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Iran Watch: Israel and Iran agree: Open SESAME

Today's news paints a picture of an Iran increasingly hemmed in by sanctions. SWIFT, a Belgium-based organization that facilitates banking transactions, announced that it will block Iranian banks targeted by EU sanctions, effectively cutting Iran off from the global financial system. Reuters reports that Iran has been frantically stockpiling wheat to blunt the impact of sanctions, while the Obama administration is threatening to impose sanctions on India if it keeps buying Iranian oil. These developments have been accompanied by spurts of tough talk from Tehran; Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, for instance, declared that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites would spell "the end of the Jewish state."

And yet, out of the headlines of isolation, comes a surprising glimmer of cooperation: Israel and Iran are actually collaborating on something. Haaretz reports:   

In an extraordinary act of regional cooperation, Israel, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey are to jointly provide funds for a particle accelerator as part of their commitment to a UNESCO-sponsored scientific project, it was announced on Wednesday.

Each of the four countries has pledged $5 million toward the SESAME facility, which is being built near Amman. SESAME stands for Synchrotron-light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East. According to the UNESCO website, the project aims to "foster scientific and technological excellence in the Middle East and neighboring countries (and prevent or reverse brain drain) by enabling world-class research," and to "build scientific and cultural bridges between neighboring countries."

If the $100 million SESAME center, which is slated to go online in 2015, succeeds, the Middle East will get its first synchrotron.

 

Iran meter: Could science be both central to the nuclear dispute and key to resolving it peacefully? Sadly, the SESAME project has been as much a source of tension as teamwork. Last year, the Financial Times noted that two Iranian scientists who had worked at the center -- Massoud Ali Mohammadi and Majid Shahriari  -- had died under mysterious circumstances in the course of a year.

Some speculate that their involvement in SESAME "exposed the scientists to suspicion that they were complicit in sabotaging Iran's nuclear program," the FT explained. "In Tehran's political and diplomatic circles, the killing of Ali Mohammadi was seen as a possible act of revenge by the regime" (at the time of Ali Mohammadi's death, an Iranian researcher who was also involved in the project maintained that there were no direct meetings between his delegation and the Israelis). Iranian news outlets and officials blamed both deaths on Israel and the West.

Beyond particle physics, Israeli-Iranian contacts are very limited, but they're not nonexistent. Last May, Ynet reported that dozens of Israeli companies trade with Iran secretly through third parties in countries such as Dubai, Jordan, and Turkey. 

Israeli exports to Iran focus on agricultural production means: Organic fertilizers, pierced irrigation pipes, hormones boosting milk productions, and seeds.

The Iranians sell the Israelis pistachio, cashew nuts, and mainly marble -- one of Iran's biggest industries.

The news today about cooperation on SESAME is heartening, of course. But we have a long way to go between particles and peace.

Johannes Simon/Getty Images

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How exactly does Sergei Lavrov define 'provocative'?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has an interesting definition of the word "provocative."  After meeting with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the U.N. this week, Lavrov commented on March 14 that the recent resumption of U.S.-Georgia military exercises "seems somewhat provocative."

This might make sense if only Russia wasn't organizing military exercises of its own in the Caucasus. In December 2011, Russia announced a new strategic command-and-staff exercise, "Caucasus 2012," to take place in September 2012. The purpose is to prepare for a possible Israeli attack on Iran (and the potential repercussions in the Caucasus region). The exercises are to involve all areas of the armed forces, and will take place not only in the Russian territories of the North Caucasus, but also in neighboring Armenia, as well as the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (over which the 2008 war was fought).

It also conveniently occurs right before the scheduled parliamentary elections in Georgia for October 2012. The Georgian Foreign Ministry is obviously skeptical of these "military exercises" on its borders, claiming Russia is "seeking to instigate a permanent state of tension" in the region. 

Then again, Russian foreign affairs rhetoric isn't exactly known for its consistency. Last year, during the NATO decision-making to provide the Libyan rebels with military assistance against Qadaffi, Russia's NATO ambassador Dimitri Rogozin commented that creating a no-fly zone over Libyan air space was "a serious interference into the domestic affairs of another country." Similar words came from Putin himself, who described the NATO mission as a "medieval call for a crusade ... [that] allows intervention in a sovereign state."

Ah, Putin condemning foreign military intervention in a sovereign state. How quickly he forgot his intentions in 2008.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images