By M K Bhadrakumar
With the "Friends of Syria" (FOS) grouping sponsored by the Western powers and their Arab allies scheduled to hold its first meeting in Tunis on Friday, Russian diplomacy has shifted gear into a proactive mode. The Kremlin was a beehive of diplomatic activity on Wednesday.
The venue of the birthplace of the "Arab Spring" for the FOS to gather might, prima facie, give an impression that the name of the game is high-flown rhetoric and nothing more.
But that is not how Moscow views the developing paradigm. It estimates that Tunis with its Mediterranean climate and languid look has been carefully chosen as a deceptive location for the West to launch a concerted assault on the citadel of President Bashar al-Assad and to legitimize it in the world opinion. Moscow senses that the final assault on Syria by the United States may not far off, although the US propaganda makes it out to be that the Barack Obama administration is on the horns of a dilemma, torn apart by an existential angst.
Moscow has point-blank turned down the "invitation" to be part of the FOS. The Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Tuesday:
Officially we were not informed who will take part in the [FOS] conference or what the agenda will be. Most importantly, it is unclear what the actual goal of this initiative is ... Serious questions arise about the final document of the meeting. According to some information, a small group of countries, without knowledge of others, will be asked to simply stamp a document that is already in the process of being written ... it seems that we are talking about slapping together some kind of international coalition as was the case in organizing the Libya Contact Group in order to support one side against the other in an internal conflict. Russia is for all members of the world community to act as friends of all Syrian people and not only part of it.
Against the backdrop of the Libyan analogy, the Kremlin swiftly moved into the diplomatic arena on Wednesday. President Dmitry Medvedev phoned Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Saudi monarch King Abdullah and the Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
The conversation with Abdullah apparently didn't go far as the terse Kremlin announcement suggests. The state-owned Saudi Press Agency's account claims that Abdullah rebuffed Medvedev virtually by insisting that any dialogue about the Syrian situation is "futile". He said Moscow should have "coordinated with Arabs ... before using its veto [in the UN Security Council]." Abdullah was quoted as saying, "But now, dialogue about what is happening [in Syria] is futile."
Abdullah made it clear that Riyadh has a closed mind on Syria and nothing short of a regime change in Damascus will satisfy the House of Saud.
Medvedev, however, held productive discussions with Maliki and Ahmadinejad. Interestingly, Moscow has sized up Baghdad as a meaningful interlocutor in the Syrian crisis in so short a time after the pullout of the United States' troops from that country.
The Russian initiative to Baghdad is tantamount to an acknowledgement both of Iraq having got back its sovereignty after eight years of foreign occupation and its relevance and its capacity to play a role in the Syrian crisis, as well as a reminder to those who forgot that Iraq along with Syria were two staunch allies of the former Soviet Union in the Middle East.
The Kremlin account of the conversation between Medvedev and Maliki said:
The main subject of discussion was the situation in the Middle East, in particular in Syria, with the emphasis on not allowing outside intervention in Syria's affairs and the need to end the bloodshed as soon as possible and launch a comprehensive dialogue in the country itself between all sides in the conflict. Both leaders stressed that political and diplomatic efforts to stabilize the situation in Syria are the only option and noted the counterproductive impact of economic sanctions against Syria, which only aggravate the Syrian people's social and economic problems. [Emphasis added.]
The stunning development, however, was Medvedev's phone call to Ahmadinejad on Wednesday. Interestingly, it was made on the day after International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors concluded in Tehran what appears to have been an inconclusive mission.
Moscow has been chary of openly displaying a strategic understanding with Tehran on major regional problems lest it got unwittingly entangled in the US-Iran standoff. This political reserve conditioned Moscow's lukewarm attitude to Iran's persistent requests for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Thus, whichever way one looks at it, Moscow crossed the Rubicon on Wednesday to touch base with Ahmadinejad on the Syrian crisis, which Russian commentators increasingly flag as the most critical international issue today, which is reaching "boiling point".
The Russian media account of the Medvedev-Ahmadinejad conversation claimed the two leaders "spoke out" against foreign interference in Syria, while the Kremlin statement said they "urged the resolution of the current crisis by Syrian people using only peaceful means and without any foreign interference. The sides agreed that the main goal today ... is to prevent a civil war in the country, which may destabilize the situation in the whole region."
The Iranian account was more forthcoming.
"Given their common views and positions, Iran and Russia must make more effort to help establish peace in the region and prevent foreign intervention," Ahmadinejad said.
Medvedev, for his part, said certain trans-regional powers seek Syria's disintegration, which is a threat to Middle East security. The Russian president added that Iran and Russia can cooperate to peacefully resolve the crisis in Syria.
Rybakov voiced Moscow's "strong objection" to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the US against Iran and pointed out that such political pressure only impeded a "negotiated solution to the West's standoff with Iran" and complicated Iran's talks with the P5+1 - "Iran Six" - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China plus Germany.
The demarche comes at a point when Russian commentators - like their Chinese counterparts - are increasingly placing the Syrian crisis and the situation around Iran as two vectors of the same matrix. It will bear watch how the Russian-Iranian strategic understanding over Syria develops.
A Russian commentary on Wednesday analyzed that the co-relation of forces in the heart of the Middle Eastern region is changing dramatically:
Syria is developing a special relationship with Iraq, which sympathizes with Syria's efforts to stabilize the domestic situation. It is quite probable that with the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Iran, Iraq and Syria will at some point naturally form a loose, tripartite alliance in the Middle East. Given that the majority of the Iraqis are Shiite and Iran's growing influence in Iraq in the last few years, such a scenario is by no means improbable.
By Pepe Escobar
It ain't easy being POTUS (President of the United States). Korans burned in Afghanistan, "liberated" Libya run by militias, Syria descending into civil war, the never-ending Iran psychodrama. How to find some solace? Simple; if POTUS can't sneak into the House of Blues - the Secret Service won't let him - the blues comes to the (White) House.
In Performance at the White House: Red, White and Blues, was an in-house concert at the East Room praising the blues and Black History Month in the US, part of a music series hosted by POTUS (Barack Obama) and FLOTUS (First Lady Michelle Obama). It will air on PBS on Monday.
And then came the magic moment; ersatz bluesman Mick Jagger hands the mic to POTUS - and the rest is history (see the video ). There was the Al Green precedent (see the remixed video ) when POTUS sent a not so subtle campaign message coded as Green's "Let's Stay Together".
But this was the real deal; POTUS summoning the spirit of Robert Johnson via "Sweet Home Chicago". And what a supporting cast, including the "King of the Blues" himself, B B, 86, introduced by POTUS; Mick Jagger (still delivering the goods on "Can't Turn You Loose"; Buddy Guy; Jeff Beck; and Stax living legend Booker T Jones - who should have been canonized by now - as band leader and musical director. Talk about a home run for the singer-in-chief.
POTUS even issued an official declaration praising the blues; it "teaches us that when we find ourselves at a crossroads, we don't shy away from our problems. We own them. We face up to them. We deal with them. We sing about them. We turn them into art." 
Nuke me baby all night long
Why shouldn't a black man play with the blues at the White House? After all, the US economy is - slowly - starting to turn around (somewhat), even though that nagging song, "16 Trillion/What do you get?" (as in the national debt) can still be heard in the background.
Unemployment is - slowly - down. And the remaining Republican would-be presidential candidates slugging it out are either deranged or carping on that same "Jesus" motif; mullah (Rick) Santorum bills himself as the man who will save America from Satan.
The Tea Party lot are freaking out. Newt Gingrich, in desperation, calls POTUS "the most dangerous president" ever. Mitt Romney - in a presidential debate - says that Iran will give a nuclear bomb to Hezbollah in Lebanon; Hezbollah will bring it to Mexico; then the dirty bomb will be smuggled across the border as an illegal immigrant and explode in Ohio.
And worse of all; these people all suck, musically. They couldn't sing the blues - or soul, or jazz, or gospel, even country - even if their (paranoid) lives depended on it.
Still, the singer-in-chief was not exactly singing the blues when he signed the National Defense Authorization Act late at night on New Year's Eve - when no one was paying attention. The warrior-in-chief has in fact legalized the slipping of the US into a militarized police state - where the Pentagon may send Americans to jail without charge and without trial for the "duration of hostilities" in the never-say-die "global war on terror".
Late next week, POTUS will not exactly sing the blues when he addresses the annual convention of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee - thousands of high rollers in a Washington ballroom clamoring in unison to destroy Iran.
But the day before seems straight out of Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail"; that's when POTUS has to meet with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, who every grain of sand in the Negev desert knows wants to get rid of POTUS and install his own warmongering puppet at the White House.
After all, Bibi even had the nerve to scold US Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Martin Dempsey because the Pentagon stalwart exercised some common sense, saying an Israeli attack on Iran would be "destabilizing" and "not prudent".
POTUS would rather sing the blues than go to war; as for the average American, they seem to be puzzled, or anesthetized by too much ambient noise. According to the latest CNN/Gallup poll, almost 80% believe that Iran either has a nuclear weapon or will get one like, tomorrow; at the same time 63% prefer diplomacy to war in dissuading Iran from going nuclear. So what's the story? To convince Iran to give up the non-existent bombs they might have?
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may regard the blues as devil's music - but at least he has once again stated on the record that Iran "does not seek a nuclear weapon". At the same time, he encouraged Iranian nuclear scientists to proceed with their "fundamental" work for "Iran's national interests".
Amid all this madness, at least Mad Men is back in the Ides of March .
And while his opposition cavorts in the swamps of doom and gloom, POTUS - whom polls attest would defeat any of them - does seem to be singing the blues all the way to the comfort zone.
C'mon/baby don't you wanna go/back to that same old place/Sweet Home White House.
1. See here.
2. See here. 3. Here is a look back at Robert Johnson's crossroads, only a few weeks before POTUS burst into the American political landscape like the Hoochie Koochie Man. 4. See the teaser here.
By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON - Even as United Nations inspectors expressed disappointment about the results of their visit this week to Iran, a former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) urged all parties to make greater efforts to defuse rapidly rising tensions over Tehran's nuclear program to avert war.
"We don't expect too much now, but we need to defuse the most acute things and prepare the road for further talks," said Hans Blix, the former Swedish foreign minister who headed the IAEA, the UN's atomic watchdog, from 1981 to 1997, at a Capitol Hill briefing for congressional staffers on Tuesday. "We are now hoping that there will be a meeting between the Iranians and the P5+1 ["Iran Six" - the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany] perhaps in Istanbul relatively soon, and we are now fearing there could be a war."
"I think we can sit and dream about the big solutions. But for the moment we should be defusing a very acute and dangerous situation," noted Blix, who also led the special UN inspection unit that investigated whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the run-up to the 2003 US invasion.
The latest developments came as a high-level IAEA delegation returned from a two-day visit to Iran - its second in less than a month - apparently frustrated that some requests of the Iranian authorities were denied.
Although IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said that the visit to Tehran took place in a "constructive spirit", Iran had refused his delegation's request to visit its Parchin military base, which the IAEA suspects may be used for weapons-related testing.
For its part, an Iranian government spokesman insisted that cooperation with the IAEA "continues and is at its best level".
Mark Fitzpatrick, a nuclear expert at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote Wednesday that Tehran's refusal to permit the inspectors to go to Parchin did not mean the end of diplomacy.
"In dealing with Iran, nothing ever happens quickly," he wrote, adding that more meetings to press Tehran into answering a series of questions about the possible military applications of its nuclear research will likely take place.
Meanwhile, Blix warned that all parties in the growing crisis over Iran's nuclear program "have boxed themselves into a corner".
Blix, who in a 2004 book accused president George W Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair of exaggerating the WMD threat in Iraq in order to rally their publics behind the invasion, stressed that the most urgent task for the moment was to reduce tensions between Iran and Israel, which have risen sharply over the past two months, and prepare "the road for further talks" to prevent any disastrous "unintended consequences".
Among other things, the US and the European Union (EU), which, besides Israel, have taken the hardest line on Iran, should make clear to Tehran that "all our offers are on the table" and "not just the threats", he told a briefing that was sponsored by the National Iranian American Council.
Reports that Israel may attack Iranian nuclear facilities some time this year, as well as counter-threats by Tehran, have raised anxieties - as well as the price of oil - in key capitals around the world, including in Washington and London, two of Israel's closest allies.
Last weekend, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, who had returned from talks the week before with top officials in Israel, told CNN that an Israeli strike wouldn't be "prudent" at this time. He also described Iran as a "rational actor".
Dempsey's remarks reportedly drew scorn from top Israeli officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, according to Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper, complained to President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, when he visited Jerusalem last weekend.
"The Iranians see there's controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act. That reduces the pressure on them," a senior Israeli official told the daily.
Appearing with Blix at Tuesday's briefing was Colin Kahl, until recently the Pentagon's top Middle East official. He told staffers that an Israeli strike on Iran would prove counter-productive. "If you're worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon, the nearest pathway to that is probably a relatively ineffective Israeli strike," he said.
Kahl argued that the Israeli calculation about Iran's nuclear program is "slightly different" than Washington's.
The Israelis say they are worried that key uranium-enrichment capabilities could soon be buried so deep underground - notably at its Fordow plant near Qom - that they may be impervious to Israel's biggest conventional bombs, allowing Tehran to enter a "zone of immunity" within months.
The Obama administration, however, has argued that the situation is not nearly so urgent, not only because Washington has munitions that could penetrate Fordow, but also because Iran faces many more challenges that would take at least two to three years to overcome in building a missile-deliverable weapon if it chose to do so.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense to launch a preventive war on the basis of the zone of immunity if all you'll do is force your adversary to reconstitute its program in the facilities you can't get at," Kahl noted.
That point was echoed at Tuesday's briefing by former chief IAEA inspector Robert Kelley, who stressed that all of Iran's facilities that could be used to develop a nuclear-weapons capacity are under IAEA inspection.
"We want that to stay that way, and the worst thing that I can imagine right now is doing something short of war that causes the Iranians to kick the IAEA out. That would be a disaster."
If, indeed, Iran threw out the inspectors as a result of an Israeli attack, noted Kahl, the international community would go "blind, [and] we would be forced into this situation of having to permanently encircle Iran and be ready to restrike on a moment's notice with very bad intelligence on what they were actually doing," he said.
"Eventually it's a question of will power, a question of decision," said Blix, who argued that, while the Iranians are on a nuclear "path", it's a "long fuse before they will have a weapon". He added that the "end of the diplomatic line" has not yet been reached and that the benefits for all parties of a negotiated settlement would likely outweigh the costs.
Nonetheless, the Israel lobby is working hard on Capitol Hill to limit Obama's flexibility in any upcoming P5+1 negotiation.
Last week, at least 30 senators introduced a resolution calling on the administration to rule out both a strategy of "containment" against a nuclear Iran and any negotiated settlement that would permit any enrichment of uranium by Iran on its own soil, even if Tehran agreed to the strictest possible IAEA oversight to ensure that none of it could be diverted to a weapons program.
A former top Middle East analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Paul Pillar, warned on Monday that the resolution, if adopted, "walks the United States farther down a path to launching its own war against Iran".
While noting that the resolution is not binding, Kahl agreed that its "rhetoric" and "signaling" would prove counter-productive to prospects for a successful negotiation.
The effect of "boxing negotiators in" is to make a diplomatic solution "less likely and a kinetic outcome more likely", he warned.
On Wednesday, Russia added its voice to warnings against an Israeli strike on Iran. "Of course any possible military scenario against Iran will be catastrophic for the region and for the whole system of international relations," Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said.