- Moderate cleric Rohani leads early Iran election results
- How Obama crossed his own line on Syria after months of debate
- 'Yes we can' to 'Yes we scan', Obama returns to Berlin
Posted: 14 Jun 2013 08:56 PM PDT
DUBAI (Reuters) - Moderate cleric Hassan Rohani took a commanding lead ahead of conservative rivals in Iran's presidential election, according to initial results, but his tally appeared narrowly insufficient to avoid a second round run-off on June 21.
With about 5 percent of the votes counted, the former nuclear negotiator appeared to have benefited from a late surge in support among liberal Iranians attracted by his progressive policies.
Under the election rules, a candidate has to win more than 50 percent of the total votes cast to win outright. A first round winner gaining less than that must compete with the runner-up in a second round a week later.
Rohani has about 45 percent of the votes so far.
Voting was extended by several hours at polling stations across the country on Friday as millions of Iranians turned out to cast their ballot in the first presidential race since a disputed 2009 contest led to months of political unrest.
Of the 1,819,984 votes counted so far, Rohani received 834,859, with his closest competitor, Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, getting 320,562 votes, an election official announced live on state television.
In third place was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, with 257,822 votes, followed closely by Mohsen Rezaie, a former head of the elite Revolutionary Guard, with 214,368 votes.
Trailing the field were former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati with 106,144 votes, and little-known former minister Mohammad Gharazi with 25,324 votes.
The election is unlikely to radically alter ties between the West and the OPEC member nation of 75 million, but could tone down the confrontational style favoured by current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
World powers in talks with Iran over its nuclear programme are looking for any signs of a readjustment of its negotiating stance after eight years of intransigence.
Security has been tight and campaigns subdued compared to the euphoric rallies that preceded the last presidential election in 2009, when reformist supporters thought they scented victory and the prospect of change in Iran.
Those hopes were dashed when rapid announcements gave Ahmadinejad 63 percent of the vote, returning him to office and starting a series of deadly protests that lasted for months.
Rohani received significant boosts earlier this week when reformist candidate, Mohammad Reza Aref, withdrew in his favour. His campaign was also endorsed by former presidents Mohammad Khatami and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
In contrast, Iran's big-hitting conservatives failed to organise themselves around a unity candidate, suffering what appeared a decisive split in their support base as a result.
(Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati and writing by Marcus George in Dubai; Editing by Peter Cooney and William Maclean)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:44 PM PDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Obama's decision to arm Syrian rebels for the first time follows an intense, nearly two-year debate within the White House in which the president and his closest advisers consistently expressed scepticism about U.S. intervention in a Middle East civil war, current and former officials said.
The two deciding factors in the decision to change course, they said, were growing military gains by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, aided by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia, and harder intelligence that the Syrian military had used chemical weapons in the form of sarin nerve gas.
Which of the developments played a greater role in tipping the balance was unclear. Publicly, the Obama administration pointed to the evidence of chemical weapons use, which one senior administration official said had "ripened" in the last two weeks.
Some of the U.S. officials said on Friday that the real game-changer in Obama's calculus on Syria was not the chemical weapons issue - which had been known about for months - but the growing role of Lebanese-based Hezbollah.
The battlefield advances by Hezbollah have raised the prospect that Assad could stay in power for some time. The Shiite militia's decision to get more directly involved in the conflict against mostly Sunni rebels has also heightened the war's sectarian divide, and increased Sunni-Shiite tensions in neighbouring Lebanon.
U.S. officials and European diplomats also cited as a factor in Obama's decision a looming meeting next week with G8 allies - especially France and Britain - in which Syria will be a major issue.
"Had they not made the beginnings of a move on the issue, the G8 meeting would have been pretty hard on the president," said a European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Obama was roundly criticized by Syria hawks in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere for first suggesting in April that chemical weapons may have been used in the Syrian civil war, crossing a "red line" he set last year, but not then following up with actions against the Damascus government.
But in an interview 10 days ago, well before the White House announced Obama's decision on Thursday, a senior aide insisted that the chemical weapons question had never been dropped.
There are "clear instructions from the president that we are not walking back from the red line," the senior administration official said at the time. "The intelligence community is all over this."
The White House on Thursday announced that it had concluded that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons, and said Obama had decided to supply direct military assistance to the opposition.
While Obama crossed a line of his own in making the move - the White House had for more than a year resisted calls to arm the rebels - he appears determined to keep the United States from getting sucked too deeply into Syria's sectarian civil war.
European officials and others with close knowledge of the situation said the United States would supply the Western-backed Syrian Military Council with automatic weapons, light mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
While significant, the weaponry will not include shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles known as MANPADs that could bring down Syrian military planes and helicopters, officials said.
And for now, Washington is not backing the establishment of a "no-fly zone" over Syria, which would involve a major commitment of U.S. and European air power to counter Syria's extensive air defences, they said, in part because there is no international consensus on the step.
"This is, in a way, a low-cost option," a former U.S. official with extensive contacts in the region said of the White House's new steps, worrying that the U.S. military aid was months too late.
The White House and State Department declined to publicly detail what sorts of weaponry and other materiel will be sent to the rebels, or how quickly it will arrive.
CAUTION AND DIVISION
While Obama has been consistently cautious about U.S. involvement in Syria, his team has been at times less than unified.
Obama's original decision, in August 2011, to call on Assad to leave power, was preceded by intense debate in Washington, London and other capitals, according to diplomats and former officials.
The Pentagon has been consistent in opposing deep U.S. military involvement, such as a no-fly zone.
Last fall, however, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA chief David Petraeus presented a joint proposal for the United States to arm the rebels. The White House turned down the idea.
In the current situation, Secretary of State John Kerry is said to have been active in pressing Obama on the need to do more.
"The constituency within the administration for doing more is much more significant that it was in the past," said Dennis Ross, who was a senior Middle East adviser to Obama. "But the hesitancy remains, I believe."
Ross, who left government in December 2011, said that during his time at the White House, Obama would closely question the wisdom and consequences of Syria options presented by his advisers.
"What's fair to say, he wanted to be very cautious about the kinds of commitments we would make, he wanted to know even then, look if we're going to take steps, I want to hear, tell me where that leads to," Ross said in an interview this week. "Tell me what's the consequence of doing 'X'. And tell me how that is going to improve the situation and make an outcome that we favour more likely."
Ross said that during his time at the Obama White House, the U.S. experience in recent wars, which highlighted the difficulty in changing conditions in Islamic countries, weighed heavily in the president's thinking.
"I don't think you can look at it independently from Iraq and Afghanistan. And particularly the sense that these are easy to get into and hard to get out of," Ross said.
Obama's calculus would have been different, he added, if there had been a "more coherent, more credible and more compelling" opposition in Syria.
A senior Western diplomatic source gave a similar account, saying Obama essentially tells his aides to prove to him that American intervention would improve the situation.
"It's a legitimate position," this source said. "I don't see at this point the Americans authorizing the delivery of heavy weapons."
It remains to be seen whether the aid will change a military picture that has seen Assad's forces, backed by Hezbollah fighters, steadily regain ground against the rebels, capturing the key city of Qusair and preparing for an assault on rebel-held areas of northern Syria.
"We believe that we can make a difference," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said, when asked if the U.S. aid was too little. He noted that Arab nations and Turkey are also supporting the Syrian opposition.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Obama's decision was made some days ago, but would not be more specific.
"This has been something that the national security team and the president has been discussing for weeks. I know the White House said the president decided long before this week," Psaki said.
(Additional reporting by Lesley Wrouhgton, Mark Hosenball, Susan Cornwell in Washington, Lou Charbonneau in New York and John Irish in Paris; Editing by Alistair Bell and Tim Dobbyn)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
Posted: 14 Jun 2013 06:23 PM PDT
BERLIN (Reuters) - Cheered like a rock star when he passed through Berlin five years ago on his way to the White House, Barack Obama faces a cooler reception and tough questions about U.S. spying methods when he returns next week for talks with Angela Merkel and a speech at the Brandenburg Gate.
The visit comes nearly 50 years to the day after President John F. Kennedy landed in a divided Berlin at the depth of the Cold War and, in a powerful message of American solidarity, told encircled westerners in the city: "Ich bin ein Berliner"
Kennedy is the U.S. leader Obama was most often compared with during his run for the presidency, when supporters chanted "Yes we can" at campaign rallies. Young, charismatic and inspirational, he represented hope, renewal and the clean break from George W. Bush that Europeans craved.
"Germany meets the superstar" was the headline on the cover of Der Spiegel weekly before his visit during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. His speech in Berlin's Tiergarten park attracted 200,000 fans who cheered wildly as he acknowledged policy mistakes under Bush and declared: "America has no better partner than Europe".
This week's Der Spiegel cover on the Obama visit was headlined "The Lost Friend".
Obama remains popular with Germans: a poll last week showed that 82 percent of them believe he has done a good job.
But the magic has gone, replaced by questions about Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay military prison, his use of drones to kill al Qaeda militants and, above all, the "big brother" scanning of the Internet and communications that Europeans thought had ended with the Bush era.
Many Germans still recall blanket surveillance under the communist Stasi secret police, and when news of Washington's covert spying programme Prism broke last week, the newspaper headline of choice was "Yes we scan".
"He is still popular but not like he was," said Henning Riecke, who heads the transatlantic relations programme at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
"There's disappointment in Germany that he hasn't been able to close Guantanamo and there are concerns about his tactics in fighting terrorism. People have realised he's not a saint and he's not all-powerful."
After a U.S.-Germany cyber meeting in Washington this week, Germany "noted its concern" about the Obama administration's surveillance programs, the two countries said in a joint statement released on Friday.
According to the statement, the administration stressed that the programs were designed to protect the United States and other countries from terrorist and other threats.
Chancellor Merkel has owed Obama an appearance at the Brandenburg Gate, which once stood next to the Berlin Wall between the communist East and capitalist West of the city, ever since she rebuffed a request from the junior senator from Illinois to speak there in 2008.
This time he is due to address roughly 4,000 invited guests on the eastern side of the Gate, in the enclosed Pariser Platz square. U.S. officials were apparently reluctant to have him speak on the western side, next to the park, because they feared unfavourable comparisons with the turnout in 2008.
The hope in Merkel's camp has been that the visit can give her a boost in the run-up to an election in September when she will be fighting for a third term.
It will also give the two leaders an opportunity to trumpet a free trade initiative between the United States and European Union that both sides hope will boost economic growth, create jobs and give new meaning to a relationship that has lost its emotional grounding since the end of the Cold War.
For Obama, who grew up in Hawaii and spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, Europe has sometimes seemed an after-thought. The signature foreign policy initiative of his first term was his "pivot" to Asia.
German media have made much of the fact that it has taken 4-1/2 years for Obama to make his first presidential trip to Berlin.
"For Obama, the relationship with Europe has been close to a cost-benefit analysis. It's not in his gut," said Jackson Janes, head of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
For her part, Merkel has been preoccupied for the past three years with Europe's financial turmoil. She has come under heavy pressure from the Obama administration to take bolder steps to resolve the crisis and to stimulate growth in Europe.
Merkel's aides, while describing the ties between the two leaders as good and respectful, also concede to strains.
At a G20 summit in Cannes in late 2011, they say Obama tried to persuade the French and Italian leaders at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi, to gang up on Merkel and her euro policies. In 2012 at a G8 summit he hosted at Camp David, Obama embraced new French President Francois Hollande and his pro-growth message, leaving Merkel looking isolated and vulnerable as she pressed the case for austerity and reform.
When discussing Obama, advisers to the chancellor can sound nostalgic for Bush, who held regular videoconferences with Merkel, invited her to his ranch in Texas, and spent countless dinners quizzing her on her youth behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany.
SNOOPING AND SYRIA
Still, the similarities between Obama and Merkel are hard to ignore. Both are outsiders - the first black U.S. president and Germany's first woman leader, who grew up under communism.
Both are pragmatic, tactical leaders with a mastery of detail. When they met in Dresden on Obama's first visit to Germany as president, aides say a discussion on climate change turned into a competition over who knew more about carbon permits.
Talks in Berlin will also be watched for signs of tension. Merkel's spokesman has said she will press Obama for answers on the U.S. surveillance programme. Berlin wants assurances from Obama that the online exchanges of its own citizens are not being monitored from Washington.
Another major topic will be Syria, after the White House said the government in Damascus had crossed a "red line" by using nerve gas and that Obama had authorised sending U.S. weapons to rebels in the country for the first time.
On Friday, a spokesman for the German foreign ministry said the government had "learned of the American decision with respect" but was sticking with its position that it would not arm the rebels.
Merkel and Obama may try to shift the focus to their free trade initiative. An EU-commissioned study estimates the deal could generate economic benefits of roughly 100 billion euros ($130 billion) per year on either side of the Atlantic.
"Despite the pivot to Asia it's the transatlantic marketplace that is galvanizing Washington's attention at the moment," said Charles Kupchan, a professor at Georgetown University. "American and European elites are desperate for growth and jobs and they don't have many arrows left in their quiver."
(Additonal reporting by Jeff Mason, Andreas Rinke and Rachelle Younglai; Editing by David Stamp and Eric Walsh)
Copyright © 2013 Reuters
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