This Week in the Middle East

ABC’s Christiane Amanpour sits down with both American secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which were relaunched in Washington earlier this month have been “constructive” so far, said American secretary of state Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem this weekend where Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas meet for another round of negotiations.

Speaking with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, Clinton said that the United States are hoping for Israel to extend its moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank. Israel has largely suspended the building activity of Jewish colonists in Palestinian territory for close to ten months now. The moratorium which, Clinton admitted, “took a lot of political capital for Prime Minister Netanyahu to achieve,” is due to expire later this month.

In Israel, indeed, even within Netanyahu’s own government, there is discord about extending the moratorium. Conservative lawmakers are opposed to it and fret that their right-wing coalition may be destabilized if the prime minister agrees to hold off new settlement construction for another period. The Palestinians, on the other hand, have declared it a precondition to any peace talks, threatening to walk away from the ongoing negotiations if Israel resumes settlement activity.

Some 300,000 Israelis currently live in settlements on the West Bank which is home to approximately 2.5 million Palestinians. Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem which the Palestinians claim as their capital.

In spite of the standoff, Secretary Clinton praised both leaders for engaging “so seriously so early on what are the core issues.” She wouldn’t say though whether the United States are prepared to pressure Abbas to stay at the table even if Israel resumes the construction of settlements. “I will certainly urge him to continue in the negotiations,” she elaborated, “just as I’ve urged Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

Last February, Clinton already suggested that Iran was sliding into military dictatorship. The country’s Revolutionary Guard, she noted at the time, was gaining influence “across all areas of Iranian security policy, and certainly nuclear policy is at the core of it.” She repeated this worry on Saturday, adding that it is “a concern of people inside Iran” as well.

We saw a very flawed election and we’ve seen the elected officials turn [to] the military to enforce their power.

And a lot of Iranians, even those who stayed, even those who were originally sympathetic are starting to say, “This is not what we signed up for.” And I can only hope that there will be some effort inside Iran, by responsible civil and religious leaders to, take hold of the apparatus of the state.

“We have done the best we could to support those inside through trying to open up access to telecommunications,” said Clinton, but there isn’t much the United States can do for the people of Iran other than implement sanctions which specifically target the regime in Tehran.

Amanpour quoted Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who has dismissed the latest sanctions as “pathetic” and “worse than a used handkerchief.” Clinton nevertheless believes that they are “biting” as does President Barack Obama who, last month, told reporters that the sanctions have certainly caused “disquiet” in Iran. “In fact,” said Clinton, “former President [Akbar Hashemi] Rafsanjanisaid said just the other day, ‘These are serious. They need to be taken seriously.’ He was in effect criticizing his government because of comments like that.”

One of Clinton’s predecessors, General Colin Powell, disagreed on NBC’s Meet the Press. He said that “eventually we have to deal with the reality that sanctions may not change the views of the Iranians.” A better solution, according to Powell, is to find a way for Iran to have a civilian nuclear program with the assurance that it won’t weaponize the technology. “People will say that’s naive,” he added, so the West should “put in place a set of sanctions that would be devastating to [the Iranians] if they violate that agreement.” Under those conditions, Powell believes, the United States may be able to live with a nuclear Iran.

President Ahmadinejad, who was also interviewed by Amanpour for This Week, in New York, claimed that Iran has “always been ready to discuss issues as long as they’re within the legal framework and based on principles of justice and respect.” Iran is prepared to talk, he said, under fair conditions. “If somebody thinks that they can, like, order us around or rule us, and call it talks, that wouldn’t work.” He alleged that the United States have pressured the International Atomic Energy Agency into adopting a “political position” on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions, he added, have been “meaningless”, “illegal” and “wrong.”

Asked about the apparent militarization of Iran’s political system, the president suggested that Secretary Clinton “should think a little bit before she makes statements of such nature. I think Ms Clinton is a very respected woman,” he added, “but she should really gather more correct information to base her statements on accurate information.”