Thursday, September 25, 2008

Briefly on Obama and Turkey, U.S. vs. Iran, U.S. backing of Georgia over Abkhazia

First published in July 19, 2008 Armenian Reporter

Washington Briefing
by Yelena Osipova and Emil Sanamyan

Rep. Wexler: U.S.-Turkey ties to “blossom” under Obama presidency

Under the presidency of the Democratic party hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, American-Turkish relations will not only do well, but they will “blossom,” Rep. Robert Wexler (D.–Fla.), co-chair of the congressional Turkey Caucus and an Obama supporter predicted on July 14.

Mr. Wexler, who also chairs the House Subcommittee on Europe, made the claim at a presentation of his book, The Fire-Breathing Liberal, hosted by the Turkish Coalition of America, a lobbying group. (A review of the book’s chapter on Turkey will appear in September 13, 2008 issue of the Armenian Reporter.)

Unlike his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Democratic presidential hopeful issued a detailed statement on the “importance of U.S.-Armenia relations.” In the January 19, 2008, statement, Mr. Obama pledged that “as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” while supporting a settlement of the Karabakh conflict “based upon America’s founding commitment to the principles of democracy and self-determination.”

Turkish leaders have expressed annoyance and anxiety over Mr. Obama’s statements, with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan angrily calling him an “amateur” last January.

On April 24, and again earlier this month, Mr. Obama reiterated his strong support for the affirmation of the Armenian Genocide while questioning the Bush Administration’s policy on the issue. (See his questions to Ambassador-Designate Yovanovitch elsewhere in this issue of the Armenian Reporter.)

That didn’t stop Mr. Wexler from stumping for both Mr. Obama and Turkey. “I don’t think there is any legitimate foreign policy voice in this country that would not agree that in order to remove 150,000 American troops responsibly from Iraq we are going to need to cooperate very closely with Turkey. And I know that Sen. Obama understands that,” Mr. Wexler argued, without claiming, however, that the need for cooperation would also force the potential president to renege on his strong and repeated pre-election pledges.

Asked by the Armenian Reporter why he chose not to highlight his role in opposing the Armenian Genocide resolution in the justpublished book, Mr. Wexler noted he represents a district with probably the largest number of Holocaust survivors.

“Issues relating to genocide of any type, alleged or not, have great sensitivity,” Mr. Wexler admitted, adding that one of his opponents an upcoming congressional election is a son of a Holocaust survivor and is very critical of Rep. Wexler’s position on the Genocide resolution.

U.S. seen to be softening approach on Iran

In what is seen as a reversal of the U.S. policy of refusing to negotiate with Iran, and despite another spike in a mutually acrimonious rhetoric over the past month, Undersecretary of State William Burns (the State Department’s number three) will join the European Union’s “foreign minister” Xavier Solana, as he meets Iran’s diplomats in Switzerland this weekend.

The development came just as Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that the United States will soon establish a diplomatic presence in Iran.

The United States and the European Union are anticipating Iran’s response to their “incentives” offer in exchange for Iran stopping its nuclear program. Previously, the Bush administration refused to talk with Tehran before the Islamic Republic suspends its uranium enrichment program.

Iran argues that it is not bound by any treaty to halt enrichment and claims its program is peaceful.

The White House said that Mr. Burns’ trip is meant to demonstrate the West’s unity on the issue.

Nevertheless, Reuters quoted the White House spokesperson also saying that in case Iran rejects the incentives package, there will be no negotiations, and additional sanctions will be introduced against Iran.

Middle East tensions have been increasing since June, as Israel air forces held massive exercises described as a “mock raid” on Iran, and Iran responded with tests of medium and long-range missiles, which, it says, are capable of reaching Israel.

At the same time, a longtime supporter of revising U.S. policy, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) and Congressional Democrats including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Howard Berman (D.-Calif.) have called for unconditional U.S. talks with Iran. Mr. Hagel also argued for stationing U.S. diplomats in the U.S. interests section in Iran, a step short of a full-fledged embassy.

These developments came as Israel and Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah exchanged the bodies of two Israeli soldiers for five live Hezbollah prisoners – the first such swap ever. The two soldiers were killed and their bodies captured during a cross-border Hezbollah raid in 2006 which sparked a month-long Israeli war on Hezbollah in Lebanon.

U.S. weighs in for Georgia as explosions in Abkhazia claim lives

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Georgia last week to reaffirm U.S. support, as its Caucasus ally appeared nearer to an open military confrontation with the de facto independent Abkhazia and its ally Russia.

Speaking in Tbilisi on July 10, Dr. Rice said it was “extremely important that the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia be resolved on the basis of principles that respect [Georgia’s] territorial integrity.” She also stressed the need for peaceful settlement of the conflicts, suggesting that “some of the activities that Russia has engaged in have not promoted a peaceful resolution.”

In recent months Russia has beefed up its military presence in Abkhazia from 2,000 to 2,500 and sent combat aircraft on patrols over both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it no longer recognizes as Georgian territories. Russian aircraft reportedly flew near Tbilisi, as Ms. Rice arrived.

More recently, so-far-unidentified saboteurs set off a series of explosions throughout Abkhazia, killing four and wounding more than a dozen civilians last week.
Abkhaz officials accused the Georgian government of a “terrorist campaign” and for the first time in several years sealed the border with Georgia.

The developments have led a number of commentators in Georgia, Russia, Europe, and the United States to warn that tensions may spiral out of control and result in
a new war.

But two Abkhazia-based commentators contacted by the Armenian Reporter – Diana Kerselyan of the Sukhum Media Club and Akhra Smyr of the Independent Expert Fund – did not believe that the most recent escalation heralded an outright war.

Mr. Smyr hinted that the escalation was intended by Georgia “for media purposes” to once again draw international attention to the conflict, while Ms. Kerselyan pointed to Georgia’s reliance on the United States, which has argued repeatedly against a resumption of fighting that could also draw in Russia.

Georgia agreed to a Russian peacekeeping presence in its former Black Sea province of Abkhazia in 1993, after losing a war for its control launched a year before. In recent years, as Georgia strengthened its military under its pro-American president Mikhail Saakashvili, Tbilisi sought the removal of Russian forces and return of Abkhazia, and another former province it attacked in the early 1990s, South Ossetia, under its control. At the same time, Georgia has pushed for membership in NATO, to Moscow’s chagrin.

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