Baghdad's electricity ministry pulled a strange PR stunt this week by displaying the American newscaster Katie Couric's face on giant billboards around the city in a campaign to "inspire the people to imagine a better future for electricity," according to a ministry spokesman.
Intermittent electricity supply means that Iraqis battle summer temperatures upwards of 108 degrees Fahrenheit without much air conditioning. Power outages are commonplace, and most Baghdad homes have working electricity for only a few hours a day.
The ministry's latest plan to prevent public uproar over the country's sub-par infrastructure (which erupted last spring and forced the electricity minister to resign) was to post unauthorized images of NBC's former "Today Show" host Katie Couric throughout Baghdad that advertise the ministry's public relations television program. While the smiling face of "America's Sweetheart" may not be doing much to solve the electricity problem, it seems to be lifting spirits.
"It doesn't give me hope about electricity, but I like to see her beautiful face," a fruit vendor told New York Times reporter Tim Arango. Another storeowner said, "Whoever comes here says, ‘What a beautiful face,' She's smiling. She gives us hope."
The ministry spokesman explained that they had considered depicting an Iraqi new caster on the banner, but her family opposed displaying her image publicly. The picture of Couric, who is wearing a brown blazer in the advertisement, was acceptable for the streets of Baghdad. The ministry's web designer said her image was "perfect for us."
Unlike U.S. television star Kim Kardashian, who sued Old Navy for using a model that merely looked like her, Katie Couric jokingly told reporters she was going to call her lawyer. After describing the move as "bizarre and slightly amusing," Couric said on a more solemn note, "It did remind me of how serious the situation still is there."
JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Image
Bahrain's government may have avoided the fate of Egypt, Libya, or even Syria, but it can't be feeling all that secure if it's jailing people for tweeting and detaining small children.
Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab was sentenced to jail for three months on Monday for posting a tweet that criticized Bahrain's Prime Minister Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah. Rajab, who is president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested in June on charges of "insulting in public" after tweeting:
"Khalifa, leave the residents of Al Mahraq, its Sheikhs and its elderly. Everyone knows that you are not popular here, and if there wasn't a need for money, they wouldn't have gone out to receive you. When will you step down?"
The country's chief prosecutor stated in the official media that residents from Al Mahraq, a city on northeastern Bahrain's Muharraq Island, had complained that Rajab's tweet "tarnished their reputation" and "cast doubts" on their patriotism. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Rajab's organization, suggested that these complaints were filed by individuals close to the regime's security forces.
This wasn't the first time that Rajab has felt the wrath of Bahraini authorities after speaking out against the regime's human rights abuses and subordination tactics throughout the Bahraini uprising. Rajab led several of the anti-government protests that began in 2011, and was detained the same year after publicly criticizing the Bahraini security forces for attacking demonstrators.
Rajab's most recent prison sentence is not even the most extreme example of the growing paranoia of Bahrain's Sunni-controlled regime. In May, authorities arrested an 11-year-old boy, Ali Hasan, for alleged participation in a protest -- the youngest person ever detained for activism.
Hasan told al Jazeera that he had been playing with other children on a street that authorities had blocked off the day before, and had been chased by police officers and detained. The Bahrain Information Affairs Authority stated that to assume Hasan was only playing was "incorrect," and that he was accused of burning tires and participating in an illegal gathering.
Hasan was held in custody for one month before the court allowed him return home. Hasan's charges were not dropped, though, and the court ordered a social worker to monitor the boy for another year.
Saudi Arabia's "Barbie" is striking back. In a far call from the extravagant upbringing that earned her the nickname, Princess Sara bint Talal bin Abdulaziz publicly filed a request for political asylum in Britain on July 6, claiming a threat against her freedom. As the granddaughter of Saudi Arabia's founding king and the daughter of the influential Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Princess Sara is the first high-ranking Saudi to seek refuge abroad.
In a royal family renowned for its control, the princess is no stranger to controversy. After breaking from her father over an unknown dispute, she moved to Britain in 2007, where she successfully sued for full custody of her four children. Despite pleas from the regime to return to Riyadh to discuss the matter in private, she remains engaged in a brutal inheritance battle with her older brother, Prince Turki bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, over their deceased mother's fortune.
These legal battles pale, however, in comparison to her current claims. Her British visa expired and her application for a new passport denied, the princess now faces the threat of deportation. Though initially willing to consider a return to the kingdom, a February 2011 incident during a meeting with Saudi officials heightened her fear of kidnapping. Malicious rumors have circulated, challenging the princess's mental stability, political loyalty and -- in an accusation she fervently denies as "baseless and malicious" -- collaboration with Hezbollah and Iran against the regime. She recently told the Sunday Telegraph:
"I've been physically abused. I've been mentally abused. My assets have been frozen. They've accused me of being in opposition...they haven't left anything. I've been crucified in every way."
Though a Saudi Embassy official reminded the Telegraph that the visa issue was a personal, not political, matter, the princess's claims reveal the extent of broader problems facing the House of Saud. As Michael Stephens argued in FP last month, the death of Crown Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz al-Saud on June 16, 2012- an uncle and close ally of Princess Sara who shared her animosity toward her father -- has challenged the kingdom's stability. The dangers of royal succession have been exasperated by growing economic and political tensions, and the kingdom's crown princes will have to suppress domestic and familial fractures in order to survive. In a time of uncertainty, Sara's request defies more than her father's wishes: "They know I can't go back now. There is a threat. That's a slap in the face of the kingdom," she said.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Energy resources are a hot commodity in the Levant Basin days, and with 1.7 billion barrels of recoverable oil, 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, and 5 billion barrels of natural gas liquids at stake, the Israeli defense ministry is asking for a "one-time budget increase" of about $760 million to boost its naval capacity in the Mediterranean Sea so it can better protect the country's offshore natural gas platforms. Though Israel purchased its fourth Dolphin-class diesel-electric submarine from Germany earlier this year to the tune of over $500 million, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Benny Gantz are on board with the plan, which "calls for adding four new warships to Israel's naval fleet and deploying hundreds of soldiers in the area."
Natural gas discoveries in the early twenty-first century have created a military debacle for Israel, which does not have demarcated maritime boundary with Lebanon. All of the multinational gas platforms are privately owned and fall within Israel's exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles from the coast, but they are located beyond Israel's territorial waters, which only stretch 12 nautical miles from land.
Israel's first offshore natural gas discovery, Tamar, is not slated to come online until 2013, but the defense institution fears that the platforms are already targets for terrorist attacks from Hezbollah, which receives long-range missiles from Syria. The Israeli navy does not traditionally get the lion's share of the defense budget, and top officials are worrying. As one anonymous senior Israeli military planner told Reuters, "We will do our best, but not without a major boost to our capabilities." In May, senior naval officer Capt. Sassi Hodeda told the Los Angeles Times that the navy wants to improve its radar systems and use unmanned surface vehicles to patrol, but added that they require "special technology" the navy does not have.
If the navy does receive the extra funding, the vessels it purchases "will have to accommodate an advanced radar system, a helicopter and a launch system capable of firing long-range air defense and surface-to-surface missiles." According to the Jerusalem Post, the options include designing the ships in the U.S. using foreign military aid, and building them in South Korea, but if Israel is really looking for international help, maybe it should consider ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty first.
Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran's nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader's first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:
"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."
Putin's agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues -- namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran ‘presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.'"
Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:
"Let's not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, "Do not expect any major breakthrough."
According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:
"President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he ‘raise his voice' against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a ‘national interest' to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further."
Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel's vast natural gas fields.
On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart's position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."
Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."
Jim Hollander - Pool / Getty Images
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a terrorist-shooting sniper? Thanks to a program run by Jewish settlers in Gush Etzion, you too can spend a day beyond the Green Line learning how to take down extremist militants. As Yedioth Aharanoth reported recently, the experience allows tourists to "hear stories from the battleground, watch a simulated assassination of terrorists by guards, and fire weapons at the range." Sharon Gat, who manages the Caliber 3 shooting range, calls the opportunity a "once-in-a-lifetime experience" that was "created due to popular demand," and demand is certainly high among families. Enter Michel Brown, a Miami banker who brought his wife and three children to this warfare summer camp:
Upon entering the range, his five-year-old daughter, Tamara, bursts into tears. A half hour later, she is holding a gun and shooting clay bullets like a pro. "This is part of their education," Michel says as he proudly watches his daughter. "They should know where they come from and also feel some action."
By the end of the day, his trigger-happy son Jacob is confident that he can stop terrorist operatives with the best of them:
"This is an awesome experience. I learned how to stop a terrorist and how to rescue hostages. Now, when I find myself in distress, I will know how to deal."
Tourists receive a certificate at the end of the experience, and Gush Etzion Regional Council president Davidi Pearl hopes that the program will turn the Gush into "a world-famous ‘tourist gem.'"
If the program continues to be successful, we may have a small army of child counter-terror operatives on our hands.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
This morning, Turkey made the startling announcement that it had lost contact with one of its F-4 military jets near the country's southern border with Syria, and that it had launched search-and-rescue efforts for the plane's two pilots.
Details about the incident are still fuzzy. Turkey's Hurriyet Daily News is reporting that Syrian authorities have apologized to their Turkish counterparts for downing the aircraft (and cooperated on the rescue mission), while the BBC notes that the Turkish government has called an emergency security meeting and that witnesses in the Syrian coastal city of Latakia have told BBC Arabic that Syrian air defenses shot down an aircraft. But none of the key details -- the plane's mission, the cause and location of the crash, the whereabouts of the pilots -- have been nailed down.
"We've lost a plane and as yet we don't know have any information as to what happened and whether it was brought down," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a press conference on Friday.
Even with the shifting facts, it's worth asking: Could this incident -- or an incident like it -- trigger more aggressive action against Syria by the international community? After all, Turkey is a member of NATO, and Article V of the Washington Treaty outlines the alliance's commitment to collective security:
The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.
A day after 9/11, NATO invoked this very provision for the first (and, to date, only) time, pledging to support U.S. military retaliation if it were determined that the terrorist attacks had been perpetrated by foreign nationals. The United States soon satisfied this condition in briefings with NATO members, but ultimately chose to topple the Taliban government in Afghanistan outside the NATO framework. (It's also worth noting that NATO forces are involved in plenty of operations that don't involve Article V.)
If Turkey has reason to believe that Syria shot down its plane, might NATO respond in a similar fashion? It's not an entirely unreasonable question. The bloody and protracted crisis in Syria has poisoned relations between Ankara and Damascus, and Turkey suggested in April that it might turn to NATO under Article V to help protect its border in response to incursions by Syrian forces -- a threat Syria condemned as "provocative."
But Kurt Volker, the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership and a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, points out that Article V simply offers NATO allies an opportunity to consult with one another and does not necessarily entail a military response. If Turkey wanted to bring today's incident to the alliance, it would most likely instruct the Turkish ambassador in Brussels to work with NATO's secretary-general on calling a formal meeting to discuss the episode and formulate an appropriate response.
"A response could be anything from a statement reiterating the inviolability of security guarantees to members coordinating activities so that they can respond to further attacks on Turkish interests," Volker says.
He doesn't believe today's incident alone will alter the international community's response to the Syrian conflict, but he does think a NATO meeting on the matter could nurture a broader discussion about how to intervene militarily in Syria outside the U.N. Security Council, where Russia and China have repeatedly opposed such action. One scenario, he adds, could be Western and Arab countries joining forces to create "safe zones" in Syria, support the Syrian opposition, and conduct aerial strikes against Syria's offensive military assets.
"I do get the feeling that the patience of the international community is growing thinner," Volker explains. "With the recent village-by-village slaughter [in Syria] and brazenness of the Russians in trying to arm the Syrians, I think we may be approaching a point at which this kind of coalition intervention is more thinkable than it was a couple months ago."
James Joyner, the managing editor of the Atlantic Council, points out that if Syria shot down the lost Turkish plane in Syrian air space, it would not be considered an attack under NATO's charter. Even if NATO determines that Syria attacked Turkey, he adds, he doesn't think the alliance has any appetite for going to war with Syria.
"It would be one thing if Syria sent ground troops into Turkey and started shooting," he says, "but shooting down a plane that might have been surveilling Syrian air space is just a different animal than that. This is more of a harsh words and sanctions kind of thing, and frankly there's not much more of that that we can do in terms of Syria."
Update: After an emergency security meeting, Prime Minister Erdogan's has issued a statement indicating that Turkey believes it was indeed Syria that shot down its fighter jet and that the pilots have yet to be found. Most ominously, the statement added that Turkey would respond decisively once it had established exactly what took place today, according to the BBC.
A Syrian military spokesman also issued a statement on the Turkish jet, noting that "an unidentified aerial target" had "violated Syrian airspace" on Friday morning and that "the Syrian anti-air defenses counteracted with anti-aircraft artillery, hitting it directly as it was 1 kilometer away from land, causing it to crash into Syrian territorial waters west of Om al-Tuyour village in Lattakia province, 10 kilometers from the beach." The aircraft, the spokesman added, "was dealt with according to laws observed in such cases."
Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images
The first plane carrying South Sudanese "returnees" out of Israel arrived in Juba, South Sudan, on June 19.
Amidst escalating tensions over African migration to Israel, Israeli interior minister Eli Yishai described the eventual "return to their homes and countries" of [migrants] as "inevitable." Of Israel's 60,000 African migrants, the majority come from Eritrea and the two Sudans.
Greeting the plane in Juba, Joseph Lual Achuil, South Sudan's minister of humanitarian affairs, claimed that the process of return was voluntary: "People are not being deported. We have agreed with the Israeli government for our people to be peacefully and voluntarily repatriated," he said. While ‘returnees' are being offered a stipend of $1300 per adult and $500 per child by the Israeli government, the degree to which repatriation is truly a matter of choice is debatable.
While those who left Israel on the first plane volunteered to do so, the crackdown, known under the code name "Operation Going Home," has rounded up and arrested hundreds of migrants so far. The usually bustling neighborhood of ‘Little Africa' in South Tel Aviv is reportedly deserted. New laws allowing migrants to be jailed for up to three years without trial or deportation came into effect on June 3. In addition, any Israeli citizen harboring or helping migrants can now face jail time of up to 15 years.
The current government campaign to stem the flow of African migrants has begun with newly independent South Sudan -- the only one of the top three source countries which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel.
Many South Sudanese fled to Israel to escape the ongoing violence at home, often crossing the Sinai desert from Egypt by foot to reach Israel. Last week, an Israeli court ruled that 1,500 South Sudanese are no longer at risk in their homeland and can be returned home, giving the government the legal right to deport them.
Recent months have seen protests and acts of vandalism targeting African communities in Israel, an atmosphere that many claim has been instigated by the comments of some politicians. The deportation drive is also creating immense discomfort amongst many Israeli citizens, who are acutely of aware of their own identity as an immigrant nation founded by Jews fleeing persecution in Europe after World War II.
The subtext beneath the deportation process is a racial argument that cuts to the core of competing views about what Israel's identity as a ‘Jewish state' should entail. For the current government, identity is clearly framed by ethno-religious demographics. As Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu argues:
"If we don't stop their entry, the problem that currently stands at 60,000 could grow to 600,000, and that threatens our existence as a Jewish and democratic state. This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity."
Whether such a view can be justified as commensurate with Jewish values remains to be decided.
A man named Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was beheaded in Saudi Arabia this week after being found in possession of spell books and talismans. Beheading is "God's punishment" for "sorcerers and charlatans," according to a statement that the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued in March.
Al-Asiri's execution was the latest accomplishment of Saudi Arabia's Anti-Witchcraft Unit, an elite police force specifically trained to track down and arrest practitioners of magic. The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was part of a larger campaign to exterminate sorcery from the kingdom which began in 2009 and has included a hotline for reporting witch sightings, raids on suspected houses, and lectures to inform the public about the dangers of magicians -- "key causers of religious and social instability in the country," according to the Commission's statement.
Among other things, the trouble is that magic is a broadly-defined category in Saudi law, as Uri Friedman recently explained in FP. It's not unusual for prosecutors in Saudi courts to use "witchcraft" or "sorcery" as catch-all labels for all manner of offenses -- and for defendants to use the same terms as excuses -- because the kingdom is swift to mete out punishments for this kind of deviance.
Because Saudi Arabia does not have a penal code (or a legal definition of witchcraft), it is up to a judge to decide whether someone should be condemned as a witch or a sorcerer. Sometimes all it takes is having a book with foreign writing, items that officers of the Anti-Witchcraft Unit don't recognize, or an accuser with a strong vendetta to lose your head as a convicted magician. In al-Asiri's case, his confession to two counts of adultery may have been the original reason for his arrest.
The Anti-Witchcraft Unit received almost 600 reports of witchcraft in the past few years. Whether or not these are actual cases of people purporting to practice the occult or just a pretext, the government clearly takes the problem seriously.
Peace between Israelis and Palestinians depends on coordinated unilateral actions, not negotiations, former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon explained during a panel discussion at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars on Thursday. Ayalon, who also served as a member of Knesset for the Labor Party, said that "the idea of negotiations does not exist anymore."
Ayalon presented his own plan for a two-state solution, authored by Blue White Future, a non-partisan political movement he founded. The plan, based on the Clinton Parameters, first calls for Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians based on the 1967 lines and a territorial swap, should the Palestinians decide to come to the table. Second, it insists on the security fence as a provisional line and states that annexing the eastern side of the fence is not in Israel's interest. Third, the plan calls for the Knesset to pass a law enabling those settlers living on the eastern side of the fence to return to the western side, should they wish to do so. Fourth, it states that the Knesset should create a strategic plan to bring back all 100,00 settlers so as not to repeat the mistakes of the Gaza Strip pullout. Fifth, it demands that the Israeli Defense Forces remain on the eastern side of the fence to prevent any security risks. Finally, the plan requires that the Knesset pass a law that any agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians be put to a national referendum.
Robert Malley, who served as special assistant to President Clinton on Arab-Israeli Affairs, agreed that the concept of unilateralism is profound, compared to prospects for future negotiations, particularly the plan of the Quartet:
"I can't remember the last conversation I've had with a an official member from the Quartet ... who genuinely believed what they were mouthing everyday.... They don't believe it and the argument that they give for maintaining the fiction is that if you discard the fiction then you're going to leave people in a state of hopelessness and create a vacuum that bad things will fill."
Wilson Center fellow and Foreign Policy columnist Aaron David Miller, who moderated the panel, cautiously praised the plan:
"What Ami is offering is logical, it's credible. I like it because it's unanchored and unmoored to an American role in this negotiation right now or for the foreseeable future, and I also like it because it's self-directed.... Whether it will work or not is another matter."
Ayalon, meanwhile, is also putting his faith in the Israeli government:
" We understand for the time ... he cannot blame his coalition today. His coalition.... I know that in this Kensset and in this coalition, this program, this paradigm, is acceptable."
Netanyahu may have just assembled a coalition of 94 out of 120 Knesset members, a considerable mandate, but there's no guarantee that the coalition will stay intact. If history has anything to say about Israeli unity governments, nothing is ever for certain.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Though the powerful and prominent Islamist Ennahda
party has sent mixed
messages about its attitude toward Tunisia's 1,500-strong Jewish population,
President Moncef Marzouki's government
has made an extraordinary effort this year
to promote the Hiloula,
an annual pilgrimage to El Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba that
commemorates the death of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, the father of the
Kabbalah tradition. The two-day event was canceled last year for security
reasons due to the popular uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but
it remains "the
barometer of expectations for the coming tourist season," according to the Guardian.
"So far, no more than two hundred Jewish pilgrims have joined the Hiloula.... According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event."
The Tunisian government has deployed a large security force to the area surrounding the synagogue, the oldest in Africa. Ten years ago, al Qaeda militants bombed the synagogue, killing 21 and wounding 30. Marzouki visited El Ghriba in April for a memorial ceremony, during which he declared that violence against Tunisian Jews was "unacceptable." Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali also voiced his commitment to a tolerant Tunisia:
"Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past."
The government of Israel, on the other hand, apparently sees things differently. The Israeli Prime Minister's Office issued a travel warning earlier this month advising Israelis to avoid Djerba, citing a "specific-high rating" terror threat to Jews and Israelis. Hiloula may end today, but whether Marzouki can convince the rest of the country to practice what he preaches remains uncertain.
Members of Turkey's Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) proposed a more decentralized Turkish government at a Brookings Institution panel on Tuesday.
"We don't believe that a centralized system of government that manages all of these different ethnic groups and communities is viable and productive," said BDP chairman Selahattin Demirtas. "We see this [decentralized government] as the most viable alternative."
Demirtas also emphasized that he is not calling for a completely independent Kurdish entity:
"We are not talking about the Kurdish people [living] in a region called Kurdistan."
Though he stressed that the BDP has no "organic relationship" with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish government classifies as a terrorist organization, Demirtas noted that the PKK is not the problem, but a result of the problem:
"We believe the PKK is part of the reality of this conflic, and we believe that they should be communicated with.... We don't see the PKK as a problem, we see it as a result of the problem."
Ahmet Türk of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) agreed, and urged the audience to consider that the Turkish government's longstanding policy of denying its Kurdish citizens their civil rights might be the root of the problem.
"You don't provide Kurds an opportunity to express themselves, so the PKK emerged."
While Demirtas made sure to explain that his party does not condone violence, he did take issue with the Turkish government's definition of terrorism:
"This means of violence that is being used has to be understood correctly. The simple, traditional [definition of] terrorism cannot be used here. This is a 100-year-old conflict.... As long as you are unable to define it correctly, the wrong definition will cause misunderstanding."
BDP member and Turkish parliamentarian Gülten Kisanak argued that the PKK's numbers are evidence that the government must rethink its position toward the organization:
"According to data provided by the Turkish chief of staff, since 1978 40,000 Kurds have participated in the PKK and lost their life in fighting the struggle. I believe these numbers cannot be seen as terrorism in that sense."
The BDP may support President Abdullah Gül's call for a new "flexible and freedom-based" constitution, but its forward-thinking notions about the PKK isn't going to win it many points with Ankara.
ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images
It's an old story: Journalists tend to see their occupation as a calling, and investors see newspapers as a business. At Egypt's only independent English-language print daily, the balance sheets won out.
Daily News Egypt announced yesterday that it was closing after over seven years in business. In a combative editorial, the Daily News staff lamented that the paper's closure had come "quite abruptly" and noted that they had "specifically and repeatedly requested" that the paper's owners allow them to keep the website online - a request that evidently went unheeded, as the website went offline yesterday,
In the somber Daily News offices last night, the white board that laid out the next day's agenda of stories had been wiped clean, and the collection of tchotchkes that gathers in any newsroom -- in the case of this Egyptian paper, a gas mask that allowed its staff to cover the revolutionary upheaval over the past year -- had been stripped away. The staff's editors were busy downloading their archived issues -- insurance that their years of work would not disappear should they fail to reclaim the website.
The paper was one more casualty of Egypt's deteriorating economy, which is projected to grow at a paltry 1.5 percent in 2012 and has bled $21 billion in foreign reserves during the past year. "The paper was without ads for a whole year," said Rania al-Malky, while bouncing her toddler, Hassan, on her lap. "And the hotels are empty, so nobody is buying newspapers."
Egypt's problems aside, the truth of the matter is that independent journalism in the Middle East is always a tenuous endeavor. The only question is how tenuous. Newspapers in the region face two primary ills, both of which can be fatal to quality journalism: a shortage of money and an excess of political influence. It is a testament to the long hours that employees put in, and a shared sense that the work carries a meaning not expressed solely in a paycheck, that newspapers like the Daily News exist in the first place.
Sometimes, newspapers in the region are forced to pick their poison: poverty or politicians. Lebanon's Daily Star was at one time the Daily News' sister publication -- both were the local partners for the International Herald Tribune in their respective countries. In 2009, the Daily Star was subject to a court-ordered shutdown after the publisher fell hopelessly in debt -- without warning, security officers showed up at the paper's Beirut offices and evicted the staff, even ordering them to leave their personal laptops. The Daily Star would return to newsstands, but its money problems would only be solved when it was purchased by one of Lebanon's wealthiest politicians, Saad Hariri.
Back in the Daily News offices, there were plenty of good memories about which to reminisce. The newspaper covered the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak with aplomb -- it was one of the few offices with working Internet access after the Egyptian regime ordered Internet service providers to cut off service in a failed bid to stop the growing protests.
Hassan, the only one in the office unaware that the Daily News had put out its last issue, entertained the crowd by playing with a BlackBerry. When he handed it back to one of the editors, the staff, to his delight, cheered in approval. "Someone's getting some applause in this office, at least," said Malky.
Finally, the inevitable moment came -- the investors, perhaps irked by the editorial, pulled the plug on the Daily News' last remaining connection to their audience. "That's it; they closed the site," Malky announced, clicking her mouse at the computer. And then Hassan banged his head against the doorway and started crying, and shortly after, the staff drifted out.
Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration's negotiating strategy toward Iran.
At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America's train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America's must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late -- it's almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.
Let's take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" -- picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."
In exchange, Iran would get ... nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.
Frankly, I don't see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn't visibly benefit Iran -- rather than merely preventing future harm -- will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country's fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.
It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s -- and the Pentagon certainly isn't -- but they don't want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.
Then there's Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant -- the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.
Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.
What will most likely happen, as Time's Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don't expect to be optimistic once you do.
Although the Arab Spring hasn't won Israel many friends in the Middle East, Haaretz reported yesterday that its navy "recently strengthened its cooperation with the Lebanese Navy in the Mediterranean." The partnership, Israel hopes, will prevent provocations in the form of possible pro-Palestinian flotillas to Gaza on May 15, or Nakba Day, which commemorates "the displacement of Palestinians following the establishment of Israel in 1948, and on Naksa Day, which takes place in June and commemorates the displacement of Palestinians after the 1967 war."
It's no surprise that Israel would turn to regional multilateralism in order to avoid a repeat of the Gaza flotilla incident of 2010. According to the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, "pro-Palestinian activists from Sweden [have] announced their intent to organize another Gaza flotilla this year, saying they have already bought the ship."
Whether this friendly strategic cooperation will last, though, is an entirely different question. Israel and Lebanon may soon be engaged in nasty disputes over natural gas fields in the Levant Basin, which as Robin M. Mills reported for FP last year "spans not only Israel's offshore but also that of Lebanon, Cyprus, and Syria." In 2009, U.S. exploration company Noble Energy found Tamar, a deepwater field that holds 8.5 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of natural gas. Noble discovered Leviathan, which has an aerial area of 125 square miles and contains a potential 20 Tcf, in early 2010. As Mills noted, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the entire basin "could contain 120 Tcf of gas, equivalent to almost half of U.S. reserves."
With Tamar set to come online in April 2013, and Leviathan expected to begin production by 2016, what is for now just a dispute over maritime borders could soon turn into a regional conflict over natural gas.
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Kilis, Turkey — Just as international efforts to reach a ceasefire in Syria intensify, the long-running crisis appears to be growing even bloodier. On Monday, the violence spilled over into both Turkey and Lebanon: A Lebanese cameraman was killed while filming from the northern town of Wadi Khaled, while two Syrians were killed and more were wounded when they were fired upon at a refugee camp inside Turkey. Two Turkish nationals attempting to help the fleeing Syrians were also injured in the crossfire.
The clash at the Turkish-Syrian border began when Syrian regime troops launched an offensive in the town of Azaz, on the Syrian side of the border, in the dawn hours of Monday morning. Syrians who lay wounded in the hospital in Kilis said that violence began when Syrian soldiers opened fire on refugees who walked to the border to protest the attack on Azaz.
The camp, which lies about a fifth of a mile from the border, was established to provide aid to the thousands of Syrians who have fled President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown. Over 9,000 refugees are living in the Kilis camp, and more are expected to arrive to alleviate overcrowding in other camps. As we drove from the Turkish province of Hatay to Kilis, five buses filled with Syrian refugees traveled ahead of us, making their way to a new place of supposed refuge.
In Kilis, we walked into a ward where three Syrian men lay sprawled on hospital beds, blood seeping from fresh wounds where bullets had just been removed. "We were watching the attack over the border," explained Betar, a Syrian man who was shot twice in the leg while inside the Kilis refugee camp. As Syrian forces attacked Azaz, refugees across the border in the camp looked on helplessly and began to protest the violence. "When [the Syrian Armed Forces] heard us say ‘Allahu Akbar' they started to shoot at us," he said.
Betar, who lives in the Kilis refugee camp with his family, thinks the Syrian regime is following them into Turkey to kill them. Snipers fired on the camp from less than 500 meters away, noted his friend, who recounted how he picked up bullets from rooms within the camp. Around 21 Syrians have been wounded and three have died, according to wounded Syrians within the Kilis hospital. (Other reports said that two Syrians had died).
Turkish officials, eager to prevent the cross-border violence from spiraling out of control, are limiting access to information for inquiring journalists. Police stopped us while we were interviewing a badly injured Syrian man and directed us to a small room, where we were questioned for two hours. They interrogated our Syrian translator on his opinions of the Assad regime. Two other French-speaking journalists were being questioned as well.
The Kilis refugee camp has become an easy target for Syrian forces, and eye-witnesses within the camp say the Turkish police did not fire back when the attack began. Betar described how Turkish police in the camp fell to the ground to protect themselves, but did not retaliate.
With the end to the conflict nowhere in sight, Syria's refugees have found little comfort in escaping Assad's brutal crackdown. They left Syria in the hope of finding safety and peace, but violence still seems to follow them wherever they go.
Sophia Jones, a former editorial assistant at Foreign Policy, is an Overseas Press Club fellow and freelance journalist based out of Cairo. Erin Banco is a Cairo-based freelance journalist.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Just days after announcing that it would back deputy leader Khairat El-Shater as a presidential candidate in Egypt's upcoming election, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party made a pit stop at Georgetown University on Wednesday as part of a "charm offensive." FJP representatives repeatedly emphasized the Islamist party's commitment to fulfilling "the demands of the young people who revolted in Tahrir Square" through promoting democracy, justice, freedom, and human dignity, and insisted that they intend to be "as inclusive as possible."
"With the new Egypt, it doesn't matter anymore what the party wants," said businessman and FJP adviser Hussein El-Kazzaz. "Our compass is not a movement that's internally inward-looking, our compass is now with the revolution.... Our distinct belief is that the country cannot be be run by one faction."
That's why, he explained, the Muslim Brotherhood flip-flopped on its decision to field a presidential candidate:
"We didn't want to nominate someone ... because we didn't want to be monopolizing positions of power at that time..... It's a very different reality now than it was 10 months ago."
Even though the FJP holds over 47 percent of the seats in Egypt's parliament, Member of Parliament Abdul Mawgoud Dardery from Luxor acknowledges that the parliament itself hasn't exactly been smooth sailing:
"It's very tough [to negotiate].... All of a sudden now we are expected to decide ... the fate of our country through a very, very democratic process from which traditions and figureheads are and history and so on are being created as we go."
He added that the members have tried to do "traditional things," like holding meetings and using mediators, but that it's not working "100 percent."
El-Kazzaz also argued that the Freedom and Justice Party seeks to take a "middle ground" when it comes to the existential struggle between secular liberalism and traditionalism:
"We have a tradition that needs to be respected ... but we cannot ignore human civilization ... Europe has great things to offer, the United States has great things to offer, let's look at them and choose what we like, leave what we don't like."
If only it were that easy. Unfortunately for the FJP's philosophies of inclusion and finding a middle ground, it appears that Islamists are set to dominate Egypt's constitutional committee, a crisis that's already alienating the country's minority groups.
KHALED ELFIQI/AFP/Getty Images
The theme at this year's J Street conference was "Making History," and that's exactly what happened on Monday evening when Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel's Washington embassy, became "the first Israeli diplomat to attend a conference of the liberal pro-Israel group since its establishment in 2008."
Binah, who confessed in the beginning of his address that he has only held this post for two months, also revealed that it was his his first public appearance in the United States. Perhaps it was his condescending tone, or maybe it was just the fact that he spoke on behalf of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is wildly unpopular among J Street's constituency, but the Washington newcomer's speech was less than well-received. He began with a very Netanyahu-esque reminder that the past (read: the Holocaust) is "alive and scorching."
The unpopular message continued as Binah accused the audience of not standing with the Israelis:
"We share your democratic values, but...our borders are curved and dusty and made of missiles and mayhem, and as we continue to face incurable threats we have to make decisions of life and death...At the end of the day it is we the Israelis who must bear the ultimate burden and may have to pay the ultimate price...We need you to stand with us. It is as simple as that and someone ought to say it. Internal activism is a central part of democratic society, but pressures on the elected government of Israel can present us with a problem, davka when we need you the most."
Davka is a notoriously untranslatable Hebrew word that in this sense means "especially."
He also applauded J Street for its "repudiation" of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement (BDS), noting that "our shared view in that respect is that BDS is not a form of criticism, but a blatant...attack."
No Israeli diplomatic presence would be complete without a reference to Iran, and Binah repeated the popular line that "while we seek and support peace, the ayatollah's of Iran call for our annihilation." Convincing a room full of peaceniks that the Palestinians should be blamed for thwarting negotiations was also a tough sell:
"We're willing to put contentious issues on the table, but we find that the metaphorical table was...blown up."
His talk exploding tables and rabid Ayatollahs was somewhat grim, but at least he threw in a Harry Potter reference, saying "This is not a game of political quidditch."
Despite the audible booing and hissing throughout, Binah told me after he spoke that he thought the speech was well-received, and that the embassy sent him there because of the "ripeness of time."
Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert (fending off corruption charges back home) had a message more the crowd's liking, discussing the peace plan he presented to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas:
"I thought then and I think now that there is no alternative to what I proposed and one day...when we celebrate peace with the Palestinians, this peace will be identical to what I proposed to Abu Mazen finally and formally and officially on September 16, 2008."
The Olmert peace plan, to which Abbas did not respond, called for a two-state solution whose borders are based on the 1967 pre-Six Day War lines.
Olmert ended his keynote speech with the adamant affirmation that Kadima, the centrist Israeli political party he helped create in 2005, is the best alternative to Israel's political status quo. Unfortunately for Olmert, the heated race for the Kadima premiership between current chairwoman Tzipi Livni and Member of Knesset Shaul Mofaz has become just as divisive as the America's Republican candidate tug-of-war.
Between a Netanyahu talking head and an embattled politician who continues to advocate for a peace plan past its prime, the evening was a bizarre and disconnected affair that seemed to reinforce the frustrated and pessimistic mood at this year's conference.
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J Street, the "political home" for pro-Israel, pro-two state solution (read: anti-AIPAC) American Jews, kicked off its third annual conference in Washington on Saturday night. But despite its massive efforts to mobilize behind President Obama, executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami doesn't seem to be terribly satisfied with the commander in chief's track record in a press roundtable:
"We would like to see the president do more, we'd like to see the administration take a more proactive role in outlining the parameters for a resolution of the conflict, and to build an international coalition of supporters beyond the Quartet."
Ben-Ami also invoked Libya and Iran as examples for the White House to follow as it builds consensus for a two-state solution.
"The way the world was brought together around Libya and around the Iran sanctions, that's the kind of mobilization of international support that the administration will need to do if it wants to re-establish American credibility in foreign policy making."
A panel discussion held during the conference on Sunday about the current prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace took on a bleaker tone. According to Lara Friedman, director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now, the current administration is simply exhausted:
"They were serious, but realized that they didn't have the political stomach...They thought they had the will to see it through, but they got exhausted."
Nadav Eyal of Israel's Maariv newspaper added that the president does not appear to be invested in the issue:
"Obama needs to come into this personally, and he has not done that."
Leila Hilal, co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force, even questioned the viability of the two-state solution itself:
"This is the time to think about new strategies. Two states is a largely hollow and abstract notion, and the Palestinian public has no interest in dead-end talks...Conditions are not ripe, and the U.S. administration cannot force proposals."
For an organization that's supposed to rally support for a peaceful two-state solution, this year's attendees seem fairly pessimistic about the chances of achieving that goal. Ben-Ami may be optimistic that the stars will someday align, but for now J Street's timing is all wrong.
Amos Ben Gershom/GPO via Getty Images
Soccer hooliganism in Israel took on a particularly violent tone on Monday when, after a game in Teddy Kollek Stadium, hundreds of Beitar Jerusalem supporters assaulted cleaning personnel in nearby Malha Mall. According to Haaretz, it "was said to be one of Jerusalem's biggest-ever ethnic clashes." Mohammed Yusuf, a team leader for Or-Orly cleaning services, described it as "a mass lynching attempt." Witnesses also stated that "mostly teenage supporters flooded into the shopping center, hurling racial abuse at Arab workers and customers and chanting anti-Arab slogans, and filled the food hall on the second floor," and that the "attackers also asked Jewish shop owners for knives and sticks to serve as weapons but none consented."
Eventually, the mall's security director deployed a group of guards "in an attempt to restore order, but they were outnumbered." He called the police, who evacuated the mall at about 10:30 pm, but they made no arrests because "no complaint was filed," even though there is CCTV footage of the brawl.
Yellow- and black-clad Beitar fans are notorious for their hatred toward Arabs. They frequently chant "Death to Arabs" during matches, and last year fans recorded themselves teaching racist chants to their children. The suspect in a recent price tag attack claimed that "he vandalized the school to avenge the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team's loss to two Arab teams two weeks ago." The team, which used to be sponsored by Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, has been described as "magnet for right-wing extremists" and criticized for not hiring Arab players.
FP looked at the history of sports-related political violence last summer.
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
For Iran watchers, the week or so leading up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington has been a busy one.
First, on Friday, the latest International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards report came out on Iran's nuclear program, conveniently giving fodder for all sides of the bomb-Iran debate. The IAEA report, as an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security describes, shows that Iran is expanding its uranium enrichment program, including in its deeply buried Fordow plant, but having trouble with next-generation centrifuge technology that could make its breakout to a nuclear weapon much faster. (See also the New York Times, which concludes, "The report is likely to inflame the debate over whether Iran is nearing what Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, calls entering a 'zone of immunity.'")
Also on Friday, the Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies have not changed their view that "there is no hard evidence that Iran has decided to build a nuclear bomb." The Los Angeles Times ran a similar story a day earlier. (In his Friday sermon, Iran's supreme leader seemed to confirm this assessment, calling nuclear weapons a "sin.")
Then, on Monday, both the Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press reported on the tense negotiations between Israel and the United States over what to do about all this. The Israelis are apparently "fuming" that Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly warned against an Israeli strike on Iran's facilities. Last week's visit to Israel by National Security Advisor Tom Donilon reportedly did not go well precisely for this reason. ("We made it clear to Donilon that all those statements and briefings only served the Iranians," one Israeli official told Haaretz, a comment sure to infuriate the White House.)
The Israelis do not plan to tell their American counterparts if they do decide to attack Iran, the AP's Kimberly Dozier reported, a move a U.S. intelligence official interpreted for her as Israel wanting to give the United States plausible deniability in the event of a strike. But another way to look at it is as one more sign that Israel and the United States simply do not trust one another.
The key issue under discussion is what the appropriate "red lines" are -- Iranian actions that would trigger a military response by Israel or the United States. For Israel, the bar is lower, but nebulous: Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks about Iran soon entering a "zone of immunity" that will make an attack impossible. For the United States, the big no-no is weaponization. The Israelis believe that waiting until Iran decides to build a weapon is too late, but it's not clear they have the capability to take out Iran's nuclear sites (read: Ferdow) on their own.
The Journal suggests that Obama is coming Netanyahu's way on this, but a story in today's Los Angeles Times says the opposite. Clearly there's a policy fight going on behind the scenes, and the president's recent claims that he and Bibi are on the same page can't be taken seriously. Haaretz reports tonight that "Netanyahu wants Obama to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain 'red lines,'" and that the distrust between the two men only seems to be deepening. Each leader feels the other is meddling in his country's domestic politics -- Obama by seeking to turn Israeli public opinion against a strike (example), and Netanyahu by working with Republicans to attack the president as soft on Iran.
The million-dollar question is whether all this drama is really about establishing a credible threat to get the Iranians to capitulate (while terrifying European and Asian countries into boycotting Iranian oil), or whether Israel is indeed serious about attacking if the sanctions don't work, and is earnestly seeking U.S. buy-in.
I have some sympathy for the view that, by publicly warning against strikes, the Obama administration is undercutting Israel's deterrent. Bluster aside, Iran has shown a tendency to back down when frightened, as in 2003 when it is thought to have shuttered its nuclear weapons program, and more recently when it toned down its tough talk about blocking the Strait of Hormuz.
But threats have consequences, too. U.S. officials haven't clearly articulated why they believe all this war talk is unhelpful, but I suspect two reasons. One is the rising cost of gasoline, perhaps the issue that terrifies the political side of the White House most heading into November. Tensions over Iran are already adding about $10 per barrel to the price of oil, some analysts say, threatening to choke off America's nascent economic recovery and make Obama a one-term president.
But the more serious issue is that if you make such a threat, you actually may need to carry it out someday. Is that something Barack Obama, a man who has staked his presidency on winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and wants above all to do "nation-building at home," is prepared to do? He's already committed to preventing Iran from getting the bomb, taking containment off the table. He's shown little inclination for taking the big political risk of putting some sort of "grand bargain" on the table. But if sanctions don't bring Iran around -- and there's no sign yet that they will -- and sabotage and asking nicely don't do the job, what then?
The news gods have apparently decided it's time for yet another round of Washington's favorite parlor game: "Will Israel attack Iran?"
The latest round of speculation was kicked off by a mammoth New York Times magazine article by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who concluded, "After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012."
Veteran Iran hand Gary Sick ably dispensed with Bergman's argument here, noting that his reporting actually points toward the opposite conclusion:
Like virtually all other commentators on this issue, Bergman slides over the fact that the IAEA consistently reports that Iran has diverted none of its uranium to military purposes. Like others, he focuses on the recent IAEA report, which was the most detailed to date in discussing Iran’s suspected experiments with military implications; but like others, he fails to mention that almost all of the suspect activity took place seven or more years ago and there is no reliable evidence that it has resumed. A problem, yes; an imminent threat, no.
Bergman also overlooks the fact that Iran has almost certainly NOT made a decision to actually build a bomb and that we are very likely to know if they should make such a decision. How would we know? Simply because those pesky IAEA inspectors are there on site and Iran would have to kick them out and break the seals on their stored uranium in order to produce the high enriched uranium needed for a bomb.
Would Israel actually attack while these international inspectors are at work? No, they would need to give them warning, thereby giving Iran warning that something was coming. The IAEA presence is a trip wire that works both ways. It is an invaluable resource. Risking its loss would be not only foolhardy but self-destructive to Israel and everyone else.
But Bergman's article isn't the only recent bite at this apple. Foreign Affairs hosted a debate between former Defense Department officials Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl on whether the United States should bomb Iran itself; Foreign Policy's Steve Walt went several rounds with Kroenig; defense analysts Edridge Colby and Austin Long joined the discussion in the National Interest. Many others weighed in.
Today, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius threw another log on the fire when he reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June" and that the Obama administration is "conducting intense discussions about what an Israeli attack would mean for the United States." He added: "U.S. officials don’t think that Netanyahu has made a final decision to attack, and they note that top Israeli intelligence officials remain skeptical of the project." (Reuters notes archly that Ignatius was "writing from Brussels where Panetta was attending a NATO defense ministers' meeting.")
There have also been a number of items in recent days about Iran's murky ties to al Qaeda, including this Foreign Affairs article by Rand analyst Seth Jones and what appeared to be a follow-up report in the Wall Street Journal (never mind that the information was nearly two years old), as well as a steady drumbeat of alarmist quotes from top Israeli officials -- all reminiscent of the run up to the Iraq war. Add to this mix Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, an ongoing congresssional push for tougher sanctions, and the heated rhetoric coming from Obama's Republican challengers, and you have a recipe for a media feeding frenzy.
Most likely, the real drivers of this latest round are the Western attempts to persuade Iran's Asian customers -- China, India, Japan, South Korea -- to stop buying Iranian oil by persuading them that the only alternative is war. Those efforts are probably doomed, despite Israel's increasingly convincing ambiguity about its ultimate intentions. Asian countries simply don't care all that much about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon -- they care about their own prosperity above all.
So, is Israel going to attack Iran, despite all of the doubts many have raised? There are only two people who know the answer to that question -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- and I don't think they'll announce their decision in the New York Times. The smart money's still betting against an Israeli strike, but the odds do seem to be getting shorter.
In a bombshell revelation sure to reverberate around the world, the Washington Post quotes a senior U.S. intelligence official seeming to suggest that the United States' goal in Iran is now the collapse of the regime. The story's headline: "Goal of Iran sanctions is regime collapse, U.S. official says."
I say "suggest" because the Post never directly quotes the official saying outright that regime change is the policy. Here's the key passage:
The goal of U.S. and other sanctions against Iran is regime collapse, a senior U.S. intelligence official said, offering the clearest indication yet that the Obama administration is at least as intent on unseating Iran's government as it is on engaging with it.
The official, speaking this week on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said the administration hopes that sanctions "create enough hate and discontent at the street level" that Iranians will turn against their government.
What's more, the story's authors -- Karen DeYoung and Scott Wilson, two very seasoned and careful reporters -- also spoke with a "senior administration official" who contradicted that line:
A senior administration official, speaking separately, acknowledged that public discontent was a likely result of more punitive sanctions against Iran's already faltering economy. But this official said it was not the administration's intent to press the Iranian people toward an attempt to oust their government.
"The notion that we've crossed into sanctions being about regime collapse is incorrect," the administration official said. "We still very much have a policy that is rooted in the notion that you need to supply sufficient pressure to compel [the government] to change behavior as it's related to their nuclear program."
Dennis Ross, a top Middle East advisor who recently left the White House, also told De Young and Wilson that regime change was not the goal of the sanctions. And he should know, because he helped design them.
So what's going on? I suspect that the first source, the "senior U.S. intelligence official," may have misspoken, or been somehow misinterpreted. Pursuing regime change in a well-armed country of 78 million is no small matter, nor is it the sort of thing that can be ascertained from a blind quote that's immediately contradicted by other sources. (It's also very much worth noting that the harshest sanctions -- on Iran's central bank -- were imposed by Congress over the White House's objections.)
Still, as my colleague Dan Drezner noted yesterday, the Obama team may be hoping that sanctions can open up fissures within the Iranian regime and provoke internal political strife -- thus giving the United States and its allies more leverage. That's not quite the same thing as regime change, however.
It's important to remember that Iranians themselves haven't called en masse for regime change. The protests that broke out over the stolen 2009 presidential election were mainly about calling for a recount or a revote, not about bringing down the entire clerical system. More Iranians may eventually conclude that "everything must go," but as far as we can tell they aren't there yet.
There is a certain political appeal in calling for regime change in Iran, I'll admit. Obama is being pilloried daily by the Republican presidential hopefuls for not doing enough to stop Iran's nuclear program, and he seems highly unlikely to agree to a bombing campaign that may or may not succeed in doing the job. But if he can say that he's trying to overthrow the mullahs rather than negotiate with them, he might be able to neutralize that line of attack. That's probably a bad idea, and it's no way to make foreign policy, but it wouldn't be the first time an American politician behaved like, well, a politician.
UPDATE: The Post has now changed its headline, substantially revised the top of the story, and appended a correction. The new headline reads: "Public ire one goal of Iran sanctions, U.S. official says." That's more like it.
Word came out yesterday that confidential war plans were stolen from the British embassy in Tehran. Fortunately for London, the plans were 70 years old, and were designed to invade Northern France in 1945, instead of Tehran in 2011.
Guardian reported that a copy of Operation Overlord, a plan to send over a
hundred thousand troops into France during World War II, was stolen from the British
embassy in Tehran after the embassy attacks last week. The embassy attack on November 29th was perpetrated by Iran's volunteer Basij militia, who raided the British embassy,vandalized its interior, and severely escalated tensions between Iran and the West. Soon after, the U.K began cutting its diplomatic ties by recalling its mission in Tehran, and expelling Iranian officials from London.
The premises for Operation Overlord were agreed upon at the 1943 Tehran conference by the leaders of World War 2's Allied powers. A copy of the plan was located in a safe in the British ambassador's office, but was taken out the night prior to the embassy attack for a dinner commemorating the 68th anniversary of the Tehran conference.
Unfortunately for the thieves, the plans will probably yield a little less than they could find watching the History Channel, or playing Medal of Honor for a couple hours. That's probably why they took a Pulp Fiction movie poster as an insurance policy.
ABOLFAZL NESAEI/AFP/Getty Images
Only days after the release of an independent report in Bahrain indicating that security forces there used excessive force during the government's recent crackdown on protesters, Bahraini officials have announced that they will be hiring John Timoney, a U.S. "supercop," to train the island kingdom's police force. The Ministy of Interior notes that Timoney succeeded in "reducing crime and implementing proper practices for the use of force" during his 7 years as police chief in Miami. Timoney, who also served as police commissioner in Philadelphia, will report directly to Bahrain's interior minister. The government is touting the decision as an example of its commitment to reform and reconciliation.
So, is Timoney's record as sterling as the Bahraini government suggests? The police chief has certainly won plaudits for his work. In a 2002 profile, the Los Angeles Times noted that Timoney had "made a career of cleaning up police messes" and become a "celebrity" in Philadelphia for reducing property crime and managing to keep "the peace with a minimum of arrests and street violence when protests threatened the Republican National Convention in 2000." A New Yorker profile eight years later called Timoney "one of the most progressive and effective police chiefs in the country," noting that no Miami cops fired a shot in the first 20 months after he assumed control of the police department, which had a reputation for shooting civilians.
But Timoney has also endured his fair share of criticism, particularly surrounding his handling of protests -- Bahrain's big problem, after all -- at the 2000 RNC convention in Philadelphia (preceded by a brutal police beating) and the 2003 Free Trade Area of the Americas summit in Miami. The American Civil Liberties Union accused Philadelphia police of infiltrating political activist groups in 2000 and Miami police of using "excessive force to intimidate and unlawfully arrest innocent bystanders and protesters who were exercising their free speech rights" in 2003. During the free trade summit, Jeremy Scahill, reporting for Democracy Now!, claimed that Timoney was spinning "tales of 'hard-core anarchists rampaging through the streets of Miami" even as riot police backed by armored personnel carriers and helicopters fired rubber bullets and chemicals " indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed protesters."
Timoney, who's now working in the private sector, doesn't seem to have commented much on the Arab Spring. But he did discuss the Occupy Wall Street protests recently with CNN's Piers Morgan. Here's what he said about the movement:
I think there's a consensus that it has to do with Wall Street greed and the pains that the country's been going through for the last two years vis-a-vis the economy.
However, as this has dragged on, not just in New York City but in Oakland and Philadelphia and others where other elements have joined the protests, not with the best of intentions, with agendas, there have been documented cases of criminal activity ...
Now there's -- I think a pretty decent amount of public antipathy towards the protests right now because it seems like that they've gone beyond reasonable and once it starts getting into the area of public health but also criminal activity, there's a problem.
Timoney, it turns out, may not be the only controversial "supercop" helping Bahrain with its police training. This afternoon, the Telegraph reported that Bahrain is also hiring John Yates, the Metropolitan Police official who resigned in July over criticism about his handling of the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
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The International Atomic Energy Agency released its much-anticipated report on Iran's nuclear capabilities this afternoon, urging Iranian officials "to engage substantively with the agency without delay for the purpose of providing clarifications regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program" (you can find the full report here). Let's take a look at some of the most incendiary passages:
The Iranian press is up in arms about the report, calling it "US dictated" and a study based on a "laptop of lies." But the big question is what happens next. As the Israeli media speculates about military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, the U.S. and its allies weigh harsher sanctions against an increasingly assertive Iran.
Colonel Qaddafi's death today has brought about waves of relief, and has raised questions about the future of Libya, but his fall may have been seen by an unexpected source a long time ago.
The pilot of Second Chance, a little known Fox sitcom from the 1980s starring actor Matthew Perry in his first role, featured Colonel Qaddafi being shot by machine gun fire and showing up in heaven, where he was promptly greeted by St. Peter. Colonel Qaddafi's portion begins at 2:18 in the video below:
While we don't know if Second Chance had knowledge of Arab Spring, or any of the comings in Libya from this past year, we can definitely say that they were off by a little over 2 1/2 months.
With the news of Gilad Shalit's release from five years of captivity at the hands of Hamas, we found ourselves talking about the remarkable changes over the past half decade -- and what he's missed. It's not quite Charlton Heston waking up in a room full of talking apes, but there's a lot that Shalit might find surprising. Upon his release, he said during an interview that he looked forward to "not doing the same things all day long." There's certainly plenty to keep him busy.
1. The iPhone
Remember that morning in January 2007, when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone? For many people, life has been divided into pre- and post- iPhone since that moment. No word yet if Shalit was a Nokia man or a clamshell guy, but we're betting that he's never unlocked a smart phone with the swipe of his finger, never beheld Google Maps in the palm of his hand, and never tapped out a text message on a touch screen. Apple, get this man a 4S.
Back in the dark days of 2006, people still relied on phone calls and email to communicate. How anything was accomplished is lost to history, now that Facebook and Twitter have changed the manner -- and speed -- with which information is delivered. Facebook launched in 2004, but it was still a limited network when Shalit was abducted: Facebook did not open its doors to everyone over the age of 13 until Sept. 26, 2006. Twitter launched just one month after Shalit was detained, in July of 2006, and now boasts over 200 million users. Indeed, the platform was used extensively to spread word of Shalit's capture and any news of his release. The hashtag #GiladShalit spread around the globe, with the Jewish Week arguing it eclipsed the fame of the soldier himself.
3. Barack Obama
When Shalit was imprisoned, George W. Bush was president. Two years later, the U.S. elected its first black president, Barack Obama. In 2006, Obama was a senator from Illinois, arguing against the war in Iraq and raising the debt ceiling. After two years in office, Iraq is peaceful and U.S. debt is under control. Just kidding! Shalit actually didn't miss much here.
4. The Beatles
In all fairness, Shalit most likely knew a few Beatles tunes. However, he wouldn't have seen them play in his native Israel: The group was barred from the country -- over fears that they would corrupt Israel's youth -- until 2008, when the government apologized for the national ban, instituted in 1965, and invited the surviving members to play a concert for Israel's 60th anniversary. In Sept., 2008, Paul McCartney finally took the stage in Tel Aviv. That said, it was only McCartney, so it doesn't really count.
5. Economic Collapse
In 2006, when Shalit was taken hostage, the global economy was humming along, buoyed by a strong real estate market and easy credit. By 2008, the boom was over and a recession was sweeping the globe, shifting international power, both politically and economically, perhaps irrevocably toward the developing world. The United States was hit hard by the slump, as was Europe, both of which continue to be plagued by protests and government infighting. China, on the other hand, saw its economy boom, while other emerging economies, including Brazil and India, avoided the worst of the dip and recovered relatively quickly. Shalit doesn't need to worry too much, though: While Israel did feel some of the effects of the recession in 2009, its economy has more than bounced back as its technology sector continues to grow.
What other major milestones did Shalit miss over the last five years? Let us know in the comments.
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Over the weekend, Marc Lynch explored how Jay-Z and Kanye West's rap alliance on their album Watch the Throne represents a blueprint for U.S. hegemony in a changing world. But left unexamined was the line from their recent album that most directly relates to foreign policy: On the track Murder to Excellence, Kanye raps, "It's a war going on outside we ain't safe from / I feel the pain in my city wherever I go / 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago."
Kanye's numbers, which are from 2008, are broadly accurate. The Chicago Police Department reported that there were 510 homicides in the city, while the casualty count website iCasualties confirmed that 314 U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq that year (why Kanye discounts the eight fatalities from other U.S. coalition partners is a conversation for another day). But to paraphrase a popular saying: There are lies, damned lies, and Kanye West's statistics.
The real problem with Kanye's math is that he ignores the deaths of Iraqis, who would presumably still be alive if the United States hadn't decided to invade the country. The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index estimates that 6,400 Iraqi civilians lost their lives in war-related violence in 2008.
That figure still underestimates the violence in Iraq, because it only counts civilian deaths related to the Iraqi insurgency. "Earlier in the war, we did tend to count individual acts of criminal murder, as they reflected a deterioration of law and order which had implications for the insurgency," said Brookings Institution fellow Michael O'Hanlon, the author of the Iraq Index. However, by 2008, the main sources of information regarding Iraq discounted non-insurgency related homicides.
But Kanye wasn't entirely wrong to compare the violence in Iraq and Chicago. If one compares war-related deaths in Iraq and Chicago homicides in 2008, there is a remarkable similarity between the rates of violence. According to the U.S. census, Chicago's population was 2.7 million in 2010 -- down from 2.9 million in 2000, as residents continued to relocate to the suburbs. With 510 homicides in the city, that means one Chicagoan was killed for every 5,294 people living in the city.
Now, let's compare that to the civilian casualties in Iraq. The World Bank reports that Iraq had a population of approximately 31 million in 2008. With 6,400 Iraqi civilians killed in war-related violence, that means one Iraqi was killed for every 4,844 citizens of the country - a more dangerous environment than Chicago, but not by much.
It should come as no surprise that it was dramatically more dangerous to be a U.S. soldier in Iraq than a Chicago resident or an Iraqi civilian in 2008. According to the Iraq Index, U.S. troop strength in the country averaged approximately 150,000 for the year. If the United States suffered 314 casualties in 2008, that means one soldier was killed for every 478 soldiers in Iraq.
Kanye, of course, is arguing on Murder to Excellence that Americans should be less concerned with political developments in Mesopotamia and more concerned with the deterioration of their own cities -- a fairly conventional point in today's political environment. But if he can fit the statistics above into verse, he'll truly deserve the rap throne that he's so keen on claiming.
With the Libyan rebels now largely in control of Tripoli, and two of Muammar al-Qaddafi's sons in custody after a stunning final assault of the capital, the answer seems clear: absolutely.
Many have criticized U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy of "leading from behind" in Libya, but that strategy now seems utterly vindicated. It was Libyans themselves, with significant help from NATO, Qatar, and the UAE, who liberated their country from Qaddafi's grip -- a fact about which they are fiercely and justly proud. It required little from American taxpayers: As of Thursday, NATO operations had cost the United States around $1.1 billion, according to CFR's Micah Zenko -- a rounding error.
Of course, there will be problems. Not only is Tripoli not yet fully secure, but two regime strongholds -- Sirte and Sabha -- appear to remain in regime hands. Libyan state TV is still, incredibly, on the air. The "brother leader" remains at large, as do his sons Muatassim and Khamis Qaddafi, as well as his intelligence chief and brother-in-law Abdullah al-Senussi. They may try, Saddam-style, to mount an insurgency (though the speed of Qaddafi's collapse in Tripoli suggest they will find few takers).
The National Transitional Council won't have an easy time of governing, either. Not only is it not clear how much loyalty it commands among the fighters, but Libya has effectively no institutions: It was a state run for the benefit of the Qaddafi family and its shrinking circle of friends and allies. There is little history of political pluralism in Libya, and no doubt many grievances and cleavages lurk below the surface. (Reuters journalist Michael Georgy raises some important concerns to this effect here.) There will likely be intense disagreements over how to distribute Libya's oil wealth, how to account for the last 42 years of despotic rule, how to incorporate Islam into the state, and how to disarm and integrate the disparate fighting brigades that overthrew Qaddafi. There will be a temptation to overly centralize power, fueled by oil receipts concentrated in a few hands. Hopefully, any conflicts that arise will be resolved peacefully.
But these problems seem manageable over time, and it is in any case hard to imagine any Libyan government worse than Qaddafi, whose rule was not only deeply repressive and arbitrary at home but also destabilizing abroad. I disagree strongly with those, like CFR's Richard Haass, who would like to see some kind of foreign stabilization force -- not only is it not going to happen, but it's best if Libyans handle their own affairs as much as possible. They will make mistakes, but these will be their own mistakes. It's now their country once again.
And that's the best news about the fall of Qaddafi. It is the only case so far in which Arab revolutionaries themselves will get the chance to overhaul the old order. In Tunisia and Egypt, the old regimes are still very much in power -- at least until new elections are held and new constitutions are written. And even then, gaining full civilian control over the military and the security apparatus will be a years-long struggle. Libya has the chance to wipe the slate clean, and given what a terrible system is being overthrown, that alone seems like reason enough to celebrate.
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