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Aug 4, 2010

Discontent seen behind “attack” on Iran president

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Economic or ethnic discontent may lie behind an apparently amateurish attack on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s convoy on Wednesday — if such it was — rather than any plot by militants or foreign foes to kill him.

Ahmadinejad, one of Iran’s most divisive leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, is defying tougher sanctions over his country’s nuclear programme, but is under fire from reformist and conservative critics of his foreign and economic policies.

Aug 4, 2010

Analysis: Discontent seen behind “attack” on Iran president

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Economic or ethnic discontent may lie behind an apparently amateurish attack on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s convoy Wednesday — if such it was — rather than any plot by militants or foreign foes to kill him.

Ahmadinejad, one of Iran’s most divisive leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, is defying tougher sanctions over his country’s nuclear program, but is under fire from reformist and conservative critics of his foreign and economic policies.

Aug 4, 2010

Discontent seen behind "attack" on Iran president

BEIRUT, Aug 4 (Reuters) – Economic or ethnic discontent may lie behind an apparently amateurish attack on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s convoy on Wednesday — if such it was — rather than any plot by militants or foreign foes to kill him.

Ahmadinejad, one of Iran’s most divisive leaders since the 1979 Islamic revolution, is defying tougher sanctions over his country’s nuclear programme, but is under fire from reformist and conservative critics of his foreign and economic policies.

His disputed re-election in June 2009 provoked huge street protests that were crushed by security forces led by the elite Revolutionary Guards. Defeated candidates Mirhossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi always urged their supporters to avoid violence.

A source in the president’s office said Ahmadinejad survived unhurt when a home-made explosive device was thrown at his motorcade as it drove through the western city of Hamadan.

Some Iranian media denied there had been any attack at all, or sharply toned down their initial accounts of the blast.

The semi-official Fars news agency, after first reporting a man had hurled a home-made grenade, later said a firecracker had been set off by a man who was "excited" to see the president.

There was no official word on who was behind the bang and no claim of responsibility. Speculation about possible culprits ranged from foreign intelligence services to Iranian ethnic militants and other domestic opponents of Ahmadinejad.

Theodore Karasik, a security analyst at the Dubai-based INEGMA group, linked the incident to "growing discontent" with Ahmadinejad’s rule, even among some of his core constituents.

"This happened in a provincial area where he’s supposed to be more popular. If he gets people riled up there, then that’s not good," he said. "Now the conservatives are turning on him because of the economy and the position Iran is in because of the fourth wave of (United Nations) sanctions."

There have been no previous confirmed attempts on the president’s life. In December 2005, Iranian authorities denied reports that Ahmadinejad had been the target of assassins in the lawless southeastern region of Baluchistan.



SOLO ATTACK?

The Iranian leader may blame outside powers such as Israel and the United States, but the small scale of Wednesday’s blast suggests that even a disgruntled loner could have done it.

"It’s not well-organised. It’s an individual attempt, not a group," said Dubai-based security analyst Mustafa Alani, who pointed to ethnic Kurd or Baluch discontent as a possible cause.

He predicted that Ahmadinejad would seize on the affair as evidence that he is being targeted by foreign enemies. "They (the Iranians) will pin it on the Americans or Israelis."

Ahmadinejad declared this week that the Israelis had him in their sights. "The stupid Zionists have hired mercenaries to assassinate me," he told a conference in Tehran on Monday.

The populist Iranian leader has toured the provinces more than any of his predecessors, often offering cash, loans or local development projects to consolidate his support.

"We will have to see whether this is serious enough that he cuts back doing that," said Gala Riani, Middle East analyst at IHS Global Insight. "There have been occasions when people have thrown things at him or heckled him, but that has been it."

Iran, the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter, is feeling economic pain as the United States and the European Union add their own sanctions to milder U.N. measures adopted in June.

Tehran said last week it was ready to return to talks with Western powers on a nuclear fuel swap, shortly afer the EU had announced steps to block oil and gas investment.

Although Ahmadinejad faces domestic grumbles over inflation and unemployment, he enjoys the broad support of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the powerful Revolutionary Guards.

"Although this incident is significant in itself, it should not destabilise Iran," said Marie Bos, Middle East analyst at Control Risks in London, arguing that a local group without international connections was most likely to have been behind it.

Oil markets shrugged off the fuss.

"I expect that any backlash there might be from Ahmadinejad will be far more important to the oil market than the initial attack itself," said Paul Harris, head of natural resources risk management at Bank of Ireland. "You would expect the oil market to react if there is any attempt to link the attack to the current tensions with the West and the ramping-up of sanctions."

The Iranian authorities have so far reacted in a guarded fashion to the motorcade incident, whether trival or not. Their opponents in exile predictably saw it as a sign of unrest.

"It is obviously a reflection of the fact that all is not well and control is not total, contrary to conventional wisdom," said Mehrdad Khonsari, a secular Iranian dissident in London.






Aug 2, 2010

Analysis: Calm on Israel-Lebanon front belied by talk of war

BEIRUT (Reuters) – South Lebanon has been calm in the four years since Israel’s 34-day war with Hezbollah, with both sides apparently reluctant to start a new conflict.

Yet the tranquility, which has encouraged a tourism and real estate boom in Lebanon, may prove deceptive.

Aug 2, 2010

Calm on Israel-Lebanon front belied by talk of war

BEIRUT, Aug 2 (Reuters) – South Lebanon has been calm in the four years since Israel’s 34-day war with Hezbollah, with both sides apparently reluctant to start a new conflict.

Yet the tranquillity, which has encouraged a tourism and real estate boom in Lebanon, may prove deceptive.

"Of course no one in the region is calling for war. But a pre-war mood is growing," wrote Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Israel, Hezbollah and its close allies Syria and Iran all say they espouse peace but are preparing for battle. Belligerent talk, even if intended to deter, is fuelling an ugly atmosphere.

Tension over Iran’s disputed nuclear ambitions and a sense of despair about prospects for peace between Israel and Syria or the Palestinians also feed war fears in a region where U.S. power to influence events looks increasingly challenged.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) described the standoff between Israel and an "axis of resistance" as "exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous" in a report issued on Monday.

"The build-up in military forces and threat of an all-out war that would spare neither civilians nor civilian infrastructure, together with the worrisome prospect of its regionalisation, are effectively deterring all sides."

Israel, wary of any repeat of its 2006 failure to suppress Hezbollah, might also attack Syria next time. "The Israelis would want to send a tough message to the Syrians to cut off Hezbollah arms supply lines," said a senior diplomat in Beirut.

Just as Syria might get sucked into a new Israeli-Hezbollah round, Hezbollah would almost certainly find itself fighting Israel again in the event of any Israeli strike on Iran.

"Today, none of the parties can soberly contemplate the prospect of a conflict that would be uncontrolled, unprecedented and unscripted," said the ICG.

Yet Israel and its enemies have been talking incessantly about a coming showdown and pre-emptively blaming each other.

Iran’s U.N. envoy Mohammad Khazaee said on Saturday that if Israel "commits the slightest aggression on Iranian territory, we will set fire to the entire war front and Tel Aviv".

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, while stating on Monday that "Iranians have never, ever favoured war", also mocked the notion of a U.S. or Israeli assault on Iranian nuclear sites.

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used his country’s army day on Sunday to declare that "the possibility of war is increasing" and to accuse Israel of blocking peace.



ISRAELI WARNINGS

Israel refuses to rule out attacking Iran to stop it from breaking its own presumed nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.

Even the United States has acknowledged that it is planning for a possible war on Iran, which denies Western assertions that its nuclear programme has military as well as civilian purposes.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. joint chiefs of staff,asked by NBC’s Meet The Press on Sunday if the military had a plan to attack Iran, replied: "We do."

Israel, which sees Hezbollah as a mere proxy of Iran, rather than as a group rooted in resistance to Israeli occupation of Lebanon, has multiplied its warnings to the Shi’ite guerrillas.

Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi accused them in July of turning civilian areas in Lebanon into "surface-to-surface rocket villages" in readiness for attacks on Israel, although he said Hezbollah did not have an interest in picking a fight now.

Hezbollah leader Saeed Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to hit back in kind for any Israeli attack on civilian targets.

None of this means a new war in Lebanon, often a cockpit for regional antagonisms, is inevitable or imminent. Apart from mutual deterrence, other constraints are in play, the ICG said.

UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force in the south that was beefed up after the 2006 war, acts as a buffer between Israel and Hezbollah, even if both sides accuse each other of violating the Security Council resolution which modified its mandate.

Hezbollah, now an integral part of Lebanon’s unity cabinet, has a stake in restraint. Israel’s government has also avoided escalation since 2006, responding in a measured way to a few cross-border rocket salvoes not thought to be Hezbollah’s work.

"U.S. President Barack Obama, likewise, far from the one-time dream of a new Middle East harboured by his predecessor, has no appetite for a conflagration that would jeopardise his peace efforts and attempts to restore U.S. credibility in the region," the ICG report argued.

But it said only Israeli-Syrian and Israeli-Lebanese peace talks could address the political roots of the crisis. Short of that, it urged international efforts to enhance communications between the parties, defuse tensions and avoid costly missteps.

"Beneath the surface, tensions are mounting with no obvious safety valve," the conflict-prevention group said. (Editing by Jon Boyle)



Jul 29, 2010

U.N.-backed Lebanon tribunal rejects Hezbollah outcry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A U.N.-backed tribunal set up to try suspects in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese statesman Rafik al-Hariri on Thursday rejected charges by Lebanon’s Hezbollah armed group that its work is politically motivated.

“Experience of other international tribunals has shown that the results of the work of such institutions speak for themselves and contradict the unsubstantiated allegations of hostile interference,” Fatima Issawi, spokeswoman for the tribunal, told Reuters in written answers to emailed questions.

Jul 22, 2010

Greed destroys Beirut’s architectural legacy

BEIRUT, July 22 (Reuters) – Like an endangered species, Beirut’s elegant old buildings are staring at extinction.

In a construction frenzy fuelled by a frothy economy and dollops of cash from Gulf Arab and Lebanese investors, new tower blocks are rising helter-skelter across the capital, many of them over the demolished ruins of its architectural heritage.

A few conservationists are trying to save something from the wreckage, but in a city where money is king, it may be too late.

"Beirut has become very ugly," lamented Rima Shehadeh, of the private Heritage Foundation. "It will go on, I know, but it will never have the charm it had before, never."

She is compiling files to secure official protection for a few decaying Ottoman-era mansions in the Zokak al-Blatt quarter, hindered by red tape, corruption and lack of a conservation law.

Some typical Lebanese houses with triple-arched windows, elaborate balconies and red-tiled roofs have survived, now dwarfed by the concrete apartment blocks hemming them in. Any sign of dereliction suggests that they are on death row.

Soaring land prices have etched dollar signs into the eyes of Beirut’s property owners. They have every incentive to sell old houses to developers, who flatten them to build high-rises, unconstrained by zoning regulations or respect for human scale.

"It boils down to money," said Mona Hallak, an architect who works with Lebanon’s oldest conservation association.

The building boom has accelerated in the last couple of years as Lebanon emerged unscathed from the global recession which punished Gulf real estate sectors in Dubai and elsewhere.

Lebanon, still reconstructing after its 1975-90 civil war, might seem a precarious haven for investment.

Only four years ago, the Israeli air force was bombing southern Beirut into rubble during a war with Shi’ite Hezbollah guerrillas. The country flirted with renewed civil war in 2008.

Now enjoying a respite from instability, the economy grew a startling 9 percent in 2009 and may manage 8 percent this year.



HIGH-RISE HEAVEN

Giant new buildings are piercing Beirut’s skyline, none brasher — or to its critics more hateful — than the 50-storey Sama Beirut tower, set to be Lebanon’s tallest at 200 metres.

Amid the dust and din of construction, it is looming over the narrow streets, small houses and gardens that once made up an intimate corner of the Christian district of Ashrafiyeh.

Many of Beirut’s luxury tower blocks stand almost empty, the apartments owned by Gulf Arabs or Lebanese expatriates who only use them a few weeks a year. Ordinary Beirutis are priced out.

"It’s very sad," said Emily Nasrallah, an elderly novelist who has lived in the city for most of her adult life.

"We are losing the neighbourhood, the fabric of the normal, natural life that people have always lived in Beirut."

Some younger Lebanese are waking up to the abrupt changes in the texture of a city that is home to around 1.5 million people.

Take Pascale Ingea, a shy, soft-spoken 33-year-old artist and teacher, who began a Facebook group called Stop Destroying Your Heritage in March in outrage over relentless demolitions in the traditional Ashrafiyeh quarter where she had grown up.

"One day I had enough of being a passive citizen," she explained in her workshop loft in an old building.

Ingea told how she had watched helplessly from her balcony as workers wrecked a splendid 19th-century building she had known since her childhood. "I had dreamed of buying this palace and restoring it and turning it into a fine arts academy."

She collaborates with Naji Raji, 22, who races around Beirut like a self-appointed conservation vigilante, checking venerable buildings for hints of imminent demolition, photographing the evidence and contacting the culture ministry to intervene.

"We are working really hard," he said, describing a struggle to outwit developers who choose odd times like Sunday nights to knock out interiors, swiftly turning old houses into skeletons.



TOMBSTONE BLUES

This month conservation groups launched an awareness campaign that features a picture of tombstones for recently demolished old buildings against a backdrop of dark skyscrapers.

They have won support from Lebanon’s youthful culture minister, Salim Warde, who is determined to halt the havoc.

Any demolition order must now bear his signature. He is also pushing parliament to enact a law that would give tax breaks and other incentives to owners of heritage houses.

"These buildings are part of our national treasures, of our identity, of who we are," Warde told Reuters. "So we’re not destroying wood and stone, but a part of Beirut and a part of the architectural heritage that’s been left to us to preserve."

"We are the only Arab country that has not passed a law to preserve heritage houses," he said. "This is outrageous."

Even if the law passes — an earlier version has languished since 1997 — it may take several years to implement, a time-lag that powerful, well-connected buyers of old houses may exploit.

"I dream of seeing one intact street in Beirut in 20 years. It’s really wishful thinking," said Hallak, the architect.

She has spent 13 years fighting to save a single historic building, used by snipers during the civil war, and now, with French financial support, set to become an interactive museum.

"What else can you do?" she shrugged. "Everything is for sale in this city — history, identity, the soul of the city."

Hallak argues for preserving vibrant old neighbourhoods, not just single buildings of particular architectural merit.

"We need an urban cluster that maintains the soul of the city, with the gardens and houses and the people living in them, the whole ensemble," she said. "Individual houses are museums."

Thirteen years ago her group listed four such neighbourhoods with 520 buildings worth preserving. "We know 70 of these have been destroyed. The rest are on the way," Hallak said.

For architect and urban planner Simone Kosremelli, it is too late to salvage Beirut’s heritage: a few jewels will survive, thanks to their appreciative owners, but the state has long ago missed the chance to buy up old buildings for public use.

"Today this is impossible," she said, citing astronomical land prices beyond the reach of a cash-strapped government.

Kosremelli said Lebanon should "minimise the catastrophe" by at least saving myriad old houses in mountain villages, where land is much cheaper and vernacular architecture could live on. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)



Jul 19, 2010

Analysis: Ahmadinejad angers conservatives, reformists

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to relish a fight, which may be just as well for a man who has acquired so many enemies at home and abroad.

The hardline leader, already under fire from conservative and reformist foes, has also antagonized bazaar merchants. His populist government is facing economic pain as new foreign sanctions bite on the world’s fifth biggest oil exporter.

Jul 19, 2010

Iran’s president angers conservatives, reformists

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seems to relish a fight, which may be just as well for a man who has acquired so many enemies at home and abroad.

The hardline leader, already under fire from conservative and reformist foes, has also antagonised bazaar merchants. His populist government is facing economic pain as new foreign sanctions bite on the world’s fifth biggest oil producer.

Jul 1, 2010

Analysis: U.S. pressure on Iran narrows UAE options

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Ambiguity has long marked ties between the United Arab Emirates and its powerful Gulf neighbor Iran.

One UAE member, Abu Dhabi, has a prolonged territorial dispute with Iran, but this has rarely disrupted the hum of Iranian commerce with another emirate, Dubai.

    • About Alistair

      "I cover the Middle East, with an emphasis on political analysis, region-wide stories and in-depth features. I live in Beirut and have been in my current post since June 2006. Outside my main Middle Eastern beat, I have covered Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan."
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