Tales from the Trail

Missiles before talks — what’s the message from Iran?

Everyone has their own way of broaching subjects they don’t like.

Iran has decided the best prelude to upcoming talks with Western powers that are inevitably going to end up in a finger-pointing session over Tehran’s nuclear program, is to test fire a bunch of missiles.

SWISS-BRAND/The United States has made clear it will focus on Iran’s nuclear program at the meeting Thursday in Geneva. Let’s see if the traditional neutrality of the Swiss venue makes a difference in keeping tempers in check (chocolates anyone?).

So what’s Iran trying to say with the missile launches which come inbetween last week’s disclosure that Tehran is building a second uranium enrichment plant and this week’s rare meeting between Iran and six major powers including the United States, China and Russia.

“It’s entirely unsurprising that the Iranians would pop off some short- and medium-range missiles in the run-up to talks,” a U.S. counterproliferation official tells Reuters. IRAN-MISSILES/

“They could be doing this for domestic reasons as a show of strength to their own people before sitting down with the major powers,” the official says.

Iran’s nuclear plant and the definition of covert

Western powers are blasting Iran today for building another nuclear plant.

NUCLEAR-IRAN/OBAMA-STATEMENTPresident Barack Obama, flanked by the leaders of France and Britain, said to reporters in Pittsburgh for the G20 meeting that “Iran has been building a covert uranium enrichment facility near Qom for several years.”

Iran, which revealed the existence of the uranium enrichment plant to the U.N. nuclear watchdog on Monday, unsurprisingly had a whole different take on the idea of covert.

“If it was a covert plant, we would not have informed the (International Atomic Energy) Agency,” a senior Iranian official told Reuters at the United Nations.

from Global News Journal:

A world without nuclear weapons: Obama’s pipe dream?

U.S. President Barack Obama says he wants a world without nuclear weapons. But will that ever happen?
    
Obama showed he's serious this week. He chaired a historic summit meeting of the U.N. Security Council which unanimously passed a U.S.-drafted resolution that envisages "a world without nuclear weapons".
    
It was the first time a U.S. president chaired a meeting of the Security Council since it was established in 1946.
 
John Burroughs, executive director of the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, an advocacy group, identified serious weaknesses in the resolution, including the absence of mandatory disarmament steps for the world's five official nuclear powers -- the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia.
    
Some diplomats from countries without nuclear weapons said the lack of mandatory disarmament moves is not just a weakness, but a loophole the five big powers -- which have permanent seats and vetoes on the Security Council -- deliberately inserted into the resolution so that they wouldn't have to scrap their beloved nuclear arsenals.
 
An official from one of the five big powers appeared to confirm this in an "off-record" email to Reuters explaining the language in the resolution: "I would underline that creating the conditions for a world free of nuclear weapons is not the same as calling for a world free of nuclear weapons." He added that "the spirit of the resolution is much more about non-proliferation than disarmament."
    
A diplomat and disarmament expert from a European country with no nuclear weapons said this was typical of the "cynicism" of some permanent Security Council members. He added that the U.S. delegation had made very clear that the use of the word "disarmament" meant total nuclear disarmament -- perhaps not today, but someday. 
    
China's President Hu Jintao said China was not planning to get rid of its nuclear arsenal anytime soon. So did French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
    
The resolution didn't name Iran and North Korea. However, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Sarkozy filled in the blanks and called for tougher sanctions against Iran for defying U.N. demands to halt sensitive nuclear work.
 
The resolution didn't mention Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea, the four others known or assumed to have nuclear weapons. But it did politely ask "other states" to sign the 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and get rid of their atom bombs.
 
Libya's Muammar Gaddafi was the only leader of a council member state that stayed away from the meeting. Several council diplomats expressed relief at his absence, saying they had been afraid the long-winded Gaddafi would have exceeded the five-minute limit for statements.

(Photos by Mike Segar/REUTERS)

The First Draft: Missile defense, Iran and value voters

President Barack Obama’s decision to abandon a big, fixed-installation missile defense shield in Eastern Europe is drawing some angry reaction abroad.

Conservatives in Poland, where the Bush administration planned to base interceptor rockets, and the Czech Republic, where a radar installation was planned, accused Washington of buckling to Russian pressure.

OBAMA/Defense Secretary Robert Gates meets Friday afternoon with his Czech counterpart, Martin Bartak, as the administration works to explain its new thinking. It may be a hard sell.

Do-over on missile defense — reading between the lines

President Barack Obama’s new missile defense plan is an exercise in reading between the lines.

Does it signal a diminished threat from Iran if he is scrapping the Bush-era system that was to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic? Obama’s plan would use missile interceptors based on ships.

Former President George W. Bush would rattle off Iran and threats in the same sentence so often that sometimes it seemed all roads to fear led to Tehran. He wanted the missile shield as protection. IRAN-MILITARY/PARADE

Is Chavez helping Iran build the bomb?

IRAN/

Veteran Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau is on Hugo Chavez’s case.

Morgenthau warned last week at Washington’s Brookings Institution that Iran is using Venezuela’s financial system to avoid international sanctions so it can acquire materials to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.  He urged more scrutiny of the “emerging axis of Iran and Venezuela” in an op/ed article in the Wall Street Journal, in which he said a number of mysterious Iranian factories had sprung up in remote parts of Venezuela.

Chavez’s man in Washington, Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez, called the allegations “outrageous … unfounded and irresponsible” in a letter to the district attorney seen by Reuters.

True, leftist President Chavez has done little to endear himself to Americans. A fierce critic of the United States, his foreign policy rule of thumb is my enemy’s enemies are my friends. His last trip abroad included visits to Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iran, Belarus and Russia. He loudly announced plans to buy Russian tanks and anti-aircraft missiles.

Elections in Iran, Illinois? Obama very busy not picking sides

If you ever wondered what Illinois and Iran might have in common, here’s one answer: President Obama is most definitely not picking sides in their elections.
 
So insists the White House.
 
OBAMA/“Our response … on this has been, from the very beginning, consistent,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told a briefing Thursday when asked about the post-election turmoil in Iran.
 
“The American people and this government are not going to pick the next leader of Iran,” he said. “That’s something that the Iranians have to do.”
 
That doesn’t mean they won’t tsk-tsk loudly from the sidelines as the opportunity permits.
 
The administration has voiced concern about how the election was conducted, but shied away from suggesting any fraud was involved in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s defeat of challenger Mirhossein Mousavi.
 
They say they don’t favor either candidate, but insist the challenger’s supporters have a right to continue their protests a week after the vote.
 
“We have to ensure that we express our views, as I’ve said, about ensuring that people can demonstrate, have their causes and concerns heard,” the White House spokesman said.
 
Obama’s also steering clear of the U.S. Senate race in Illinois, Gibbs said, even though he met last Friday with Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
 
Chicago papers say the Obama administration is pushing her to run for the president’s former U.S. Senate seat in 2010, but the White House begs to differ.
 
“Let me be explicit,” Gibbs said. “The president is not going to pick a candidate in the Illinois Senate race.”
 
And the meeting at the White House with Obama, Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser Valerie Jarret? Why, Madigan and Obama are just old friends and Obama has “enormous respect for what she accomplished,” Gibbs said.
 
And oh, by the way …
 
“I think she’d be a terrific candidate. But we’re not going to get involved in picking that candidate in Illinois.”
 
For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Larry Downing (Obama speaks at a fundraiser Thursday night)

The First Draft: Reviews flood in after Obama’s Cairo speech

OBAMA-EGYPT/He’s been preparing for this moment since long before he came to the White House, so President Barack Obama might wonder how his Cairo speech to the Muslim world went over. He wouldn’t have to wait long — within minutes after he ended his address, the reviews started flooding in.

The Washington Post said Obama did well, but basically, talk’s cheap: “Perhaps today’s words, from the son of a Muslim, will be viewed as a welcome olive branch. But it’s still just a speech. And even stirring words can’t paper over the seemingly intractable differences in the Mideast.”

The New York Post got a bit snarky: “If world peace is attained by complimenting those on the other side into submission, he made some serious progress. Obama really buttered them up in Cairo.”

The First Draft: jobs jobs jobs

Guess what? There’s more bad news about the economy today.

Numbers out today show the unemployment rate has risen to its highest rate in 25 years as companies buckled under the strain of a recession that is showing no signs of ending. ECONOMY-JOBFAIR/

Want to hear more? The head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Keith Hall, testifies to Congress about the employment picture at 9:30.

In the Obama administration’s first public overture to Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has invited Iran to a conference on Afghanistan planned for this month. Traveling in Brussels, Clinton also said the problems of climate change and the economy should be tackled simultaneously.

from Global News Journal:

Iran warns Obama’s government: “Quit talking like Bush”

Iran’s U.N. Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee didn’t attend the latest U.N. Security Council meeting on Iraq. But the moment the 3-hour session was over the Iranian delegation was circulating a strongly worded letter from Khazaee that had a very clear message for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama: Stop talking like Bush.

He was responding to less than two dozen words on Iran in U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice’s speech to the council during a routine review of U.N. activities in Iraq. Rice said that U.S. policy "will seek an end to Iran's ambition to acquire an illicit nuclear capacity and its support for terrorism.”

Those words clearly infuriated the Iranians, who have been toning down their anti-U.S. rhetoric since Obama took over from George W. Bush five weeks ago.