Iran and the ‘universal space of friendship’

Dr. Mohammad Mahallati, in his office this week at Oberlin College, says the U.S. is pushing a dated Cold War ideology of stability over democracy in the Middle East.

In the face of recent unrest, many Middle Eastern governments have focused their energies inward to satisfy or, more frequently, deter protesters who are demanding reform. Not Iran, which stands to benefit from the shifting balance of power in the region. Last week, Iran sent two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time in three decades, prompting one U.S. government adviser to tell The New York Times that, among the current turmoil, “Iran is the big winner.” Need to Know spoke with former U.N. ambassador Dr. Mohammad Mahallati this week about the protests and Iran’s new role in a region that Mahallati feels is, even today, trying to shed the burdens imposed by the United States’ “Cold War mentality.”

Mahallati served as the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations from 1987 to 1989, when he worked on U.N. Security Council Resolution 598 to end the violence between Iran and Iraq that began with the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980. For 10 years before that, Mahallati served as director-general for international affairs during one of the country’s most formative periods. Since his time in the U.N., Mahallati has taught politics at Columbia, Princeton and Georgetown, and is currently a presidential scholar of Islam at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio. Mahallati is currently working to have Congress declare April 8 International Friendship Day.

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Chinese government issues preemptive crackdown of ‘Jasmine Revolution’ protests

A man, center, is detained by police officers near the planned protest site in Shanghai, China, on Feb. 27, 2011. AP/Eugene Hoshiko

Barely one week after a call was issued for Chinese citizens to catapult off the Middle East uprisings and launch small-scale demonstrations of their own, Chinese government officials have already begun a sweeping campaign to arrest, interrogate and at times assault anyone suspected of participating.

The anonymous call to protest was posted on the U.S.-based Chinese language news website Boxun.com on Feb. 19, asking the public to participate in weekly Sunday rallies against governmental corruption, growing inequality and lack of social services for Chinese citizens. “We call upon each person who has a dream for China to bravely come out to take an afternoon stroll at two o’clock on Sundays to look around,” the message read. “Each person who joins in will make it clear to the Chinese ruling party that if it does not fight corruption … the Chinese people will not have the patience to wait any longer.” The post listed meeting locations throughout all of China’s provinces, and quickly spread on Twitter.

Some Chinese netizens openly regarded the plan as a joke because of the anonymous identity of the post’s author. Moreover, because both Boxun.com and Twitter are often blocked in China, it remains unclear how many protesters were actually inspired to attend. That Sunday, there were no shouting demonstrators or protest signs to be found at Beijing’s meeting point in Wangfujing district, a busy shopping area. Instead, plainclothes police officers and security teams flooded the area, clearing pedestrians, scrutinizing IDs and questioning bystanders. At the meeting site in Shanghai, three people were detained.

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Killing of anti-blasphemy minister heightens fear for Pakistan’s religious minorities

People rally to condemn the death of Pakistan's government minister for religious minorities Shahbaz Bhatti during a rally in Lahore, Pakistan, on Wednesday. (AP Photo/K.M.Chaudary)

The sole Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet, and a vocal opponent of the country’s controversial blasphemy laws, was assassinated in the state capital of Islamabad Wednesday. Minister for Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti was shot dead by three men while on his way to work from his mother’s home. The assassins pulled his driver out of his vehicle before spraying the minister and his car with bullets.

Pamphlets reportedly dropped by the assassins were found at the attack site, containing anti-blasphemy material, including the statements, “The only fate of blasphemers is death” and “How dare the government make a Christian infidel the head of a committee reforming blasphemy laws.”

The pamphlet was signed by al-Qaeda and Tehreek-e-Taliban Punjab, a banned terrorist group also known as Punjabi Taliban that is behind a string of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks.

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Human Rights Watch in Libya

A Libyan boy sits in front of graffiti depicting Libyan Leader Moammar Gadhafi, in Benghazi, east of Libya, on Feb. 28, 2011. Photo: AP/Hussein Malla

This week, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to refer Moammar Gadhafi and Libyan leaders to the International Criminal Court for prosecution, citing mass atrocities being committed against civilian demonstrators. News organizations, however, are still unable to report accurate numbers of human rights violations, especially in the areas surrounding Tripoli, the country’s capital.

Human Rights Watch researchers are currently working in eastern Libya and along the Tunisian border to investigate crimes committed by Libyan authorities. Fred Abrahams, special crisis adviser at Human Rights Watch, says the organization has direct communication with their researchers and tells Need to Know what they’ve seen.

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UN wants Gadhafi investigated for war crimes — but nobody wants to pay for it

Libya's deputy U.N. ambassador Ibrahim Dabbashi hugs Libya's U.N. ambassador Mohamed Shalgham after a Security Council meeting. Photo: AP/Frank Franklin II

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Saturday to refer Libyan autocrat Moammar Gadhafi to the International Criminal Court for “allegations of widespread or systematic attacks against the civilian population” of his country, according to the ICC.

The vote on Resolution 1970 was only the second time in history that the Security Council had referred a case of possible “crimes against humanity” to the ICC, after Sudan in 2005, and it was the first time the Council had done so unanimously. Many activists interpreted the decision as a sign of the court’s renewed relevance, after years of being shunned by major powers liked the United States and China.

Buried within the text of the resolution, however, was a caveat of sorts: The ICC would have to pay for the investigation, and any prosecution that might follow, by itself.

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Pakistan blasphemy laws retake center stage

A hydra-esque monster has reared its head again in Pakistan, as the country’s controversial blasphemy laws retake center stage.

A prominent Pakistani director, Syed Noor, is about to release a film in which the hero kills a man for blasphemously proclaiming himself a prophet. The central theme of the movie, called “Aik Aur Ghazi” (One More Holy Warrior), is that anyone who dares to commit blasphemy should be killed.

Salman Taseer, governor of Pakistani Punjab Province, met with Pakistani Christian Aasia Bibi at a prison in Sheikhupura near Lahore, Pakistan, in November 2010. Bibi had been accused of blasphemy. Taseer was shot dead less than two months later. Photo: AP

Noor’s film comes in the wake of the assassination of Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab and an outspoken critic of the blasphemy laws. The governor’s killer, Mumtaz Qadri, said Taseer deserved to die for speaking out against the laws. In return for his brutality, Qadri has been met with overwhelming support from the public — he was showered with rose petals on his way to the antiterrorist court in Rawalpindi days after committing the murder, and just last week received Valentine’s Day cards from his supporters. Many of these supporters will undoubtedly flock to see Noor’s film.

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The view from Saudi Arabia

A Saudi man rides his bike by the Masmak Fortress (Qasre al-Masmak) in the old part of Riyadh in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Photo: AP/Hasan Sarbakhshian

NPR’s Deborah Amos is currently reporting from Saudi Arabia. I reached her via phone to find out how Saudis — both royal and regular — are reacting to the events unfolding in Egypt.

LAUREN FEENEY: King Abdullah has been on Mubarak’s side since protesters began calling for his ouster 17 days ago. Why is that?

DEBORAH AMOS: First of all, they are close personal friends, and that counts for a lot amongst leaders.

The second thing is that Saudi and Egyptian intelligence is closely linked. They are each others’ closest allies on issues like Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran….

I heard from diplomats here that there were younger princes who thought it was time for Mubarak to go. They will be comfortable with the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed forces. The UAE has made an official statement supporting Council rule and in the next couple of days we’ll hear other countries in the region do the same.

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What Mubarak’s ouster means for the Arab world and the Middle East peace process

A screen capture of television coverage from Egypt on Al Jazeera today. Photo: Prachatai/Flickr

As Egyptian expats and their supporters across the Arab world celebrated the news of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster Friday, rumors began to spread about how the regime change might affect Middle East politics,  including the fragile Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, the director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, said in a telephone interview that Palestinian activists and Islamists in neighboring countries had already begun to speculate that a new Egyptian government might permanently open the Rafah crossing at the border between Gaza and Egypt.

The border crossing has been closed since Hamas won elections in Gaza in 2007. It was opened briefly after the war in Gaza in 2008 and the deadly flotilla raid last year but closed again two weeks ago after turmoil broke out in Egypt. The crossing is a sensitive issue for Israel, which has accused Hamas of smuggling weapons into Gaza to mount attacks on Israelis.

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Mubarak resigns! A live blog

Egyptians celebrate the news of the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, who handed control of the country to the military, at night in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Feb. 11, 2011. Photo: AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill

5:21 p.m.

“The people and the army are in one hand”

Another dispatch from Egyptian-American journalist Hoda Osman:

Just got back from Tahrir. The army is there keeping the order. They’re not even in the square, they’re just blocking the exits and entrances, but no one is being searched anymore. Now people are just freely walking around and chanting and drinking juice. The nice thing that I really admire is there was someone on a speaker who announced a moment of silence for a minute for those who died. He then announced “We will celebrate till 6 in the morning… and then we’ll start cleaning up Tahrir Square and we’ll make it look better than before.”

People are not afraid of the military taking over. Everyone is taking pictures with the soldiers around the square. One of the big chants is “the people and the army are in one hand.” People trust them because they said that they will guarantee all the changes the people want. The people got what they wanted.

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