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Pompeo repudiates Obama Mideast policy, takes aim at Iran

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Pompeo repudiates Obama Mideast policy takes aim at Iran

CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a scathing rebuke of the Obama administration’s Mideast policies on Thursday as he denounced the former president for “misguided” and “wishful” thinking that diminished America’s role in the region, harmed its longtime friends and emboldened its main foe: Iran.

In a speech to the American University in Cairo, Pompeo unloaded on President Donald Trump’s predecessor for being naive and timid when confronted with challenges posed by the revolts that convulsed the Middle East, including Egypt, beginning in 2011. Pompeo laid the blame notably on a vision outlined by President Barack Obama in a speech he gave in Cairo in 2009 in which he spoke of “a new beginning” for U.S. relations with countries in the Arab and Muslim world.

“Remember: It was here, here in this very city, another American stood before you,” Pompeo told an invited audience of Egyptian officials, foreign diplomats and students. “He told you that radical Islamist terrorism does not stem from ideology. He told you 9/11 led my country to abandon its ideals, particularly in the Middle East. He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning.’ The results of these misjudgments have been dire.”

“In falsely seeing ourselves as a force for what ails the Middle East, we were timid about asserting ourselves when the times — and our partners — demanded it,” Pompeo said, without mentioning the former president by name.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and his wife Susan, right, are greeted by Assistant Foreign Minister For North and South American Affairs, Reda Habeeb Ibrahim Zaki , second from left, and Charge d’Affaires for the US Embassy in Egypt, Tom Goldberger at they arrive at Cairo International Airport in Cairo, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

Pompeo blamed the previous administration’s approach to the Mideast for the ills that consume it now, particularly the rise of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and Iran’s increasing assertiveness, which he said was a direct result of sanctions relief, since rescinded by the Trump administration, granted to it under the 2015 nuclear deal.

He criticized Obama for ignoring the growth of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon to the detriment of Israel’s security and not doing enough to push back on Iran-supported rebels in Yemen.

Since Trump’s election, however, Pompeo said this was all changing.

“The good news is this: The age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering,” he said. “Now comes the real ‘new beginning.’ In just 24 months, actually less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes. We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, Egypt

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Pompeo is in Cairo for talks with Egyptian leaders as he continues a nine-nation Middle East tour aimed at reassuring America’s Arab partners that the Trump administration is not walking away from the region. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

In the speech entitled “A Force for Good: America’s Reinvigorated Role in the Middle East,” Pompeo extolled the Trump administration’s actions across the region cementing ties with traditional, albeit authoritarian governments, taking on the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria and imposing tough new sanctions on Iran.

“President Trump has reversed our willful blindness to the danger of the regime and withdrew from the failed nuclear deal, with its false promises,” Pompeo said.

Since withdrawing from the nuclear deal with Iran last year, the administration has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Tehran and routinely accuses the nation of being the most destabilizing influence in the region. It has vowed to increase the pressure until Iran halts what U.S. officials describe as its “malign activities” throughout the Mideast and elsewhere, including support for rebels in Yemen, anti-Israel groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The nations of the Middle East will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability, or advance the dreams of its peoples if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course,” Pompeo said.

In a rebuttal to the speech, a group of mainly former Obama administration foreign policy officials rejected Pompeo’s assertions as petty and weak.

“That this administration feels the need, nearly a decade later, to take potshots at an effort to identify common ground between the Arab world and the West speaks not only to the Trump administration’s pettiness but also to its lack of a strategic vision for America’s role in the region and its abdication of America’s values,” the National Security Action group said in a statement.

Pompeo’s speech came on the third leg of a nine-nation Mideast tour aimed at reassuring America’s Arab partners that the Trump administration is not walking away from the region amid confusion and concern over plans to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

Earlier in Cairo, he met with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss security and economic cooperation.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the U.S. Embassy compound in the Iraqi capital Baghdad after his tour around Irbil in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the U.S. Embassy compound in the Iraqi capital Baghdad after his tour around Irbil in the Kurdish autonomous region of northern Iraq on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool Photo via AP)

Trump has boasted of his close relationship with el-Sissi, a former general who has been criticized for his human rights record and democratic shortcomings. The Trump administration has resumed weapons sales to Egypt that had been suspended over human rights concerns, including the jailing of several American citizens on what U.S. officials say are false charges.

At a brief news conference with Shoukry, Pompeo said he raised human rights with both el-Sissi and Shoukry and reminded them that “open and honest public debates are a hallmark of a thriving society.” He said he discussed a “panoply” of rights concerns, including the detention of political prisoners but gave no specifics.

Shortly before Pompeo arrived, the State Department noted improvements in Egypt’s human rights record. It welcomed the recent acquittal of employees of American civil society groups who had been “wrongly convicted of improperly operating in Egypt” and said the U.S. supports el-Sissi’s pledges “to amend Egyptian law to prevent future miscarriages of justice.” On Wednesday, however, an Egyptian court sentenced a leading activist behind the country’s 2011 uprising to 15 years in prison after convicting him of taking part in clashes between protesters and security forces later that year.

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Culture and Religion

Rep. Ilhan Omar’s excuses attacking Israel by saying she attacks Saudi Arabia, too

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Rep Ilhan Omars excuses attacking Israel by saying she attacks Saudi Arabia too

New Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has been outspoken against the Israeli government for years. Some of her public condemnations including calling Israel evil and claiming they’ve “hypnotized the world.” But Israel is an ally to the United States and her role in the House of Representatives will put her position to affect change on our relationship.

Her excuse for attacking Israel is that she also attacks Saudi Arabia.

“I say the same things if not worse when it comes to the Saudi government,” she said. “I’ve called for boycotts of hajj, and boycotts of Saudi Arabia, because to me it is important when you see oppression taking place – when you see regression – when you see our values being attacked as humans, you must stand up, and it doesn’t matter who the inhabiters of that particular region might be.”

My Take

It wasn’t just Omar that is concerning. The narrative being formed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour was equally discouraging. How she framed the relationship between AIPAC and the U.S. government was thinly veiled spite towards the Jewish group.

“There’s generally sort of a rite of passage for politicians in the United States, and that is to sort of profess sort of fealty or at least pay homage to AIPAC, the pro-Israel PAC that is very, very prominent,” she said.

I won’t even try to deconstruct that silly statement.

As our EIC pointed out, Omar’s perspectives are a real concern on the foreign relations front:

There is no room for bigotry of any kind in the House of Representatives. We need to watch closely as she toes the line between calling out the nation of Israel for what she perceives as offenses and actual antisemitism, which often follows.


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Iran and the Taliban: A tactical alliance?

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Iran and the Taliban A tactical alliance

However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. In 1998, the two sides nearly came to a direct clash when Taliban forces killed Iranian diplomats, though the incident ended without a major conflict. However, the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, the fear of a resurgent ISIS in Afghanistan, and water issues have prompted Tehran to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. This tactical alliance will enable Iran to further expand its influence in Afghanistan.

Iran has had covert contacts with the Taliban, the most dangerous terror group in Afghanistan, for many years. But recently, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), went public with the relationship, claiming that contacts had been made with the aim of “curbing the security problems in Afghanistan.”

The announcement came as a surprise not because the public was unaware of Iran’s secret relations with the Taliban, but because Tehran has always tried to keep its ties to terror groups an “open secret” in an attempt to maintain plausible deniability. Why did Tehran decide to go public about the Taliban connection now?

A review of the relationship’s history may help to explain the mullahs’ thinking. Relations between Iran and the Taliban have long had their ups and downs. During the period of Taliban rule, Iran saw the group as a threat to its interests. The two sides almost came to a direct clash in September 1998, when Taliban forces kidnapped and killed nine Iranian diplomats and one journalist in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) vowed revenge and prepared to launch an all-out attack. But the crisis ended without a major clash, perhaps due to the fear that Islamabad would retaliate in support of the Taliban or that Afghanistan might become a quagmire for Iranian forces similar to that experienced by the Soviet Union in 1979-89.

The 2001 US-led military operation that led to the collapse of Taliban rule prompted the Iranian leadership to reconsider its original calculation and recalibrate its approach. It welcomed high-level Taliban figures who escaped to Iran (e.g., Abdul Qayum Zakir and Mullah Naim Barich) and began extending support to Taliban fighters.

While the two sides are on different ends of the religious spectrum, Tehran views the Taliban as a useful point of leverage against the US. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a NATO force composed of American, British, Canadian, and other troops, was created by the UN in 2002 and tasked with training the fledgling Afghan army and protecting the government of Hamid Karzai and his successor, Ashraf Ghani. The Iranian regime viewed the ISAF with concern, as it feared the US might use Afghanistan as a base from which to launch a kinetic attack on Iran. The Taliban insurgency thus became viewed by Tehran as a tool with which to keep American forces preoccupied.

To assist in the Taliban’s fighting of the ISAF, Iran allowed the Afghan terror group to open an office in Tehran and invited its leaders to attend a two-day International Islamic Unity Conference held by the World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought in Tehran.

Iran’s support for the Taliban did not terminate even when President Barack Obama assured the mullahs that the military option was no longer official US policy towards Iran. Intelligence reports indicate that Tehran’s military and financial support for the Taliban has in fact escalated ever since. Afghan military officials have accused the Revolutionary Guards of providing military, financial, and logistical support to the terror group, to the extent that Tehran’s support enabled the Taliban to capture districts in western Afghanistan, including the provinces of Farah and Ghor, and the Taywara district. There are also reports indicating that Quds Force operatives had a “physical presence” in Ghor assisting Taliban fighters in their offensive against the central government.

Fighting ISAF was only one of the goals of the Quds Force in Afghanistan. Drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Iran has been a profitable business for the Quds Force, which is known for its extensive ties to drug cartels in South America. In 2012, the US Department of the Treasury (DOT) designated Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Baghbani, the chief of the Quds Force in the Zahedan office, a narcotics trafficker. The DOT document noted that in return for Iranian business, Afghan traffickers moved weapons to the Taliban.

Financial incentives aside, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan – especially in provinces that border Iran, such as Herat, Farah, and Nimruz – rattled the Iranian regime, prompting the leadership to ramp up its engagement with the Taliban. Unlike al Qaeda and the more malleable Taliban, the radical anti-Shiite ISIS poses a real threat to Iran’s interests in Afghanistan. Providing better training for the Taliban was thus not only a way to undermine the American-led ISAF, but a barrier to a new ISIS caliphate across the Afghan border.

Various reports indicate that the IRGC created a training camp in South Khorasan province (Khorasan Jonobi) to train Taliban fighters, providing them with weapons and explosives. The Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation (Komite Emdad Imam Khomeini) in the same province is said to be donating untold amounts of capital to the terror group in addition to calling for volunteers to fight alongside Taliban forces.

Some observers have directly linked improvements in the Taliban’s performance, and ISIS’s consequent inability to establish a strong foothold in Afghanistan, to Iranian support. Since mid-2017, Taliban and ISIS forces have regularly clashed in eastern Nangarhar province, with the Taliban easily defeating ISIS thanks to the military support it has received from the Quds Force. As one commentator put it, the “scale, quality, and length of training is unprecedented and marks not only a shift in the proxy war between the United States and Iran in Afghanistan but also a potential change in Iran’s ability and will to affect the outcome of the Afghan war.”

Other commentators have noted that Iran’s backing of the Taliban’s assaults on government forces were linked to water issues. Iran has been attempting to enable the Taliban to derail energy projects that are currently under construction, namely the Poze Lich Hydropower plant in Ghor, and the Bakhshabad and Salma dams in the neighboring province of Farah and Herat, respectively. The construction of these dams, which would massively boost local energy and water supplies, is not acceptable to Iran. On July 5, 2017, President Hassan Rouhani declared that Iran “cannot remain indifferent to the issue [water dams], which will damage our environment.” According to Rouhani, “construction of several dams in Afghanistan would affect Khorasan and Sistan-Baluchistan provinces,” and Tehran “is not going to stand idly by.”

It is worthy of note that the publicizing by Iran of its ties to the Taliban came days after reports appeared on talks between the US and the Taliban over proposals for a ceasefire in Afghanistan. Iran is sending a message to Washington and Kabul that if its concerns are not addressed, it can sabotage any attempt at a permanent peace in Afghanistan. Certainly, given Iran’s ties to the Taliban and the new regional arrangements (i.e., Trump’s decision to withdraw half of US forces from Afghanistan), Iran will be able to further expand its political, economic, and sectarian influence in that country.

Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a member of the  Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) in Washington, DC and the co-author of Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counter-Proliferation Intelligence (Rowman & Littlefield, NY). @Farhadrezaeii


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New IDF chief Kochavi: The army is ready for any mission

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New IDF chief Kochavi The army is ready for any mission

• Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi becomes 22nd chief of staff in ceremony at Kirya military headquarters

• IDF “expresses what is best in the people,” he says

• PM: “You are carrying a heavy responsibility. The goal is clear – to retain superiority over our enemies.”

 The leadership of the Israel Defense Forces passed from former Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in a formal ceremony at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday morning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kochavi’s wife, Yael, pinned his new insignia on his uniform.

In his first speech as IDF chief, Kochavi said, “I am taking on this role with awe, and see it as a privilege.”

“I am making a commitment to put all my energy into a lethal, efficient, and innovative army that can meet its goals. The army expresses what is best in the people. It is ready for every mission and is all about victory. The IDF has used its long arm to eradicate threats,” Kochavi said.

Netanyahu said, “Our mission for the security of Israel must not encounter obstacles. We have worked to keep those who want to kill us from getting stronger … The stronger we are, the bigger our chances for peace.

“Muslim countries understand that we aren’t the enemy, but rather a source of support,” he said.

The prime minister wished Eizenkot success in civilian life.

Addressing Kochavi directly, Netanyahu said, “You are carrying the heavy responsibility of making sure that the IDF fulfills its missions. The goal is clear – to ensure that we retain our superiority over our enemies. We will guarantee an iron fist against our enemies, near and far.

“In the next decade, we will complete an active [defense system] that will cover the entire country. We need to add more to the defense budget to protect what we have achieved with the economy. There is no substitute for our sons’ and daughters’ determination to stand up for their country. We aren’t seeking needless wars, but in necessary ones, we will be forced to make sacrifices,” Netanyahu said.

Eisenkot also spoke at the ceremony, calling his own 40 years of IDF service a “mission.”

“I saw it as a responsibility to bring every soldier home alive. Every day, we are tested in fighting our enemies. I am leaving a trained, prepared, and powerful army that has bolstered its power through insight and determination, and which has proved that victory is a foremost value,” Eizenkot said.

“As an army of the people, we must do everything to protect the IDF’s place as a central point of national consensus,” he added.

Following the ceremony at the Kirya, the Kochavis were due to visit the President’s Residence in Jerusalem for a lunch with President Reuven Rivlin and his wife, Nechama. While in Jerusalem, there were also set to visit the Western Wall and the Mt. Herzl National Hall of Remembrance. Later Tuesday, Kochavi was scheduled to return to Tel Aviv for an honor guard for the outgoing chief of staff at the Kirya military headquarters and a toast in his new office.

Kochavi was born in Kiryat Bialik, outside Haifa. His mother was a phys ed instructor and his father owned a shop. In 1982, Kochavi volunteered for the IDF Paratroops Brigade, and he was made commander of the paratroopers in 2001, a position he held during Operation Defensive Shield in 2003.

Kochavi adopted the tactic of using sledgehammers to break the walls of homes during house-to-house raids so troops could avoid getting trapped in terrorist ambushes.

Later, Kochavi was made commander of the Gaza Division, which he oversaw during Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and the abduction of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit on the Gaza border in 2006. An investigative committee convened to probe Schalit’s abduction found no fault with the chain of command at the time of the incident.

In 2010, Kochavi became head of Military Intelligence. Kochavi was head of Military Intelligence during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, after which he came under harsh criticism over the state of the IDF’s intelligence before the operation was launched. Kochavi was also accused of having failed to detect and address the terror tunnels dug by Hamas beneath the Gaza border.

In November 2014, Kochavi was made GOC Northern Command. One of the important initiatives he introduced was the IDF’s “good neighbor” policy, in which Israel provided humanitarian aid and emergency medical care to Syrians near the border. During his tenure at the Northern Command, the IDF also began tracking tunnels that Hezbollah was digging underneath the Israel-Lebanon border.

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