Morning Report: April 23, 2006

Debka: US, France back down on Syria sanctions, set Lebanon back to "square one". Debka: 'When he visited the White House on April 18, Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora was shocked to discover that president George W. Bush had cooled to the campaign he launched with France against the Assad regime in February 2005, after the assassination of the Lebanese politician Rafiq Hariri. He saw that Bashar Assad and his clique were getting away scot-free from being brought to account as suspects in the crime. Siniora also learned, according to DEBKAfile’s Washington and Middle East sources, that the Americans had abandoned their drive to oust Lahoud, disarm the Hizballah, disband Palestinian militias in Lebanon, and impose on them the implementation of a key UN Security Council resolution. As he left the White House, the Lebanese prime minister remarked: “Lebanon is back to square one. We are left with the ruins of the American-French initiative.” Our sources in Beirut report that, scenting the new winds blowing from Washington and Paris, all the Lebanese militias, including those linked to al Qaeda, are re-arming and rebuilding their strength. ...' Read the rest at the link. (Debka)

Iran: Revolutionary Guards commander shot and killed in Qom. The Intelligence Summit, quoting Iran Focus: 'A commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) was shot dead in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran, earlier this week by a conscript soldier, state-run Persian-language websites reported on Sunday. Seyyed Kamal Kazemi, an IRGC instructor from the 19th Training Garrison in Qom, was shot and killed by an unidentified soldier on Wednesday. The soldier then committed suicide by shooting himself. Kazemi was also a commander of the paramilitary Bassij forces in Qom and led “moral police” units who enforce Iran’s strict religious laws.' (Iran Focus via TIS)

Let's call it "democracy promotion" so we don't scare the Europeans. The US and UK are working on a strategy to support regime change democracy promotion in Iran and Syria, according to the Financial Times: 'The US and UK are working on a strategy to promote democratic change in Iran, according to officials who see the joint effort as the start of a new phase in the diplomatic campaign to counter the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme without resorting to military intervention. A newly created Iran Syria Operations Group inside the State Department is co-ordinating the work and reporting to Elizabeth Cheney, the senior US official leading democracy promotion in the broader Middle East. “Democracy promotion is a rubric to get the Europeans behind a more robust policy without calling it regime change,” a former Bush administration official commented. The new direction, the former official said, reflected a growing belief in the US and UK that diplomacy through the United Nations and partial sanctions were unlikely to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. In the absence of a credible military solution, the argument went that international diplomacy could try to slow down the nuclear programme while more “robust” efforts continued towards the ultimate solution of regime change, he said. US officials said the British input was important because of the Bush administration’s lack of experts on Iran, the legacy of 25 years of frozen diplomatic relations. ... Seeking to fill the US knowledge gap, the State Department last month set up the Iranian Affairs Office in Washington and announced new diplomatic posts for Farsi speakers. Barbara Leaf, an Arabist [Morning Report rolls its eyes], is expected to head the office. At the same time, the separate Iran Syria Operations Group was established to plot a more aggressive democracy promotion strategy for those two “rogue” states. Funding is to come from $75m that Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, announced in February she was requesting from Congress this year, plus some $10m already in the budget.' (Financial Times)

Bolton: Iran to test UN. Knight Ridder via Iran Focus: 'The U.N. Security Council's impending showdown over Iran's nuclear ambitions is a critical test of the effectiveness of the world body, United Nations Ambassador John R. Bolton said yesterday. "If the Security Council can't deal with that threat, then you have to ask yourself what utility the Security Council would be in dealing with terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," Bolton said at a midday appearance before the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia.' (Iran Focus)

Egyptians protest for judicial independence. FFE: 'For the fourth day, the Egyptian judges’ sit-in is continuing in protest to the regime’s attempts to stifle the judges’ endeavors to separate the judiciary from the strong iron grip of the Egyptian regime and the executive power. In the latest escalation to foil attempts to liberate Egypt’s judiciary, the Minister of Justice referred judges Hisham Bastawesy and Mahmoud Mekky (cassation court) to a disciplinary council while threatening to oust them from their positions. Head of the cassation court who is also the head of the higher council for judiciary Fathy Khalifa has started looking into the case filed against Bastawesy and Mekky. Some of the procedures were described by the press as illegitimate. ...' Full post, with photos, at the link. (FFE)