- Powers to offer sanctions relief if Iran curbs nuclear program
- Italy faces stalemate after election shock
- Syria says ready to talk with armed opposition
Posted: 25 Feb 2013 07:44 PM PST
ALMATY (Reuters) - Major powers will offer Iran some sanctions relief during talks in Almaty, Kazakhstan, this week if Tehran agrees to curb its nuclear programme, a U.S. official said on Monday.
But the Islamic Republic could face more economic pain if it fails to address international concerns about its atomic activities, the official said ahead of the February 26-27 meeting in the central Asian state, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There will be continued sanctions enforcement ... there are other areas where pressure can be put," the official said, on the eve of the first round of negotiations between Iran and six world powers in eight months.
A spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who leads the talks with Iran on behalf of the powers, said Tehran should understand that there was an "urgent need to make concrete and tangible progress" in Kazakhstan.
Both Russia and the United States stressed there was not an unlimited amount of time to resolve a dispute that has raised fears of a new war in the Middle East.
"The window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot by definition remain open forever. But it is open today. It is open now," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in London.
"There is still time but there is only time if Iran makes the decision to come to the table and negotiate in good faith," he added in a news conference in London. "We are prepared to negotiate in good faith, in mutual respect, in an effort to avoid whatever terrible consequences could follow failure."
It was not clear what he meant by "terrible consequences." Top U.S. officials have repeatedly said the United States will not take any options off the table, code for the possibility of a military strike. They also fear Iran's getting a nuclear weapon could set off an arms race across the Middle East.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said there was "no more time to waste", Interfax news agency quoted him as saying in Almaty.
The immediate priority for the powers - the United States, Russia, China, Germany, Britain and France - is to convince Iran to halt its higher-grade enrichment, which is a relatively short technical step away from potential atom bomb material.
Iran, which has taken steps over the last year to expand its uranium enrichment activities in defiance of international demands to scale it back, wants a relaxation of increasingly harsh sanctions hurting its lifeline oil exports.
Western officials say the Almaty meeting is unlikely to produce any major breakthrough, in part because Iran's presidential election in June may make it difficult for it to make significant concessions before then for domestic reasons.
But they say they hope that Iran will take their proposals seriously and engage in negotiations to try to find a diplomatic settlement.
"No one is expecting to walk out of here with a deal but ... confidence building measures are important," one senior Western official said.
The stakes are high: Israel, assumed to be the Middle East's only nuclear-armed arsenal, has strongly hinted at possible military action to prevent its old foe from obtaining such arms. Iran has threatened to retaliate if attacked.
GOLD SANCTIONS RELIEF?
The U.S. official said the powers' updated offer to Iran - a modified version of one rejected by Iran in the unsuccessful talks last year - would take into account its recent nuclear advances, but also take "some steps in the sanctions arena".
This would be aimed at addressing some of Iran's concerns, the official said, while making clear it would not meet Tehran's demand of an easing of all punitive steps against it.
"We think ... there will be some additional sanctions relief" in the powers' revised proposal," the official said, without giving details.
Western diplomats have told Reuters the six countries will offer to ease sanctions on trade in gold and precious metals if Iran closes its Fordow underground uranium enrichment plant.
Iran has indicated, however, that this will not be enough.
Tehran denies Western allegations it is seeking to develop the capability to make nuclear bombs, saying its programme is entirely peaceful. It wants the powers to recognise what it sees as its right to refine uranium for peaceful purposes.
The U.S. official said the powers hoped that the Almaty meeting would lead to follow-up talks soon.
"We are ready to step up the pace of our meetings and our discussions," the official said, adding the United States would also be prepared to hold bilateral talks with Tehran if it was serious about it.
Ashton's spokesman, Michael Mann, said the updated offer to Iran was "balanced and a fair basis" for constructive talks.
(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati and Dimitry Solovyov and by Arshad Mohammed and Mohammed Abbas in London; Editing by Jon Hemming)
(This story corrects headline to make clear offer contingent on nuclear programme curbs)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 25 Feb 2013 06:50 PM PST
ROME (Reuters) - Italy faced political deadlock on Tuesday after a stunning election that saw the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement of comic Beppe Grillo become the strongest party in the country but left no group with a clear majority in parliament.
The centre-left coalition led by Pier Luigi Bersani won the lower house by around 125,000 votes and claimed the most seats in the Senate but was short of the majority in the upper house that it would need to govern.
Bersani claimed victory but said it was obvious that Italy was in "a very delicate situation". Party officials said the centre-left would try to form a government but it was unclear what its options would be.
Neither Grillo, a comedian-turned-politician who previously ruled out any alliance with another party, nor Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right bloc, which threatened to challenge the close tally, showed any immediate willingness to negotiate.
World financial markets reacted nervously to the prospect of a government stalemate in the euro zone's third-largest economy with memories still fresh of the financial crisis that took the 17-member currency bloc to the brink of collapse in 2011.
Italy's borrowing costs have come down in recent months, helped by the promise of European Central Bank support but the election result confirmed fears that it would not produce a government strong enough to implement effective reforms.
Grillo's surge in the final weeks of the campaign threw the race open, with hundreds of thousands turning up at his rallies to hear him lay into targets ranging from corrupt politicians and bankers to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In just three years, his 5-Star Movement, heavily backed by a frustrated generation of young Italians increasingly shut out from permanent full-time jobs, has grown from a marginal group to one of the most talked about political forces in Europe.
Its score of 25.5 percent in the lower house was just ahead of the 25.4 percent for Bersani's Democratic Party, which ran in a coalition with the leftist SEL party and it won almost 8.7 million votes overall, more than any other single party.
"The 5-Star Movement is the real winner of the election," said SEL leader Nichi Vendola, who said that his coalition would have to deal with Grillo, who mixes fierce attacks on corruption with policies ranging from clean energy to free Internet.
"It's a classic result. Typically Italian," said Roberta Federica, a 36-year-old office worker in Rome. "It means the country is not united. It is an expression of a country that does not work. I knew this would happen."
A long recession and growing disillusion with mainstream parties fed a bitter public mood that saw more than half of Italian voters back parties that rejected the austerity policies pursued by Prime Minister Mario Monti with the backing of Italy's European partners.
Berlusconi's campaign, mixing sweeping tax cut pledges with relentless attacks on Monti and Merkel, echoed many of the themes pushed by Grillo and underlined the increasingly angry mood of the Italian electorate.
Stefano Zamagni, an economic professor at Bologna University said the result showed that a significant share of Italians "are fed up with following the austerity line of Germany and its northern allies".
"These people voted to stick one up to Merkel and austerity," he said.
Election rules give the centre-left a solid majority in the lower house, despite its slim advantage in terms of votes, but without the Senate it will not be able to pass legislation.
Calculations by the Italian Centre for Electoral Studies, part of LUISS university in Rome, gave 121 seats to Bersani's coalition, 117 to Berlusconi, 54 for Grillo and 22 to the centrist coalition led by Monti.
That leaves no party or likely alliance with the 158 seats needed to form a Senate majority.
Even if the next government turns away from the tax hikes and spending cuts brought in by Monti, it will struggle to revive an economy which has scarcely grown in two decades.
Monti was widely credited with tightening Italy's public finances and restoring its international credibility after the scandal-plagued Berlusconi, whom he replaced as the 2011 financial crisis threatened to spin out of control.
But he struggled to pass the kind of structural reforms needed to improve competitiveness and lay the foundations for a return to economic growth and a weak centre-left government may not find it any easier.
(Additional reporting by Naomi O'Leary and Stephen Jewkes; Editing by Doina Chiacu)
Messy election outcome to weigh on Italian markets
Comic Grillo stuns Italy with astonishing election showing
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 25 Feb 2013 06:27 PM PST
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Syria is ready for talks with its armed opponents, Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem said on Monday, in the clearest offer yet to negotiate with rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad.
But Moualem said at the same time Syria would pursue its fight "against terrorism," alluding to the conflict in which the United Nations says 70,000 people have been killed.
His offer of talks drew a dismissive response from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was starting a nine-nation tour of European and Arab capitals in London.
"It seems to me that it's pretty hard to understand how, when you see the Scuds falling on the innocent people of Aleppo, it is possible to take their notion that they are ready to have a dialogue very seriously," Kerry said.
He said U.S. President Barack Obama was evaluating more steps to "fulfil our obligation to innocent people," without giving details or saying whether Washington was reconsidering whether to arm the rebels, an option it has previously rejected.
"We are determined that the Syrian opposition is not going to be dangling in the wind," Kerry said.
Obama has carefully avoided deeper U.S. involvement in Syria, at the heart of a volatile Middle East, as he has withdrawn troops from Iraq and extracts them from Afghanistan.
Assad and his foes are locked in a bloody stalemate after nearly two years of combat, destruction and civilian suffering that threatens to destabilise neighbouring countries.
Syria's Moualem said in Moscow that Damascus was ready for dialogue with everyone who wants it, even with those who have weapons in their hands "because we believe that reforms will not come through bloodshed but only through dialogue."
"WAR AGAINST TERRORISM"
Russia's Itar-Tass, which reported his remarks, did not say if Moualem had attached any conditions for the dialogue.
"What's happening in Syria is a war against terrorism," the agency quoted him as saying. "We will strongly adhere to a peaceful course and continue to fight against terrorism."
Moaz Alkhatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition, told reporters in Cairo he had not been in touch with Damascus following Moualem's offer. "We have not been in contact yet, and we are waiting for communication with them," he said.
Syria's government and the political opposition have both suggested in recent weeks they are prepared for some contacts - softening their previous outright rejection of talks to resolve a conflict which has driven nearly a million Syrians out of the country and left millions more homeless and hungry.
The opposition says any solution must involve the removal of Assad, whose family has ruled Syria since 1970. Disparate rebel fighters, who do not answer to Alkhatib or other politicians in exile, insist Assad must go before any talks start.
Brigadier Selim Idris, a rebel military commander, told Al Arabiya television that a ceasefire, Assad's exit, and the trial of his security and military chiefs must precede any talks.
Damascus has rejected any preconditions and the two sides also differ on the location for any talks, with the opposition saying they should be abroad or in rebel-held parts of Syria, while the government says they must be in territory it controls.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed alarm about events in Syria, which he said was at a crossroads.
"There are those who have set a course for further bloodshed and an escalation of conflict. This is fraught with the risk of the collapse of the Syrian state and society," he said.
"But there are also reasonable forces that increasingly acutely understand the need for the swiftest possible start of talks ... In these conditions the need for the Syrian leadership to continue to consistently advocate the start of dialogue, and not allow provocations to prevail, is strongly increasing."
Lavrov's warning that the Syrian state could founder appeared aimed to show that Russia is pressing Assad's government to seek a negotiated solution while continuing to lay much of the blame for the persistent violence on his opponents.
Russia has distanced itself from Assad and has stepped up its calls for dialogue as his prospects of retaining power have decreased, but insists that his exit must not be a precondition.
A deputy to Lavrov said the West had not matched Moscow's peace efforts. "Our Western partners ... have to some degree encouraged (the opposition) to continue the armed fight," Itar-Tass quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying.
The Syrian National Coalition said on Friday it was willing to negotiate a peace deal, but insisted Assad could not be party to it - a demand that the president looks sure to reject.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has said Assad had told him he would complete his term in 2014 and then run for re-election.
International deadlock over how to bridge the political chasm between Assad and his opponents has allowed an increasingly sectarian conflict to rage on for 23 months.
Assad, announcing plans last month for a national dialogue, said it would exclude "traitors" and "puppets made by the West."
Kerry is to meet Lavrov in Berlin on Tuesday, but a senior U.S. official said he expected no breakthrough on Syria there.
The new secretary of state is also to meet Syrian opposition leaders at a "Friends of Syria" conference in Rome on Thursday.
The Syrian National Coalition said on Monday it would attend the Rome meeting, reversing a decision it made last week to stay away in protest at Syrian government missile strikes on Aleppo.
The change of mind came after Kerry called Alkhatib to urge him to attend.
"I want our friends in the Syrian opposition council to know we are not coming to Rome simply to talk. We're coming to Rome to make the decision about next steps," Kerry said earlier.
Following up on Kerry's call, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden phoned Alkhatib to welcome his decision to travel to Rome, stressing that the talks there would be an opportunity to consult on "ways to speed assistance to the opposition and support to the Syrian people," the White House said.
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh and Ayman Samir in Cairo, Arshad Mohammed and Mohammed Abbas in London and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alistair Lyon, Michael Roddy and Lisa Shumaker)Five killed by Damascus car bomb - monitor group
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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