Protests threaten Iran’s ascendant role in the Middle East

Lebanese demonstrators march with their national flags and Palestinian flags and banners of the militant Shiite movement Hezbollah during a protest in the capital Beirut on December 11, 2017 against the US president's controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital. (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images) BEIRUT — The sudden eruption of political unrest in Iran has presented an unforeseen challenge to Tehran’s ascendant influence in the Middle East, potentially threatening Iran’s claims to regional hegemony just when it seemed to have secured an unassailable role. The demonstrations, triggered mostly by popular disaffection with the stagnant economy, come at a time when Iran has been boasting about its newfound clout, won mainly by intervening in the region’s many wars. Iran’s role as the Middle East’s most consequential power has been cemented by its support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, for the Shiite militias in Iraq fighting the Islamic State, for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and for the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon. But the interventions have been costly and, as the demonstrations have revealed, unpopular — at least with some Iranians. “No Gaza, no Lebanon, our lives for Iran,” the crowds chanted at one of the first demonstrations, a reference to Iranian support for the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza and for Hezbollah in Lebanon. “Leave Syria alone, think about us,” and “Death to Hezbollah” are among the other slogans. In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with Ali Akbar Velayati, an adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Damascus, Syria, Tuesday, Nov 7, 2017. Syria's state-run news agency SANA said Assad and Velayati have vowed to defend their interests amid rising regional tensions. (SANA via AP) (SANA/AP) These are a reminder that Iran’s power plays in the region have Continue Reading

Gas prices continue to soar as experts blame worsening Middle East political turmoil

Blame it on the fear factor: Investor anxiety about worsening Middle East political turmoil is the main cause of skyrocketing gasoline prices, experts said Monday. The price of regular hit an average $3.77 a gallon citywide on Monday, up 32 cents in just a month and 85 cents in a year, according to AAA New York. And there's no relief in sight. "There's a nervousness among speculators who are buying crude oil," said Ben Brockwell of the Oil Price Information Service, an independent oil-pricing service. "Ifthis thing spreads to Saudi Arabia, we'll see gasoline prices above $4 per gallon in New York and nationwide." New Yorkers are plenty steamed at the prospect. "It's ridiculous," said Angelo Feliciano, 43, of Harlem. "It keeps getting expensive, and we don't know why." Upheaval in Libya has cut that nation's oil production by 1 million barrels a day from its usual 1.7 million barrels. The specter of unrest in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer at 10 million barrels a day, is a bigger worry. Websites in Saudi Arabia are calling for nationwide "Days of Rage" this Friday and on March 20, according to Human Rights Watch. "That's what this is all about - fears of oil supplies being cut off in Saudi Arabia," Brockwell said. A second factor is adding to New Yorkers' pain at the pump: exasperated wholesalers. The prices they pay for gasoline have been rising steeply since the end of January, but they hadn't been fully passing on the increases to filling stations - until recently. "In the past two weeks, they decided their wallets couldn't take it anymore," Brockwell said. Since then, 20-cent price hikes at the pump have been the biggest consumers have seen since Hurricane Katrina - as anyone who owns a car is all too aware. "I feel like the gas companies are taking me for a ride," said Eddie Santiago, 35. "I try to fill it up a little bit at a time so I don't spend a lot of money filling up the tank," the Bronx resident said. "I put Continue Reading

The Middle East’s Obama-mania — and its limits

In sharp contrast to the unwelcoming shoe hurled at President Bush in his last media conference in the Middle East, President Obama and his speech were very well received in Egypt and the rest of the Muslim-majority world. The audience in Cairo University interrupted the speech 23 times by waves of applause (that is just slightly above average by Middle Eastern standards, especially when the cheering crowd is handpicked by the Egyptian State Security Investigations). Outside of the university, the reactions were also quite positive. Speaking to my apolitical mother and two of her friends in Cairo, the reaction was: "He is such a beautiful kid." "We love him." And "We are praying for God to protect him." There are several reasons for the Middle East's Obama-mania. The crowd in Cairo has no recollection of Clinton's eloquent speeches and did not care to hear Bush's. In other words, they have not much comparative references. But much more important, this is the first time Arabs and Muslims are hearing a very eloquent, "politically correct" speech from a black American President who has Muslim relatives. For many, that is revolutionary in content and rhetoric - if not necessarily in policies. But let us not dance around this jarring disconnect: On a normal day in Cairo or al-Azhar Universities (the two institutions that sponsored the speech), there is little time and space for genuine, open-minded contemplation or debate. Both universities are big intellectual prisons ruled by the State Security Services. It is State Security Generals who decide which professor gets hired, which one gets promoted, which one gets fired, and which one gets detained. If Obama were to visit Cairo University on a normal day, he would find four trucks of Central Security Forces parked on the right side of the main entrance. They never go away - 24/7. Al-Azhar as an institution is not hospitable to political correctness or Egyptian democrats. It did establish itself, however, as a Continue Reading

Condoleezza Rice set to return to Middle East for last peace attempt

Secretary of State Rice will return to Israel this week in a longshot bid to broker peace in the Middle East before President Bush leaves office.With little tangible progress toward peace, the State Department has deliberately lowered expectations for an accord that could provide a lasting legacy for the Bush administration.Still, this week's decision by Syrian President Bashar Assad to recognize Lebanon did offer a glimmer of hope that at least one of Israel's hostile neighbors may be willing to make concessions.In announcing Rice's trip, the State Department said discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would include "ongoing efforts to create positive and lasting peace in the region and progress toward the shared goal of a peace agreement in 2008."A senior Bush administration official said Rice "is going to try to push the parties along." Efforts to seal a deal have been hampered by rocket attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip and the expansion of Jewish settlements. Olmert is also preparing to leave office next month to face corruption charges, increasing the political uncertainty. Join the Conversation: Continue Reading

The bigger Middle East war: It’s moderate Arabs against radical Islamists

The war in Gaza is the first chapter of a new era in the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is far from the region's dominant dispute. The Arab-Islamist conflict now overwhelms it - by a large margin. Increasingly, Arab regimes know Hamas isn't their friend and, though they won't say so publicly, don't see Israel as an enemy. No wonder: Israel is politically stable and economically prosperous. It doesn't threaten to take over their countries, overthrow their regimes and stand them in front of a firing squad. Radical Islamism, Iran-style, does. That's right. Arab nations' prime 21st century enemy is Iran and its allies: Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi terrorists. After destroying their own countries, they want to do the same to everyone else. Up on the Lebanese border, where I just visited, things are quiet. Hezbollah talks big about its 2006 "victory" but knows how hard Israel hit it then. It's not looking for trouble with the Jewish state now. At the same time, Egypt condemns Hamas and urges Israel to smash the radical Islamist group. Lebanese friends tell me they fear that unless Israel and the West stop the Islamists, their country will be taken over in this new year. The editor of the important Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, himself a Saudi, warns that Iran and Hamas - effectively at war with Egypt and Saudi Arabia - are the real threat to Arab security. And the meeting of Arab states last week, instead of producing a condemnation of Israel or America, did nothing. What was the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war's big lesson? That unless Israel wins a clear victory, Islamists will be more aggressive. It's the same thing the U.S. surge in Iraq demonstrates: pulling punches on terrorists doesn't make them love you or be peaceable. Of course, the Israel-Palestinian conflict is far from over: It will probably continue for decades. But that's precisely the point. It's an Israel-Palestinian battle, smaller and less strategically Continue Reading

Boro’s caring shines in Middle East

In an area of the world where death could come at any moment, Prof. Michael Silbermann has been working to establish health care for the terminally ill, and for cancer patients living with pain. Silbermann traveled from Israel to Calvary Hospital last week for his first visit to the place where he has sent hundreds of doctors and nurses from the Middle East to learn about palliative care. "My first impression when I visit hospices is I feel the atmosphere of death," he said. "But when I came in here," he said, waving his arms, "everything is clean, it is not depressing. This is the right way to leave this world." In his part of the world, he said, cultural, religious and political differences have kept many cancer patients from treatment that could ease their pain and make their final days easier for them, and their families. Silbermann has been executive director of the Middle East Cancer Consortium (MECC) since its inception in 1996. It was founded by then-President Clinton and health ministers of six Middle Eastern nations. Silbermann said one of many cases that drives him in his work was that of an Arab woman he encountered in an Israeli hospital who was dying of breast cancer. She was not yet 40. She was receiving no drugs or special care. "She was in great suffering, and she said 'Allah decided this is my destiny, and I accept it,' " Silbermann said. In 2005, the National Cancer Institute designated Calvary an international center for training in palliative care, and the hospital began instructing doctors and nurses from the MECC member nations: Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Turkey. Calvary staffers have also traveled to those countries to train health care professionals. Dr. Robert Brescia, director of Calvary's palliative care institute, went to Israel and Jordan when the relationship began. This year, he and two nurses will travel to Turkey to train people in treating wounds suffered by the Continue Reading

A Middle East ally emerges: Its name is Iraq

The barbarism in Mumbai and the economic crisis at home have largely overshadowed an otherwise singular event: the ratification of military and strategic cooperation agreements between Iraq and the United States. They must not pass unnoted. They were certainly noted by Iran, which fought fiercely to undermine the agreements. Tehran understood how a formal U.S.-Iraqi alliance endorsed by a broad Iraqi consensus expressed in a freely elected parliament changes the strategic balance in the region. For the United States, it represents the single most important geopolitical advance in the region since Henry Kissinger turned Egypt from a Soviet client into an American ally. If we don't blow it with too hasty a withdrawal from Iraq, we will have turned a chronically destabilizing enemy state at the epicenter of the Arab Middle East into an ally. Also largely overlooked at home was the sheer wonder of the procedure that produced Iraq's consent: classic legislative maneuvering with no more than a tussle or two - tame by international standards (see YouTube: "Best Taiwanese Parliament Fights Of All Time!") - over the most fundamental issues of national identity and direction. The only significant opposition bloc was the Sadrists, a mere 30 seats out of 275. The ostensibly pro-Iranian religious Shiite parties resisted Tehran's pressure and championed the agreement. As did the Kurds. The Sunnis put up the greatest fight. But their concern was that America would be withdrawing too soon, leaving them subject to overbearing and perhaps even vengeful Shiite dominance. The Sunnis, who only a few years ago had boycotted provincial elections, bargained with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, trying to exploit his personal stake in agreements he himself had negotiated. They did not achieve their maximum objectives. But they did get formal legislative commitments for future consideration of their grievances, from amnesty to further relaxation of the de-Baathification laws. Continue Reading

War on Christians in the Middle East must be stopped

Shiraz, Iran, has just convicted two men of being infidels. Their crime? Converting to Christianity. The possible sentence? Death. Not too far away in Saudi Arabia, an outraged father recently hacked his own daughter to death for the same "abomination."In the daily drumbeat of Mideast news, there is one story of historic proportion that goes nearly unreported: the persecution and systematic destruction in the Islamic world of some of the world's oldest Christian communities. Sure, we hear when a Catholic bishop is murdered in Iraq, when machete-armed fanatics attack Egyptian Copt worshipers, or when churches are torched in Hamas-controlled Gaza. But what about the jailing in Saudi Arabia of foreign workers for holding forbidden Christian prayers? Or the arrest in Pakistan of a Christian man for marrying a Muslim woman? Or the continuing problem of an Islamic educational system that teaches the young that Christians (as well as Jews) are "the descendants of apes and pigs"? The pattern is nearly the same wherever extremist Islam holds sway. From Bangladesh to Darfur, Christians have become regular targets for Islamic thugs and the governments that back them. Just this month, a Pakistani court upheld the kidnapping, conversion and "marriage" to older Muslim men of two Christian sisters, aged 10 and 13. Even in lands that are not under orthodox Sharia law, Christian communities feel the pressure of persecution. In constitutionally secular Turkey, a legally recognized Protestant church in the capital of Ankara is under threat of closure by local police. Many Christians in Islamic lands have become subject to such terror that they are fleeing the homelands their ancestors have known almost since the time of Jesus. Iraq's Christian sects now feel forced to pray in secret. Others simply leave. Although they comprise less than 4% of Iraq's population, Iraqi Christians now account for 40% of its refugees. Lebanon's once politically powerful Christian community Continue Reading

Uncertainty hovers over planned Middle East peace talks

WASHINGTON - The invitations to next week's Middle East peace conference are out and like a nervous host, the Bush administration is waiting for RSVPs, wondering who will show up and whether they'll get along. After months of intense diplomacy, the White House and State Department announced on Tuesday that the talks would take place next Monday through Wednesday in Washington and Annapolis, Md., aimed at launching the first Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations in seven years. But aside from the dates and a cursory schedule, much remains uncertain, including exactly which of the 49 invitees will attend and at what level, and what they will accomplish. The two sides are expected to present a joint statement on resuming peace talks at Annapolis, yet less than a week before their delegations are to arrive in the United States the document exists only in vague form. In addition, the support of key Arab states and other international players on whom the U.S. is counting for support has often been less than enthusiastic. The conference will be anchored around a marathon session Tuesday at the U.S. Naval Academy to be opened by President Bush, who will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and address a dinner of all participants in Washington the day before. Back in Washington on Wednesday, Bush plans to see Olmert and Abbas privately again for a third time in as many days, ostensibly to seal their intent to create a Palestinian state by the end of his second term. The intense White House involvement in a meeting that was planned to be run almost entirely by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when first broached in July took some by surprise and was seen as a sign Bush is hoping for a Mideast foreign policy success before he leaves office. "This conference will be a launching point for negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and the realization of Israeli-Palestinian peace," said Continue Reading

Trump trip to Middle East, Vatican offers religious opportunities, pitfalls

JERUSALEM — President Trump has billed his visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican as a sort of triple pilgrimage to places deeply meaningful to adherents of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.But his first overseas trip as president also presents deep religious and political pitfalls.Whether his time abroad will appease faith groups upset by Trump’s proposed Muslim travel ban and his waffling over whether to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem — among other thorny issues — remains to be seen.He will meet with Pope Francis, who has made no secret of his disdain for Trump’s harsh rhetoric about immigrants and has reminded the president to remember the poor.Trump’s trip reflects the president’s belief “that we all have to be united and we have to be joined together with an agenda of tolerance and moderation,” according to national security adviser H.R. McMaster. Read more: Many in the U.S. and abroad find that assertion hypocritical, given Trump’s combative style and history of remarks deemed offensive to Muslims, Latinos, blacks, Jews, women and the disabled.But others see this trip as a chance for Trump — embroiled in Washington over his handling of a probe into alleged Russian ties to his presidential campaign — to prove that he can overcome his divisive reputation.In Saudi Arabia, Trump’s first stop, the president will share “his hopes for a peaceful vision of Islam” and “the need to confront radical ideology” during a meeting with officials from dozens of Muslim-majority countries, McMaster said.Trump will not be able to visit Mecca, the birthplace of Muhammad and the world’s holiest Islamic city, because it is off-limits to non-Muslims.During the Israeli leg of the trip, Trump will likely score points with the 80% of white evangelical Christians in the U.S. who voted for him — many of Continue Reading