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.
First Tareq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's former deputy, said that the planned U.S. troop withdrawal was "leaving the country to the wolves." Now, the chief of staff of the Iraqi military, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, says that the U.S. pullout was "too soon" -- and that his forces might not be able to secure the country for another decade. Well, at least the representatives of Iraq's old guard and its new regime are able to agree about something.
Zebari, who I'm going to go out on a limb and assume is a Kurd, undermines his case by calling for U.S. forces to stay in Iraq for another 10 years. But it's hard not to sympathize with him: When I interviewed former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker in March, following Iraq's parliamentary elections, he gently opposed Obama's plan to draw down to 50,000 troops by Sept. 1, reasoning that, because of the time-consuming government formation process, the Iraqi government may well not have made much progress in resolving its pressing political issues. Crocker said that the negotiations over government formation could take "two or three months" -- a suggestion that struck me as pessimistic at the time, but now, over five months into the process, turned out to be wildly optimistic.
"[T]hings aren't going to be much further along come August than they are right now," Crocker also said. Boy, was that prescient. But the bigger conundrum is this: Iraqi politicians must realize that U.S. forces are pulling out, whether they like it or not, and that their only hope of holding on to power in the aftermath is to reach some sort of modus vivendi with their domestic rivals. Given that reality, it's a tremendous failure of Iraq's political elite that they haven't agreed to bury the hatchet and form a government - while some of them, like Zebari, are calling on the United States to pay the price for their intransigence.
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You know, there once was a time in the not too distant past when the British military defended civilization against a genocidal German regime that appeared intent on rampaging across much of the planet. Now, it looks as if it will be reduced to a shadow of its former self: Proposed cuts would slice the Royal Air Force to levels not seen since World War I, while the Army could see reductions of as much as 40 percent of its forces.
Some observers suggest that these selectively-leaked numbers are merely posturing -- the military is airing a doomsday scenario in order to rally support for scaling back the cuts. That may be true, but the reality of serious reductions to the Britain's armed forces is here to stay. The government's budget, weakened further by a persistent economic crisis, simply can't support the present size of the British military.
Critics of the size of the U.S. defense budget will no doubt look to Britain for tips regarding how they can reverse the growth in military spending. I'm not sure, however, that they are going to find anything useful. If we take Britain as a model, the keys to reversing defense spending appear to be, in order of importance: Have an unsustainable budget deficit that cannot be managed any other way, find another global superpower to police the world for you, and transform the region of the world where your interests lie into one of peace and stability. The United States doesn't look likely to fulfill any of those requirements in the short-term -- though, with the capabilities of one of its most important allies looking to be slashed, its job is only about to get tougher.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
Forget the clash of civilizations -- the next grand battle between East and West will be over Time itself. The world's largest clock is currently under construction in the Islamic holy city of Mecca, with the goal of moving Greenwich Mean Time to the Saudi Arabian city. The clock will tick off its first seconds tomorrow, one day after the beginning of Ramadan.
The clock itself bears a resemblance to Big Ben -- if Ben was on steroids. Its four faces, each 151 feet in diameter, will be lit with two million LED lights. It will sit on top of a tower that stretches 1,983 feet in the air. By comparison, Big Ben's faces are merely 23 feet in diameter, and its tower is only 316 feet tall. The tower also has some Islamic touches that are all its own: Arabic script reading "In the Name of Allah" runs below the clock faces, and white and green lights will flash during at the top of the clock will flash to signal the five daily times for prayer in Islam.
Greenwich has performed its job as international timekeeper admirably since 1884, so many people are going to be hard-pressed to think of a reason to change the Prime Meridian now. But at least one nation is starting to think that it's time for a change.
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Following Admiral Mullen's declaration last week that the U.S. military has a plan to attack Iran but really does not want to use it, a former deputy commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard has claimed that Iran has dug mass graves for U.S. soldiers in preparation for war. Not saying exactly how many graves have been dug, General Hossein Kana'ani Moghadam told AP:
"The mass graves that used to be for burying Saddam's soldiers have now been prepared again for U.S. soldiers, and this is the reason for digging this big number of graves," […]
If U.S. forces attack, "Iran will have no choice but to strike the American bases in the region," he said. "The heavy costs of such a war will not be just on the Islamic Republic of Iran. America and other countries should accept that this would be the start of an extensive war in the region.
Following the UAE's recent admonition of BlackBerry smartphones, the country will prohibit three of BlackBerry's web operations starting on Oct. 11 -- e-mail, instant messaging between BlackBerry phones, and the web-browsing program -- citing security concerns. Later this month, Saudi Arabia will also ban instant messaging between BlackBerrys.
A Saudi official revealed that the move is intended to strong-arm Research-in-Motion, BlackBerry's Ontario-based company, into conceding information, which it has already done for Russia and China. In 2007, RIM provided its encryption keys to a Russian telecommunications agency, which then passed it to the Federal Security Service. A year later, RIM's handset came out in China, but was delayed because the company "needed to satisfy Beijing that its handsets posed no security threat to China's communication networks."
The ban won't be lifted "until these BlackBerry applications are in full compliance with UAE regulations;" and it comes at a time when countries all around the world, are attempting to restrict the many freedoms provided by the Internet.
A rocket attack from Gaza on the Israeli city of Ashkelon has damaged buildings and rattled nerves today, but earlier in the week, the skies over the troubled region played host to a much happier sight. About 6,200 Gazan children taking part in a U.N.-sponsored summer program broke their own world record for the number of kites flown simultaneously. Although no adjudicator from the Guinness Book of World Records was present, the record is expected to be accepted.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
BlackBerry phones may be unwelcome guests at dinner parties, in class, or at the movies, but in the UAE, the smartphones have recently been labeled a "security threat."
"As a result of how Blackberry data is managed and stored, in their current form, certain Blackberry applications allow people to misuse the service, causing serious social, judicial and national security repercussions," an authority from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority declared.
Despite what may appear to be honest "social [and] judicial" concerns, Emrati officials are annoyed because they can't access BlackBerry users' personal data. Research in Motion, the company behind BlackBerrys, stores their customers' data overseas - outside of the UAE's jurisdiction.
But, this is just the latest attempt at censorship. A year ago, the country's biggest state-run mobile provider Etisalat, promoted an update to the phone that would have allowed the company to access users' personal data like emails and text messages; but it was met with fierce opposition. More recently, Bahrain banned BlackBerry's "Urgent News" app which aggregated stories from the country's six main newspapers.
Reporters Without Borders listed the UAE as an "Enemy of the Internet" and recently stated that the UAE "regards the services offered by BlackBerry, especially its instant messaging, as an obstacle to its goal of reinforcing censorship, filtering and surveillance."
The era of the BlackBerry (or CrackBerry, its affectionate nickname) may be over, according to recent figures: In America, R.I.M's share of the smartphone market fell to 41 percent in the first quarter, down from 55 percent last year. But its sales are still increasing overseas. If Dubai still wants to become the financial capital of the world, they're going to have to embrace the CrackBerry.
DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP/Getty Images
The House of Saud is living the dream. While most Middle Eastern regimes make up all sorts of excuses for throwing activists who raise inconvenient issues in jail -- "endangering security" and "undermining national unity" are favorites -- the Saudis are admirably honest. Mekhlef bin Daham al-Shammary, a prominent Saudi human rights activist who has been critical of the kingdom's anti-Shiite policies, was jailed on the charge of "annoying others" on June 15.
No, the crime of annoyance does not appear to be written down anywhere in Saudi Arabia. The charges against Shammary may stem from an article he wrote rebuking another columnist for harsh attacks against the Iraqi Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
More than a month after his imprisonment, Shammary still has not been brought before a judge. If he ever is, one can only hope that he is impolite -- perhaps even annoying.
There's conflict brewing between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs in Iran -- and this time, the battleground is fashion.
It's hardly the first time the leaders of the Islamic Republic have embarked on a fatwa tirade against the perceived glitz and glamour of Western styles; but now a visible division of opinion regarding the legitimacy of the fatwas has appeared among Iran's leadership -- one that may leave a lasting fissure in its wake.
In this classic debate, the typically ultraconservative Ahmadinejad plays the part of the hip, chest hair-bearing nonconformist campaigning for more leniency and modernity in Iran's outlook on permissible appearance; opposite him, we have the old school, uptight enforcers played by Team Ayatollahs -- who relentlessly demand that every button be button and every hemline be lengthened. The two have disputed the propriety of rowdy hairstyles, unshaven countenances, and "badly veiled women" in the past. The former -- our surprisingly panache president Ahmadinejad -- has repeatedly declined to endorse the ayatollahs' prohibitions, and even went so far as to altogether denounce the police crackdowns used to enforce them.
So what's the latest incendiary style to drive the fashion-conscious chasm? Neckties.
In the latest such controversy, Mr Ahmadinejad, who never wears a tie in public, has gone on record as saying that no religious leader has banned the tie, which since the 1979 Islamic revolution has been regarded as a symbol of Western culture.
He was criticized by Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami, normally close ally of the Iranian president, who said: "I say to him that many religious dignitaries believe ties should not be worn.
"The supreme guide (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) himself has said in a fatwa (religious edict) that the wearing of ties or bow ties is not permitted."
The tie has in past years been making a comeback in Iran, especially at events such as weddings and funerals.
The age-old adage stipulates that if you pull the string, the whole thing will unravel. If Mahmoud continues to pull the necktie, will the whole head of the Iranian government come toppling off, too? Or will the ayatollahs simply come to appreciate the magic that ensues when a world leader meets with the right piece of neckwear?
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For the last nine years, the U.S. has funded a major hydropower plant in Kajaki, Afghanistan. Why? To boost economic growth and bolster electrical infrastructure, in the hope of generating support for President Karzai's government among Taliban sympathizers. But the venture has one conspicuous flaw: the American-sponsored power plant intended to stymie the Taliban, as it turns out, sponsors the Taliban.
The U.S. has invested over $100 million in the Kajaki plant, which provides most of southern Afghanistan's electricity; but this tactical outlay yields a particularly insidious benefaction to Taliban officials, who preside over many of the districts in the electrical grid (located in the Helmand province, a notorious breeding ground for insurgents).
The Taliban benefits from the hydropower plant in more ways than one: its commanders collect electricity bills from civilians, deprive revenue from Karzai-allied officials (they lose an estimated $4 million per year to Taliban officials), and channel irrigation for their opium poppy harvests. They also intercept the power lines running straight from the Kajaki plant and sell off the surplus themselves. To put it simply:
"The more electricity there is, the more the Taliban make," says Hajji Gul Mohammad Khan, tribal-affairs adviser to the governor of Helmand.
At least the inclusion of a more civilian-oriented battle in the counterinsurgency plan -- for the hearts and minds of Afghans -- seems potentially constructive. But the U.S. has implemented other initiatives that inadvertently support the Taliban, and those lack the same rationale:
A Congressional subcommittee last month issued a report on how protection payments by Department of Defense trucking contractors have become a "'significant potential source of funding for the Taliban."
That's to say that U.S. contractors are actually paying the Taliban to withhold attacks on American convoys... a strategy that seems relatively on par with bribing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to slow down nuclear proliferation with a multi-million dollar check.
The paradoxical outcomes of U.S. strategies only highlight the likelihood that, as the war in Afghanistan grows increasingly complex, concession and compromise will become inevitable. But in Afghanistan, an insurgent needs only $200 per month to fight effectively, and the Kajaki power plant alone funnels millions (from the wallets of U.S. taxpayers) to the pockets of potential insurgents. In light of those disconcerting numbers, should the U.S. government at least reconsider their investment? If they do, they'll need to act fast: they plan to launch a $400 million upgrade to the Kajaki plant in 2011.
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Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, is hoping to join the ranks of Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in his quest to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Taking the unusual step of actively campaigning for the award, Abbas has reportedly sent mediators to persuade the committee to award him the honor and seems to be circumventing the most direct (and much harder) route toward the prize -- creating peace. Most Nobel Peace Prize winners have distinguished themselves by negotiating cease-fires, ending wars or apartheid -- or, in the case of President Obama "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."
Presumably, the best chance for Abbas to win the Nobel Peace Prize is to create
peace with Israel. But there's one question left -- will Bibi Netanyahu want one,
Thaer Ganaim/PPO/Getty Images
For the second time this week, someone on the Internet has gotten in trouble for expressing respect for the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. CNN Mideast Affairs Editor Octavia Nasr lost her job on Wednesday over a tweet about Fadlallah. Now, Britain's ambassador to Lebanon, Frances Guy, is taking fire from the Israeli government and others over a post on her foreign ministry blog about the late Shiite cleric. The ministry has taken the post down but a cached version is still available on Google. An excerpt:
When you visited him you could be sure of a real debate, a respectful argument and you knew you would leave his presence feeling a better person. That for me is the real effect of a true man of religion; leaving an impact on everyone he meets, no matter what their faith. Sheikh Fadlallah passed away yesterday. Lebanon is a lesser place the day after but his absence will be felt well beyond Lebanon's shores. I remember well when I was nominated ambassador to Beirut, a muslim acquaintance sought me out to tell me how lucky I was because I would get a chance to meet Sheikh Fadlallah. Truly he was right. If I was sad to hear the news I know other peoples' lives will be truly blighted. The world needs more men like him willing to reach out across faiths, acknowledging the reality of the modern world and daring to confront old constraints. May he rest in peace.
Those confused about the source of this controversy would do well to check out my colleague David Kenner's piece on the legacy of Fadlallah, who is frequently described as the spiritual leader of Hezbollah, but whose views, particuarly on Iran and women's rights, are far more complex.
The British foreign ministry has been very active, and largely very successful, in encouraging diplomats to blog. But the Guy affair is an example of the tensions that can occur when people representing a government write in a medium generally designed for self-expression. The U.S. State Department got a taste of this recently with the uproar over irrevent tweets written on a trip to Syria by two State Department blog that were reprinted by FP's Josh Rogin.
Though if Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin's Twitter is any indication, the Russian foreign ministry doesn't seem to worry about this too much.
Is it that time of year for a haircut? If you're in Iran, take a walk to your nearest barbershop, plop in a swively chair, and peruse through the catalogue of hairstyles on the counter. But make sure to survey the clean-shaven coifs and gel-infused buzzcuts in the catalogue carefully -- you now must select one of them for yourself, at your government's behest.
These sartorial sanctions are the latest crackdown on what the government percieves to be a more modern, Western aesthetic proliferating in Iran's popular culture. State-imposed restrictions have been growing steadily more stringent to combat "bad hijab" -- the improper veiling of men and women alike -- and clothes and makeup that, the government claims, contradict Islamic principles. But the multicolored mohawks, rockstar-inspired ponytails, and unkempt mullets popping up around Tehran recently seem to have been the final straw: the Culture Ministry has now banned a number of "decadent Western cuts" and issued a catalogue of permissible hairdos from which male salon-goers must choose.
Take a look at the pictures of the epic style summit where the catalogue was created: barbers, clerics, and government officials came together, visualizing proportions of beard to hair on mannequin faces and taking painstaking care to engineer the proper haircuts. While shaggy bangs have fallen victim to the blacklist, styles resembling the 1950's flattop -- a widespread fashion faux pas from the era of Elvis -- are deemed perfectly fine.
Though these constraints may seem superficial, be on the lookout for some serious backlash from the country's constituents. In the thirty-one years since the Iranian Republic was established, the power struggle between young Iranians -- fighting to maintain their freedom of expression -- and the government -- fighting to crush it -- has only escalated. The suppressed one-year anniversary of Iran's 2009 elections has already begun to amass a repository of unleashed defiance; not to mention some Iranians just won't be happy flipping through their barber's catalogue and asking, "Can I have the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?"
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah probably refrained from expressing at least half this sentiment in his meeting today with President Obama: On June 5, he reportedly told French Defense Minister Hervé Morin that "There are two countries in the world that do not deserve to exist: Iran and Israel."
The scoop comes from Georges Malbrunot, a French journalist with Le Figaro. Malbrunot, a respected Middle East correspondent who spent four months as a hostage of the Islamic Army in Iraq, goes on to report that two sources, from diplomatic and military circles, have confirmed the story. He suggests that the anger directed as Israel was the result of the IDF raid on the Gaza-bound flotilla, which occurred just days before this outburst. (Hat tip goes to the eagle-eyed correspondents at Friday Lunch Club).
Update: Of course, the White House statement following the Obama-Abdullah meeting reaffirmed both leaders' sincerest hope that the current round of proximity talks will lead to "two states living side-by-side in peace and security."
SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
Enter the cells of the Badam Bagh prison in Kabul, Afghanistan, and what culprits will you find locked up inside? A 16-year old recipient of an unplanned marriage proposal, a pregnant wife irrationally accused of adultery, and a veiled old woman who just displayed a "bad attitude."
These unlikely suspects were accused of "moral crimes," a new category of infractions for which half the incarcerated females in Afghanistan are held. The "immoral" misdemeanors also include refusing to marry, resisting rape or being raped, and -- especially devastating in light of prevalent and severe domestic violence that compels many women to flee belligerent spouses -- running away from home. Numerous "moral crimes" do not actually violate or even pertain to penal code; but this grouping of offenses requires no codification. Rather, they are loosely described as violations of Sharia law, however the accuser may choose to interpret it. In other words, "moral crimes" altogether lack definition, merely subscribing to a "You'll know it when you see it" kind of classification that allows discrimination to infiltrate the legal system.
In some respects, conditions for impounded women have actually improved. Hundreds of female inmates were previously held with male inmates at the notoriously inhumane Pul-e-Charki prison; but after parliamentary reports revealed the frequency of rape within its walls, the reportedly cozy Badam Bagh -- in which women can move freely, take computer classes, and sew and sell handcrafts -- was built. Clearly once detained, the women aren't subject to any kind of "Black Jail," where beatings, sleep deprivation, and isolation in cold cells are daily protocol.
But the reasons behind their detentions remain discriminatory and cruel. These ill-fated women, jailed with their children for what can be indefinite periods of time, are surely suffering from the crackdown on "moral crimes" -- the enforcement of which propagates the notion that immorality is inherent to the female sex.
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While stoppages and barricades stymie the "Freedom Flotillas" en route to Gaza, the "Speed Sisters" -- an eight-woman speed-racing troupe breaking onto the driving scene in the West Bank -- are revving up to shatter barriers at high speeds.
These unfearing females -- comprised of Christians and Muslims from ages 18 to 39 -- competed last Friday in the "Speed Test," a car race in the West Bank city of Ramallah that makes the typical NASCAR loop look like child's play. Thousands of fans attended the event to cheer on the seventy helmet-clad contestants as they navigated through treacherous obstacles, spinning loops, and serpentine pathways. And these eight women, gripping the wheels with fingerless gloves that accentuate their brightly painted fingernails, may have particularly piqued the crowd's interest: they are the first female team to enter the Speed Test. The Speed Sisters follow in the footsteps of the one female contestant -- now the group's coach -- who raced in the first competition five years ago.
While racing, many of the Speed Sisters wear t-shirts emblazoned with the British flag to pay homage to their sponsor, the British consulate in East Jerusalem. It is the consulate's personnel that facilitated the creation of the women's team, and its budget that subsidized about $8000 worth of training, coaches, and car refurbishing -- all part of a campaign to foster development in the West Bank and other communities of Palestinian refugees. But even with a financier, the women's road to the finish line is a bumpy one: they share a donated hatch-back that pales in comparison to the other high-powered BMWs and Mercedes on the track, and they face doubt and skepticism from their male counterparts.
Regardless, this strong female showing in a male-dominated arena is inspiring in such a conservative Muslim society -- especially one in which mounting political strife can often preclude a focus on social equity.
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Think of Cairo's al-Azhar University as the Harvard of Sunni Islam: Founded in the 10th century, it has played a foundational role in the religious and cultural development of modern Egypt and the entire Muslim world. In the first half of the 20th century, some of the era's most important political and intellectual figures -- including secularist Taha Hussein, Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna, and Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin -- passed through its gates. In recent years, however, al-Azhar has lost some of its prestige to upstart Wahhabi preachers in Saudi Arabia and unaffiliated firebrands throughout the Arab world, including radicals sympathetic to al Qaeda. Now, a new television station is trying to help al-Azhar reclaim the initiative in the 21st century.
Azhari TV was founded on the heels of President Obama's June 2009 Cairo speech, with a mandate to promote a "moderate" interpretation of Islam. This week, the station expanded to offer programming in English, French, Urdu, and Pashto. In its first year of existence, Azhari TV's owners have funneled around $18 million into the station, and expect to spend between $8 and $10 million a year to keep it operational. They claim that they currently attract an audience of approximately 7 to 8 million viewers.
I spoke with Hassan Tatanaki, a Libyan businessman who is one of the financiers of the station, to get a better understanding of the version of Islam he's trying to promote. "Our main principle is living together -- Copts, Muslims, Jews, it does not make a difference," he said. When asked for an example of the extremism that Azhari TV sets out to combat, he criticized Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian preacher who hosts a popular religious program on al-Jazeera, for issuing a fatwa against Iraqi immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship while the United States continues to occupy Iraq. "All Qaradawi has done is made those people believe that they are excommunicated, and therefore could be killed," he said.
Tatanaki hopes that Azhari TV's expansion will now reach Muslims living in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Europe's immigrant communities. Because non-Arabic speakers aren't versed in the original language of the Koran, he argued, it is easier for them to be misled by a preacher that distorts its meaning. "They're living in their own domain, forgetting their own language, and feeling lost -- you know, neither here nor there. That's the danger that's coming to the West."
Still, it's a tall order to expect Azhari TV to restore al-Azhar's lost luster. The primary cause for the university's decline isn't its dated communications technology, but its inability to respond effectively to its audience's political concerns. On whether Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is one of the extremist organizations Azhari TV was designed to oppose, for example, Tatanaki said that it was "sensitive to reply," but criticized the organization for extending its religious agenda into the political realm. He also had little to say about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, beyond the religiously-charged issue of Jerusalem. Other issues affecting Palestinian politics, he said, are "of no interest to us." By neglecting to tackle these issues head-on, Azhari TV runs the risk of surrendering vital political turf to those who it is attempting to supplant.
VICTORIA HAZOU/AFP/Getty Images
Here's an unlikely advocate in the enforcement of sanctions against Iran: Sheikh Khalid, the former crown prince of the UAE emirate Ras al-Khaimah (RAK). In 2003, his own father and half-brother staged a takeover and exiled him to Muscat, Oman. Now Khalid fears that the new governance of the kingdom -- which is located 50 miles from Iran and, in Khalid's words, "a rogue state and gateway" for Ahmadinedjad's repressive regime -- poses an international security threat, and he has enlisted the help of a British lawyer to plot a bloodless coup.
The Guardian reports that in 2008, Khalid began to re-enter political life and publicly speak out against his royal replacements. He criticized their opposition to women's rights and democracy, their alleged involvement in terrorist plots, and their enabling Iran's nuclear program by offering up "free trade zones" in RAK. Meanwhile, he was teaming up with an unlikely friend: British lawyer Peter Cathcart, who has spent the last two years lobbying U.S. congressmen for support and financial backing in overthrowing the RAK regime. And it seems the coup may soon come to fruition: in recent weeks, Khalid has met with Abu Dabhi officials and members of the UAE federal government, all of whom would be crucial in facilitating Khalid's rise to power.
It looks like Sex and the City 2 won't be the only upset in the emirates this summer...
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Forget Iran slapping Israel with "political sanctions" -- Egypt may launch a marital embargo against the Jewish state.
On the heels of a restrictive 2005 fatwa, Egypt's supreme administrative court has upheld
a decision to revoke the citizenship of Egyptian men married to Israeli
women. The children of those cross-national unions could be officially
stripped of their Egyptian nationality, as well, in order to legally
omit a generation of citizens that Nabil al-Wahsh, a lawyer in the
as inherently "disloyal to Egypt and the Arab world." The ruling, if
uniformly enforced, would reduce the country's citizenry by as many as 30,000 people.
The court stipulated that judgments be delivered on a case-by-case basis. "The court asks the ministry of interior to present all the marriages to the cabinet to examine," said supreme administrative court judge Mohammed al-Husseini. "Each case should be investigated separately and with consideration to personal freedoms and the nation's security." In more concrete terms, this means Egyptian men married to Arab Israeli women would probably be more likely to be allowed to maintain their residencies than those married to ethnically Israeli women.
Though the decision compels the Interior Ministry to request that the cabinet consider enforcing the ruling, the Egyptian government will not necessarily annul any citizenships. Still, the extremity of the judgment illuminates a growing discrepancy between Egypt's official stance towards its northeastern neighbor (Egypt being one of few Arab states that practices full diplomacy with Israel) and what seem to be -- in the midst of the incendiary situation in the Gaza Strip -- increasingly hostile sentiments towards Israel on the streets of the Arab world's most populous country.
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Helene Cooper has an interesting take on the Gaza boat affair in this weekend's Times, but I think she goes astray here:
Some foreign policy experts say the new willingness to suggest that the Israeli government’s actions may become an American national security liability marks a backlash against the Bush-era neoconservative agenda, which posited that America and Israel were fighting together to promote democracy in an unstable region.
Some American neoconservatives may have thought this, but few Israelis did. With the notable exception of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, leading Israelis generally scoffed at the notion that the United States would succeed in promoting democracy in the Arab world -- and to some extent, the record vindicates their skepticism.
I'd divide the thinking into two main camps: those who thought Arab states couldn't become real democracies, whether for cultural or socioeconomic reasons, and those who recognized that free and fair elections in the Arab world would likely see Islamist groups with deep antipathy toward Israel come to power. The second group saw its fears realized in 2005 and 2006, when elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas make big gains at the polls. One could also point to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the AK Party in Turkey, and Nuri al-Maliki's coalition in Iraq as examples of Islamist groups of various stripes benefitting from democracy.
Even Sharansky wasn't necessarily a genuine advocate of democracy in the Arab world. Some would say, given his hard-line positions on settlements and peace negotiations, that his real aim was to add a new condition -- democratic governance -- to the long list of things the Palestinians must achieve to be considered a viable partner for peace.
As for the flotilla incident, Turkey's reaction to it will likely only strengthen the conviction in Israel that it's much easier to deal with autocrats like Jordan's King Abdullah and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak than it is with elected governments. After all, you don't hear either of those two guys threatening to break off relations with Israel, and Mubarak has been awfully silent about his own role in enforcing the Gaza blockade.
When I flipped open Evan Kohlmann's 2006 report on Insani Yardim Vakhi (IHH), the Turkish organization that helped organize the Gaza-bound flotilla raided by Israel on Monday, I was half-expecting a series of thinly-sourced allegations that attempted to tie the group to Islamic extremist movements. After all, Kohlmann's credentials have been raked over the coals in recent days, in an attempt to discredit the report. Surely, the source document would be equally thin on facts?
It isn't. Kohlmann's report is a relic from a time when one could express concern over an obscure Turkish NGO's connection to terrorists without the issue becoming hopelessly entangled with one's loyalties in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. And Kohlmann convincingly describes the group's extensive ties to jihadist groups in Europe, Turkey, and North Africa.
Drawing on a French intelligence report, Kohlmann describes how the group fell under the scrutiny of Turkish security forces in the late 1990s, who "uncovered an array of disturbing items, including firearms, explosives, [and] bomb-making instructions" in the organization's Istanbul offices. The Turks determined that the IHH's members were planning to join the mujahideen in Bosnia and Chechnya, and that the president of the organization had worked to send men to Muslim countries for "jihad," and trasferred weapons to those countries. An analysis of the group's telephone records also revealed phone calls to an al Qaeda guesthouse in Milan, and Algerian terrorist networks in Europe.
Overall, Kohlmann paints a picture of an organization that maintains close working relationships with extremist organizations, and which has often run afoul of Turkish authorities. In 1999, following the disastrous earthquakes that struck northwestern Turkey, the Turkish government eventually banned the IHH from distributing aid, naming it as one of several "fundamentalist organizations" that refused to provide information on its activities. It is not Israeli PR flacks that provide the damning facts about IHH, but French and Turkish authorities. In today's New York Times, Henri Barkey, no hard-line Kemalist himself, also refers to the IHH as a "quite fundamentalist" organization that has dabbled in inflammatory rhetoric against Jews.
Of course, none of this changes the fact that Israel's actions aboard the flotilla on Saturday constituted a tragedy, and a disaster for international peace. The Israel Defense Forces are tasked every day with confronting people who despise them, and Israel can only be truly protected by not killing them. Still, the IHH's history does shed light on the challenges that the IDF likely faced aboard the Mavi Marmara, and why it failed so spectacularly in its mission.
MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images
The Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and Church World Service (CWS), two aid organizations operating in Afghanistan, were suspended yesterday from carrying out relief projects in the country. The damning transgression? An offending telephone book listing.
Controversy over the operations of the two groups first ignited when Noorin TV, a broadcasting company in Afghanistan, aired footage of baptisms and Christian prayer meetings in the country. Noorin sought to link the clips to NCA and CWS, but later conceded they had no conclusive evidence that either organization is involved in missionary activity. The company's director, Muhammed Arif Noori, admitted he was prompted to raise the alarm when skimming a directory of non-government organizations working in Afghanistan: the word "Church" in the names of both groups caught his eye and wound up inspiring his attack.
In spite of Noorin's dubious fact-finding, the government responded by suspending both groups-an action they say is fully backed by the law: in Afghanistan, proselytizing isn't merely frowned upon. It's downright illegal. The country's Constitution bans converting from Islam, or even just trying to get someone else to convert. Both NCA and CWS deny taking part in any evangelical activity. (Indeed, even Mohammed Sediq Amarkhiel, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Economy, acknowledged both groups are known for "doing a good job.") The NCA general secretary expressed hope for a "speedy and positive solution" to the fall-out, but at least for now, his organization-and its 8 million dollar budget for Afghanistan alone-will have to sit on the sidelines.
MAURICIO LIMA/AFP/Getty Images
Sure, there are plenty of people who have it worse than billionaire Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But as someone whose government is marginalized in large parts of Lebanon, whose interests are ignored internationally, and who -- if the history of his country and his family is any guide -- faces good odds of meeting a violent death, there are also plenty of people who have it better than Sheikh Saad. The latest headache came today, with the news that the Lebanese army had opened fire on Israeli jets flying over the country.
This isn't a novel development: Israeli warplanes have continued to violate Lebanese airspace since the 2006 war, and the Lebanese army continues to periodically fire at them, and miss. But for Hariri, who attended his first U.N. Security Council meeting today and spent Monday and Tuesday in Washington, where U.S. military assistance to Lebanon was on the docket, the timing couldn't be worse.
It's a no-win situation. If Hariri wants to keep military aid flowing to Lebanon, he needs to convince U.S. lawmakers that a strengthened Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) will contribute to regional peace. That just became harder. And Hariri can't simply order the army not to target Israeli planes -- he's still trying to build bridges to Syria and Hezbollah, and his own Sunni community wouldn't stand for it. As with Hassan Nasrallah's fire-and-brimstone speech yesterday, the prime minister keeps finding the spotlight wrested away from him during his big trip.
Ron Sachs-Pool/Getty Images
The Turkish- and Brazilian-brokered nuclear enrichment deal with Iran earlier this week was widely seen as a setback for the Obama administration's nonproliferation agenda, and indeed the White House didn't exactly shower the agreement with praise before continuing its push to slap new sanctions on Iran.
But according to Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the whole thing was done with Obama's encouragement. The National reports:
Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, however, credited Mr Obama’s policy of engaging with Tehran for Ankara’s success in pursuing a diplomatic solution. “[Obama] paved the way for this process,” Mr Davutoglu said during a news conference in Istanbul. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had been “encouraged” to pursue dialogue with Tehran by Mr Obama during a recent, high-level nuclear conference in New York.
While I'm sure Erdogan and Obama discussed Iran, it seems unlikely that anything that explicit was said. At a briefing on Monday -- before Davutoglu's comments -- White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said that the president had "not talked directly" with the leaders of Turkey or Brazil as the deal was being put together.
Turkey and Brazil are reportedly infuriated by the new U.S.-backed agreement on sanctions and Davutoglu's suggestion that Obama was for the deal before he was against it isn't going to sit well in Washingtion.
Hat tip: RFE/RL Transmission
Tomorrow is the official launch for Foreign Policy's Middle East Channel, which we produce with the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force and George Washington University's Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS). To mark the beginning of this new project, the Middle East Channel is delighted to host a panel discussion on Foreign Policy's recent cover story by Aaron David Miller, "The False Religion of Middle East Peace."
Please join us tomorrow for a panel discussion featuring Aaron David Miller, the International Crisis Group's Rob Malley, and NAF's Daniel Levy. The event will be held at the New America Foundation, from 4:30pm to 6:30pm. The event will be followed by a wine reception -- which, after hearing our panelists discuss the many trials and tribulations of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, we are confident you will enjoy.
In a move that is sure to set conspiracy theorists aflutter, former Vice President Dick Cheney popped up yesterday in Saudi Arabia, where he met with King Abdullah. Accompanying him was former State Department diplomat and its top interpreter, Gamal Helal, who recently left the government to form a consulting firm, Helal Associates.
While the Arabic press has caught on to this story, I haven't seen it reported in the U.S. media as of yet. But still, it raises a few eyebrows: Cheney, a private citizen who has reportedly been working on his memoirs, doesn't have any obvious reasons to sit down with the Saudi monarch. The details behind the meeting could go a long way toward unraveling what the former vice president plans to do with his retirement. Here's hoping that the inevitable theorizing about his plans doesn't generate more heat than light.
Saudi Press Agency
Ahmed Salkini, a spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in Washington, says that my post on Syria's alleged transfer of Scud missiles (or parts thereof) to the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah was "petty" and "ignorant." Here's his email in full:
Even though I usually maintain a policy of not responding to petty, ignorant journalism, the title of your post, "The dumbest country in the Middle East," intrigued me and so I thought I would make an exception. It made me question, how can the "dumbest country" outmaneuver the strongest country in the world, and its superpower, along with the numerous Western and other countries that followed in its footsteps and that tried to isolate it? How can the superpower, during its previous administration, work so diligently on isolating "the dumbest country", yet end up being isolated itself (former Bush-official and current Obama-appointee, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffery Feltman: "consequently, the United States, not Syria, seems to be isolated"; Senators John Kerry and Chuck Hagel in a 2008 op-ed: "our policy of non-engagement has isolated us more than the Syrians.")? how can the "dumbest country" face all these economic sanctions imposed by the superpower, while simultaneously achieving some of the highest economic growth figures in the region and being considered one of the top 'frontier markets'?
It also made me question, how can an editor of a prestigious publication reach such an 'enlightened' conclusion, and dub another country with such distasteful, malicious, and nescient names, while by all accounts there has been no evidence of such weapons transfer -as stated by American officials (see articles in NY Times, Washington Post, and others). It finally occurred to me that while Mr. Blake Hounshell failed to discover the 'dumbest country in the Middle East,' I succeeded in discovering the dumbest reporting in the city.
I think it's very interesting that a representative of the Syrian government would respond this way, and also disappointing. In fact, it strengthens my view that -- whether or not it's true that Syria transferred the Scuds or not (and no U.S. officials are denying that Syria arms and otherwise supports Hezbollah in general) -- this is a country that has a history of making poor decisions in the face of tremendous opportunities to make a better life for its people.
Syria has a per capita GDP of less than $5,000, even though it borders countries with much more successful economies, such as Israel ($28,400), Turkey ($11,200), and even Lebanon ($13,100). Its real growth rate in 2009 was less than 2 percent -- hardly fast enough to catch up to its peers or forestall a coming economic crackup. Even Jordan and Egypt are doing better.
Washington has given Damascus countless opportunities to come over to the Western camp, and yet Syria chooses to align itself with Iran -- a world pariah whose leaders are laughingstocks abroad, and feared tyrants at home -- and groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, which offer no vision of a brighter future for the Middle East. This strategy can only lead to further marginalization in a world that is fast passing Syria by.
So, is Syria the "dumbest country in the Middle East"? It's obviously a subjective judgment, and there's plenty of competition in the region. But I haven't seen a convincing case that Bashar al-Assad's government is making smart choices these days.
If it's more polite criticism they seek, I'd suggest Salkini and his colleagues read this piece by Syria expert Steven Heydemann. His bottom line: Syrian leaders are getting dangerously cocky, and need to rethink their strategic direction.
UPDATE: More letters. This one's from Jihad Makdissi, spokesman for the Syrian Embassy in London:
The U.S. State Department summoned Syria's top diplomat in Washington, Zouheir Jabbour, to rebuke his government for transferring arms to Hezbollah. This was apparently the fourth time in recent weeks that the United States had raised these concerns with the Syrians -- but one of the first times that it had been done publicly. The State Department statement "condemns in the strongest terms the transfer of any arms, and especially ballistic missile systems such as the SCUD, from Syria to Hezbollah."
A few quick points on this news. When this story broke last week, skeptics -- including the United States's erstwhile ally, the prime minister of Lebanon -- were quick to dismiss it as Israeli propaganda. The public criticism of a Syrian diplomat should put an end to the talk that this is solely an Israeli disinformation campaign. The U.S. intelligence community obviously believes there is something behind this story, though the details remain blurry. The question now is whether this transfer actually took place, whether Syria transferred parts of the SCUDs to Hezbollah, or whether they merely had the intention to transfer the weapons.
Secondly, when the State Department wanted to call a Syrian official to task, they had to settle for Zouheir Jabbour, the deputy chief of mission. Where is Syrian Ambassadar Imad Moustapha? On vacation, apparently -- where he has been since this crisis broke last week. As we're in a particularly fraught point in the U.S-Syrian engagement process, this is a strange point for Syria's top envoy in Washington to be taking a breather.
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
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