Recent developments in the region until February 9

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques discusses with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak means to boost bilateral cooperation

Crown Prince Naif receives message from Yemeni VP

Sultan Qaboos of Oman calls for settling differences because no one can live alone

Allawi’s ministers return to Iraqi government sessions

Calls for civil disobedience in Egypt met with official, political and clerical rejection

Libya leaders deny they had contacts with Israel

U.S. weighing military option against Iran as last solution

SAUDI ARABIA:

The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea held a meeting this week in Riyadh.

At the outset of the meeting, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques welcomed the Korean President, wishing him and the accompanying delegation a pleasant stay in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

For his part, President Lee Myung-bak expressed thanks to and appreciation of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud for the warm reception and generous hospitality he and the accompanying delegation received in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, expressing his delight to visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia where the Republic of Korea is participating at the National Festival for Heritage and Culture as the guest of honor for this year.

During the meeting, they discussed prospects of cooperation between the two countries and means of enhancing them in various fields in a way that serves the interests of the two friendly countries and peoples.

In the presence of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and President Lee Myung-bak, an executive program for cooperation in the field of public health care and medical sciences between the Ministry of Health of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Ministry of Health and Welfare of the Republic of Korea was signed.

The executive program was signed by Saudi Minister of Health Dr. Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Rabiah and Korean Assistant Minister for Health Care and Welfare Policy Ko Yong-suk.

The meeting and signing ceremony were attended by Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior; Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Defense; Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, Chief of General Intelligence; and a number of officials.

Lee received at the Conference Palace here this evening Eng. Ali bin Ibrahim Al-Naimi, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, who is also the President of Saudi Aramco and its Chief Executive Officer Eng. Khalid bin Abdulaziz Al-Faleh.

During the meeting, ways of joint cooperation between the two friendly countries were reviewed.

South Korean President is currently on a visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Minister of Defense, paid a visit to South Korean President Lee at his residence in Conferences Palace in Riyadh.

During the meeting, they reviewed latest developments at regional and international arenas, bilateral relations and cooperation between the two friendly countries and ways of enhancing them in all fields.

Prince Salman was accompanied by Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Special Advisor to Prince Salman Bin Abdulaziz; Chief of General Staff, General Hussein bin Abdullah Al-Qabil; Director General of the Office of Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Abdulrahman bin Saleh Al-Bunyan and Saudi Ambassador to South Korea Ahmed Younis Al-Barrak.

On the South Korean side, it was attended by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Kim Sung-hwan and South Korean Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia Kim Jong-Yong.

The Council of Saudi Chambers has held here economic meeting with President of South Korea Lee Myung-bak and the accompanying delegation.

During the meeting, they discussed the Saudi-Korean cooperation in a number of areas of vital economic.

The meeting was attended by Saudi Minister of Economy, his South Korean counterpart and a number of officials.

On behalf of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and in the presence of President Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea, Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, Chief of General Intelligence, opened the Korean Pavilion in al-Janadriyah Village.

The Korean Pavilion comes within the participation of the Republic of Korea as the guest of honor in the 27th National Festival for Heritage and Culture.

Upon the arrival of Prince Muqrin at the Pavilion, the Korean Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism delivered a speech in which he welcomed Prince Muqrin and highlighted the cooperation relations between the two countries.

Prince Muqrin toured the Pavilion which contains eight halls describing the Korean culture and heritage, in addition to film shows and terrain maps, cuisine and traditions of Korea.

The opening ceremony was attended by Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Mohammed, Minister of Education; and a number of officials.

Meanwhile, Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Deputy Premier and Minister of Interior, received a message from Yemeni Vice President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi.

During an audience held at Janadriyah, the message was handed over to Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud by Yemeni Minister of Communications Dr. Ahmed bin Daghir, who is also the Special Envoy of Yemeni Vice President.

The Yemeni official conveyed the greetings of Vice President Abdurabu Mansur Hadi to Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. In turn, Crown Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud sent his greetings to the Vice President.

The audience was attended by a number of officials.

SULTANATE OF OMAN:

Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, intermediary on Iran, speaks with Fox News correspondent Judith Miller.

Oman's ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, a longtime, discreet intermediary with Iran, says that Iran is seriously seeking a way out of American-led sanctions over its nuclear program and urges the United States to re-engage the regime on a variety of issues, not just its nuclear program.

“No one in the world can live on his own in today’s world,” the sultan said, referring to Iran.

“They don’t want to bring upon themselves more trouble. They know they are mistrusted and must convince the world of their peaceful intentions.”

Specifically, the sultan added, Iran understands that this means working more closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency to increase international nuclear inspections of its nuclear program and returning to talks with the U.S. and key Security Council members, Britain, France, Russia, China, as well as Germany, known as the P-5 plus 1.

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proposed such talks.

The sultan urged U.S. President Barack Obama to take Iran up on its offer. “The United States and Iran should sit together and talk,” he said.

Sultan Qaboos’ conviction that Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons can and must be resolved peacefully was among several notes of optimism he struck during a rare, four-hour interview -- the first in-depth interview he has given an American reporter since 1997.

The meeting took place last week at Hisn Al-Shomoukh palace, about 90 miles from Muscat, the capital.

He disclosed that Oman, at America’s “hint” for assistance, had recently conveyed to the highest levels of the Iranian government a warning about the adverse potential consequences of closing the Strait of Hormuz.

How precisely that message was conveyed -- "we have our ways and means," he said -- he would not disclose. But he added that he believes the message was clearly received.

"No one will block the Strait of Hormuz," Qaboos asserted.

Iran, he added, may also be preparing to adopt unspecified reforms.

The sultan shared his views before Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that Iran could acquire a nuclear bomb within a year. But Sultan Qaboos disputed the notion that this was Tehran’s intent.

“They now want to persuade the rest of the world that while they are seeking a nuclear capability – like Japan -- they are not seeking weapons per se,” he said. He claims to believe them.

Asked why the West should try again to negotiate with Iran, since Tehran had reneged on an earlier agreement to reduce stocks of low enriched uranium which, if further enriched, could provide fuel for a nuclear bomb, he said that Iran’s economic challenges had now grown more severe as a result of economic sanctions.

But Washington remains skeptical, noting that Tehran has not yet responded to the European Union's demand for a specific proposal from Iran indicating that its desire to talk is more than merely a time-buying tactic.

Asked about reports that Israel was allegedly weighing a military strike to degrade and delay Iran’s nuclear program, Qaboos replied that while he understood that “Israel must be looking at all the options and keeping all of them open,” he hoped that the situation would not “deteriorate to the point that Israel feels compelled to take drastic measures.”

“Inshallah it will not happen,” the sultan stressed. But were Israel to strike, “God forbid,” he added, all parties would have to “do what you can to avoid an escalation.”

“Peaceful solutions are always preferred,” he said.

For Israel, especially, the sultan said, there was no viable alternative to resuming serious talks with the Palestinians.

“These two peoples must find a way to live together,” he said.

The sultan expressed optimism about Yemen, a country that has been in constant turmoil since the outbreak of the Arab spring last year.

He said he believed that Yemen would stabilize now that Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who came first to Muscat before traveling to the U.S. for medical treatment last Saturday, had agreed to leave Yemen, at least temporarily.

“He realized that he should be part of the solution, not the problem,” Qaboos said during the interview in English, which he speaks fluently and with a slight British accent.

The Sultan, who celebrated his 40th year in power last November, seemed far less optimistic about developments in Syria, Egypt, and prospects for a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

With respect to Egypt, which just marked the one-year anniversary of the uprising that prompted President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, Qaboos said that he felt personally sorry for the Egyptian president, who is ailing and on trial for capital crimes, because “it didn’t have to end this way.”

“Maybe there were other alternatives, such as reform,” he said. But Qaboos added that he wanted to hear from Mubarak’s defenders. “A proper trial should be conducted and the truth should come out.”

The sultan also indirectly cautioned both Egypt’s armed forces and militant Islamists from clinging to, or trying to usurp power. “No one party or religious group should impose its will,” he said. “They all need to work together.”

As for Syria, while refraining from criticizing President Bashar Assad by name, he urged Damascus to accept the Arab League’s initiative asking Assad to step aside so that a political transition can begin. The Syrian government has rejected the Arab group’s resolution. But Sultan Qaboos urged persistence and patience. It had taken time to convince President Saleh of Yemen that Oman’s advice to leave was sound.

Because Saleh was granted immunity from political charges, the sultan said, the Yemeni president felt that he could eventually return to Yemen to compete for power democratically.

The Arab League resolution, as written, would enable Assad, who heads his own party, to “remain as leader of that and compete in a democratic system.”

Oman has repeatedly used what the sultan called his country’s “good ties” to Iran and his other neighbors to free hostages and help defuse potential politically explosive situations. A diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks says that Oman helped free British sailors captured by Iran’s navy in 2007.

According to the state-run Omani news agency, Oman also helped free three French aid workers being held hostage by al-Qaeda militants in Yemen by paying a sum which officials here declined to disclose but that diplomats estimate at several million dollars.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has traveled here twice, once to thank Sultan Qaboos for his role in freeing American hikers being held by Tehran.

Oman reportedly paid some $1.5 million to Iran and sent a plane to transport the hiker hostages out of the country.

To demonstrate his support for a “friend” in trouble, the sultan said he traveled to Iran for the first time ever during the Green uprising in 2009.

But another Wikileaks cable, dated 2010, put such gestures in a more pragmatic light. “Oman views Iran as the strategic threat to the region but has chosen to manage the threat by fostering strong working relations with Tehran," the cable asserts.

Clinton has come here to Muscat twice to meet with the sultan, whom she has lavishly praised on several occasions.

The respect is clearly mutual. The sultan called Clinton "a lady I admire." He said he had not met President Obama, but had talked to him by phone several times. “He is a capable man,” the sultan said, with somewhat more measured enthusiasm.

IRAQ:

Iraq's Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc said Sunday it would end a boycott of parliament, easing the worst political crisis in Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's power-sharing government in a year.

The decision by Iraqiya clears the way for talks among fractious Shiite, Kurdish and Sunni blocs, but deep disputes over power-sharing remain unresolved, keeping alive the risk that Iraq could fall back into widespread sectarian violence.

The crisis erupted days after the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December, when Maliki's government sought the arrest of Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and moved to sideline one of his Sunni deputies who branded Maliki a dictator.

The political blocs are planning a national conference to try to ease the turmoil.

"As a goodwill gesture, Iraqiya announces its return to parliament meetings to create a healthy atmosphere to help the national conference, and to ... defuse the political crisis," Iraqiya spokeswoman Maysoon al-Damluji told a news conference.

Damluji's announcement followed a meeting of Iraqiya's top officials including bloc leader Iyad Allawi, Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi and Saleh al-Mutlaq, the deputy prime minister Maliki had tried to oust.

She said the leaders would meet again to decide whether Iraqiya ministers would return to cabinet meetings.

Iraqiya's return to parliament could shore up Maliki's position for now, but the Sunni-backed bloc is deeply divided over whether to stay in the fragile power-sharing arrangement.

Maliki says his initiative against Hashemi was judicial and not political, but his moves against two key Iraqiya figures have compounded fears among Iraqi Sunnis that he wants to consolidate Shiite control and his own power.

Hashemi remains in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region where his immediate arrest is unlikely.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden has spoken to Allawi and Nujaifi by phone over the past days to discuss "the importance of resolving outstanding issues through the political process," Biden's office said.

Saleem al-Jubouri, an Iraqiya leader, said the bloc had come under international pressure to end the boycott, which he said had forced other countries to recognize the crisis in Iraq.

"The problem still exists and it could blow up again at any minute," Jubouri said.

A senior Iraqiya Sunni leader who asked not to be named said ending the boycott was the only way to keep the bloc together.

"Many factions within Iraqiya would split off if the leaders insisted on going into opposition or continuing the boycott," the official said.

Since the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, in 2003, the Shiite majority has ascended, leaving Sunni Muslims feeling sidelined from power. Kurdish political blocs have more often reached political deals with Shiite parties.

The power-sharing agreement took almost a year to cobble together and has struggled to work when considering key laws such as a national hydrocarbons bill.

The political turmoil has been accompanied by a string of attacks on Shiite targets that have stirred worries Iraq could slide back in the kind of sectarian slaughter that killed tens of thousands of Iraqis a few years after the invasion.

EGYPT:

Egypt's religious authorities called on unions and youth groups to scrap plans for a wave of strikes aimed at forcing the ruling generals from power, saying the people must show duty to the nation and spare its tattered economy fresh damage.

The first strike planned from Saturday - the anniversary of Hosni Mubarak's overthrow - would close universities and factories, cancel trains and slash public services.

Analysts say Egypt is in desperate need of foreign support to avert a financial crisis caused by a year of economic and political turmoil. Investment and tourism have shriveled, unemployment has grown and foreign reserves are at danger level.

"I appeal to you ... not to disrupt work even for one hour and commit yourselves to meet your duties toward yourselves, your families and your country," Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayib, Grand Imam of Egypt's highest Islamic authority al-Azhar, said in a message to the nation of 80 million people.

In a statement carried in newspapers, Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenouda III said: "Civil disobedience is not accepted by religion and the state does not accept it and there are many verses in the Holy Book that talk of following the ruler."

An estimated 10 percent of Egypt's population is Christian.

The scale of response to the strike call will offer clues to the appetite of Egyptians for more confrontation with the army, which oversaw the first free election in six decades and is pledging to hand full power to elected civilians by mid-year. Critics say the military will try to keep wielding power from behind the scenes.

The army has deployed extra soldiers and tanks to protect state buildings and public property in the build-up to the strike, which has highlighted deep divisions between liberal and leftist youth groups on one side and the army, Islamist politicians and religious leaders on the other.

Activists say the strike will begin a wave of national disobedience to raise the heat on the military council that took power from Mubarak. They say the council stands in the way of democracy, social justice and individual freedoms.

Many youth activists believe the military must be forced to give up power but say that conventional street protests are failing to exert enough pressure, especially since the election of a parliament dominated by Islamists who oppose confronting the army on the street.

"The strike is just a beginning to carry the revolutionary battle forward, to link political and democratic demands with social and economic ones," said a statement signed by 39 youth groups.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose party is the biggest bloc in the new parliament, has refused to back the strike.

"This call is very dangerous to the interests of the nation and its future," Mahmoud Hussein, general secretary of the Brotherhood, said in a statement on its website.

A group supporting the military council launched an online campaign entitled "hire me instead," calling on the authorities to fire strikers and hire unemployed people in their place.

Successive street clashes between riot police and revolutionary groups have drawn an angry response from citizens waiting for a return to stability in the hope it will lead to more jobs and less poverty.

At least 15 people were killed in the latest spate of street violence in Cairo and the eastern city of Suez, sparked by the death of 74 people after a soccer match.

Even some of the strike organizers are playing down the prospect of 100 percent success. Labour leaders say they have been spreading calls for strike in workplaces but they still lack grassroots organization to mobilize successfully.

The protests are set to continue spontaneously until May, activists say, to press demands including a return of the army to its barracks, forming a national salvation government, prosecuting those responsible for incidents of violence against protesters and better pay and conditions for workers.

"We are tired of blood and dead people ... the military council is the reason behind this," said Sherif Hany of Cairo University student union, which has called for an open strike.

LIBYA:

Libyan opposition chief Mustafa Abdul-Jalil has denied allegations that the rebels will consider establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.

He reiterated that the National Transitional Council will support the cause of the Palestinians to establish a secure and independent state.

Abdul-Jalil also acknowledged that the council has held talks with an envoy sent by French President, but has not discussed the issue of relations with Israel.

IRAN:

The United States should deploy ships, step up covert activities and sharpen its rhetoric to make more credible the threat of a U.S. military strike to stop Iran's nuclear program, a bipartisan group said on Wednesday.

Former U.S. politicians, generals and officials said in a report that the best chance of stopping Iran's suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons was to make clear American willingness to use force, although it stopped short of advocating military action.

The report by a Bipartisan Policy Centre (BPC) task force of Democrats, Republicans and independents is to be formally issued on Wednesday and comes amid speculation about the possibility of an Israeli military strike against Iran.

There is little evidence to suggest that U.S. President Barack Obama has any significant interest in the possibility of a military strike against Iran, though his administration has repeatedly said that all options are on the table.

To a lesser degree there has also been debate about a U.S. attack, an idea advocated by former Pentagon defense planner Matthew Kroenig in his recent Foreign Affairs Magazine article, "Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option."

The BPC report's central thesis is that to persuade Iran to address questions about its nuclear program via negotiations, economic sanctions must be accompanied by a credible threat of military attack against Iran's nuclear facilities.

"The United States needs to make clear that Iran faces a choice: it can either abandon its nuclear program through a negotiated arrangement or have its program destroyed militarily by the United States or Israel," said the report, entitled "Meeting the Challenge: Stopping the Clock."

Tensions between Iran and the West have grown as the United States and its European allies have tightened economic sanctions by targeting the oil exports that drive the Iranian economy.

The United States, and many of its European allies, suspect that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover to develop the atomic bomb. Iran denies this, saying that its program is solely for civilian uses such as power generation.

The BPC is a nonprofit policy group founded by prominent Republicans and Democrats that seeks to promote policy-making that can draw support from both major U.S. political parties.

Among its specific recommendations, the report calls for:

- strengthening the United States "declaratory policy" to make clear its willingness to use force rather than permit Iran to acquire nuclear weapons;

- intensifying covert activities by U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies to disrupt Iran's nuclear program;

- bolstering the presence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Gulf and the Gulf of Oman by deploying an additional carrier battle group and minesweepers off Iran, conducting broad military exercises in the region with allies, and pre-positioning supplies for the possibility of military action against Iran;

- strengthening the ability of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, to ship oil out of the region without using the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has threatened to close in retaliation for Western sanctions;

- and amplifying U.S. efforts to strengthen the militaries of countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates through arms sales.

Should these steps fail to dissuade Iran from its suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, the report urges the United States to consider a "quarantine" to block refined petroleum imports by Iran, which is heavily dependent on gasoline refined abroad.

As a last resort, the group asserts that the U.S. military has the ability to launch "an effective surgical strike against Iran's nuclear program."

Obama's broader foreign policy has sought to disentangle the U.S. military from its commitments in the Muslim world. He decided to withdraw all U.S. troops from Iraq last year and aims to wind up the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014.

Obama opposed his predecessor George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq, a decision the Bush administration chiefly justified by citing intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were subsequently found.

Without explicitly calling for an attack on Iran, the report says such a strike would include an air campaign of several weeks to target key military and nuclear installations, accompanied by the U.S. special forces on the ground.

"A military strike would delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear capability but not eliminate it," the report said.

"Still, policymakers need to consider whether delaying Iran's program in the short term would allow Washington to take advantage of that space to stop Iran's nuclear program altogether," it added without explaining how this might happen.

"It is also possible that the delays and increased costs that a devastating strike would impose on Iran's nuclear program might be followed by a different set of dynamics that would cause or compel the Iranian leadership to change course," it said.

The report acknowledged a strike would carry many risks, including higher oil prices, possible Iranian retaliation against U.S. military installations, support of "terrorist" operations against U.S. interests and potential attacks on Iraq.

Former U.S. Senator Chuck Robb, a Virginia Democrat, told Reuters the group chose not to explicitly advocate military action in part because it did not want to turn what he described as a "reasoned, thoughtful approach into, 'This is bombs away.'"

Having repeatedly said that a nuclear-armed Iran would be unacceptable to the United States, Robb said that to be unwilling to take military action would undercut U.S. credibility.

"Our credibility is very much on the line," he said. "We believe that we have to be credible with respect to the kinetic option. We need to provide evidence that we are preparing to take that option if necessary."