Israel's Mossad intelligence agency carried out the assassinations of several Iranian nuclear scientists in recent months, which has led to "the virtual decimation of the Islamic republic's elite physicists," according to Germany's Der Spiegel. The latest victim -- 35-year-old physicist Darioush Rezaei -- was shot in the throat in front of his daughter's kindergarten in Tehran on July 23. The attackers fled on motorcycle. Iran said Rezaei was a student, not a nuclear weapons expert, but the Associated Press reported last week that international sources confirmed he was indeed involved with the country's nuclear weapons program, working specifically on a key component for detonating a nuclear bomb -- high-voltage switches.
According to Der Spiegel, Rezaei is the third scientist to die in the past year and a half (and the fourth to be targeted). The others were:
- In January 2010, the nuclear physicist Masoud Ali Mohammadi died when a remotely detonated bomb rigged to a motorcycle exploded next to his car. Western experts considered Mohammadi to be one of Iran's top nuclear scientists.
- On Nov. 29, 2010, unknown perpetrators committed two attacks which involved motorcyclists attaching explosive devices to their victims' cars while driving. Majid Shahriari, a professor of nuclear physics who specialized in neutron transport, which is relevant for making bombs, was killed when his car exploded. His wife was seriously injured in the attack.
- Fereidoun Abbasi was targeted in a simultaneous attack. Abbasi, an expert in nuclear isotope separation, noticed the suspicious motorcyclist, however, and he and his wife jumped out of the car. They were both injured in the explosion. After Abbasi recovered, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed him as one of Iran's vice presidents as well as head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization.
Iran's reaction to the deaths has been somewhat confused, say analysts. Perhaps due to embarrassment, some leaders have downplayed the accusations of outside countries being involved in past deaths. But after Rezaei's murder, Iran squarely blamed Israel, the United States, and their allies. The United States has denied any involvement. Israel has been somewhat coyer, according to Der Spiegel.
‘Israel is not responding,' Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said earlier this week when asked if his country had been involved in the latest slaying of an Iranian nuclear scientist. It didn't exactly sound like a denial, and the smile on his face suggested Israel isn't too bothered by suspicions that it is responsible...
Der Spiegel based its report on "sources in Israeli intelligence," who told the German magazine that the deaths are part of a campaign to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. In the past, analysts have speculated that the Stuxnet computer virus, which harmed computer systems that were part of Iran's nuclear program, was developed and deployed by Israel (and possibly the United States). The virus reportedly shut down the country's main nuclear reactor at Bushehr last year, before Iran was able to get the damage under control.
In the run-up to yesterday's debt ceiling deal between Congress and the White House, there was a lot of frustrated reaction from world leaders fearful of what a U.S. debt crisis could mean for their own economies. But Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin might have just won the prize for the strongest response so far. Today, he told a Russian youth group that the United States was "like a parasite" on the world economy.
They are living beyond their means and shifting a part of the weight of their problems to the world economy ... They are living like parasites off the global economy and their monopoly of the dollar ... Thank god that they had enough common sense and responsibility to make a balanced decision.
Russia holds a large amount of U.S. bonds and treasuries, which means had the United States defaulted, it too would have been in trouble. There was clearly some relief this morning, following the news of yesterday's agreement. Both of Moscow's stock exchanges opened up about two percent -- though, they later declined due to investor doubts about the Washington plan.
In today's speech, Putin said Russia should look for other reserve currencies to hedge against "a systemic malfunction in the U.S. economy," according to the Wall Street Journal.
What options do they have besides the dollar? The Journal reports that last year Russian President Dmitry Medvedev held talks with Chinese leaders exploring the possibility of moving reserve assets into the yuan and away from the dollar.
Russia cut back its purchases of U.S. treasuries in recent months -- down from $176 billion in October, 2010 to $115 billion in May. Still, they are unlikely to completely bail on the U.S. market any time soon since Russian officials concede it is still a safer bet than other world economies.
So, the Kremlin will most certainly be dealing with the U.S. "parasite" for the foreseeable future.
A tracksuit-clad Hugo Chávez is seen doing leg lifts, neck rolls, and some other mild exercises in a video recently released by the Venezuelan government. "Healthy government, healthy body, healthy mind," Chávez says between routines. Other members of his cabinet appear in the workout video as well, though from the snippet we've seen no one really seems to be working up much of a sweat. At one point, the group walks slowly around a circle at a snail's pace, following Chávez. P90X, this is not (in fact, it doesn’t even look as vigorous as Jane Fonda's routine), though, given Chávez's cancer fight, the 57-year-old Venezuelan leader probably needs to take things slowly.
Chávez, who celebrated his birthday on July 28, said he completed his first round of chemotherapy last month and will soon begin a second round. He is undergoing cancer treatment in Cuba, where he had a tumor removed on June 20 -- though he has yet to say what kind of cancer he has.
In televised remarks last week, Chávez said: "I'm in the best mood possible.… My mood is unbeatable." Chávez has said he plans on running again for president in 2012. His approval remains at about 50 percent, according to a recent opinion poll -- meaning there has been little negative reaction so far to his cancer. Analysts had said his initially cagey explanations for what he was doing in Cuba were because he feared looking weak and sick -- which may be one reason for the recent exercise video. Chávez also said he had lost 30 pounds recently.
"I was too fat. I'm doing exercise, rehabilitation," he said.
Europeans know a thing or two about down-to-the-wire debt deals, but with time running out in Washington to reach an agreement before a catastrophic default that could have devastating spillover effects around the globe, European leaders are sweating. On Tuesday, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund and former finance minister of France, warned the United States that the issue needed to be "resolved immediately." Today, she told the PBS NewsHour that there would be dire consequences for the world economy if there wasn't resolution.
There's quite a lot of concern out there. The global economy is clearly highly dependent on the U.S. economy, because the U.S. economy is the first in the world and it's a major power in many respects. So to have the lead economy uncertain about its debt ceiling is quite worrisome.
In a separate interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, she said the solution would be to raise the debt ceiling now and address fiscal consolidation issues in the medium term.
Today, the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble also warned Washington to act.
Everyone in the US should be aware of their responsibility for the global financial markets.
He added, "The core of [the U.S.'s] difficulties is exorbitant debt and the economic prospects. Americans have to find long-term solutions to create solid fiscal and growth policies."
Schäuble and Lagarde were downright tame compared to Vince Cable, Britain's secretary of state for business, who told the BBC earlier this week that "the biggest threat to the world financial system comes from a few rightwing nutters in the American Congress rather than the euro zone."
Perhaps, the most sobering analysis of all comes from Germany's Der Spiegel:
Even if the worst is avoided, US finances are still a mess. Total debt is approaching 100 percent of gross domestic product, putting it in the same league as Italy, Portugal and Ireland, three of the euro-zone's famous PIIGS states. America's budget deficit is well over a trillion dollars -- more than 10 percent of GDP. Were Washington to apply to become a member of the European common currency zone, it would be rejected out of hand.
We'd be rejected by the euro zone? This euro zone?
The world's newest state -- South Sudan -- and Israel today established full diplomatic relations and will soon exchange ambassadors. The move was not a surprise. South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar said two weeks ago that his country would have "relations with all the Arab and Muslim countries and even with Israel." And a delegation of Israeli officials recently visited the African nation's capital, Juba, to hold talks with officials there.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu officially recognized the new country a week before the U.N. voted to make it the 193rd state to be admitted to the world body, earlier this month. "We wish it success," Netanyahu said at the time. "It is a peace-seeking country and we would be happy to cooperate with it in order to ensure its development and prosperity."
Israel, which has no relations with northern Sudan, has promised South Sudan economic help -- something it is in need of.
The Jewish state sees Africa as important diplomatic territory and has been offering economic aid and lucrative business deals in recent years -- including arms and agriculture -- in an attempt to counter Iran's growing clout on the continent. The effort is partially about votes in the U.N. -- Africa has 54 now. Iran has been trying to extend its outreach to African states like Senegal and Nigeria in an effort to counter its growing isolation in the West.
"This isn't likely to take the form of an auction-like bidding contest, but increased financial diplomacy by both the suitors, including targeted investments and aid projects designed to curry favor," Eurasia Group's Philippe de Pontet told Reuters last year.
Israel has another reason for wanting to establish ties with the new country. In recent years it has been flooded with thousands of refugees from Sudan -- people fleeing strife in both Darfur and South Sudan. They sneak into Israel through Egypt and have stirred debate about whether the country should be more or less welcoming. Already, since the announcement of new ties, the country's interior minister, Eli Yishai, has called on Israel to begin negotiations with South Sudan to return the refugees.
(In the image above, Sudanese refugees living in Tel Aviv celebrate independence on July 10.)
She's young, stylish, sharp and pretty, and Indians are falling for her. Yep, it seems that Pakistan's new 34-year-old foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, has accomplished what years of tense diplomacy haven't been able to -- create some genuine goodwill between the two constantly sparring nations. In her first official visit today to India since taking over the foreign ministry last week, Khar met with her Indian counterpart, S.M. Krishna. The two agreed to boost security, trade, transportation, travel, and cultural links between the countries -- in what analysts called some of the most productive talks between the two sides since Pakistani militants killed 166 people in Mumbai three years ago. But it's her youth and glamour that are credited with creating a "fresh start atmosphere." She later met with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
But who really cares what happened behind closed doors. More importantly: she got high marks for wearing Roberto Cavalli sunglasses, classic pearl and diamond jewelry, a blue designer dress, and toting an Hermes Birkin bag. And thus ladies and gentleman, a glamour icon is born. We give it three months before Vogue comes calling... wait, maybe two.
Indian papers and news programs today gushed over Khar, praising her beauty and style. The Times of India headlined their front page story: "Pak Puts On Its Best Face." The Navbharat Times said the country was "sweating over model-like minister." The Mail Today said she had brought a "Glam touch to Indo-Pak talks" and asked, "Who says politicians can't be chic?" These are not the usual superlatives Pakistani diplomats are used to getting in the Indian press.
Of course, not everything was picture perfect. The Indian press did attack her for meeting with a Kashmiri separatist group later in the day.
But overall, it was hard not to sense the generational shift as Khar spoke about "a new generation of Indians and Pakistanis [who] will see a relationship that will hopefully be much different from the one that has been experienced in the last two decades" after meeting with the Indian foreign minister who -- through no fault of his own, save for his misfortune of being born 79 years ago -- did totally look like her grandfather.
As Seema Goswami, a leading Indian social commentator, put it, "She's incredibly young pretty, glamorous and has no fear of appearing flash. She wore pearls when she arrived and diamonds for the talks. We're so obsessed with her designer bag and clothes that we forget she first held talks with the Hurriyat [Kashmiri separatists]. She could be Pakistan's new weapon of mass destruction."
AFP/ Getty Images
It is perhaps inevitable, given the facts of the case, that Norway's worst massacre in recent memory will lead to soul-searching questions about immigration. A blond-haired, blue-eyed sociopath -- who has railed against "Islamic colonization" -- bombed government buildings and gunned down young people at a summer retreat (officials have yet to release information about how many of the victims were Muslim and whether they were specifically targeted by the gunman). But will his actions change anything politically?
Norway's Muslim population has been growing in recent years -- estimates say there are about 100,000 Muslims in the country -- and with that growth has come the kind of backlash many of its European neighbors have seen. Immigration and asylum rules have been tightened. And the anti-immigrant Progress Party has risen to become the second largest in parliament. Its leader, Siv Jensen, has spoken of "a form of sneak-Islamization in this society and we must put a stop to that." (Last week's mass killer, Anders Behring Breivik, was once a member of the party, though he has also criticized it for not going far enough).
Analysts say politicians are going to be careful talking about immigration in the wake of the attack. "In the short term, the parties are not going to touch the immigration issue.… I think it's going to make politicians quite cautious in their wording, their rhetoric," Hanne Marthe Narud, a political science professor at Oslo University, told Reuters.
Some Muslim leaders have said the violent outburst could help bring Muslims and Christians closer together. "I think minorities will think of themselves as more Norwegian.… Religion, ethnicity, color will go into the background. The Norwegian identity will be strengthened," Mehtab Afsar, the Islamic Council of Norway's general-secretary, told Reuters. "We are standing shoulder to shoulder with our Christian brothers and sisters in Norway."
Politically, it's less clear what the outcome of the attack will be. Raymond Johansen, the ruling Labor Party's general secretary, said yesterday that the shooting "will impact Norway and the political debate in Norway for many years." Does that mean bad news for the anti-immigrant Progress Party? Not necessarily, say political analysts. Local elections are set for September, and the Progress Party will "have to keep a low profile on the immigration issue in the upcoming election campaign simply to avoid being associated with the terrorist attack," Todal Jenssen, a Norwegian analyst, told Bloomberg News. But, the party is unlikely to see a major loss of political support since national traumas like last week's rampage "tend to breed cultural fears, which project onto immigrants or the unknown," Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels, told Bloomberg. "The fantastic show of support for open society and the values of democracy will inevitably fade away and be overshadowed by suspicion of the unknown." As shocking as it is to believe, the Progress Party could actually benefit from Breivik's attack.
One Eritrean immigrant said he wasn't worried about any negative consequences: "The most important thing is what the majority thinks. And the majority is fine with us."
The fallout from this weekend's Chinese bullet train crash -- in which 39 people died when a train was immobilized after being struck by lightning on a bridge, then rammed by another train from behind, derailing several cars -- continued today. The government fired three senior railway officials and is reviewing safety on the country's four-year-old high-speed rail system. While there was justifiable anger at Chinese officials for trying to keep details of the accident out of the public, China's rail safety is far better than that of its fellow emerging economy -- India.
Journalist Lloyd Lofthouse, compared the numbers going back to 2007 for India, China, and the United States. He found that out of the 177 rail accidents during that period, 20 percent of them actually occurred in the United States, 15 percent occurred in India, and only 4 percent occurred in China. But the death toll in India was far greater.
In the period Lofthouse reviewed, 66 people were killed in U.S. train accidents, about 141 in Chinese accidents, and "hundreds" in Indian rail accidents.
Last year alone, there were at least 17 crashes in India. And, in the past month, three incidents killed more than 100 people. According to Bloomberg News:
In the early hours of July 7, 38 people were killed and at least as many injured when a train collided with a bus carrying members of a wedding party at an unmanned level crossing in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Then, on July 10, at least 68 people were killed and more than 250 injured when 15 bogies of the Howrah-Kalka Mail careered off the tracks, again in Uttar Pradesh, while the train was travelling at more than 60 miles per hour. That evening, six coaches of the Guwahati-Puri Express derailed in Assam after a bomb was set off on the tracks, injuring more than 100 people.
India has one of the largest railway system in the world, carrying about 19 million passengers every day on about 7,000 trains. It's called the "lifeline to the nation." Unfortunately, that often means trains are jam packed.
Given the spate of recent crashes, anger has mounted against the government-run system. Newspapers have editorialized about the system's persistent safety failures and "systemic decay."
The Deccan Chronicle, an Indian paper, said the increasingly accident-prone system could be blamed on the addition of "more trains on nearly every route, mainly to suit the whims or political compulsions of railway ministers, and raising their speed without commensurate upgrading of tracks and other equipment needed to bear the extra load." The Times of India wrote that the railway authority "failed to meet targets it had set for itself in the corporate safety plan ... indicating the low priority it gave to passenger safety." According to the Indian Express, "There is a real danger that the frequency of train accidents in India might soon desensitize people as ‘yet another' instance of what has become thoughtlessly, mind-numbingly commonplace."
Part of the problem is politicians have tried to keep fares as low as possible to keep voters happy, which has turned the system into a "financial disaster," according to the Indian Express, meaning trains are old and not properly cared for -- a deadly combination.
AFP/ Getty Images
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