rifts among different Muslim sects.
"The goal of the enemy is to bring Islam to its knees and prevent the Shia community from becoming a role model," Ayatollah Khamenei told a group of eulogists.
The Leader said Shiism has access to unique possibilities and devices to confront the enemy's plots.
Ayatollah Khamenei touched on attempts by the enemies to harm Muslim unity and sow discord between Shia and Sunni Muslims. "Creating rifts among Muslims is like a sword in the hands of the enemies of Islam," the Leader said.
“I have said many times that religious hostilities should not be provoked because it is clear that creating divisions among Muslims will play into the hands of the enemies of Islam.”
Ayatollah Khamenei said, "Any statement or action that ignites the fire of strife among Muslims and insults the sanctities of any Muslim group … (which) only serves the camp of blasphemy and polytheism, is disloyalty to Islam and is haram (forbidden)."
The Leader said the Islamic Ummah should reinvigorate its intrinsic ability and power, adding one of the most important factors in this regard is unity, convergence and focus on commonalities.
Separately, President Hassan Rouhani said women are not treated as second-class citizens in Islam.
In a speech marking Women's Day in Iran, Rouhani indicated more had to be done but he said the West did not offer a model that had to be followed.
"I, as the head of the government, confess there are still so many deficiencies with regards to the vindication of women's rights," Rouhani told a conference attended by members of Iran's female elite, in remarks that were warmly applauded.
"Based on the Islamic criteria, we neither consider men as the first sex nor the women as the second sex ... they both have the same human dignity and none is superior," he added.
Arguing that it was misguided to think a woman's place should be limited to the home, he questioned why "some people think the presence of women is a threat?", noting that women are the guardians of their own moral standards, not men.
"Is that possible to corner and marginalize the role of half of the society? Women should enjoy equal opportunities, security and social rights," he said.
"We will not accept the culture of sexual discrimination especially for women."
Ayatollah Khamenei meanwhile agreed to pardon or reduce prison terms of a group of female prisoners on the occasion of the Women's Day.
The pardon was granted following a request by Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani.

***

West Escalates Military Buildup:
Ukraine Deal in Tatters


SLAVYANSK (Dispatches) -- A deadly gunfight in a town in restive east Ukraine on Sunday shattered a fragile Easter truce, with Russia declaring it was "outraged" at the return to violence in the crisis-hit former Soviet republic.
Three pro-Russian militants and one attacker were killed in a firefight at a roadblock close to the separatist-held town of Slavyansk, said a local pro-Kremlin rebel leader, Vyatcheslav Ponomarev.
Vladimir, a masked 20-year-old pro-Russian rebel who was at the barricade, told AFP: "Four cars pulled up to our roadblock around 1:00am (2200 GMT Saturday). We wanted to conduct a check, and then they opened fire on us with automatic weapons."
He said there were around 20 attackers, and confirmed the three rebel deaths, but was not sure of casualties on the other side.
An AFP photographer saw the bodies of two dead militants laid out in a truck near the scene.
The identity of the assailants, who escaped before militant reinforcements arrived, was not known.
The Ukrainian interior ministry confirmed there was an "armed clash" but gave a toll of one dead and three injured. It said police were investigating.
The gunfight broke days of relative calm.
Western-backed authorities in Kiev had announced they were suspending military operations to oust the rebels over Easter, which ends Monday. The last deadly clash was last Thursday, when three pro-Russian militants were killed by Ukrainian soldiers when they tried to attack a military base in the southeast port city of Mariupol.
Russia's foreign ministry quickly seized upon the latest violence, saying in a statement that Moscow was "outraged at this provocation by the fighters".
It urged Kiev to abide by an accord signed in Geneva on Thursday by Ukraine, Russia, the United States and the European Union calling for "illegal armed groups" to lay down their weapons and end the occupation of public sites.
Moscow blamed Sunday's deaths of those it called "innocent civilians" on the Right Sector, an extreme-right group that was at the vanguard of protests that ousted Ukraine's pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February. Locals, it said, had found the attackers' cars containing weapons, satellite maps and Right Sector business cards.
But a Right Sector spokesman in Kiev dismissed the charge as "propaganda" and "lies".
"This is a clear provocation by the Kremlin," spokesman Artyom Skoropadsky told AFP.
The deputy head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Viktoria Syumar, also claimed Moscow was orchestrating the violence to try to portray Kiev as having lost control of the east.
Even Easter, she said on her Facebook page, "does not stop Russian propaganda from carrying out an information war".
The stalled implementation of the Geneva agreement threatened to deepen the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
With pro-Kremlin rebels refusing to comply with its terms, Washington has been ratcheting up pressure on Moscow, which it sees as pulling the strings in the Ukrainian insurgency.
U.S. President Barack Obama has threatened to impose more sanctions on Moscow if no de-escalation occurs.
He also is preparing to send ground troops to Ukraine's neighbor Poland, according to a report in The Washington Post newspaper.
The New York Time said a small contingent of U.S. soldiers will deploy to Poland and Estonia for a series of upcoming ground exercises aimed at reassuring allies shaken by Russian intervention in neighboring Ukraine.
The U.S. is planning to send a company sized army element of roughly 150 troops to conduct drills with allies, spanning roughly two weeks respectively in both Poland and Estonia but more details are expected to be announced next week, The Times reported.
On Wednesday, NATO said it would increase its presence in the region both on land, sea and air. Measures include plans for more fighter patrols over the Baltic nations and warships in the Baltic Sea and eastern Mediterranean.
During the past two months, the U.S. has bolstered its presence in the region in a variety of ways as the crisis in and around Ukraine has unfolded. Steps have included the deployment of 12 F-16 fighter jets to Poland for more frequent training exercises.
Russia already has tens of thousands of troops massed on Ukraine's eastern border in what NATO fears is a state of readiness to invade.
In the midst of the Cold War-style tensions, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which is tasked with monitoring the Geneva accord, said it was sending a high-ranking team to east Ukraine on Sunday.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier urged all parties to abide by the Geneva agreement, warning in an interview with newspaper Bild am Sonntag "there won't be many more chances for a peaceful solution".
The sudden spike in tensions put paid to attempts by some ordinary Ukrainians to embrace Easter as a time of peace across their country.
Pope Francis also pleaded for peace in his Sunday Easter prayer. "We ask you to enlighten and inspire the initiatives that promote peace in Ukraine," the Catholic leader prayed.
But any efforts to that end were undermined overnight when the Orthodox religious leaders in Kiev and Moscow traded barbs over the situation.
Kiev's Patriarch Filaret thundered to the faithful that Russia was an "enemy" whose "attack" on Ukraine was doomed to failure because it was evil and contrary to God's will.
In Moscow, the patriarch of the Russian Church, Kirill, led a prayer for Ukraine in which he called on God in turn to put "an end to the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia". Kirill said Ukraine was "spiritually and historically" at one with Russia, even if politically separate, and he prayed it would soon have leaders who were "legitimately elected".
Russia refuses to recognize the authority of Kiev's pro-Western government.
In comments to be broadcast on U.S. television Sunday, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk lashed out at Russian President Vladimir Putin for having a "dream to restore the Soviet Union".
Putin himself has blown hot and cold on the crisis, from threatening -- saying he "hoped" he would not have to invade Ukraine -- to conciliatory -- saying "no obstacle" existed to better relations with the West.
Washington has warned Moscow that Ukraine is in a "pivotal period".
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that "full and immediate compliance" was needed within "the next few days".
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to make a visit to Kiev on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a poll conducted by Kiev's Institute for International Sociology suggested just over half of the Ukrainians in the eastern Donetsk region were against coming again under Russian rule, while over a quarter were in favor.

***

Gov't Set to Implement Subsidy Plan:
Rial Volatility 'Short-Term'

TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- Iranian central bank Governor Valiollah Seif said Sunday recent weakness in the country’s currency, the rial, is out of step with “positive” economic developments.
The rial weakened to 32,000 rials against the U.S. dollar at 12:00 p.m. in Tehran Sunday, from 31,750 a day before, taking the decline since April 12 to 3.75%, according to figures compiled by Daily Rates for Gold Coins & Foreign Currencies, a Facebook page used by traders and companies in Iran and abroad.
“The currency’s fluctuation in recent days is not in line with positive signs regarding the economy,” Seif said, according to a statement posted on the bank’s website.
The depreciation reflects “opinions that aren’t based on correct information” and are fueling short-term volatility, Seif said.
The Tehran-based Donya-e-Eqtesad newspaper said that there is speculation in the market of a shortage of foreign currency in the country.
Iran’s foreign ministry last week said the government had $2.55 billion of unfrozen assets as part of an interim deal with world powers in November. The amount, which consists of more than half of a total of $4.2 billion to be released, have been deposited in the central bank, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi said.
Meanwhile, President Hassan Rouhani said the second phase of Iran's subsidy reform plan to wean the country off food, energy and fuel subsidies will begin within the next few days.
"We have called on people to register for receiving cash to compensate for the removal of subsidies. The law stipulates that those who do not need cash subsidies should give up voluntarily," Rouhani said.
Once the registration process is terminated, the government will start implementing the second phase of the plan, he said.
Registration to identify families, who are eligible to receive cash subsidy, started on April 9 and was to finish on Sunday.
The administration of former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad implemented the first stage of the plan until the end of 2010. In the first stage, the government paid 45,500 rials, about $14.3 based on recent market exchange rate in Iran, each month to almost all citizens to compensate for a partial cut of subsidies.
By implementing the second stage of the plan, it is estimated that the government will save 480 trillion rials (about $15 billion) in revenues in the current Iranian calendar year which ends in March 2015.
Iranian lawmakers approved a bill in February according to which cash payments in the second phase will only be given to low-income families. The parliament gave the administration authority to decide the amount of cash subsidy payments that will be given to the target groups.
An advisor to Rouhani said earlier this month that the implementation of the second phase of the subsidy reform plan will not lead to a sharp rise in prices.
"Fuel prices are planned to be raised by 60% on the average but it will not lead to a hike in the inflation rate," Muhammad Kordbacheh was quoted as saying.


****




Swiss MPs Discuss Expansion of Iran Ties

TEHRAN (IRNA) – Iranian and Swiss MPs discussed ways of expanding relations in a meeting here on Sunday.
Member of Swiss Federal Assembly Luzi Stamm said sanctions on Iran are not acceptable, adding the measures contravene his country's policy of moderation. The Swiss MPs arrived are visiting the Islamic Republic to discuss bilateral ties and explore grounds for cooperation. Stamm hoped communications and diplomatic shuttles between the Iranian and Swiss parliamentary officials will increase in the future.


Araqchi: Next Nuclear Talks in New York


TEHRAN (Dispatches) -- The next round of expert-level talks over Iran's nuclear energy program will be held in New York, senior negotiator Abbas Araqchi said on Sunday.
Araqchi said the talks will be held along the sidelines of a meeting about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May. This would be the first time in years that Iran and the West would hold talks in New York. Araqchi said a final deal has to guarantee Iran’s right to nuclear technology in line with the NPT, adding the P5+1 will recognize Iran's nuclear rights in return for the country's confidence-building measures.



****


How U.S. Started a New 'Cold War'


WASHINGTON AND NEW YORK (Reuters) -- In September 2001, as the U.S. reeled from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vladimir Putin supported Washington's imminent invasion of Afghanistan in ways that would have been inconceivable during the Cold War.
During Putin's visit to President George W. Bush's Texas ranch two months later, the U.S. leader, speaking at a local high school, declared his Russian counterpart "a new style of leader, a reformer…, a man who's going to make a huge difference in making the world more peaceful, by working closely with the United States".
For a moment, it seemed, the distrust and antipathy of the Cold War were fading.
Then, just weeks later, Bush announced that the United States was withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, so that it could build a system in Eastern Europe to protect NATO allies and U.S. bases from Iranian missile attack. In a nationally televised address, Putin warned that the move would undermine arms control and nonproliferation efforts.
"This step has not come as a surprise to us," Putin said. "But we believe this decision to be mistaken."
As Russia masses tens of thousands of troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border, Putin is thwarting what the Kremlin says is an American plot to surround Russia with hostile neighbors. Experts said he is also promoting "Putinism" - a conservative, ultra-nationalist form of state capitalism - as a global alternative to Western democracy.
Officials from the administrations of Presidents Bush and Barack Obama said American officials initially overestimated their potential areas of cooperation with Putin. Then, through a combination of overconfidence, inattention and occasional clumsiness, Washington contributed to a deep spiral in relations with Moscow.
Bush and Putin's post-2001 camaraderie foundered on a core dispute: Russia's relationship with its neighbors. In November 2002, Bush backed NATO's invitation to seven nations - including former Soviet republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania - to begin talks to join the Western alliance. In 2004, with Bush as a driving force, the seven Eastern European nations joined NATO.
Putin and other Russian officials asked why NATO continued to grow when the enemy it was created to fight, the Soviet Union, had ceased to exist. And they asked what NATO expansion would do to counter new dangers, such as terrorism and proliferation.
"This purely mechanical expansion does not let us face the current threats," Putin said, "and cannot allow us to prevent such things as the terrorist attacks in Madrid or restore stability in Afghanistan".
Thomas E. Graham, who served as Bush's senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, said a larger effort should have been made to create a new post-Soviet, European security structure that replaced NATO and included Russia.
"What we should have been aiming for - and what we should be aiming for at this point," Graham said, "is a security structure that's based on three pillars: the United States, a more or less unified Europe, and Russia."
But Vice President Dick Cheney, Senator John McCain and other conservatives, as well as hawkish Democrats, remained suspicious of Russia and eager to expand NATO. They argued that Moscow should not be given veto power over which nations could join the alliance, and that no American president should rebuff demands from Eastern European nations to escape Russian dominance.
Another core dispute between Bush and Putin related to democracy. What Bush and other American officials saw as democracy spreading across the former Soviet bloc, Putin saw as pro-American regime change.
The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, without UN authorization and over the objections of France, Germany and Russia, was a turning point for Putin. He said the war made a mockery of American claims of promoting democracy abroad and upholding international law.
Putin was also deeply skeptical of U.S. efforts to nurture democracy in the former Soviet bloc, where the State Department and American nonprofit groups provided training and funds to local civil-society groups. In public speeches, he accused the United States of meddling.
In late 2003, street protests in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, known as the Rose Revolution, led to the election of a pro-Western leader. Four months later, street protests in Ukraine that became known as the Orange Revolution resulted in a pro-Western president taking office there.
Putin saw both developments as American-backed plots and slaps in the face, so soon after his assistance in Afghanistan, according to senior U.S. officials.
In 2006, Bush and Putin's sparring over democracy intensified. In a press conference at the first G-8 summit hosted by Russia, the two presidents had a testy exchange. Bush said that the United States was promoting freedom in Iraq, which was engulfed in violence. Putin openly mocked him.
"We certainly would not want to have the same kind of democracy as they have in Iraq," Putin said, smiling as the audience erupted into laughter, "I will tell you quite honestly."
Bush tried to laugh off the remark. "Just wait," he replied, referring to Iraq.
Graham said that the Bush administration's approach slighted Moscow. "We missed some opportunities in the Bush administration's initial years to put this on a different track," Graham said. "And then later on, some of our actions, intentional or not, sent a clear message to Moscow that we didn't care."
Bush's relationship with Putin unraveled in 2008. In February, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia with the support of the United States - a step that Russia, a longtime supporter of Serbia, had been trying to block diplomatically for more than a decade. In April, Bush won support at a NATO summit in Bucharest for the construction of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
Bush called on NATO to give Ukraine and Georgia a so-called Membership Action Plan, a formal process that would put each on a path toward eventually joining the alliance. France and Germany blocked him and warned that further NATO expansion would spur an aggressive Russian stance when Moscow regained power.
In the end, the alliance simply issued a statement saying the two countries "will become members of NATO". That compromise risked the worst of both worlds - antagonizing Moscow without giving Kiev and Tbilisi a roadmap to join NATO.
The senior U.S. official said these steps amounted to "three train wrecks" from Putin's point of view, exacerbating the Russian leader's sense of victimization. "Doing all three of those things in kind of close proximity - Kosovo independence, missile defense and the NATO expansion decisions - sort of fed his sense of people trying to take advantage of Russia," he said.
In August 2008, Putin struck back. After Georgia launched an offensive to regain control of the breakaway, pro-Russian region of South Ossetia, Putin launched a military operation that expanded Russian control of South Ossetia and a second breakaway area, Abkhazia.
The Bush administration, tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, publicly protested but declined to intervene militarily in Georgia. Putin emerged as the clear winner and achieved his goal of standing up to the West.
After his 2008 election victory, Barack Obama carried out a sweeping review of Russia policy. Its primary architect was Michael McFaul, a Stanford University professor and vocal proponent of greater democracy in Russia who took the National Security Council position previously held by Thomas Graham.
In a recent interview, McFaul said that when Obama's new national security team surveyed the administration's primary foreign policy objectives, they found that few involved Russia. Only one directly related to bilateral relations with Moscow: a new nuclear arms reduction treaty.
The result, McFaul said, was that relations with Moscow were seen as important in terms of achieving other foreign policy goals, and not as important in terms of Russia itself.
"So that was our approach," he said.
Obama's new Russia strategy was called "the reset". In July 2009, he traveled to Moscow to start implementing it.
In an interview with the Associated Press a few days before leaving Washington, Obama chided Putin, who had become Russia's prime minister in 2008 after reaching his two-term constitutional limit as president. Obama said the United States was developing a "very good relationship" with the man Putin had anointed as his successor, Dmitry Medvedev, and accused Putin of using "Cold War approaches" to relations with Washington.
"I think Putin has one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new," Obama said.
In Moscow, Obama spent five hours meeting with Medvedev and only one hour meeting with Putin, who was still widely seen as the country's real power.
In 2011, Putin accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of secretly organizing street demonstrations after disputed Russian parliamentary elections. Putin said Clinton had encouraged "mercenary" Kremlin foes. And he claimed that foreign governments had provided "hundreds of millions" of dollars to Russian opposition groups.
"She set the tone for some opposition activists, gave them a signal, they heard this signal and started active work," Putin said.
In 2012, Putin was elected to a third term as president and launched a sweeping crackdown on dissent and re-centralization of power. McFaul, then the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, publicly criticized the moves in speeches and Twitter posts.
Andrew Weiss, a Russia expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that clashes over democracy ended any hopes of U.S.-Russian rapprochement, as they had in the Bush administration.
"That fight basically vaporizes the relationship," said Weiss.
In 2013, U.S.-Russian relations plummeted. In June, Putin granted asylum to National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. Obama, in turn, canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin in Moscow that fall. It was the first time a U.S. summit with the Kremlin had been canceled in 50 years.
Last fall, demonstrators in Kiev began demanding that Ukraine move closer to the European Union. At the time, the Obama White House was deeply skeptical of Putin and paying little attention to the former Soviet bloc, according to Weiss. White House officials had come to see Russia as a foreign policy dead end, not a source of potential successes.
Deferring to European officials, the Obama administration backed a plan that would have moved Ukraine closer to the EU and away from a pro-Russian economic bloc created by Putin. Critics said it was a mistake to make Ukraine choose sides.
Jack F. Matlock, who served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from 1987 to 1991, said that years of escalating protests by Putin made it clear he believed the West was surrounding him with hostile neighbors. And for centuries, Russian leaders have viewed a friendly Ukraine as vital to Moscow's defense.
"The real red line has always been Ukraine," Matlock said. "When you begin to poke them in the most sensitive area, unnecessarily, about their security, you are going to get a reaction that makes them a lot less cooperative."
American experts said it was vital for the U.S. to establish a new long-term strategy toward Russia that does not blame the current crisis solely on Putin. Matthew Rojansky, a Russia expert at the Wilson Center, argued that demonizing Putin reflected the continued failure of American officials to recognize Russia's power, interest and importance.
"Putin is a reflection of Russia," Rojansky said. "This weird notion that Putin will go away and there will suddenly be a pliant Russia is false."

*Editor's note: Some parts of the article have been omitted for brevity.