While everyone in Washington and probably most global capitals is obsessing over WikiLeaks, the sports world is eagerly awaiting this week's big event: FIFA's decision on who gets to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. (To give you some perspective: World Cup was Yahoo's second-most popular search target this year, after the gulf oil spill.)
Today, the 2022 bidders -- Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea, and the United States -- are giving their final presentations in a last-ditch attempt to persuade any remaining fence-sitters that their country deserves the nod, and tomorrow FIFA will announce the winners.
The 2018 Cup is destined to go to a European country; the most interesting contest is for 2022. Soccer blogs, which have been buzzing with gossip and speculation for the last year or so, seem to think it's going to come down to a choice between the United States and -- believe it or not -- Qatar, the tiny Persian Gulf emirate whose seemingly quixotic bid to be the first Middle Eastern country to host the tournament has captured the imagination of millions of Arabs all over the world. (Disclosure: My wife's company does some small-scale work for the Qatari government in this area.)
Unfortunately for Qatar, FIFA's bid evaluation report rated the country's facilities as "high risk" due to the fact that few of them are built. The extremely hot weather in June and July, when the Cup would be held is another major concern. In response, Qatar is sinking billions into its bid and has promised to build stadiums deploying innovative outdoor cooling technology and then donate them to developing countries. Doha, the capital, is festooned with banners (reading "22" and "Expect Amazing") promoting the bid, and seemingly every shopping mall in town has a booth handing out free bumper stickers and other paraphernalia. Expectations are high.
And that's what worries me. Qatar has made an amazing go of it, and it would be an inspiring win for a region that has too few of them, but I'd be extremely surprised if the United States loses. Ultimately, FIFA's goal is to make as much money as possible, and Qatar can't hope to match the size of the U.S. market. But you never know. Politicians, not technocrats, are the ultimate deciders here.
One final note: It would be a great irony if Arab leaders' sniping about Qatar's alleged support for terrorism and general troublemaking in the region, as revealed in the WikiLeaks cables, tipped the scales against the Middle East's first real shot at hosting the Cup. I think the decision has probably already been made, but you never know...
Clive Rose/Getty Images for Qatar 2022
When Barack Obama took the podium before Turkey's parliament in April 2009, in his first overseas trip as president, he delivered a speech that echoed much of the happy talk that has characterized U.S. rhetoric toward Turkey over the past decade. "Turkey is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together -- and work together to overcome the challenges of our time."
U.S. officials have repeated variations of this line since the rise of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. When I visited Turkey in March, a well-placed American source made the same point: Sure, the United States was concerned about Turkey's warming relationship with Iran and Syria, and its war of words with Israel -- but those differences paled in comparison with areas where the two countries worked together, such as on Iraq and Afghanistan.
The recent WikiLeaks document dump, however, proves that the U.S. diplomatic corps' concern about Turkey's drift away from the Western alliance runs deeper than it let on publicly. One cable reportedly describes Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's foreign minister (and No. 7 on Foreign Policy's 2010 Global Thinkers list), as exerting an "exceptionally dangerous" Islamist influence on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
And that's just the beginning of it. Davutoglu and other AKP leaders have scant understanding of how their foreign policy will be understood outside of Turkey, because their knowledge is "handicapped... by their Turkey- and Islam-centric vision of how they want the world to operate," according to another cable. The same cable expresses dismay at Erdogan's inability to view Islamist groups as terrorists. The report summarized the prime minister's views thusly: "Hamas and Hizballah are the result of Western policies gone awry, a response from desperate people -- not truly terrorists."
The leaked cables also show how U.S. views toward the AKP shifted since its early days in power, when it was actively pushing a number of economic and judicial reforms meant to bolster its case for joining the European Union. One document, written in 2004 and signed by then-ambassador Eric Edelman, concludes that Erdogan "is the only partner capable of advancing toward the U.S. vision of a successful, democratic Turkey integrated into Europe."
Even this broadly positive impression, however, contains a few nuggets that the State Department undoubtedly wishes had been kept private. While praising Erdogan as an uncommonly talented politician, it accuses him of "unbridled ambition stemming from the belief God has anointed him to lead Turkey" and "an authoritarian loner streak." Perhaps most embarrassingly, the cable charges the prime minister with harboring "a distrust of women," leading him to exclude them from any prominent role in the AKP.
By 2010, however, U.S. diplomats' frustration with Turkey's government had escalated. A cable written in January by Edelman's successor James Jeffrey condemns Turkish leaders' "special yen for destructive drama and rhetoric," and says that the government possessed "Rolls Royce ambitions but Rover resources," which led to it throw its supports behind "underdogs" such as Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The problems are not merely in the realm of style and rhetoric. The cable laments Turkey's habit of presenting itself as the Islamic conscience of NATO, noting that "[e]xtrapolating that behavior into the even more diversity-intolerant EU is a nightmare." In the intervening six years since the 2004 cable, U.S. diplomats tempered their hope for a broad-based strategic partnership with Turkey in favor a "more issue-by-issue approach, and a recognition that Turkey will often go its own way."
Throughout the AKP's transformation of Turkish foreign policy, U.S. diplomats largely expressed their concerns in private. Publicly, their rhetoric was closer to Obama's happy talk to the Turkish parliament -- and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday largely echoed that line ahead of her meeting with Davutoglu in Washington. State Department officials assumed, no doubt correctly, that heavy-handed ultimatums from Washington would only confirm Turks' beliefs that Washington would never support their newly independent role on the international stage. Now, of course, their careful discretion has been blown apart -- and the U.S.-Turkish relationship could become one of the most prominent casualties of the WikiLeaks' document dump.
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Many believe that America's greatest export is its culture; from blockbuster Hollywood films and TV series to jeans and iPods, there is little doubt that American cultural products have profound dissemination and market consumption around the globe.
But few would have imagined that one day Turkish citizens would be cheering on pro-wrestlers in Istanbul.
That's right, WWE SmackDown went to Turkey.
Much like American parents, though, many Turks were quite reticent in allowing their children to watch shirtless men in costumes beat each other up on stage. As Hurriyet reports,
Many parents who brought their kids to the WWE show... [expressed] reluctance about exposing their children to something that could contribute to violent tendencies.
As someone who remembers the glory days of "The Rock" and the playground simulations which inevitably followed, I can say with certainty these parents have a point.
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In his new book, George W. Bush writes that he was under pressure not just from hawks in the United States to invade Iraq, but from Arab statesmen as well.
In a revealing passage, Bush writes that President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt "told Tommy Franks that Iraq had biological weapons and was certain to use them on [American] troops," a VOA article highlights. Bush goes on to say that Mubarak "refused to make the allegation in public for fear of inciting the Arab street."
Additionally, Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan, who served as the influential Saudi ambassador to the United States for over 20 years and who Bush calls "a friend of mine since dad's presidency" also wanted a "decision" to be made -- although this seems less direct an indictment than "Iraq has biological weapons and will use them against you."
So while the Arab street was firmly opposed to American intervention in Iraq, Arab heads of states were quietly and secretly either encouraging or tacitly endorsing allegations that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a fact that was directly being used as the principal justification for invading the country.
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Life in Iraq isn't easy (and hasn't been for a while), but it's still rare to find community leaders imploring Iraqis to leave their home country. But that's exactly what Archbishop Athanasios Dawood of the Syriac Orthodox Church is doing.
"I say clearly and now -- the Christian people should leave their beloved land of our ancestors and escape the premeditated ethnic cleansing," Dawood said in a prepared statement to CNN. "This is better than having them killed one by one." In other interviews, Dawood, who lives in London, evoked the word "genocide" to describe the treatment of Iraqi Christians.
Fifty-eight people were killed in an attack on an Iraqi church last Sunday.
With the exception of the massive exodus of Iraq's large Jewish minority after the creation of Israel in 1948, there was little sectarian violence in Iraq before the U.S. invasion in 2003.
"You know, everybody hates the Christian. Yes, during Saddam Hussein, we were living in peace -- nobody attacked us. We had human rights, we had protection from the government but now nobody protects us," the archbishop told the BBC. "Since 2003, there has been no protection for Christians. We've lost many people and they've bombed our homes, our churches, monasteries."
Eden Naby and Jamsheed K. Chosky wrote in Foreign Policy last week that there may not be a Christian population left in Iraq by the end of the century. Iran, which also has a (shrinking) Christian minority, is suffering the same fate.
But it isn't only from those countries that Middle Eastern Christians are leaving. Long-time Middle East journalist Robert Fisk pointed out last month (before the massacre in Baghdad) that Christian populations are shrinking across the region, from Palestine to Lebanon to Egypt. "This is, however, not so much a flight of fear, more a chronicle of a death foretold," Fisk writes. "Christians are being outbred by the majority Muslim populations in their countries and they are almost hopelessly divided."
In Michigan, Iraqi Christians rallied today, calling on the United States to put a stop to violence against their coreligionists.
The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq has affected every aspect of society in that country. As many people have written, the U.S. government seems to have been wholly unprepared for what lay ahead in Iraq. It's hard to imagine that George W. Bush, with his own deep Christian faith, expected the catastrophe in store for Iraqi Christians.
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The Egyptian Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, travelled to Israel on Thursday to officially discuss the Middle East peace process. Haaretz reports that Israeli President Shimon Peres met with Suleiman and "discussed different methods to jump start the flailing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians."
The visit reflects the importance of Suleiman and the Egyptian state security apparatus -- not only for domestic issues, but broader international objectives as well.
As the director of the powerful Egyptian GIS, Suleiman enjoys the support and confidence of President Hosni Mubarak, and the multifaceted role of Suleiman reflects the nature of the present government in Egypt, where regime support is highly valued and loyalty is rewarded with top trusted positions.
This is not the first time Suleiman has served such roles for Mubarak. Suleiman hosted "talks aimed at encouraging... cease-fire between Palestinian militants in Gaza and Israel" in early 2009, according to UPI.
The stated purpose for Suleiman's trip is to talk about the peace process, but there's likely more on the agenda. The two countries also share concerns over the rising influence of Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Egypt last year in a bid to create Arab opposition to counter the Iranian nuclear program.
Relations between Egypt and Iran detiorated following the Islamic Revloution in Iran; last year, Egypt has accussed Iran of backing subversive Hezbollah operatives in the country and convicted 26 men of espionage against the state.
Israel is likely looking to capitalize on Cairo's growing discomfort.
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If you watched the midterm election results come in -- and if you're reading Passport, there's a good chance you did -- you likely saw this commercial from The Israel Project. And according to the organization's president, you're going to keep seeing the ad for some time.
The commercial, which was arguably the most prominent instance of a foreign policy issue rearing its head on election night, features remarks from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair interspersed with pictures of smiling children. Both Blair and Netanyahu are quoted lauding the Israel's democracy and affirming its desire to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.
Another ad urged Israel and the United States to work together on developing alternative energy sources, "so that some day, every neighborhood will be free from our dependence on Middle East oil."
Jennifer Mizrahi, the Israel Project's president, said that the ads started airing during the night fo the midterm elections, and will continue to appear for sometime. The organization bought air time on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, and Comedy Central, among other networks.
"We bought a lot of ads," said Mizrahi. "I don't know, but I think we were on every break. And we should still be on -- it's a very heavy rotation."
Mizrahi estimated the cost of producing the ads at $50,000. She said that her organization had spent "hundreds of thousands of dollars" on ad time over the past year.
Mizrahi said that the Israel Project decided to buy ads at this time because they knew that they would reach a demographic concerned about national security issues. And she wanted to ensure that, though the election may have hinged on domestic economic issues, the next session of Congress doesn't neglect the U.S. alliance with Israel.
"[W]e want people in Washington to understand that the holding of the peace process is very important to Israel and to people who care about Israel -- that we want these peace talks to move forward," said Mizrahi. "That was the first thing: to show the Israeli prime minister's commitment to a peace process and a two state solution, and a better future for all."
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images
Today's column is very strange. Apparently Broder thinks Obama can fix the economy by threatening a war with Iran:
With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected. But the nation will rally around Obama because Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century. If he can confront this threat and contain Iran's nuclear ambitions, he will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history.
In case it's not obvious, this is crazy for a number of reasons. One is that markets don't like tensions, and certainly not the kind that jack up oil prices. Second, World War II brought the United States out of the Great Depression because it was a massive economic stimulus program that mobilized entire sectors of society. Today's American military has all the tools it needs to fight Iran, and there isn't going to be any sort of buildup. Hasn't Broder been reading his own newspaper? The Pentagon is looking to find billions in cuts as it confronts the coming world of budget austerity.
I'll leave the question of whether Iran is truly "the greatest threat to the world" to others.
The much anticipated Wikileaks document dump of 400,00 classified U.S. military documents, which cover events during the Iraq war from 2004 to 2009, is upon us: The Guardian and the New York Times have both just published their assessments after reviewing the files.
Both newspapers seem to highlight the same broad takeaways from the documents: Iraqi civilian deaths were higher than the Bush administration suggested, the United States largely ignored prisoner abuse conducted by Iraq's security services, and Iran played an extensive role in training and arming the anti-U.S. insurgency -- even raising fears in the military that it may be planning to provide chemical weapons to Shiite insurgents.
One big winner out of the document dump may be Iraq Body Count, an organization whose methods for counting Iraqi civilian casualties in Iraq were consistently criticized by the Bush administration as being unrealistically high.
There's one more issue that, while certainly not as important as other considerations, I'm curious about: After weeks of preparation and hype, why would Wikileaks and major news outlets settle on 5 p.m. on Friday as the time to release these documents? Presumably, the New York Times and the Guardian are savvy enough to know that a Friday afternoon isn't exactly the time to attract the largest possible readership. Just one more sign that, while Wikileaks may aspire to revolutionize journalism, its media strategy leaves something to be desired.
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Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, is visiting Qom, the religious epicenter of Iran and the residence of most of the country's top religious authorities.
But a little known fact is that the office of the supreme leader has a Twitter account that is providing updates and links, including pictures, from his visit. Earlier today, the account stated that three top grand ayatollahs along with other scholars visited the leader's house in Qom… who said Iranian clerics are completely un-modern?
There is, of course, much (often inaccurate) speculation regarding the ayatollah's visit, but it might be useful to remember this is the city where Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran's first supreme leader, first resided (albeit briefly) after he returned to Iran following the success of the Iranian Revolution. It is an important city and serves to reinforce the fact that religion plays a major factor in Iran and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
"We reversed our trade since the easing of the Israeli blockade and now we export," said a tunnel operator who goes by Abu Jamil.
"The Egyptian traders demand Israeli livestock to breed with their own to improve its quality," the 45-year-old smuggler said, calling his partners on the other side of the heavily-guarded border to tell them the cows are coming through, each with an Israel tag on its neck extolling its breeding potential.
The Egyptians also order Israeli coffee, blue jeans, mobile phones, and what Abu Jamil refers to as "raw materials" -- scrap copper, aluminium and used car batteries that can be recycled in Egypt.
Israel eased the blockade over the summer after the flotilla fiasco drew international attention to conditions in Gaza, but most export from Hamas-controlled territory is still largely banned. (What could be Israel's security concern in Gazan fruit being sold in Europe or Egypt is beyond me.)
The smugglers in Sinai and Gaza who were getting rich off the blockade can continue their profits, it seems, by getting Israeli consumer goods and Gazan agriculture into Egypt. Maybe this says as much about the state of Egypt's economy as it does about Gaza's.
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The Iranian energy sector may currently be the target of aggressive and renewed U.S. sanctions, but that's not stopping it from offering assistance to the energy sectors and consumption needs for other countries -- especially those in the Arab world.
Iran is now looking to expand energy ties with Lebanon, in addition to longer standing negotiations it has been conducting with the Persian Gulf countries of Bahrain and Oman. This time of year, it seems, the talk is all about cash, pipelines, and energy.
When it comes to Lebanon, the country "continues to suffer from power shortages that can reach 15 hours a day," reports Bloomberg news. That's a problem Iran wants to have a role in solving. "Iranian officials said they were looking into helping with the rehabilitation of Lebanon's two refineries, which currently are only used for storage."
An Iran-Lebanon pipeline could potentially be in the works, theoretically passing through Iraq, Syria, and possibly even Turkey, according to the same report. Iran has even offered the Lebanese government (note: not Hezbollah, but the whole government) "unlimited" economic and military support, following the United States' suspension of $100 million of military aid to the country a few months prior.
In no small part due to sanctions that specifically target its gasoline refining capacities, Iran has enacted rationing within its own borders and invested heavily in updating its refining capabilities -- reportedly not only attaining self sufficiency, but also exporting gasoline for the first time last month.
This, among other achievements, has prompted Juan Cole to ceremoniously label Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as "Mahmoud the Great." Though, admittedly, there is a lot to debate on that subject.
These talks also come on the brink of a historic visit to Lebanon by Ahmadinejad -- his first as president, and a visit that the Israelis have been frantically trying to prevent (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton does not appear to be too pleased, either). Ahmadinejad is planning on visiting southern Lebanon, the stronghold of Hezbollah, including villages hit particularly hard during the 2006 Israeli invasion. To further get into the spirit, Ahmadinejad may actually be throwing a rock at Israel while at the border.
This might be the closest direct contact that Iran and
Israel, I mean
the Zionist Regime, may approach in a long time. Talk about one-sided
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
All eyes in the Middle East are on Iran, but it may be Lebanon that is closer to war. On Sunday, the former head of Lebanese General Security, Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed, announced that he had been informed by his lawyer that a Damascus court had issued arrest warrants for 33 figures for misleading the international tribunal charged with bringing the killers of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri to justice. One of those individuals was a former chief investigator of the U.N.-led investigation itself, Detlev Mehlis. But in comments to Foreign Policy, Mehlis poured cold water over the truth of Sayyed's claims, and suggested that he has no intention of backing down from his work in Lebanon.
Sayyed has a particular axe to grind in this case: He was imprisoned for over four years on suspicion of being involved in Hariri's killing. And the man partially responsible for putting him behind bars was none other than Mehlis, who asked Lebanese authorities to arrest him along with three other pro-Syrian generals.
"I should mention that I am not aware of any investigation against myself and members of my previous UNIIIC-team anywhere in the world," Mehlis said. "I realize that Mr. Sayyed has brought up the story of an arrest warrant, just as he brought up the story of a French arrest warrant a year ago, and I do not believe a word of what he is saying. "
The Syrian government has so far yet to confirm whether an arrest warrant has been issued. But even if one has, Mehlis left little doubt about the opinion of such a document. "If indeed there is a Syrian arrest warrant, it would be baseless, illegal, and politically motivated, without any practical implications," he said.
As the showdown over the tribunal heats up, Mehlis's work has been fiercely attacked by the court's critics in an attempt to discredit the entire enterprise. As Syria and Hezbollah attempt to use their increased leverage within Lebanon to scuttle the court entirely, there is no doubt that such condemnations will continue. The only real question is whether anyone will speak out against them.
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Syria is ready to resume peace negotiations with Israel, but only if Turkey acts as the intermediary. Let's see how that works out.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said on Sunday that only Turkey can act as an intermediary in any indirect peace negotiations between Syria and Israel.
"Turkey has shown itself to be an honest intermediary. Indirect talks must therefore be under Turkish mediation, and begin in Turkey at the point where they stopped" in December 2008 when Israel attacked the Gaza Strip, he said.
He ruled out any country other than Turkey being involved in indirect talks, telling reporters: "Any efforts by other parties will consist of helping the Turkish role."
Turkey mediated between Israel and Syria before, starting in May 2008. Those talks broke down in December after Israel began Operation Cast Lead, the assault on Gaza that enraged much of the Muslim world -- including Turkey.
Even after the break down in talks, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert publicly stated that Turkey was a "fair" mediator.
But relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated considerably since December 2008. The biggest flare-up, of course, was when Israeli commandos killed eight Turkish activists (and one Turkish-American) on their way to Gaza in May. Even before that, though, the current Israeli government didn't look like it would too happy to have Turkey as a mediator. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a year ago that it would be impossible for Turkey to act as an honest broker.
There hasn't yet been any response from the Israeli government to the news out of this weekend's Syria-Turkey meeting, but don't expect any encouragement.
It's worth adding some additional pessimism to all of this. Even when the Turkish mediated negotiations were going well, the closest Damascus and Tel Aviv ever came to success was nearing an agreement to sit down for direct talks. Once that happened, who knows how far those negotiations would have gone, but probably not far. Syria remains, at least rhetorically, committed to getting the Golan Heights back from Israel, which has been occupying the territory since 1967. Netanyahu has said unequivocally that Israel "will never withdraw from the Golan," as has his foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman.
With Israeli-Palestinian peace talks on the precipice of collapse after only a month, it's hard to imagine why anyone else in the region would choose to sign up for more ill-fated negotiations.
Unless George Mitchell can work a miracle in a region that has seen far too few of them over the last 2000 years, it looks increasingly like the direct Middle East talks are headed for an ignominious early failure.
One clear sign (in case you needed any after the Palestinians threatened Saturday to walk out) is this story in today’s Haaretz by the very well-sourced Barak Ravid, who reports that Mitchell has dramatically overstated the extent to which the negotiations were going well -- to the chagrin of the Palestinian side.
We’ll get to the reasons to be a little skeptical of this story in a minute, but first let’s look at what Ravid’s sources are telling him.
The main takeaway is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been telling anyone who will listen, that his ostensible partner for peace, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not serious. He only wants to talk about security, and won’t engage on other “core issues” of the conflict such as the borders of an eventual Palestinian state. "I heard nothing from Netanyahu but niceties," Abbas is quoted as telling unnamed “foreign diplomats” at the U.N. General Assembly.
The second interesting bit is that we’re learning more about what the actual contents of the discussion were. Abbas and Netanyahu held three meetings. The first one, Ravid tells us, was mainly about setting the ground rules for the discussion and agreeing to keep talking, though the two sides did have a conversation about whether to deal with borders or security first. At the second sitdown, Abbas and Netanyahu attempted (and apparently failed) to define what the “core issues” to be discussed actually were.
The third meeting, held in Jerusalem, sounds like a real disaster, with Abbas trying to get Netanyahu to discuss the offer made by his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, while Bibi again focused on security and supposedly didn’t engage on Abbas’s presentation of Palestinian positions. “The American brokers were reportedly extremely frustrated after the meeting in Jerusalem and some of them wondered if the talks hadn't in fact gone backward.”
Cleary, we’re getting largely the Palestinian side of the story here, so we don’t have a full picture of what is going on (the story also contradicts what we heard about the first meeting, after which Abbas aides told pan-Arab daily Al Hayat that they were feeling optimistic about the talks). But it looks like Ravid did try to confirm details with Netanyahu’s office, which doesn’t seem to have pushed back very hard. Be on the lookout for a follow-up article that tells Netanyhu’s side of the tale.
The real significance of the story, though, is not the details -- it’s the fact that they’re emerging now in such an ugly way. We’re no longer in the middle of a negotiation; we’re well into the blame game, with each side trying to hang the likely failure of the talks around the necks of the other.
That failure is going to have repercussions for both sides. On the Israeli side, some in the Labor Party are agitating to withdraw from Bibi’s coalition, and some in the opposition Kadima Party want Bibi to boot out Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his far-right Yisraeli Beitenu party -- which has become a national embarrassment -- thus paving the way for Kadima to join the government. Meanwhile, the right is blaming Netanyahu for agreeing to the settlement moratorium in the first place. A collapse or a reshuffle of Bibi’s coalition may be exactly what the Palestinians are hoping to provoke by withdrawing from the talks. But it’s not clear whether these rumblings have much traction, and in any case Defense Minister Ehud Minister, the head of the Labor Party, seems to enjoy being at the center of the action.
The key player to watch now is Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, who has kept her criticism of Netanyahu to a minimum while the negotiations still held out some hope of success. On Saturday, she urged Netanyahu to keep the Palestinians at the table, warning of dire consequences to Israel’s security if the talks “blow up.” Look to her now to start speaking out more often, and try to make some moves behind the scenes. It’s not clear whether she can do much, however, and she has her own internal opposition to worry about.
Hamas, meanwhile, is licking its chops, vowing that Palestinians will return to “resistance” when, not if, talks fail. And then things will really get ugly.
UPDATE: Haaretz, citing a story in London's pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, reports that Netanyahu has agreed to extend the settlement freeze for two months. Sourcing looks weak on this one, so let's see what actually happens.
Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based leader of Hamas, said today that the best response to the end of Israel's 10-month "settlement freeze" would be a reconciliation with rival Palestinian faction Hamas.
Meshaal argued that internal reconciliation would make the Palestinians more powerful in negotiations, calling it a national necessity and the best way to react to the 'Zionist intransigence.'
does have a point. A leadership that represents only half of the Palestinian
people, and basically acts as though Gaza doesn't exist, is pretty
limited when it comes to negotiating the "final status" issues with
Israel. At the same time, the Israelis probably wouldn't be willing to
enter negotiations with a Palestinian coalition that includes Hamas.
(U.S. envoy to the region George Mitchell has said as much.) It certainly doesn't help that Meshaal also said today that Hamas will continue to "kill illegal settlers on [Palestinian] land."
We may soon find out how a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation will affect Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Good news for the Palestinians may be on the horizon. A Hamas spokesperson told a Kuwaiti newspaper today, "We will all celebrate Palestinian national reconciliation in Egypt soon."
Of course, we've heard that one before. In 2008 Hamas and Fatah signed a Yemeni-sponsored deal Sanaa saying they would begin the reconciliation talks soon. They changed their minds a few days later. In September 2009 the two groups were again close to reaching an agreement, but nothing came of that. In January of this year, Meshaal told reporters in Riyadh, "We made great strides toward achieving reconciliation," and, "We are in the final stages now."
Will this time be different? It's hard to tell and these agreements have often been called off at the last minute. But if Fatah and Hamas do reach an agreement, it will undoubtedly change the course of the negotiations that President Obama has been supporting so vocally. The Palestinian negotiators will become more legitimate and the Israelis more resistant.
With Iraq and Afghanistan increasingly revealing the new realities of war, ProPublica yesterday reported a hitherto unprecedented fact: between January and June, more private contractors than soldiers were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is the first time in history that corporations have lost more personnel on the battlefields than the military.
The nonprofit investigative reporting group analyzed U.S. Department of Labor data and revealed that more than 250 contracted civilians died during the first six months of 2010, compared to 235 soldiers during the same period.
According to ProPublica, this startling statistic reflects the drawdown of U.S. military forces in Iraq and "the central role of contractors in providing logistics support to local armies and police forces"-roles that used to be performed by soldiers. The privatization of warfare means that its contractors-often local civilians or workers hired from developing countries-deliver fuel, provide food, clean kitchens, and give protection to U.S. outposts. ProPublica's report noted that there are currently 150,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, while, as of March 2010, there were over 200,000 private contractors (although that number is believed to be smaller today).
Steven Schooner, a professor of government contracting at George Washington University Law School, told ProPublica that a reduction in military deaths doesn't necessarily mean that battlefield losses are in decline:
"It's extremely likely that a generation ago, each one of these contractors deaths would have been a military death," Schooner said. "As troop deaths have fallen, contractor deaths have risen. It's not a pretty picture."
See ProPublica's Disposable Army series for more coverage on civilian contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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A top-ranking Russian official recently confirmed his nation's intention to go ahead with the sale of some particularly lethal cruise missiles to Syria. Israel, not-so-surprisingly, is not-so-happy. The supersonic Russian Yakhont missiles have a range of 138 miles, according to the BBC, and could target Israeli warships in the Mediterranean.
Syria and Russia signed the missile agreement in 2007, but Russia is yet to deliver the goods.
The Israelis have been working for some time to dissuade the Russians on fulfilling their contract, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu phoning his Russian counterpart, Vladir Putin, last month to try and convince him to renege on the agreement.
Of course, the Russians are quite notorious for this kind of behavior; back in 2005 they signed a contract for the supply of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran -- a powerful anti-aircraft system which poses serious threats to modern aircraft, including Israel's own air force. December will mark five years of the Russians dragging their feet on the deal, offering conflicting statements on the status of the system throughout the process.
In the meantime, Russia has been reaping the benefits of the situation, purchasing advanced Israeli drones this spring -- their first military purchase from Israel. More recently, Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, travelled to Moscow to meet with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, where he signed a quite promising military cooperation deal.
Lesson for the day? You could be getting those missiles soon Syria -- but don't get your hopes up, the Russians know how to milk you for the ride.
Ariel Hermoni/ Israeli Defense Ministry via Getty Images
Egypt is infamous both for the sexual harassment women endure and the government's lackluster response to the problem. Now, a private venture called HarassMap will allow women to instantly report incidents of sexual harassment through text messages. Victims will receive a reply offering support and practical advice, and reports will be compiled into a larger map of harassment hotspots. The project is set to launch next year, and utilizes open-source mapping technology, which was also used earlier this year to help relief efforts after the Haitian earthquake.
According to the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, a Cairo-based NGO, 83 percent of Egyptian women surveyed said they had experienced sexual harassment, including groping, lewd comments, and stalking. Almost half reported harassment on a daily basis. And belying popular belief, harassment incidents do not seem to be linked to revealing outfits -- three-quarters of victims were veiled at the time of incident. There are currently no laws prohibiting harassment. Egypt's first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, has even said that the media exaggerates the threat posed by sexual harassment.
The most recent statistics available place Egyptian mobile phone users at around 40 percent of the population and the female literacy rate at about 60 percent. While HarassMap could be important on a practical level for those women able to access it, those working on the project think it could change societal norms.
Rebecca Chiao, one of the volunteers behind the project told Britain's Guardian.
"In the last couple of years there's been a debate in Egypt over whether harassment of women on the streets is a serious issue, or whether it's something women are making up. So HarassMap will have an impact on the ground by revealing the extent of this problem. It will also offer victims a practical way of responding, something to fight back with; as someone who has experienced sexual harassment personally on the streets of Cairo, I know that the most frustrating part of it was feeling like there was nothing I could do."
U.S. cities, including New York and Washington, and entire countries like Britain and Australia, already have similar maps where citizens can report incidents by e-mail. Hollaback, first started in New York, is also in the process of launching an iPhone app.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty Images
Countries as diverse as the United States and North Korea have all struggled at the nexus of statehood and social media. Until now, none have had to purchase the Twitter handle of their country's name from the owner of a porn site. That dubious honor goes to Israel, which recently purchased the user name @israel from Israel Meléndez, a Spanish man living in Miami, who registered the name back in 2007, early in the microblogging website's history.
According to the New York Times, Meléndez struggled with his account because every tweet posted provoked anti-Semitic and anti-Israel comments. "My account was basically unused because I was getting dozens of replies every day from people who thought the account belonged to the state of Israel," Meléndez said.
The Spanish newspaper Público first reported on the transaction, noting that Twitter helped facilitate, even though the company has a policy against username squatting (although CNN did the same last year). Meléndez said that the payoff was a six-figure sum. Israel refuted that number. According to Yigal Palmor, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the sum was actually $3,000. "I won't go into the details of our negotiations but originally he asked for a five digit sum and all we paid him was $3,000, period," Palmor told The Jerusalem Post.
On August 31, the old official address of the Foreign Ministry (@israelMFA) broadcast the tweet: "The IsraelMFA twitter account name has been changed to @Israel. Look for us here: twitter.com/Israel."
Israel has been trying to increase its social media presence, with recently opened accounts on Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube.
This appears to be more a case of mistaken identity and not internet-era extortion, such as the case of whitehouse.com. In 1997, that particular domain name was created as an adult and political entertainment site, whose existence sparked a letter of objection from the real White House.
Iraq is still paying the world back for Saddam's actions -- literally. The Christian Science Monitor reports that the Iraqi government has agreed to pay $400 million to American citizens who claimed to have been tortured or traumatized by the Iraqi regime following Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. With a 15-30 percent unemployment rate, ubiquitous violence, and a still lacking infrastructure, why is the new Iraqi regime paying so much money to American citizens when it was all Saddam's fault? Because the payment may help Iraq's case to end U.N. sanctions that have lasted since Saddam Hussein's rule:
Settling the claims, which were brought by American citizens, has been seen as a key requirement for Washington to be willing to push for an end to the UN sanctions.
"There was a lot of pressure on the Iraqi government to do something that gets Congress off their back," says one senior Iraqi official, adding that the settlement cleared the way for US efforts to bring Iraq out from under the UN sanctions.
That's right, Saddam is long gone but sanctions on the still rebuilding country aren't. In fact, Iraq has already paid Kuwait $27.6 billion in reparations and continues to devote five percent of its oil revenues in accordance with the U.N. sanctions resulting from Saddam's invasion. While many countries have cancelled a lot or all of Iraq's debt to them, Kuwait continues to support Iraqi reparations -- regardless of the $22 billion Kuwaiti budget surplus for the last fiscal year.
So if U.S. citizens get paid by the Iraqi government for Saddam's "traumatizing" from 20 years ago, what will the United States pay the families of Iraqi citizens that are actually killed by U.S. forces? Well, the U.S. government is trying to find ways for Iraq to pay for that too.
RAMZI HAIDAR/AFP/Getty Images
On the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of Ramadan, Iran announced the imminent release of one of the three American hikers detained within its borders last year. Iran did not initially specify which of the hikers would be sent home, but according to the BBC, it will be the lonewoman of the group, Sarah Shourd.
In a similar move, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, pardoned and reduced the sentences of some Iranian prisoners as per the request of the Judiciary Chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani. While the Office of the Supreme Leader's website goes into more detail, these kinds of actions often fall in line with the spirit of the holidays during which the state tries to show a more compassionate side. (Someone must have not gotten the memo before the recent arrest of a prominent opposition lawyer, though).
So how does the Iranian government inform the world about releasing prisoners? A text message, of course. According to news reports, Iran's culture ministry texted reporters to notify them of the release, inviting them to the same hotel the hikers' mothers visited in May to see their children.
In a rare a bit of good news for the country, Iraq announced on Tuesday the return "of hundreds of looted antiquities that had ended up in the United States," according to the New York Times.
The Associated Press reported that "5,000 items stolen since 2003 have been recovered," even though "15,000 pieces [are] still missing from the Iraqi National Museum." However, it was not only ancient items that found their way back home. One of the stranger items returned was one of Saddam's infamous AK-47's, "chrome-plated... with a pearl grip," which he would distribute as gifts.
Saddam sure knew how to kill in style. Luckily, now these particular guns are part of history.
With presidential elections a year away and parliamentary elections around the corner, the political scene in Egypt is heating up quickly.
The most recent developments have Mohammad ElBaradei, Nobel Laureate, opposition leader and potential presidential candidate, calling for a boycott of November's parliamentary elections. "Anyone who participates in the vote, either as a candidate or as a voter, goes against the national will," said ElBaradei. The former IAEA chief threatened to launch a campaign of civil disobedience if certain demands are not met, such as lifting legal constraints on independent presidential candidates.
It is not so clear how credible these threats are given the factional nature of the Egyptian political opposition. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have put forward different strategies on approaching the elections and opposition within the state in general; the BBC reports that while the Brotherhood supports ElBaradei they are still likely to put forward their own candidates.
Of course, this story would not be complete without mud-slinging. Earlier this week, ElBaradei's daughter, Laila, was caught in an awkward situation as pictures and information allegedly taken off of her Facebook page (sigh) were widely published. The pictures showed alcohol being served at her wedding and Laila in a bikini. Needless to say, it probably will not float well with Egypt's conservative Muslim society and her father has already accused the government of publishing the pictures for political gain.
With a year to go until presidential elections, one can only imagine the drama to come.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams takes to the pages of the Guardian today to claim some credit for his Northern Irish nationalist party in inducing the Basque separatist group ETA to declare a unilaterial ceasefire over the weekend. While Adams is optimistic, it's not clear how significant the ceasefire really is -- the Spanish government has dismissed it as the desperate action of a group that has become too weak and disorganized to plan attacks. But Adams' argument that the recent progress toward a Basque settlement has been "modelled on our experience" in the resolution of the Northern Irish conflict is interesting given that other round of peace talks going on this month.
U.S. envoy George Mitchell has said that his experience as a mediator during the Northern Irish talks makes him optimistic about the prospects for success in the Middle East:
I chaired three separate sets of discussions in Northern Ireland, spanning a period overall of five years. The main negotiation lasted for 22 months. During that time, the effort was repeatedly branded a failure. I was asked at least dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times when I was leaving because the effort had failed.
And of course, if the objective is to achieve a peace agreement, until you do achieve one, you have failed to do so. In a sense, in Northern Ireland, we had about 700 days of failure and one day of success.
In his column last week, James Traub listed several reasons why the analogy between the two conflicts doesn't quite hold up, yet the resolution of the formerly intractable Northern Irish Troubles remains a tantalizing example of success for would-be peacemakers in the Middle East. The Irish themselves have often helped propogate the comparison.
But even if the IRA isn't Hamas and the Israelis aren't much like the British, are there lessons that can be learned from how the conflict resolved? Mitchell himself put it pretty well back in 2008:
Where men and women have few opportunities and little hope, they are more likely to turn to violence. The conflict in Northern Ireland was not exclusively or even primarily economic. It involved religion, national identity, territory, and more. But underlying it, and exacerbating it, as in most conflicts, were economic problems.[...]
Much progress has been made. In the 10 years since the Good Friday Agreement was struck, Northern Ireland's economy has shown signs of a turnaround. The region is the fastest growing destination for foreign direct investment in the United Kingdom. Unemployment is low, and there is a move toward economic diversification. There is also a genuine mood of optimism about the future. Many hope that Northern Ireland will be the next phase of the "Celtic Tiger," the apt characterization of the decades-long economic surge in the Republic of Ireland.
It's probably not a coincidence that the most meaningful progress toward peace in Northern Ireland came during a period of high economic growth for the Republic and Britain as well as rapid European integration that made national boundaries less relevant.
The not very shocking or encouraging lesson of the Northern Irish peace process may be that underlying economic and political conditions matter more than what's said at the negotiating table. In this light, conditions may well be in place for a peaceful resolution of the Basque insurgency, which is a shadow of its former self in any case. Moreover, nearby Catalonia has proven far more successful at acheiving political and cultural autonomy by working within the system, providing a useful lesson to Basque nationalists.
Despite some hopeful signs on the West Bank, similarly favorable conditions are still probably a long way off in the Middle East. Despite the hopeful rhetoric, Mitchell probably knows this.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
I may be skeptical about the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that began in Washington last week, but at least I'm not in the Israeli government. Avigdor Lieberman, however, is, and it looks like the foreign minister -- who lives in a West Bank settlement -- is out to sabotage the negotiations. Speaking at a gathering of his far-right Yisraeli Beiteinu party Sunday, Lieberman reportedly said that a complete, final peace deal would not be possible -- "not next year and not for the next generation."
He also said that Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas "will not sign an agreement with Israel," but that he wouldn't take up arms, either. "The only practical solution," Lieberman said, "is a long-term interim agreement, on which we can debate. Our proposal is: No to unilateral concessions, no to continuing the settlement freeze, yes to serious negotiations and mutual gestures of good faith."
Haaretz also channels Israeli cabinet ministers' complaints that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, isn't sharing details of his discussions with Abbas (many of them would love to be able to leak controversial bits to the press and blow up the talks) or his plan to deal with the impending expiration of his 10-month settlement freeze (a majority wants to start building again). Meanwhile, senior Abbas aides are already feuding in the press and spreading strategic leaks of their own.
It will take an unimaginable change of heart, not to mention skillful coalition management, by Netanyahu, to make these negotiations succeed -- and that's assuming he really wants to do it and isn't just trying to relieve American pressure. (Israeli commentator Aluf Benn predicts that Bibi's about to pull a "Nixon to China" moment, but I'm not persuaded by clichés.)
Already, it looks to me like both sides expect the talks to fail and are maneuvering to hang that failure on the other guy. Abbas has said repeatedly and unequivocally that he'll walk out if building resumes, while the Israeli government remains committed -- at least publicly -- to letting the freeze expire. According to the Jerusalem Post, 57 projects are ready to drop on Sept. 27, the day after the moratorium ends (indeed, some projects have already begun).
Carlos Stenger calls forth a parade of horribles to expect if and when the talks fall apart: an uptick in terrorist attacks, the possible dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, a return to full Israeli control of the West Bank, growing diplomatic isolation for Israel. So what's Plan B?
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
This Friday is al-Quds day, a holiday created by the Iranian regime to oppose Zionism and Israel's control over Jerusalem. This year, it happens to fall near the beginning of the peace talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington.
Unsurprisingly, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has tweeted a holiday message, and it's as cheery as you might imagine:
Israel Is A Hideous Entity In the Middle East Which Will Undoubtedly Be Annihilated
No word yet on what Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is planning to say, but his boss has upped the ante on the regional contest of who can use the most inflammatory rhetoric on al-Quds day.
As a sidenote, I'm pretty certain that Khamenei's use of Twitpic is one of the most absurd things I've ever seen on the Internet.
In an inspired bit of YouTube surfing, Gawker has assembled a compilation of military recruitment commercials from around the world. There are a few clunkers -- three minutes is an awful long time to watch a Russian paratrooper sort of rapping in front of an obstacle course -- and I have my doubts that this Japanese ad is not an elaborate sophomoric hoax, but on the whole they make for pretty fascinating viewing.
Watching these as an American, the most immediately noticeable thing is how little time most of the ads spend overtly appealing to patriotism. There's Estonia, which does it cheekily, and Lebanon, which does it with a slow-motion sentimentality that would be cloying under other circumstances but is actually quite poignant in the context of a country that is eternally trying to keep things together. France and India, meanwhile, both hearken back to the U.S. military ads of the pre-9/11 era, in which we mostly see the life-advancing stuff that enlistment is supposed to get you, with a minimum of actual warfighting. (A career in the Indian army evidently prepares you for a lifetime of golfing and competitive diving.)
The Ukrainian army opts for an admirably straightforward "you'll get girls" approach. Singapore features a naval vessel transforming into a giant robot, presumably developed to contain the same giant lava monsters that have long plagued the U.S. Marines. Britain's jarring entry -- which a student of post-colonialism would have a field day with -- looks like it was directed by Fernando Meirelles. (This kind of "I dare you" approach to recruiting must work in the U.K. -- back in the '90s, when the U.S. Army was mostly promoting itself as a way to pay for college, the Brits ran magazine ads showing a Royal Marine eating worms as part of a survival training course.)
But the real winner here, I think, is Sweden, which is promoting military service to young women as a means of avoiding working as an au pair for awful Americans:
PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images
Is Joe Biden freelancing again?
According to CNN, the U.S. vice president told a VFW audience Monday that Iran's influence in Iraq is "minimal" and "greatly exaggerated."
But who, then, is doing the exaggerating?
As recently as Sunday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the outgoing U.S. commander in Baghdad, was warning about Iranian meddling in Iraqi affairs:
CROWLEY: Let me turn to Iran. We know that throughout this process, Iran has been involved at some level, certainly helping the Shia in the fight. What is the level, as far as you can tell, of Iranian involvement in Iraq, both in the government -- in trying to form a government and in the fighting that still exists?
ODIERNO: Well, they -- they clearly still fund some Shia extremist groups that operate in Iraq. They train them. They continue to try to improve their capabilities, partially to attack U.S. forces, partially to make sure everybody understands that they can have some impact in the country. They clearly want to see a certain type of government that is formed here.
CROWLEY: So is that Iran's ambition, do you think, in Iraq, to keep it from becoming a functioning democracy?
ODIERNO: I think they don't want to see Iraq turn into a strong democratic country. They'd rather see it become a weak governmental institution, so they don't add more problems for Iran in the future.
Now, that doesn't 100 percent contradict the veep's statement, but the general's tone is markedly different. So what's the administration's position? It was probably most clearly articulated by Colin Kahl, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, who said last week in a briefing:
I think that General Odierno remains concerned about certain aspects of Iranian meddling in Iraq, principally the continued provision of certain kinds of lethal assistance to Shia militant groups. But I think that Iran has recognized in the last couple of years that its influence in Iraq is somewhat overstated. I think that they clearly – they tried to influence the provincial and national elections not very successfully. They tried to defeat the U.S.-Iraq security agreement not very successfully. And I think that their experience with the militias that they’ve backed is that when they’ve overplayed their hands, they’ve gotten a lot of Iraqi pushback on this.
And I think basically that’s because at the end of the day, there are kind of at least three antidotes to overwhelming Iranian influence in Iraq. The first and most important one is that the Iraqis don’t want Iran to dominate their country. Iraqi nationalism is real, it is powerful, and it’s a much more powerful force than whatever affinity might exist between Iraq and Iran.
The second is the fact that Iran wants good relations with all its neighbors, not just Iran. So it wants good relationships with Iran, but it also wants good relationships with Turkey, it wants good relationships with Saudi Arabia and others, which means that it’s not inclined to have a desire to be firmly in Iran’s camp.
And the last point that I would raise, last but not least, is the vast majority of Iraq’s political parties want a long-term partnership with the United States, which, of course, is not consistent with being dominated by Iran. So I think when you factor all of those things in together, I don’t think we’re at risk of Iraq being dominated by Iran.
U.N. Security Council members Brazil and Turkey have chosen very different paths since they both voted against the latest round of U.N. sanctions on Iran. While Brazil has pledged to abide by the sanctions, despite their disagreement with them, Turkey's energy minister has vowed to bolster gasoline sales to Tehran. Turkey's gasoline sales have reportedly boomed to over five times their daily average, compared to the first half of this year.
Turkey is not the only U.S. ally looking to increase trade with Iran. In Iraq, a new Iranian trade center has recently opened, and Iran's ambassador has promised to double trade between the two countries, which he estimated at about $7 billion last year.
Russia -- though few might call it a close U.S. ally -- is also getting in on the act. Its state atomic corporation is set to load fuel into Iran's first nuclear power plant next week.
It doesn't look like pressing more reset buttons with Turkey, Iraq or Russia is going to help the U.S. attempt to isolate Iran.
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