Cuban missile crisis myth constrains today's diplomatic standoffs

Kennedys and Khrushchevs
This post has been corrected.

Fifty years after the superpowers were poised to annihilate each other over nuclear missiles sent to Cuba, the myth prevails that President Kennedy forced Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to back down by threatening to unleash nuclear war.

It took three decades after October 1962, when the world hovered on the brink of a cataclysm, before  documents were declassified that disclosed the back-channel diplomacy and compromise that led to peaceful resolution of the Cuban missile crisis. But even today, hard-liners cling to the narrative that taking a tough, inflexible stance with adversaries is the path to diplomatic triumph.

GlobalFocusThat misguided interpretation hampers diplomacy today, say veterans of the perilous Cold War standoff and the historians who study it. The notion that threatening military action can force an opponent's surrender has created dangerously unrealistic expectations, they say, in high-stakes conflicts like the U.S.-led challenge of Iran's purported quest to build nuclear weapons.

Kennedy didn't stare down Khrushchev with vows to bomb Cuban missile sites, although that was the tactic pushed by his military advisors, recently revealed history of the crisis shows. The president sent his brother, then-Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, to secretly negotiate with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. In the strictest of confidence, RFK offered withdrawal of U.S. missiles from Turkey and a promise not to invade vulnerable Cuba in exchange for the Kremlin pulling out the nuclear arms it had deployed to Fidel Castro's island.

"The secrecy that accompanied the resolution of the most dangerous crisis in foreign policy history has distorted the whole process of conflict resolution and diplomacy," said Peter Kornbluh, Cuba analyst for the National Security Archive at George Washington University. "The takeaway from the crisis was that might makes right and that you can force your opponents to back down with a strong, forceful stance."

Documents released sporadically over the last 20 years show that the crisis was resolved through compromise, not coercion, said Kornbluh, who has spent decades pushing for declassification of U.S.-Cuba history documents related to the crisis. Some 2,700 pages from RFK's private papers were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library just last week.

R. Nicholas Burns, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service now teaching diplomacy at Harvard's Kennedy School, sees applications for the Iran dispute from the real story of the missile crisis resolution.

The fundamental breakthrough in the confrontation occurred "because Kennedy finally decided, against the wishes of most of his advisors, that rather than risk nuclear war he was going to make a compromise with Khrushchev," Burns said. He pointed to the confidential offer to remove U.S. Jupiter missiles from Europe, a turning point still "not well understood -- people think Khrushchev backed down."

In the real world, Burns said, "it is exceedingly rare that we get everything we want in an international discussion. To get something of value, you have to give up something."

Burns sees the outlines of a negotiated agreement with Iran that would prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapon, a plan he believes would be acceptable to Democrats and Republicans once the presidential election is over and the campaign rhetoric that rejects compromise dies down. In exchange for Iran's submitting its nuclear facilities to regular international inspections, Burns said, U.S. and other Western leaders could recognize Iran's right to enrich uranium to the levels needed in civilian arenas, such as energy production and medicine.

Lessons learned in the U.S.-led wars against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan also argue for exhausting every diplomatic option before engaging in armed conflict, Burns said.

"Sometimes it's necessary to use military force -- I'm not a pacifist," said the retired diplomat, who was an undersecretary of State for political affairs under President George W. Bush. "But more often than not, you have to put your faith in diplomacy. We have the time and space to negotiate with Iran."

Differentiating between national interests and those of allies is an even more important lesson gleaned from the missile crisis, said Robert Pastor, an American University professor of international relations and former National Security Council official in the Carter administration.

"Fidel Castro actually urged Khrushchev to attack the United States because he felt American imperialism would try to destroy both Cuba and the socialist world," said Pastor, who credits Khrushchev with wisely rejecting Castro's adventurism in favor of peace. Pastor sees a similar danger of Israel provoking war with Iran, confronting Washington with the need to decide between trying to restrain Israel or fighting a new Middle East war.

Sergei N. Khrushchev, the late premier's son who is now a U.S. citizen and international affairs analyst at Brown University, has been campaigning for a correction of the Cuban missile history at anniversary events this week.

"Khrushchev didn’t like Kennedy any more than President Obama likes [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad," he said in an interview. "But he realized you have to speak to them anyway if you want to resolve problems. We say we will never negotiate with our enemies, only with our friends. But that's not negotiating, that's having a party."

For the record, 8:35 a.m. Oct. 17: This post originally said the RFK papers made public this week were posted on the nongovernmental National Security Archive website. They were released by the National Archives and Kennedy Library.


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Photo: Caroline Kennedy, daughter of late President John F. Kennedy, shows her mother's original copy of the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty to Sergei Khrushchev, son of late Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, next to a photograph of their fathers at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston at a commemoration Sunday of the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. Credit: Michael Dwyer / Associated Press


Long-elusive Philippines peace accord reflects exhaustion

Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels in southern Philippines
With 150,000 dead from decades of religious and ethnic fighting and no family in the southern Philippines free of fear they could be the next slain, Filipinos and their fractious leaders have run out of energy for rebellion.

A road map to peace unveiled this week by the Philippine government and the main rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been hailed by Muslims and Catholics alike as a glimmer of hope that an end is in sight to bloody clashes that have racked the islands since the 1960s. The deal also eases Western concern that foreign Islamic militants could be drawn to remote Philippine jungle camps, already the scene of kidnappings and beheadings.

GlobalFocusUnder the accord to be signed Sunday in Manila, the rebels would eventually enjoy self-rule over a yet-to-be-defined territorial entity to be called  Bangsamoro, or Moro Nation. They would also have more control over the region's rich tropical forests and oil and gas reserves.

The agreement lays out a four-year transition to autonomy for the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. But huge hurdles remain to be cleared: How does the government integrate Islamic rebels into the mainly Catholic ranks of the national armed forces? Which areas of the ethnically diverse south will be included in the new state? Will sharia law be invoked in Bangsamoro, and can it realistically be applied only to the Muslim population, as proposed during the internationally mediated negotiations?

The most perplexing question may be how police and soldiers can disarm the legions of gun-toting rebels and resisters who constitute the only law in much of the south's remote mountains and jungles.

Having weathered dictatorship, corruption and conflict for much of the 66 years they have been independent, Filipinos are eager to answer those daunting questions, relief officials and analysts say.

The agreement reached this week is less the product of strategic give-and-take during years of negotiations than a white flag of surrender to exhaustion sent up by both the government and the rebels. That is the view of Albert Santoli, president of the Asia America Initiative that for more than a decade has provided relief to the tens of thousands of Filipinos who have fled the fighting.

"People are tired of killing each other. They're tired of never knowing if they're going to have to flee their homes," Santoli said. He pointed to the relative harmony in refugee camps that shelter internally displaced Muslims and Christians together as grounds for confidence that Filipinos are eager to work for peace.

Although he views a 2016 target for creating Bangsamoro as unrealistic, Santoli said the deadline may motivate young Filipinos to take advantage of the apparent sincerity of President Benigno Aquino III to broker an end to the fighting.

"The hope is that if everyone is committed to the process that things will get better, that they'll be able to create an attitude of cooperation among youth," Santoli said. "But in practical terms, it will take a generation."

Michael Buehler, Philippines expert for the Asia Society and a political science professor at Northern Illinois University, sees the potential for success in this latest peace effort of the post-World War II era.

"Mindanao is one of the most resource-rich parts of the country," which is its blessing and its curse, Buehler said. The decades of fighting have prevented the south from tapping its valuable tropical woods, minerals and fuels. They have also provided cover for backdoor deals between business interests in the north and southern provincial kingpins who often have sway over the rebels in their fiefdoms.

"Very often Manila has had a divide-and-rule approach to problems in the south," Buehler said. If autonomy looks to be getting in the way of deals cut on the sidelines of the conflict, "that could provide incentive for them to undermine the peace plan," Buehler said of the de facto rural power brokers unlikely to be eager to step aside for Islamic rebel leaders. 

Still, the new plan is seen as a serious effort to integrate Muslims who have long felt like outsiders in the Catholic-dominated state, said Gerard Finin, a senior fellow at Honolulu's East West Center who has traveled and worked in the Philippines since the 1970s.

He sees two major challenges ahead, though. The mediators -- which include the United States, Europe, Malaysia and other Muslim nations -- must strive to keep the rebels unified behind the Moro Islamic Liberation Front leaders during the difficult negotiations ahead. And all must remain vigilant, Finin said, in protecting any new Bangsamoro government from being undermined by the multitude of political, economic and tribal conflicts of interest fueling the violence.

"There are still many big questions to be answered," Finin said. "But things are looking better today than they have for some time."


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Photo: Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels patrol inside their base at Camp Darapan on the island of Mindanao in 2011. The rebels and other unauthorized gunmen would be disarmed under a peace plan to be signed Sunday in Manila. Credit: Ted Aljibe / AFP/Getty Images


No imminent threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, experts say

Mitt Romney in Jerusalem
Israeli and U.S. politicians lately have been bandying about the prospect of an airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities, stirring fear that another destabilizing clash could be provoked in a region already rife with civil war in Syria and other religious and political tensions.

GlobalFocusBut nonproliferation experts and Middle East analysts are skeptical of Israeli claims that the Tehran regime is so close to building a nuclear weapon that time is running out for a peaceful resolution of the decades-long standoff.

"This is a window that has been closing for 15 years now, and it's always imminently about to close," said Jamal Abdi, policy director for the National Iranian American Council. He sees the sudden flurry of diplomacy between Jerusalem and Washington as an outgrowth of the U.S. presidential campaign and Israeli interest in ensuring that the United States continues to hold a hard line against Iran.

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta was in Jerusalem on Wednesday to urge Israeli leaders to let negotiations and sanctions do their work before unleashing any military strike at facilities where Iran is suspected of enriching uranium or storing the processed fuel for potential upgrading to weapons' quality.

His visit followed one Sunday by Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential candidate who put the political spotlight on tension between the nation and Iran by promising to "respect" any decision Israel's leadership takes to protect itself.

The high-profile visits gave a platform to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to proclaim Israeli impatience with diplomacy and sanctions, which he claimed had "not set back the Iranian program by one iota."

Netanyahu complained that "however forceful our statements, they have not convinced Iran that we are serious about stopping them." He put Panetta on notice that Israel is prepared to act alone in attacking Iran if it perceives itself to be at risk.

Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, said Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak used the American visits to send a message to Tehran that Israel won't hesitate to take unilateral action.

Ben-Meir cautions U.S. and other officials against seeing the Israeli threats as mere posturing, pointing out the profound national security concerns that shape Israeli defense policy and the country's unshakable faith that Washington will come to its rescue if a strike against Iran triggers retaliation by Tehran or its well-armed allies in the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia.

"I don’t think Israel is bluffing entirely. There is an element of exaggerating its readiness to act and likelihood of winning. But many advisors to Prime Minister Netanyahu are saying that if he waits six or eight months, they may end up unable to do anything significant in terms of damage" to nuclear facilities that Iran has been moving underground to protect them from airstrikes,  Ben-Meir said.

The veteran analyst of Israeli politics said talks between U.S. and Israeli security officials are focused on a possible "insurance policy" for Israel: The United States would provide bombs capable of penetrating and destroying underground facilities. In close consultation with Washington, the bombs could be used against buried Iranian nuclear sites at a later date, allowing Israel to refrain from any military action now that could embroil the U.S. in another war on the eve of the presidential election.

Threats of military action against Iran are spurred by Israel's frustration with the paltry progress being made at recently resumed negotiations between Iran and six major powers. The talks are aimed at ensuring that Iranian programs are limited to peaceful purposes like energy production and medical research, said Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, a nonproliferation scholar at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"I don’t see any particular breakthroughs in the Iranian program. It's been on a pretty steady course," she said, adding that, as far as preemptive air strikes were concerned, "there is technically no urgency to do this."

Three rounds of high-level talks between Tehran and diplomats from the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain and Germany have failed to produce concessions from either side, and trade sanctions that were tightened last month have succeeded mostly in depriving average Iranians of food and fuel, rather than pushing the regime to open more of its nuclear activities to international inspection.

Still, those pressures are mounting on Iran and raising the cost -- both financially and politically -- of the regime's nuclear pursuits, said Alireza Nader, senior policy analyst on Iran for Rand Corp. He pointed to reports of Iranian demonstrations against rising food prices and shortages, along with demands, even from Iranian elites, that the government give priority to social needs over nuclear investments.

"According to the U.S. intelligence community, the Iranian leadership hasn't even made the decision to weaponize their program,"  Nader said. "They've been creating the technical know-how and the infrastructure, but they haven't made that decision, and there is much more time than the Israelis portray there to be. I don't think an Iranian nuclear weapons capability is inevitable or imminent."


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Photo: Mitt Romney's visit to Jerusalem on Sunday set off a cascade of Israeli threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities in the near future to prevent Tehran from acquiring an atomic-weapons capability. Middle East experts say there is little evidence of an imminent threat from Iran and that the Israeli and U.S. statements are mostly politically driven saber-rattling. Credit: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images

U.S. moves to increase sanctions on Iran

 WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration and Congress each moved Tuesday to further pressure on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.

Scrambling on an issue that has been gaining visibility in the election campaign, House and Senate leaders prepared for a final vote this week on legislation that adds penalties on Iran’s energy, shipping and financial sectors.

Separately, the administration announced an executive order that penalizes a Chinese bank and an Iraqi bank that have helped Iran evade international sanctions. The order also expands sanctions for the purchase of Iranian petrochemical products.

It targets alternative methods Iran is using to settle oil trades and the payment channels outside the normal world financial system that it is using to obtain hard currency.

"Today's action makes it clear that we will expose any financial institution, no matter where they are located, that allows the increasingly desperate Iranian regime to retain access to the international financial system," President Obama said in a statement.

The penalties are the latest in a series that have been imposed on Tehran in hope of persuading it to accept curbs on the nuclear program, which many countries believe is aimed at acquiring  bomb-making capability. The United States has been forced to regularly add penalties as Iran finds ways around them.

House and Senate negotiators reached agreement late Monday on the legislation, which would penalize any company that sells insurance to the state-run National Iranian Tanker Co.,  provides oil tankers to Tehran, or mines uranium with the country. Congressional leaders said they hoped for a House vote  Wednesday and Senate action by the end of the week.

The moves come in a week when Republican president candidate Mitt Romney has charged that Obama hasn’t been tough enough on Iran, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has complained that international sanctions and diplomacy have not set back the Iranian program “one iota.”

Mark Dubowitz, a sanctions advocate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, praised the administration’s steps.

He said  the White House faces a perception that it has been “dragged by Congress into adopting its most forceful sanctions.” The executive order “provides a flexible tool that allows the administration to go on the offensive against both the regime and its critics.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and lead sponsor of some elements of the bill, said that unless Iran agreed to end the nuclear program “we must continue to pursue even tougher measures.”


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Mexico signs anti-piracy treaty, setting up battle with activists

Mexico piracy acta file photo

MEXICO CITY -- Mexico this week quietly signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, or ACTA, a controversial multinational treaty that sponsors say protects intellectual property but opponents call an assault on privacy and freedom of expression.

Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico signed the agreement Wednesday on behalf of the Mexican government in Japan.  The signing immediately set off condemnation among Internet activists in Mexico, who called the government's move a strategic ruse in an election year.

Mexico's Senate must ratify the treaty, but the chamber rejected ACTA in 2010 (link in Spanish).

By signing it while Congress is not in session -- and just days after the presidential election -- the administration of President Felipe Calderon is in effect forcing the issue to the front of the agenda once the new Congress convenes in September and before Calderon's term expires. The president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, assumes office for a six-year term in December. Peña Nieto has so far not indicated a position on the treaty.

ACTA has been negotiated and debated by world governments since it first emerged in 2008. The agreement would help improve international efforts to prosecute content and intellectual-property piracy, including digital and Internet platforms, but also covering trademarks, brands and pirated pharmaceuticals.

Opponents say governments could abuse ACTA and target private users  with criminal charges for downloading copyrighted material, for example, or force Internet service providers to monitor the  online activity of users and turn data over to authorities (link in Spanish).

The United States is a key signatory as of October 2011 with Australia, Canada, Korea, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore and Japan. Last week, the European Parliament rejected ACTA in a crucial vote, a setback for the treaty. ACTA is "too vague, open to misinterpretation, and could therefore jeopardize citizens' liberties," the parliament said in a statement.

Mexico's signing, although contingent on ratification by the new Senate, revives momentum for ACTA supporters.

Rodrigo Roque Diaz, director of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, or IMPI, said in an interview that the government would ask Congress to develop legislation in the fall that would "jointly" protect Internet users concerned about privacy.

"The idea is not to criminalize the independent, private user of the Internet;  the idea is to sanction those who are violating author rights on a commercial scale," Roque Diaz told The Times.

Piracy in Mexico, which is commonly associated with outdoor markets where illegally produced DVDs and CDs are sold, "generates great economic and tax losses" estimated at 2.7 million pesos (about $200,000) an hour, he said. 

Activists in Mexico promised this week to vigorously oppose ratification of ACTA once the Senate convenes. They've started a Twitter campaign to request that each senator-elect stake out a position now  (link in Spanish). 

So far, leftist legislators are assumed to oppose ACTA, while the ruling conservative party members are assumed to support it. Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party will hold the most seats in the new Senate, but the party's position on ACTA is yet unclear.

Antonio Martinez, a free-speech advocate and one of the forefront voices against the treaty  during the Senate's working-group debates on the issue in 2009 and 2010, said the government's signing of ACTA is "trickery."

"It's a very bad signal from the government to the outgoing Senate and to civil society;  it's disdainful of all the work done in the legislature," Martinez said Friday. ACTA "is dangerous for what it doesn't say. The IMPI is wrong, and it's almost as though they haven't even read the treaty," he said.


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Photo: A vendor shows pirated DVDs on a sidewalk in central Mexico City in 2006. Credit: Sarah Meghan Lee / For The Times

Annan returns to Syria to continue peace talks

 Syria military exercise
BEIRUT -- United Nations special envoy Kofi Annan arrived  in Damascus on Sunday for his latest round of talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The former U.N chief’s arrival in the Syrian capital  came after Annan acknowledged  to a French newspaper that his six-point Syria peace plan was failing.

“On Syria, evidently, we have not succeeded,” he told Le Monde newspaper (link in French) on Saturday. "And perhaps there is no guarantee that we will succeed."

The Annan peace plan had called for a cease-fire and for the government to withdraw its troops and heavy armor from populated areas, among other mandates. However, the fighting has accelerated since the plan was unveiled three months ago.

The United Nations did  dispatch a team of 300 unarmed military observers to monitor the implementation of the anticipated truce. But the mission was suspended last month because of the danger posed by continued fighting.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, meanwhile, called Friday for scaling back the monitor mission in Syria to refocus on political efforts on putting an end to an increasingly bloody conflict.

Annan’s surprise visit to Syria marks at least his third trip to the crisis-torn country in recent months, but the violence showed  no sign of abating as he touched down in Damascus.

Syrian activists reported heavy shelling in several areas across the country, including in the rebel stronghold of Rastan and elsewhere in Homs province, as well as in the southern Dara province.

The government said through the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, or SANA, that authorities were battling  “armed terrorist groups” -- the label for the armed opposition - -in various areas throughout the country. 

SANA also announced that the Syrian armed forces held maneuvers Sunday to test “combat capability and ability.”

The naval exercises showed a “high level of combat training and its ability to defend Syria's shores against any possible aggression,” the news agency said, adding that missiles launched from the “sea and coast, helicopters and missile boats” were used during the live-fire exercise by naval troops.

The move may have been in response to a buildup of Turkish forces along the nation's long border with Syria. Relations between the two former allies  have disintegrated since Syrian antiaircraft batteries last month shot down a Turkish military jet off the Syrian coast.


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EU summit stirs little hope of curing what ails the euro

French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris on Wednesday
Economic gurus have called on the European Union for bold and swift action at its Brussels summit to restore confidence in the euro by creating a banking union and collectively guaranteeing struggling members' wobbly debts.

GlobalFocusBut all indications from the key players in Europe's troubled integration project suggested investors and analysts should curb their enthusiasm, as little is expected to come out of the Thursday-Friday gathering of leaders deeply divided over the path forward.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated Wednesday that pooling debts and merging banking operations without centralized regulation would be “economically wrong and counterproductive.” Subjecting countries like Germany to the consequences of other euro users' spendthrift ways also raises constitutional issues, she told the German Parliament on the eve of the summit.

“Because I know the expectations and hopes that are pinned on this summit, I will repeat right at the start what cannot be said often enough,” Merkel said. “There is no quick solution and no simple solution."

Her view that bloc-wide structural changes are needed first to stabilize the euro were reflected in a blueprint  issued Tuesday by European Council President Herman Van Rompuy in which the continent's leaders laid out a vision for a "stage-based process" for economic and monetary union. It speaks of "building blocks" and "a working method" to be identified by December for integration that would be accomplished over a decade.

Continue reading »

6 world powers open Iran nuclear talks with 'new offer'

Officials of six world powers and Iran gathered today in a hopeful but subdued atmosphere for one or two days of talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

BAGHDAD -- Officials of six world powers and Iran gathered today in a hopeful but subdued atmosphere for one or two days of talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program.

The six world powers opened the meeting at an imposing guest house in Baghdad's international zone at midday with a group session led by Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign policy chief. The group is expected to outline a proposed interim deal under which Iran would halt production of 20% enriched uranium, which can be purified relatively easily to material that can be used in a nuclear bomb. It would also surrender control of all of the material and dismantle an underground bunker where it is being refined.

In return, the other nations would hold off on further sanctions against Iran and would provide several incentives, including help with Iran's civilian nuclear program.

[Updated, 3:50 a.m. May 23: Michael Mann, a spokesman for Ashton, emerged from the meeting later to announce: "We've put a new offer on the table. ... We're hoping Iran will react in a good way."

He declined to provide details but said he didn't expect "dramatic happenings." 

A Western official said the proposal would "include confidence-building measures that can begin to pave the way for Iran to demonstrate that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and for it to comply with [U.N. Security Council] resolutions."

It is unclear whether Iranian and American officials will have bilateral discussions. U.S. officials say they are open to direct discussions if they could be productive, but say the same business might be transacted in a group setting.]

[Updated, 5:47 a.m. May 23: After a three-hour opening session, the group adjourned for lunch. Press TV, a news organization controlled by the Iranian government, quoted unidentified sources as saying that the talks would continue Thursday.]

Representatives of the six powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China -- don't expect a deal at this gathering but want Iran to signal that it would make concessions in a comprehensive negotiation.

White House officials have expressed optimism about the talks, but some of the diplomats involved in the discussions are making no predictions.

[Updated, 6:20 a.m. May 23: As the talks got underway, there was a sign that the unity of the six powers on the issue might be weakening.

Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, attacked U.S. lawmakers for adding new sanctions on Iran this week, and said American leaders should be removing them.

"As Iran takes a step toward the global community, the world community should take steps for weaker sanctions against Iran," Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow on Wednesday, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.

Western diplomats have said that Russia and China are firmly behind their latest proposal to Iran, which calls for giving no ground on sanctions.]


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Photo: EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton at a NATO summit in Chicago on Monday. Credit: Mandel Ngan / AFP/Getty Images

Palestinian letter to Israel lays out conditions for peace talks

Palestinian Cabinet
JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met briefly Tuesday with Palestinian Authority leaders to accept a formal letter outlining their demands for restarting stalled peace talks.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was originally expected to attend the much-anticipated meeting, but in the end he skipped it. His office said he had never agreed to take part.

Though Palestinians declined to release a copy of their letter, it reportedly reiterated points they have been making for nearly three years, warning Israel that its settlement construction in the West Bank was undermining Palestinian trust in Israel’s endorsement of a two-state solution.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas refuses to meet with Netanyahu until Israel freezes  construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. He is threatening to renew efforts to seek an upgraded status in the United Nations General Assembly from “observer” to “non-member state.”

An earlier draft of the letter included a threat to disband the authority, thereby dropping administration and funding of the West Bank back in Israel’s lap. But pressure from the U.S. convinced Palestinians to soften that language.

“The purpose of this letter is to hold the government of Netanyahu fully responsible for the deadlock despite many efforts by the Palestinian Authority to salvage the peace process,” said Wasel Abu Yousef, member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the top Palestinian decision-making body.

Netanyahu's office said he will respond with a letter of his own within two weeks. It is likely to repeat his call for Palestinians to return to the negotiating table without preconditions.

Some view the public letter exchange as an empty gesture, reflecting the lack of fresh ideas on both sides. With the entire Middle East region in turmoil, Palestinians in particular appear divided and uncertain about their next move or how to put their statehood bid back on the front burner.

“This letter is another waste of time,” said Palestinian political analyst Hani Masri. “The letter is closer to begging than an ultimatum. It says nothing about disbanding the Palestinian Authority, nothing about rescinding recognition of Israel or suspending security cooperation with it. Even the options it talks about have been tested and they do not seem to work.”

Others say the letter is a final warning that the Palestinians intend to renew a campaign they suspended last fall, seeking international recognition of statehood. Though full membership in the U.N. was blocked by the threat of a U.S. veto in the U.N. Security Council, the authority could probably win support for an upgraded status in the General Assembly, where vetoes do not apply.


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