Reaching Millions of Television Viewers in Iran Each Week

Washington D.C. (February 23) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tour of Asia – her first trip abroad – led the news for this week. Other major stories included PNN analysis of a new report on Syria’s chemical weapons productions as relations between the U.S. and Syria appear to be improving; a five-part series on the environment with footage derived from viewers in Iran; and, in human rights news, the surprise release of Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour.


News and Views February 19 – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was quoted on Wednesday as saying he expected U.S. President Barack Obama to send an ambassador to Syria soon to make good on a dialogue offer to countries previously shunned by Washington. President Assad said in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper that he hoped for a new relationship with the United States after the George W. Bush era and that Washington would act as the "main arbiter" in the stalled Middle East peace process. "An ambassador is important," said the Syrian President. During the previous administration, the United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The U.S. held  Syria responsible for allowing Islamist fighters to infiltrate Iraq. President Assad is expected to meet U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, the most senior American to visit Damascus in years and an advocate of restoring ambassador-level ties. "Sending these delegations are important. The number of congressmen coming to Syria is a good gesture. It shows that this administration wants to see dialogue with Syria," said President Assad.  On Sunday, Syria’s ambassador to Washington said that the U.S. Treasury Department has authorized the transfer of $500,000 to a Syrian charity in a sign that it is easing its economic embargo on the country. Imad Mustafa told reporters in Syria’s capital that the money is for the Children with Cancer Support Association and was raised by Syrians living in the U.S. There was no immediate comment from the Treasury Department. In other news, a top U.S. envoy to Afghanistan declared that Iran clearly plays a vitally important role in Afghanistan. Robert Holbrooke’s remarks were made during an interview on Sunday with a private Afghan television network.


News and Views February 19 – News and Views reported Senator Benjamin Cardin (D-MD) called on Syria yesterday to end its three-decade alliance with Iran as Washington reviews its policies towards the Middle East. After talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Senator Cardin urged the Damascus government to seize the opportunity of a new U.S. administration to end the support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups that earned it sanctions from President George W. Bush. "Syria has isolated itself by its partnership of terrorism, by providing safe haven to terrorist organizations, its relations with Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad, and a troubled relationship with Iran," Sen. Cardin said. "The question we came here to try and answer is whether Syria is ready to make important and significant decisions that will bring us closer together and move forward,” he added. Meanwhile, London-based Jane's Information Group said on Wednesday that Syria has increased activity at a suspected chemical weapons production site, a move likely to increase tension with Israel. According to a respected intelligence organization, satellite imagery of the Al Safir site in northwest Syria does not suggest that Damascus is arming for an offensive but this level of activity will fuel concern in neighboring Israel.

News and Views February 17 – PNN reported on possible new dialogue with Syria during  an upcoming visit to Damascus by a high-ranking congressional delegation. Early reports indicate the U.S. may even lift certain sanctions against the country. Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will travel to Syria this week as part of a tour of the Middle East. Sen. Kerry, the democratic presidential candidate in 2004, is expected to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sen. Kerry will be accompanied by Rep. Howard Berman, his counterpart in the House of Representatives. The delegation will not officially represent President Obama, but it could open the way for later contacts with the Syrians on the part of administration officials. Sen. Kerry met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday morning over breakfast, presumably to discuss the upcoming trip to Damascus, according to State Department Spokesman Robert Wood. Unlike House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who went to Damascus in April 2007 to meet with President al-Assad against the wishes of the former president, Sen. Kerry said he had received a green light from Secretary Clinton. Senator Kerry is challenging Syria to demonstrate its seriousness about encouraging peace and stability in the Middle East. The U.S. has accused Syria of allowing foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq, though Syria denies that. In the past, Sen. Kerry has spoken of his concern about what he said was the flow of "money, weapons and terrorists" through Syria into Iraq and Lebanon. In Egypt on Sunday, the senator said the U.S. is eager to talk to Syria, whose president said last month he also wants a dialogue with Washington, but without preconditions.

News and Views February 17 – In another sign of a thaw with Damascus, the Commerce Department recently authorized aeronautics giant Boeing to sell parts to Syria to upgrade two Boeing 747s belonging to state-run Syrian Airlines, according to the English website of the Sana news agency. According to Forbes magazine, the provisional suspension of some U.S. sanctions against Syria date to February 2, two weeks after President Obama assumed office. However, the U.S. at the same time warned it will not abandon the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is charged with investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri. His killing has been widely blamed on the Syrian regime despite its denial of any involvement. Senator Kerry's trip coincides with the fourth anniversary of President Hariri's February 14, 2005 killing. President Obama has said he "fully supports" the Special Tribunal "to bring those responsible for this horrific crime and those that followed to justice." Secretary Clinton backed it up by promising that the United States will provide six million dollars to finance the tribunal, which begins work March 1 in Leidschendam, near The Hague. The contribution will be on top of 14 million dollars already provided by the previous administration, she noted in a statement.


News and Views February 19 – In a surprising move, the Egyptian government released Ayman Nour from prison on Wednesday. In 2005, Mr. Nour challenged Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the September presidential elections. He finished a distant second in a race that was criticized as flawed and in which many voters stayed away from polling stations. Mr. Nour was convicted Dec. 24, 2005, of forging signatures on petitions to register his Al-Ghad party in 2004. Mr. Nour alleged he was prosecuted to eliminate him from politics. His allegations received wide support among human rights groups. The U.S. had pressured the Egyptian government to release Mr. Nour for many years. Speaking of his release to the Associated Press he commented, “Why they did this is unknown...I am coming out with an open heart and am ready to work and nothing has changed. A lot of things have been put on hold over the past years.” U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, commented on the Egyptian Government’s decision to release imprisoned dissident Ayman Nour. On an official visit to Egypt in April of 2007 as part of a bi-partisan delegation, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen met with Mr. Nour’s wife. During the congresswoman’s visit, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen also personally asked Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to free Mr. Nour. Rep. Ros-Lehtinen has signed several letters and petitions calling for Mr. Nour’s release and has authored or co-authored resolutions focusing on violations of human rights in Egypt – and on Mr. Nour’s case specifically. "Ayman Nour’s release is a badly-needed step in the right direction. We hope this decision will be part of a trend towards greater respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms by the Egyptian Government,” said Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. She also said Mr. Nour’s release is a victory for those who refuse to allow their love for freedom to be silenced by intimidation and imprisonment.


News and Views February 19 – Iran's environmental challenges are spotlighted in a five- part series on PNN. Journalists focused on the broad and severe problems of air and water pollution in Iran, sturgeon overfishing in the Caspian Sea, deforestation, and decreasing biodiversity in Iran’s pristine land.  The in-depth series was developed after PNN's audience in Iran responded to an on-air request with photos and video of the country's environmental challenges. The inclusion of this viewer-sent imagery formed the foundation of the series and PNN will continue to request and broadcast imagery showing the depth of the pollution problem in Tehran and beyond as it is received. "This series is unique because it was made possible by the direct participation of the audience who shared their environmental concerns," said VOA Director Danforth Austin. PNN spent months collecting and sifting through significant amounts of both still imagery and video from inside Iran sent by viewers responding to an on-air call for help.  Besides focusing on the scope of Iran's environmental problems and associated health concerns, the series provides examples of how citizen coalitions can play a role in pushing for environmental changes. The pieces presented Iranians with a guidebook on building a grassroots movement by introducing them to the history of citizen based U.S. environmental organizations like the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental organization. "VOA is keen to help its audience confront challenges," stated Mr. Austin. The pieces contained interviews with representatives from the Sierra Club, the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and the Environmental Protection Agency. Ultimately, the goal of the series is to raise awareness of both the scope of Iran’s environmental problem as well as the health concerns associated with the reality of dirty air and water.  Another goal of the series is to empower viewers by providing resources and examples about how citizen coalitions can become forces for environmental change in their homes, communities and ultimately their countries. The series began airing Monday, February 16, 2009 and ended on Friday, February 21.  All of the pieces will be available on line at  PNN’s commitment to this issue will not end at the conclusion of the series and viewers should stay tuned for continued coverage of the environment both in Tehran and around the world.


News and Views February 19 – Senator John Kerry Spokesperson Frederick Jones confirmed that the senator visited the West Bank to meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before heading to Damascus. Senator Kerry (D-MA) on Thursday made a rare visit to the war-ravaged Gaza Strip, but stressed this does not reflect a change of policy towards the territory's Islamist rulers listed by Washington as a terror group. The visit "does not indicate any shift whatsoever with respect to Hamas," said Sen. Kerry, who heads the Senate's powerful foreign relations committee. His first stop in the impoverished Palestinian enclave was the American school left in ruins by the deadly 22-day Israeli offensive that ended on January 18. Talking to a Palestinian lawyer amid the dust and rubble, Sen. Kerry defended Israel for responding to almost daily rocket attacks by Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups. Sen. Kerry briefly toured Islet Abed Rabbo, a northern Gaza community ravaged by the Israeli offensive and he held talks with UN officials in Gaza City. The Senator’s visit coincided with a similar trip by U.S. representatives Brian Baird and Keith Ellison, who expressed dismay at the plight of the overpopulated coastal strip. "The amount of physical destruction and the depth of human suffering here is staggering," Rep. Baird said in a statement issued jointly with Rep. Ellison. The visits were the first by U.S. officials in more than three years. None of the Congressmen met with Hamas, the Islamist movement which seized control of Gaza in June 2007 and which Washington blacklists as a terrorist organization. "What has to change is behavior. What has to change obviously is Hamas's consistent resort to instruments of terror," Senator Kerry said in the Israeli city of Sderot before entering the Palestinian enclave aboard a UN vehicle. "We feel very deeply that no one should have to live under this threat," he said after he and Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni inspected rockets fired by Gaza militants that are exhibited in a Sderot police station. Senator Kerry said on Wednesday that the new U.S. administration will press Syria to help disarm the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as it forges ahead with a fresh diplomatic approach in the region. "We want Syria to respect the political independence of Lebanon.  We want Syria to help in the process of resolving issues with Hezbollah and with the Palestinians," said Kerry after meeting President Michel Sleiman and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. "Unlike the Bush administration that believed you could simply tell people what to do and walk away and wait for them to do it, we believe you have to engage in a discussion," Senator Kerry said. "So we are going to renew diplomacy but without any illusion, without any naivety, without any misplaced belief that, just by talking, things will automatically happen.  They will happen when things are met on both sides and you have to talk with people in order to understand those expectations and reach agreements," he added.

News and Views February 17 – Jordan's King Abdullah II held talks on Monday with visiting Senator John Kerry on ways to resume Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, the palace said. "The king and Kerry discussed efforts aimed at the resumption of negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis," according to a brief palace statement. According to the White House Monday, President Barack Obama had two separate phone conversations with Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. The president emphasized the importance of the United States' alliance with Turkey and said he looks forward to working with both President Gul and Prime Minister Erdogan on a broad agenda of mutual strategic interest. The president emphasized his desire to strengthen U.S.-Turkish relations and to work together effectively in NATO. In both calls, the leaders discussed a number of current issues, including U.S. support for the growing Turkish-Iraqi relationship, the importance of cooperation in Middle East peace efforts, and the U.S. review on Afghanistan and Pakistan policies. Meanwhile, during a visit to Rome on Monday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said The U.S. administration is committed to a "new era of cooperation" with its allies. "You can look forward to that new era of cooperation and that possibly will start with Afghanistan," Rep. Pelosi said at a news conference, adding tongue in cheek, "not necessarily alphabetically." Flanked by her Italian counterpart Gianfranco Fini, the Italian-American Pelosi said, "There is no way that we will establish a policy that then imposes upon others obligations for which they have no consultation." The United States plans to double its presence in Afghanistan, adding a further 30,000 troops to bolster forces fighting a Taliban-led insurgency alongside 50,000 NATO troops. Some 70,000 international troops are currently based in the country. In December, Italy said it would increase its number of troops in Afghanistan by 500 to 2,800 for six months this year in the face of a "delicate operational situation" in western Herat province bordering Iran. Rep. Pelosi defended the United States against accusations of protectionism during a trip to Italy, following concerns about a "Buy American" provision in the U.S. stimulus plan. "Somewhere in the mix of things, someone has decided that America has become, is becoming, more protectionist. I don't think that is the case," Rep. Pelosi told reporters at the Italian parliament. In a move likely to stoke more controversy about whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights are in line with the church, Pope Benedict XVI has granted an audience to Rep. Pelosi. The Catholic News Agency confirmed Monday that Pelosi is to meet Wednesday with Pope Benedict XVI, who has said supporters of abortion rights should not receive Communion.


News and Views February 19 – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has voiced concerns about North Korea's leadership situation. Speaking with reporters while en route to the South Korean capital of Seoul, Secretary Clinton said the administration of President Obama is deeply concerned about a possible change in Pyongyang's ruling structure. Just hours before Secretary Clinton arrived in the South Korean capital, North Korea released a fresh warning stating it is prepared for war with South Korea. In a statement released Thursday by the official Korean Central News Agency, North Korean military officials said their army is ready for an all-out confrontation. The nuclear programs of North Korea, Iran and Syria are among the issues a new IAEA chief will have to deal with as of December 2009. Yukima Amano and Abdul Samad Minty, permanent representatives of Japan and South Africa to the IAEA respectively, are the two candidates hoping to succeed Mohamad El-Baradei whose 4th term will expire in November 2009. During her visit to Indonesia, Secretary Clinton briefly held talks with Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In her free time, she visited a poor neighborhood that is being revitalized with U.S. assistance funds. She also took part in a youth musical show interview. In the interview she promised that the U.S. would increase its efforts to resolve the Mideast issue and spoke about plans to participate in an upcoming International Donors' Conference for rebuilding Gaza which is scheduled to take place in Cairo on March 2, 2009.


News and Views February 18 – The United States will put pressure this week on its NATO allies to increase their commitments to Afghanistan. However, the administration is not optimistic that allies will contribute troops. President Obama has ordered 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan to battle a worsening insurgency. He announced the move ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Krakow, Poland, on Thursday and Friday. The president said the troops were needed to "stabilize a deteriorating situation." The U.S. troop increase will bring U.S. numbers in Afghanistan to around 55,000. Allies from 40 other mostly NATO countries have contributed 30,000 total troops. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) praised the announcement to increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and said "Commanders in Afghanistan have been calling for more troops to meet mission requirements... This announcement committing additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan signals that we are restoring American leadership to the coalition effort to defeat al Qaeda and the Taliban and to support the government of Afghanistan. I hope our NATO allies will take our example to heart and provide more assistance as well." However, the call for additional troops put pressure on the president to articulate answers to questions about which policies those forces will be implementing. Questions of how much emphasis to place on securing populations and fostering development and democracy, versus limiting the focus to a mostly lethal exercise in attacking al Qaeda and the Taliban, are some of the concerns raised by lawmakers. A major concern is the exact role of Pakistan and other powers in the region. Analysts question the extent to which regional tribal leaders, versus the central government, become a linchpin of security. Complicating the picture further is the fact that the supplies needed for a growing allied force are increasingly imperiled by attacks on convoys in Pakistan. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said more troops alone will not lead to success in Afghanistan. "I believe the president must spell out for the American people what he believes victory in Afghanistan will look like and articulate a coherent strategy for achieving it," Sen. McCain said in a statement. He added, "Today, notwithstanding the administration's ongoing policy reviews, there still exists no integrated civil-military plan for this war – more than seven years after we began military operations. Such a strategy should spell out the way forward, including the additional resource requirements for its execution." John M. McHugh of New York, the ranking House republican on the Armed Services Committee, echoed that theme. "While the deployment of additional U.S. personnel is welcomed, our commanders on the ground and the secretary of defense have consistently indicated that additional troops would be required in the future," Rep. McHugh said in a statement.  He added, "We need to involve all elements of national power in this struggle and develop a balanced, comprehensive strategy for the region and the issues involved." House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), took another tack on that issue. "Democrats have long said that the center of the war on terror is Afghanistan, and this renewed commitment to our fight there demonstrates the president's appreciation for this challenge," he said in a statement. He added, "The conflict in Iraq has taken our eye off of a resurgent global network of terrorists, and this action responds to requests from commanders on the ground to increase their ability to effectively combat those who seek to harm us.”


News and Views February 20 – PNN continued coverage of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s four-nation tour of Asia. Secretary Clinton arrived in China, her final stop on a trip through Asia that has focused on the global economic crisis, climate change and North Korea's nuclear program. Before arriving in Beijing Friday, Secretary Clinton used a visit to South Korea to stand together with Seoul and urge North Korea not to take any provocative actions. Speaking at a news conference with her South Korean counterpart, Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan, she urged the North to return to border talks and re-open its dialogue with Seoul. Tensions have been increasing on the Korean peninsula. U.S. and South Korea have warned that North Korea is planning a test launch of a long-range ballistic missile possibly capable of reaching the United States. Secretary Clinton warned that any such action would violate a United Nations resolution imposed after a similar test in 2006. Speaking on the matter, she stated, “I make the offer again right here in Seoul.  If North Korea is genuinely prepared to completely and verifiably eliminate their nuclear weapons program, the Obama administration will be willing to normalize bilateral relations, replace the peninsula's long-standing armistice agreement with a permanent peace treaty, and assist in meeting the energy and other economic and humanitarian needs of the Korean people." While in South Korea, Secretary Clinton announced that Stephen Bosworth will be Washington's new special envoy to North Korea and the chief negotiator to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear program. Mr. Bosworth, former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea, recently made a five-day visit to North Korea where he said officials told him they are willing to talk to the Obama administration. The veteran diplomat said North Korea expressed willingness to move forward with long-stalled denuclearization talks and he downplayed reports about the possible missile test. During her stay in China, Secretary Clinton is scheduled to meet with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao. She will also hold talks with her Chinese counterpart. Secretary Clinton is scheduled to leave China for Washington on Sunday, February 22.

News and Views February 18 – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Indonesia on the second stop of her tour of Asia. She met with her Indonesian counterpart, Hassan Wirajuda. During her visit, Secretary Clinton toured the headquarters of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Her visit to the world's most populous Muslim nation is part of President Obama's goal to improve U.S. ties with the Muslim world. The president is personally popular in Indonesia, having spent four years of his childhood there. A group of children from the president’s elementary school in Jakarta greeted Clinton at the airport. Indonesian political analyst Bantarto Bandoro said President Obama's experience in Indonesia has given him a good perspective of the country. Mr. Bandoro said, “I think this is a great chance for Indonesia to really improve its relationship with the United States. Also from a U.S. perspective it is also a good momentum for the Obama government to improve…to rebuild the trust among third world countries, the Muslim world especially." Mr. Bandoro commented on the importance of the Obama administration’s efforts to reach out saying, “We have to really support the way President Obama is handling the international problem. What I am trying to say is, without the support of the Muslim world, without the support of other members of the international community, I think whatever policy President Obama is going to initiate will not be successful.”

News and Views February 17 – Secretary Clinton met with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, the foreign minister, and the empress during the first day of her visit to Japan. She also attended a ceremony in her honor and spoke to students at Tokyo University. Secretary Clinton's agenda included a host of bilateral and international issues; however, developments out of North Korea seemed to loom over the visit. After signing an agreement on the transfer of eight thousand U.S. Marines from Okinama to Guam, Secretary Clinton warned Pyongyang against taking action that might jeopardize relations with the U.S. and the world. To underscore the U.S.-Japanese alliance, Secretary Clinton invited Prime Minister Aso to visit Washington next week. He will be the first foreign leader to visit President Obama at the White House. At the U.S. Embassy, Secretary Clinton also met with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 80s. Earlier she called on Pyongyang to open the case again.


48 Hours February 20 – Nosratollah Vahedi, a former professor of nuclear physics at Munich University, offered his insights into the reasons behind Iran’s nuclear program. Mr. Vahedi said the reason Iran has slowed the pace of installing and bringing centrifuges into operation is that it does not have enough hexafluoride to enrich. "They bought a lot from China, but now they're running out. They are now relying on Iran's own resources which are not plentiful and take more time to turn into yellowcake," he said.  Mr. Vahedi mentioned another important factor in that Iran replaced P1 and P2 centrifuges with IR-1 and IR-2. “These machines are not as efficient as their predecessors," he added. "Iran has not been transparent on the budget allocated for their nuclear program. They have not been forthcoming to the IAEA about their heavy-water reaction. They have not even disclosed to the IAEA the location of their nuclear waste," he said. On the international reaction to the report, Mr. Vahedi added that Europeans are extremely troubled by this report because they see the danger of terrorist groups sponsored by Iran acquiring nuclear technology and building smaller bombs that can be carried in a suitcase.

News and Views February 20 – A PNN update on the periodic IAEA report regarding Iran's nuclear program informed viewers that the U.S. Department of State believes Iran has given up another opportunity to resolve international concerns on its nuclear program. The Department of State conveyed its opinion that until Iran abides by UN Security Council resolutions and works transparently with the IAEA, the international community cannot have confidence that Iran's nuclear program is peaceful.


News and Views February 20 – News and Views spoke with Sukria Dellawar about the current situation in Afghanistan.  Ms. Dellawar is an Afghan expert with L3 Communications. She said that more robust diplomacy is needed to reach some sort of accommodation with the Taliban. "Some moderate elements of the Taliban are amenable to laying down their arms and entering negotiations and NATO countries should take advantage of this opening," she said.  "Unfortunately, the government of Afghanistan has not done much to encourage the political participation of the Afghanis. The people of Afghanistan have become disillusioned about politics because they perceive their leaders as corrupt and ineffective," Ms. Dellawar said.  We need to find more peaceful ways to move the country forward and that means engaging the warlords who control swaths of the country. Some are already in the government but more can be brought in," she said. Ms. Dellawar believes Afghan President Hamed Karzai has earned the support of the Afghani public by criticizing NATO's military attacks which have resulted in civilian casualties.


News and Views February 18
– PNN’S Iraq and Turkey correspondent reported that the German Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is in Iraq on a two-day visit. Mr. Steinmeier met with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and signed several bilateral memoranda of understanding with the Iraqi leader. He was also present for the opening of the German consulate in Irbil, where he held talks with leaders of the autonomous Kurdish region. Mr. Steinmeier touched down in Baghdad amid tight security and pledged more commerce between the two countries, promising to help Iraq in technology and science. Iraqi lawmakers selected two candidates for the new Speaker of Parliament. It is expected that the new Speaker will be elected tomorrow.

News and Views February 17 – During the daily press briefing, Department of State Spoke