Archive for January, 2017

Qatar set to build embassy in Gaza Strip

JAN. 9, 2017

GAZA (Ma’an) — Qatar has reportedly decided to build an embassy in the besieged Gaza Strip during a meeting of the Qatari committee for Gaza reconstruction on Monday.

The head of the committee, Abd al-Halim al-Issawi, gave the greenlight for the construction of the embassy after visiting the planned location, a five-dunam (1.2 acres) plot of land south of the Gaza City port, on Thursday with contractors.

While Qatar has had a representative office in the besieged Palestinian enclave, the planned embassy could mark a significant diplomatic move, as most countries have implanted their diplomatic missions and consulates to the occupied Palestinian territory in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Qatar is a prominent backer of the Hamas movement — the de facto ruling party in Gaza — and has provided significant financial support for reconstruction in the blockaded enclave following several devastating Israeli offensives.

Naji Sharab, a professor of political science at Gaza’s al-Azhar University, told the Dunya al-Watan news outlet that “such a step is unprecedented in diplomatic relations,” and that he saw it as a potential move by Qatar to recognize the Gaza Strip as a national entity separate from the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank.

However, Dunya al-Watan quoted another political analyst and writer, Hussam al-Dajani, as saying that embassies are usually located in the capital cities of the host countries, but that given East Jerusalem’s occupied status, “Qatar can choose a location for its embassy to Palestine in coordination with the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Al-Dajani thus dismissed the significance of the move “as long as the Foreign Ministry in Ramallah and the one in Gaza are in agreement.”

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Link: http://www.maannews.com/Content.aspx?id=774823.

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Saudi unblocks military aid to Lebanon: Lebanese source

Riyadh (AFP)

Jan 10, 2017

Saudi Arabia and Lebanon agreed Tuesday to hold talks on restoring a $3-billion military aid package, opening a “new page” in relations, a Lebanese official source said.

“The blockage is lifted,” said the official in the delegation of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who held talks over lunch with King Salman in the Saudi capital.

After a tense year which saw Saudi Arabia freeze the aid deal over what it said was the dominance of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement, Aoun arrived in Riyadh on Monday night with a delegation of ministers.

It was his first trip to the kingdom since his election in November ended a two-year deadlock between Iran- and Saudi-backed blocs in the Lebanese parliament.

Aoun, a Maronite Christian former army chief who was backed by Hezbollah, clinched the presidency with shock support from Saudi ally Saad Hariri, a leading Sunni figure who in return was named prime minister.

Analysts say Saudi Arabia is hoping for a more stable Lebanon, after concerns over the role played by Hezbollah in the Lebanese government and the threat posed by jihadists and the war in neighboring Syria.

The Iran-backed Shiite militant group has fighters in Syria supporting forces of President Bashar al-Assad, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, backs some rebels opposed to his government.

Riyadh last March declared Hezbollah a “terrorist organisation” and urged its citizens to leave Lebanon.

In February, the kingdom halted the $3-billion (2.8-billion-euro) military aid package to Lebanon to protest what it said was “the stranglehold of Hezbollah on the state”.

The program would see Riyadh fund the transfer of vehicles, helicopters, drones, cannons and other military equipment from France, which has been seeking to boost arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.

The Lebanese official told AFP that a “new page” in relations with Riyadh had been turned and said the aid was “going to move”.

“There is truly a change. But when and how, we have to wait to see,” the official said on condition of anonymity.

He added that King Salman’s son, the powerful Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will discuss with his Lebanese counterpart how to move the package forward.

– ‘Security, stability’ –

After Aoun’s election, France’s foreign ministry said it was in “close dialogue” with Lebanon and Saudi Arabia in hope of a deal.

Aoun told Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria that his ministers of foreign affairs, education, finance and information would meet their Saudi counterparts “to find some fields of cooperation.”

Asked vaguely about the military aid, Aoun said: “Of course we will discuss all the possible issues.”

Syria’s nearly six-year civil war has been a major fault line in Lebanese politics, and the country hosts more than one million Syrian refugees.

Aoun said that Lebanon’s partners “have agreed to build Lebanon, regardless of the results in the other countries, because building Lebanon is for all, and secondly, security and stability is for all.”

He told Al-Ekhbaria his country’s internal political situation had improved, and expressed confidence that “balance” can be maintained.

“The state must realize, and maintain, security and stability for individuals and groups even if there are different political visions regarding neighboring and regional countries,” Aoun said.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/Saudi_unblocks_military_aid_to_Lebanon_Lebanese_source_999.html.

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UAE mourns 5 diplomats killed in mysterious Afghan bombing

January 11, 2017

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan (AP) — The killing of five diplomats from the United Arab Emirates in a bombing in southern Afghanistan marks the deadliest attack ever for the young nation’s diplomatic corps, though it’s too soon to tell who was behind it or if the Gulf envoys were even the targets.

The federation of seven sheikhdoms, founded in 1971 on the Arabian Peninsula, said it would fly the nation’s flag at half-staff for three days in honor of the dead from the attack Tuesday in Kandahar.

The Taliban denied planting the bomb, even as the insurgents claimed other blasts Tuesday that killed at least 45 people. No other group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Kandahar, a province in Afghanistan’s Taliban heartland.

The bomb targeted a guesthouse of Kandahar Gov. Homayun Azizi, who was wounded in the assault along with UAE Ambassador Juma Mohammed Abdullah al-Kaabi. The attack killed 11 people and wounded 18, said Gen. Abdul Razeq, Kandahar’s police chief, who was praying nearby at the time of the blast.

Razeq said investigators believe someone hid the bomb inside a sofa at the guesthouse. He said an ongoing construction project there may have allowed militants to plant the bomb. “Right now we cannot say anything about who is behind this attack,” he told The Associated Press, while adding that several suspects had been arrested.

On Wednesday, broken glass from the powerful blast still littered the blood-stained ground outside of the guesthouse, with thick black soot still visible on the building. Some furniture sat outside, apparently moved as part of the construction.

Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who is also the UAE prime minister and vice president, offered condolences for the families of the dead and condemned the attack. “There is no human, moral or religious justification for the bombing and killing of people trying to help” others, he wrote on Twitter.

On the Afghan side, authorities said the dead included two lawmakers, a deputy governor from Kandahar and an Afghan diplomat stationed at its embassy in Washington. The attack inside the heavily guarded compound represents a major breach of security, even in Afghanistan, a country long torn by war. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Wednesday condemned the attack and ordered an investigation.

The Taliban is usually quick to take credit for attacks, particularly those targeting the government or security forces. They claimed attacks earlier on Tuesday in Kabul at a compound of government and legislative offices that killed at least 38 people and wounded dozens. Another Taliban-claimed suicide bombing on Tuesday killed seven people in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.

But on Wednesday, the Taliban issued a short statement blaming an “internal local rivalry” for the Kandahar attack. The Taliban have denied some attacks in the past that diplomats and security forces later attributed to the group. Other insurgent groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, also operate Afghanistan.

A Taliban attack targeting Emirati officials would be surprising. The UAE was one of only three countries, along with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, to recognize the Taliban government during its five-year rule of Afghanistan.

Emirati combat troops deployed to Afghanistan after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that toppled the Taliban, who had harbored al-Qaida before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. The UAE had troops there for years as part of the NATO-led mission, training members of the Afghan armed forces and often winning the support of locals by praying with them in community mosques and respecting their traditions as fellow Muslims.

Multiple daily commercial flights link the countries, with Dubai serving as an important commercial hub for Afghan businessmen. Over the years, Taliban and Afghan officials also have met in Dubai to try to start peace talks.

Although the UAE is only 45 years old, Emirati diplomats have come under attack in the past, some felled by assassins’ bullets. Saif Ghubash, the UAE’s first minister of state for foreign affairs, died after being shot in an October 1977 attack at Abu Dhabi International Airport, an attack that apparently targeted Syrian Foreign Minister Abdul-Halim Khaddam. Khaddam later blamed the attack on Iraq.

In 1984, the UAE’s ambassador to France was assassinated outside his Paris home by a gunman. A diplomatic club was named in honor of the slain envoy, Khalifa al-Mubarak, in the Emirati capital, Abu Dhabi, in 2015.

Another Emirati diplomat was wounded in a shooting in Rome in 1984. Reports at the time linked those two attacks to the Arab Revolutionary Brigades, a Palestinian militant group. Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said Tuesday’s attack wouldn’t stop the UAE’s humanitarian efforts abroad.

He wrote on Twitter: “We will not be discouraged by despicable terrorist acts carried out by the forces of evil and darkness.”

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul, Afghanistan, and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.

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Iranians mourn as former leader Rafsanjani interred

January 10, 2017

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Hundreds of thousands mourned the late Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani on Tuesday, wailing in grief as his body was interred at a Tehran shrine alongside the leader of the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Rafsanjani’s final resting place near the late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, reflected his legacy as one of the pillars of Iran’s clerical-dominated political system, as he served in later years as a go-between for hard-liners and reformists.

But even his hourslong funeral highlighted the divisions still at play. Parts of the crowd along his funeral procession at one point chanted in support of opposition leaders under house arrest. Other politicians did not attend the memorial.

Throngs filled main thoroughfares of the capital, with many chanting, beating their chests and wailing in the style of mourning common among Shiite Muslims. The funeral for Rafsanjani, who died Sunday at age 82 after a heart attack, drew both the elite and ordinary people. Shops and schools were closed in national mourning.

Top government and clerical officials first held a funeral service at Tehran University. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei prayed by Rafsanjani’s casket, as other dignitaries knelt before the coffin on which his white cleric’s turban was placed. Mourners reached out their hands toward the coffin.

Just behind Khamenei was President Hassan Rouhani, whose moderate administration reached the recent nuclear deal with world powers. Rouhani, who is all but certain to run for re-election in May, is viewed as embodying Rafsanjani’s realist vision.

Hard-liners also took part in the ceremony Tuesday, like the head of Iran’s judiciary, Sadeq Larijani, who stood near his moderate brother, parliament speaker Ali Larijani. Also among them was Qassem Soleimani, a general who heads the Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force, which focuses on foreign operations like the war in Syria.

Both Soleimani and Rafsanjani are from Iran’s southeastern province of Kerman and worked together during the war with Iraq in the 1980s. “In my opinion, Mr. Hashemi remained the same person from the beginning until the end and held his line in all stages of his life,” Soleimani told state television in a rare public interview. “Nevertheless, Mr. Hashemi sometimes used different tactics.”

Apparently banned from the funeral was former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist who remains popular among the young but is deeply disliked by hard-liners. State media have banned the broadcasting of any images of Khatami.

There was also no word of hard-line former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attending the ceremony, though he offered condolences Monday. There was no love lost between the two as Ahmadinejad defeated Rafsanjani in Iran’s 2005 presidential election and later drew his dismay over the crackdown following his contested re-election in 2009.

Outside, mourners carried posters bearing Rafsanjani’s image as his casket slowly made his way through the crowds in the streets. “I rarely attend religious ceremonies, but I am here as an Iranian who cannot forget Rafsanjani’s contribution to developing the political sphere in favor of people in recent years,” said Nima Sheikhi, a computer teacher at a private school.

“I am here to say goodbye to a man who dedicated his life to making Iran better,” said Reza Babaei, a cleric from the eastern town of Birjand near the Afghan border. “He founded the university in my city and developed our region when he was in power.”

Officials put the number of participants in the funeral at over 2 million, though that figure could not be independently verified. Iran’s internal politics also were on display. The semi-official ILNA news agency said that on the sidelines of the funeral, prominent moderate lawmaker Ali Motahari was asked by several mourners to free opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mahdi Karroubi from the house arrest the two have been under since 2011.

“Our message is clear: The house arrest should be lifted,” some chanted. Police and security forces did not react to the chants, nor others that followed and could be heard in state television footage.

Rafsanjani’s casket later arrived at the ornate, massive shrine to Khomeini, who led the revolution that toppled the American-backed shah. Rafsanjani’s interment there marked a rare privilege inside of Iran’s system, where clerics dominate the levers of power. Only Khomeini’s son Ahmad, who died in 1995 and served as a close aide to his father, had been buried next to his tomb before Tuesday.

Rafsanjani, a close aide to both Khomeini and Khamenei, served as president from 1989 to 1997. He helped launch Iran’s nuclear program and then pushed for reconciliation with the West. Internally, however, his legacy remains mixed. He was massively wealthy and a veteran at maneuvering within Iran’s opaque political system.

He was considered a protector of the moderates, but others distrusted him because he was such an insider and because of accusations he was involved in killing dissidents during his eight-year presidency, which he always denied. Hard-liners distrusted him because of his support of moderates and sought to sideline him, with little success.

His absence in balancing the competing powers, however, will affect Iran going forward, especially as the country edges closer to picking a new supreme leader. “The unexpected death of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani could be the first scene in Iran’s nascent leadership transition theater, whose subsequent acts are probably yet to be written,” said Mehdi Khalaji, a fellow at The Washington Institute.

Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

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Influential former Iranian leader Rafsanjani dead at age 82

January 08, 2017

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a wily political survivor and multimillionaire mogul who remained among the ruling elite despite moderate views, died Sunday, state TV reported. He was 82.

Iranian media reported he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized north of Tehran, where doctors performed CPR in vain for nearly an hour and a half before declaring him dead. A female newscaster’s voice quivered as she read the news.

She said Rafsanjani, “after a life full of restless efforts in the path of Islam and revolution, had departed for lofty heaven.” Rafsanjani’s mix of sly wit and reputation for cunning moves — both in politics and business — earned him a host of nicknames such as Akbar Shah, or Great King, during a life that touched every major event in Iranian affairs since before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

His presence — whether directly or through back channels — was felt in many forms. He was a steady leader in the turbulent years following the overthrow of the U.S.-backed shah, a veteran warrior in the country’s internal political battles and a covert go-between in intrigue such as the Iran-Contra arms deals in the 1980s.

He also was handed an unexpected political resurgence in his later years. The surprise presidential election in 2013 of Rafsanjani’s political soul mate, Hassan Rouhani, gave the former president an insider role in reform-minded efforts that included Rouhani’s push for direct nuclear talks with Washington. World powers and Iran ultimately struck a deal to limit the country’s nuclear enrichment in exchange for the lifting of some economic sanctions.

While Rafsanjani was blocked from the 2013 ballot by Iran’s election overseers — presumably worried about boosting his already wide-ranging influence — the former leader embraced Rouhani’s success. “Now I can easily die since people are able to decide their fate by themselves,” he reportedly said last March.

However, Rouhani now faces a crucial presidential election in May which will serve as a referendum on the deal and thawing relations with the West. Rafsanjani was sharply critical of a move by Iran’s constitutional watchdog to block moderates, including Hassan Khomeini, the grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, from running for a top clerical body in elections last year.

Rafsanjani was a close aide of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and served as president from 1989 to 1997 during a period of significant changes in Iran. At the time, the country was struggling to rebuild its economy after a devastating 1980-88 war with Iraq, while also cautiously allowing some wider freedoms, as seen in Iran’s highly regarded film and media industry.

He also oversaw key developments in Iran’s nuclear program by negotiating deals with Russia to build an energy-producing reactor in Bushehr, which finally went into service in 2011 after long delays. Behind the scenes, he directed the secret purchase of technology and equipment from Pakistan and elsewhere.

Rafsanjani managed to remain within the ruling theocracy after leaving office, but any dreams of taking on a higher-profile role collapsed with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election in 2009 and the intense crackdown that followed. Rafsanjani’s harsh criticism of Ahmadinejad branded him as a dissenter in the eyes of many conservatives.

In a sign of his waning powers, Rafsanjani’s stance cost him his position as one of the Friday prayer leaders at Tehran University, a highly influential position that often is the forum for significant policy statements.

But some analysts believe that Rafsanjani was kept within the ruling fold as a potential mediator with America and its allies in the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program. His past stature as a trusted Khomeini ally also offered him political protection. Rafsanjani was a top commander in the war with Iraq and played a key role in convincing Khomeini to accept a cease-fire after years of crippling stalemate.

Nearly 25 years later, Rafsanjani tried to revive his credentials among a new generation of reformers by recounting proposals he made to Khomeini in the late 1980s to consider outreach to the United States, still seen by hard-liners as the “Great Satan.”

His image, however, also had darker undertones. He was named by prosecutors in Argentina among Iranian officials suspected of links to a 1994 bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people. Some Iranian reformers accused him of involvement in the slaying of liberals and dissidents during his presidency — charges that were never pursued by Iranian authorities.

“The title of Islamic Republic is not just a formality,” he said in 2009 in the chaos after Ahmadinejad’s re-election. “Rest assured, if one of those two aspects is damaged we will lose our revolution. If it loses its Islamic aspect, we will go astray. If it loses its republican aspect, (the Islamic Republic) will not be realized. Based on the reasons that I have offered, without people and their vote there would be no Islamic system.”

Rafsanjani — a portly man with only sparse and wispy chin hairs in contrast to the full beards worn by most Islamic clerics in Iran — first met Khomeini in the Shiite seminaries of Qom in the 1950s and later became a key figure in the Islamic uprising that toppled the U.S.-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979.

His smooth-skinned visage gave him another nickname that also fit his ruthless image: The Shark. He was elected as head of Iran’s parliament in 1980 and served until 1989, when he was elected for the first of two four-year terms as president.

Here, Rafsanjani began to build his multilayered — and sometimes contradictory — political nature: A supporter of free enterprise, a relative pragmatist toward foreign affairs and an unforgiving leader who showed no mercy to any challenges to his authority.

Rafsanjani took a dim view of state control of the economy — even in the turbulent years after the Islamic Revolution — and encouraged private businesses, development of Tehran’s stock market and ways to boost Iranian exports. His priority was to rebuild the country after eight years of bloody war with Iraq that killed an estimated 1 million people.

He built roads and connected villages to electrical, telephone and water networks for the first time, earning the title of Commander of Reconstruction by his supporters. There were certain self-interests at play, as well.

Rafsanjani was assumed to be the head of a family-run pistachio business, which grew to become one of Iran’s largest exporters and provided the financial foundation for a business empire that would eventually include construction companies, an auto assembly plant, vast real estate holdings and a private airline. In 2003, he was listed among Iran’s “millionaire mullahs” by Forbes magazine.

His economic policies won him praise from Iran’s elite and merchant classes, but brought bitterness from struggling workers seeking greater state handouts. Rafsanjani also faced warnings from the ruling theocracy about pushing too far. None of his reforms dared to undercut the vast power of the Revolutionary Guard — which Rafsanjani briefly commanded, and which controls every key defense and strategic program.

Rafsanjani’s complex legacy also was shaped by the times. He took over the presidency in a critical time of transition just after the death of Khomeini. He tried to make overtures for better ties with the U.S. after the American-led invasion of Kuwait in 1991 to drive out Iraqi forces, arguing that Iran paid too high a price for its diplomatic freeze with Washington.

But he could not overcome opposition from Iranian hard-liners and failed to win the backing of Khomeini’s successor as supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for bold foreign policy moves. He also angered the West by strengthening Iran’s ties to armed groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

“One of the wrong things we did, in the revolutionary atmosphere, was constantly to make enemies,” he said in a 1987 interview. “We pushed those who could have been neutral into hostility.” Rafsanjani was born in 1934 in the village of Bahraman in southeastern Iran’s pistachio-growing region of Rafsanjan. His father, too, was a pistachio farmer with a growing business that would later be expanded into a colossal enterprise.

Rafsanjani was jailed for several years under the shah. He then helped organize the network of mullahs that became Khomeini’s revolutionary underground. In 1965, he is reputed to have provided the handgun for the assassination of Iran’s prime minister, Hassan Ali Mansoor.

Only months after the revolution, Rafsanjani was shot once in the stomach by gunmen from one of the groups vying for power amid the political turmoil. He was not seriously wounded — and neither was his wife, who jumped in front to shield him from the attack.

“Great men of history do not die,” Khomeini said in announcing that Rafsanjani had survived. In 1980, Rafsanjani was appointed head of the new parliament, or majlis, and was often regarded as the second most powerful man in the country. Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, the republic’s first president, who was forced into exile in 1981 during a power struggle, described Rafsanjani in Machiavellian terms.

“He’s a man with a marked taste for power,” he said in a 1989 interview with The Associated Press from his exile in France. “He’s a political animal.” Bani-Sadr said Rafsanjani also used to play the role of court jester to amuse Khomeini.

“He’s a man who makes people laugh,” Bani-Sadr said. “It’s a great art. He makes Khomeini laugh. He uses this to gain his objectives … He’s not brilliant as an organizer and he doesn’t have too many original ideas, but he’s a manipulator and he’s intelligent.”

During the 1980s, he used his links with Lebanese Shiite extremists to help secure the release of Western hostages in Lebanon and was a key middleman — identified as “Raf” in Pentagon documents — in the secret Iran-Contra dealings to funnel U.S. arms to Iran in exchange for money used to fund Nicaraguan rebels.

Although Rafsanjani was seen by Washington as a potential ice breaker in relations, his views were far from solidly pro-Western and displayed conflicted positions. Shortly after becoming president in 1989, he urged Palestinians to kill Westerners to retaliate for Israel’s attacks in the occupied territories.

“It is not hard to kill Americans or Frenchmen,” he said. In February 1994, Rafsanjani survived a second assassination attempt. A lone gunman fired at him as he was speaking to mark the 15th anniversary of the revolution. Unhurt and unshaken, Rafsanjani calmed a crowd of thousands and continued his speech.

The Iran-Contra fallout is an often-told tale about the dangers of crossing Rafsanjani. After word was leaked to a Beirut magazine about Rafsanjani’s involvement, he ordered the arrest of the source, a senior adviser to the ruling clerics named Mehdi Hashemi, for treason and other charges. Hashemi and others were executed in September 1987.

After leaving the presidency, Rafsanjani’s main forum was his spot as one of the Friday prayer leaders. His sermons could run for more than two hours and were delivered without notes. In 1999 — amid the first major pro-reform unrest at Tehran University — he praised the use of force to put down the protests.

A decade later, however, he was dismayed at the brutal crackdown against opposition groups and others claiming Ahmadinejad won re-election in June 2009 through vote rigging sanctioned by the ruling theocracy.

Khamenei decided to throw his backing behind Ahmadinejad, effectively snubbing Rafsanjani and his complaints. Later, Rafsanjani fell short on efforts to mobilize enough moderate clerics in the Assembly of Experts — the only group with the power to dismiss the supreme leader — to force possible concessions from Khamenei on the postelection clampdowns.

Rafsanjani was forced out of the post in 2011, but remained as head of the Expediency Council, an advisory body that mediates disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council, a watchdog group controlled by hard-line clerics.

In January 2012, a court sentenced Rafsanjani’s daughter, Faezeh Hashemi, to six months in prison on charges of criticizing the ruling system. In 2013, Iran’s election watchdog rejected his nomination for the presidential campaign, hinting at his age.

In 2015, a court sentenced his younger son, Mahdi, to a 10-year prison term over embezzlement and security charges. Rafsanjani is survived by his wife, Effat Marashi, and five children.

Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report. Biographical material in this story was written by former AP staffer Brian Murphy.

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After Aleppo’s fall, Hamas finds itself resisting Tehran as well as Tel Aviv

Wednesday 28 December 2016

The fall of Aleppo to Iran-backed pro-government forces has brought a bubbling conflict between Iran and Hamas to the boil, with the former making thinly-veiled threats to cut off the Palestinian group.

The threats came from Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the Iranian Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee, in the wake of increasing solidarity from Hamas to Aleppo.

In an interview last week with the reformist Qanun newspaper, Falahatpisheh made clear there would be material consequences if Hamas did not change its position on Iran’s role in the region, not least its intervention in Syria.

If Hamas does not reconsider the “inconsistent positions by its leaders,” Tehran will be forced to turn to “the most detested of available options” – turning to other Palestinian factions such as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, said Falahatpisheh on 21 December.

The tensions between Hamas, the most renowned anti-Israel movement in the region, and Iran are significant, as Tehran legitimizes its foreign policy through its “Axis of Resistance” against Israel and the United States, which includes Hamas, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“Currently, the sphere of influence of the resistance extends from the Indian subcontinent to the borders of Israel,” Falahatpisheh said.

The harshness of the senior Iranian official’s tone underlines the depth of the crisis in relations. Falahatpisheh accused Hamas of continuing to “support terrorist groups working under the umbrella of the Syrian opposition”.

He described Hamas’ current stance as “hostile,” and saw the group as moving out of Iran’s sphere of influence.

Falahatpisheh demanded Hamas not forget that Syria was, in his words, “a leader in the resistance, and much of its misfortunes are now due to this position”.

Hamas’ support for Aleppo

“We are following with great pain what is happening in Aleppo and the horrific massacres, murders and genocide its people are going through, and condemn it entirely,” read a statement from Hamas at the height of the bombardment of Aleppo.

The movement asked those whom it described as “wise, free and responsible in the ummah (global Islamic community) to act promptly to protect civilians in Aleppo and save those who are still alive”.

It also called on international, human rights and humanitarian institutions around the world to intervene immediately to “stop these dreadful massacres, stand by the children, women and elderly of Aleppo and save them from death and destruction”.

Ahmed Youssef, a senior Hamas figure and former foreign relations head, told al-Khaleej Online that his group would not change course – not least after what happened in Aleppo.

Youssef said the group’s position reflected that of the Palestinian public, who themselves have suffered similar brutality during Israel’s repeated assaults on the Gaza Strip.

He was adamant that Hamas would continue to stand in solidarity with Syria and condemn the killing of civilians there.

During Hamas’ recent parade commemorating the movement’s 29th anniversary, civilian Gazans and Qassam Brigade soldiers alike were seen carrying banners in solidarity with the people of Aleppo.

Hamas-Iran tensions

On the issue of Iranian-Hamas relations, the Iranian outlet Qanun threw in its own two cents: “It seems that Hamas moved away from Iran a long time ago.”

“This can be clearly seen from what is taking place in Syria. All of this is occurring at a time when leaders of the movement deny the existence of any differences of opinion between Tehran and the movement.

“In reality, however, their actions contradict their words.”

“Its financial relations with the Arabs are the reason behind the incoherent positions among the movement’s leaders,” Falahatpisheh said, going as far as to add that the “Israeli lobby” was influencing the group’s position.

He accused a “current” within Hamas of “seeking to save Daesh under the label of the Syrian opposition”.

There are also tensions within Hamas’s leadership over Iran’s influence on the group’s direction, which were made public through information leaked to the London-based pan-Arab al-Sharq al-Awsat daily.

The leaks came from a meeting of senior Hamas leaders, where a leading commander of Hamas’s military wing expressed his concern over growing Iranian influence due to its financial and military support for the group.

Salah al-Arouri is a founding commander of Hamas’ military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and the movement’s preeminent figure in the West Bank.

According to the leaks, he accused Qassem Soleimani – leader of the Quds Force, the elite branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) – of trying to weaken the Qassam Brigade’s allegiance to Hamas and attempting to absorb them into the Quds Force.

Arouri also protested in the meeting against the pressure Soleimani was putting on the group to pledge complete loyalty to Tehran in the same way Islamic Jihad had done when their general secretary, Ramadan Shalah, led a delegation to Tehran and pledged an oath of allegiance to the Iranian regime.

Relations between Hamas and Iran deteriorated sharply following the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011. The following year, the group’s leadership left Damascus after being based there for more than a decade. Their funding was reduced drastically shortly thereafter.

“Our position on Syria affected relations with Iran. Its support for us never stopped, but the amounts [of money] were significantly reduced,” a senior Hamas official said in 2013.

In response to this turn of events, Iran ramped up funding for other Palestinian groups, most notably the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Islamic Jihad moves closer to Iran

Islamic Jihad has staged its own show of force in Gaza in recent months in a rally including its military wing – the al-Quds Brigades.

Shalah, quoted in the al-Sharq al-Awsat leaks as criticizing Iranian influence, spoke via video link at the October rally, saying: “[Iran] is the only country which commits to the unending support of the Palestinian cause”.

Islamic Jihad has had their own tensions with Iran over Syria for the past two years, but have recently changed tune and become one of Iran’s most vociferous Palestinian proxies.

Earlier this year, Shalah led a Palestinian Islamic Jihad delegation to Tehran and met with Soleimani.

“The defense of Palestine amounts to a defense of Islam,” Shalah said, adding: “The Arab states did not support the popular uprising in Palestine and will never support it since it contradicts their leaders’ agendas. Iran is the only state that supports the intifada and the martyrs’ families.”

Soleimani pledged to provide $70m in annual assistance to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad after the visit, which could explain their change in direction.

JPost reported that the move could be seen as a snub to Hamas following the 2015 visit by the movement’s political chief Khaled Meshaal to Iran’s arch-rival Saudi Arabia, which appeared to mark a significant warming of relations with the Gulf state.

At the end of his interview, Falahatpisheh said that Tehran “does not see Hamas as the whole of the resistance.

“If Hamas continues its current political direction in obstructing things, then Iran will develop new relations with other Palestinian groups without seriously harming the resistance.”

Source: Middle East Eye.

Link: http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/after-aleppo-s-fall-hamas-finds-itself-resisting-tehran-well-tel-aviv-1017030317.

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Omanis vote in municipal elections

25 December 2016 Sunday

Voters in Oman headed to the polls Sunday to choose municipal councilors in only the second local election held in the Gulf sultanate.

In 1994 it became the first Gulf monarchy to give the vote to women and in 2011 Qaboos decreed that elections be held for municipal councils.

More than 620,000 voters were registered to take part in Sunday’s polls, which will choose councilors for 11 municipalities including the capital Muscat.

The councilors will have limited powers, as authorities will designate chairmen and deputy chairmen for the municipalities from outside those elected.

“I voted for the person who will best represent me,” Jawhara al-Zadjali said as she left a polling station in Muscat.

Voters across the country are choosing 202 councilors from among 731 candidates, including 23 women, for the four-year posts.

At the national level, Oman has a consultative council with limited powers, the 85-member Majlis al-Shura.

In 2011 Qaboos slightly expanded the powers of the Majlis al-Shura after unprecedented social unrest when the normally quiet nation became caught up in protests which swept the Arab world.

Source: World Bulletin.

Link: http://www.worldbulletin.net/todays-news/182209/omanis-vote-in-municipal-elections.

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