Residents of Tehran are celebrating in the streets tonight.
Earlier on Saturday, Iran's interior minister confirmed that Hassan Rowhani had secured an outright majority in presidential elections, eliminating the need for a run-off. Rowhani trounced the competition, securing just over 50 percent of the vote and beating his nearest rival by a three to one margin.
Taken together with Saeed Jalili's third place finish -- he was the Ayatollah's preferred candidate -- Rowhani's victory sends a strong message of discontent to Iran's ruling clerics and serves as a reminder that the reformist sentiment that brought thousands into the streets following the hotly contested election in 2009 has not faded. Though Rowhani was not the most progressive candidate to throw his hat into the ring, he at least pledged to break somewhat with the prevailing orthodoxy.
To get a sense of what Iranians are thinking about this election, consider this: Tonight, the residents of Tehran were chanting the name of Mir Mousavi, the candidate who lost the 2009 election:
With Iran still at loggerheads with the international community over its nuclear program, the big question on every Iran-watcher's mind now is whether Rowhani may abandon his predecessor's hardline stance in nuclear negotiations.
Though Rowhani's plans for the program remain largely a mystery, a fascinating speech he delivered sometime between October and November 2004 offers some insight as to his thinking about the program and how his country deals with the West.
For those seeking a diplomatic resolution to the stand-off, the speech offers both good and bad news. On the one hand, Rowhani argues that Iran should engage more directly with the West through diplomatic channels. On the other hand, he observes that Iran's strategy of slow-playing the West through negotiations while covertly developing its nuclear program has largely served the country well.
Iran's technical progress, he observed in the speech, "is good for our international reputation and shows that we have made good technological progress and have been successful in the area of technology .... It is going to be a very effective and important statement." The very same progress, Rowhani continued, is the key to Iran gaining the international acceptance it so desperately desires: "If one day we are able to complete the fuel cycle and the world sees that it has no choice -- that we do possess the technology -- then the situation will be different. The world did not want Pakistan to have an atomic bomb or Brazil to have the fuel cycle, but Pakistan built its bomb and Brazil has its fuel cycle, and the world started to work with them. Our problem is that we have not achieved either one, but we are standing at the threshold."
Much of the technical progress that Rowhani praises in fact occurred while the Iranians pretended to be making nice with Western diplomats. Rowhani reveals that Iran's chief goal in negotiations was to at all costs avoid being referred to the U.N. Security Council, and to that end, the country's diplomats pursued a stalling tactic, dragging out talks and negotiations while Iran's scientists worked feverishly behind closed doors. In a telling revelation, Rowhani says that Iranian diplomats only agreed to concessions in areas not beset by technical problems.
This strategy, Rowhani believes, served the country well: "While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan.... in fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work in Isfahan. Today, we can convert yellowcake into UF4 and UF6, and this is a very important matter." UF4 and UF6 -- uranium tetraflouride and uranium hexaflouride, respectively -- are two important materials in the nuclear enrichment process.
There is nothing to indicate in the speech that Rowhani thinks Iran should abandon its nuclear program; rather, his focus on how to best manage the international community and the domestic Iranian population. As soon as Iran has mastered the enrichment process, Rowhani observes, "a country that can enright uranium to about 3.5 percent will also have the capability to enrich it to about 90 percent." (90 percent is weapons grade.) This suggests that Rowhani believes the issue may be settled -- Iran has already achieved 3.5 percent enrichment -- and that the challenge lies in its efforts abroad. Equally important, Rowhani observes, is maintaining domestic support for the program, which as Chen Kane, a senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, observes in the accompanying analysis, represents a surprising concern at the highest levels of Iranian politics.
Rowhani is nothing if not an expert on Iran's nuclear program -- he says he led a mid-2003 interagency review of the program and served as the chief nuclear negotiator from October 2003 to August 2005 -- and he also has a clear sense of how to navigate the international waters. By exploiting the differences in the negotiating positions of the major diplomatic powers -- the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany -- Rowhani says Iran can secure protection at the Security Council in the form of a guaranteed veto. Which is exactly what it has often received from China and Russia.
It has to be noted that Rowhani did not advocate in the speech that Iran should pursue a nuclear bomb -- though the possibility of doing so was certainly hinted at in his references to 90 percent enrichment. "As for building the atomic bomb, we never wanted to move in that direction and we have not yet completely developed our fuel cycle capability," Rowhani says. "This also happens to be our main problem."
In Rowhani, Iranians have elected a man well-versed in the country's nuclear program and a man who clearly wants to improve relations with the West.
But to what end is not entirely clear.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Just how disillusioned have ordinary Iranians become about Friday's presidential election? Enough for one Iranian to sell his vote on eBay.
Iranian authorities have vowed to avoid a repeat of the protests that spilled into Tehran's streets and presented a powerful challenge to the ruling clerics following the country's disputed 2009 election. Reformist candidates have been barred from running, and only one candidate in this year's field -- Hassan Rowhani -- has professed views that differ even mildly from the prevailing orthodoxy.
So starting at €99, a user named Khordad92 is offering to sell his vote -- just as long as you don't ask him to cast a ballot for the regime's preferred candidate, Saeed Jalili, Iran's hardline nuclear negotiator.
For a modest price, you too can be a part of history -- and a rubber-stamp election.
(h/t: Saeed Kamali Dehghan)
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
What's in a name? When it comes to the body of water nestled between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula: a whole lot. For years, the Persian (to some) or Arabian (to others) Gulf has been a source of tension between Iran and its Arab neighbors. In 2010, for instance, Iran threatened to ban airlines that didn't use "Persian Gulf" from flying in its airspace. And just last year, Google received a warning from Tehran that it would face "serious damages" if it didn't definitively label the space "Persian" on its Maps. Now the conflict has spilled into the world of sports.
On Tuesday, Iran's Fars News Agency reported that Iran's Football Federation will file a complaint against the United Arab Emirates "for using a fake name for Persian Gulf in the title of its soccer league."
The "fake name" Fars is referring to: the Arabian Gulf League. Mohammed Thani Murshed Al Romaithi, the chairman of the UAE's Pro League Committee, has announced that the country's professional soccer league will operate under the new name beginning in the 2013-2014 season.
"Football in the UAE is moving into a new phase, and with it we adopt a new name to take us forward from next season," he told a crowd at the Etisalat Pro League Awards in Dubai on Sunday. And while the remarks began innocuously enough, he left no doubt about the political undertones of the gesture, going on to say, "We pledge our allegiance to the Arabian Gulf as the heart of the Arabic origin and heritage. Announcing this new name is a letter of love from the UAE to the Gulf; we name our League after the Arabian Gulf as a gesture to show our appreciation for the bounteous resources and opportunities it has afforded us."
Not surprisingly, the Iranians were not amused. Fars quotes Houshang Nasirzadeh, the head of the legal committee for the country's football federation, as saying the organization "will object to the fake naming in the next two days. It will send a letter to the FIFA ethics committee. It regards the UAE's behavior as politically-tainted and racist."
While his anger may seem extreme, disputes over the Gulf's nomenclature have much deeper and more political roots than the controversies over Google Maps and airline designations might suggest. According to some sources, the rivalry began in the 1960s with the rise of Arab nationalism. (A fun fact for all you geography nerds: Back in the days of Ptolemy, maps did depict an Arabian Gulf, though the name referred to the Red Sea.)
According to Al Jazeera correspondent Teymoor Nabil, who wrote an article on the dispute after the U.S. Navy faced criticism for using the term Arabian Gulf on its Facebook page in 2010, "ironically, among the major drivers of the movement for change were Arab perceptions that Iran, driven by Washington, had supported Israel during the Arab-Israeli war of 1973."
Fars is quick to point out that the United Nations has officially weighed in on Iran's side:
The UN sent a circular to all 186 countries of the world in 1995, stressing that they must use the term "Persian Gulf" when referring to the waterway....
However, some regional and hostile western countries continue to distort historical facts by misnaming the "Persian Gulf", in an organized attempt to steal the true identity of the Persian Gulf, but to no avail.
The debate may not be going away anytime soon, but look on the bright side: At least the name "Britain Sea," which was used for the Gulf in London's Times Journal in 1840, never caught on.
On Saturday, the five-day registration period for Iran's June 14 presidential election came to a dramatic close when several last-minute candidates entered the running. And buried deep in news articles reporting the participation of popular former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani as well as Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's top aide and the father of Ahmadinejad's daughter-in-law -- was a surprising name: Davood Ahmadinejad, the president's older brother.
So which relative will Iran's president support? It's pretty clear Mashaei is getting the nod. For months, analysts have asserted that Ahmadinejad is grooming Mashaei, his current chief of staff, to be his successor, and Ahmadinejad confirmed these suspicions shortly after Mashaei announced his intention to run. "Mashaei means Ahmadinejad, and Ahmadinejad means Mashaei," the president declared. So much for brotherly love. Iran's election officials, in fact, have threatened to bring charges against Ahmadinejad (ones that could carry jail time or 74 lashes) for accompanying Mashaei as he registered for the election.
Davood, meanwhile, has announced that he will be running as an independent candidate, according to Iran's state-run Fars News Agency. We know little about his ideology and background, but we do know that in recent months he has been a vocal critic of his brother's administration, joining the president's hard-line opponents in referring to members of Ahmadinejad's team as a "deviant current" in Iranian society.
But the Ahmadinejad brothers haven't always been rivals; once upon a time, not long ago, the two were actually political allies. During Ahmadinejad's first term in office, which began in 2005, Davood served in his administration as the chief of the president's office of inspection. It was only in 2008 that they split ways. In a 2011 interview excerpted by PBS's Tehran Bureau, Davood claimed the separation was an ideological one:
We have separated our ways from those who have deviated from the path of Velaayat-e Faghih [guardianship of the Islamic jurist, represented by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], even if it is our brother [who has done so].
According to a leaked 2010 U.S. embassy cable, however, the falling out was a bit more personal than Davood let on. And it may have centered on an individual in the news again this week: Ahmadinejad's confidant, Mashaei. As the cable explains:
Ahmadinejad's brother Davud, the former head of the president's office of inspection, accused Mashaei of saying 'absurd' things to keep the system busy and to prevent progress towards Khomeini's goals. He mockingly implied that Mashaei's only 'accomplishment' is his friendship with Hooshang Amir Ahmadi.
The mention of Hooshang Amirahmadi, a New Jersey-based professor and current presidential hopeful (see Katie Cella's profile of him for FP), is surprising. But what U.S. diplomats said next is more telling:
(COMMENT: Davud Ahmadinejad, who resigned his position as in August 2008, reportedly did so due to disagreements with his brother regarding Mashaei. END COMMENT.)
With Iran's Guardian Council now set to narrow down hundreds of presidential candidates to just a few names by May 17, analysts are predicting that Mashaei is unlikely to make the cut because of opposition from the supreme leader and his conservative backers. Davood probably won't make it through either. But if he somehow does, and he wins, don't expect Mahmoud to land a job in the new administration.
When it comes to the death penalty, European governments are ardently abolitionist. Yet the European taxpayer may in fact be unwittingly fueling executions for drug-related offenses in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In a recent post on Iran's war on drugs, Marya Hannun mentions the "steep price" of the country's drug war -- namely the execution of hundreds of individuals annually for the possession, use, and trafficking of narcotics.
While Hannun referenced the praise that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has bestowed on Iran's anti-narcotics program despite the high execution rate for drug-related offenses, what is not discussed is the funding provided by European nations for these efforts. Countries such as France and Germany provide funds to the UNODC's integrated program of technical cooperation on drugs and crime in Iran, which ultimately results in gross human rights violations perpetrated by Iranian authorities.
According to the UNODC website, the integrated program was launched in March 2011 thanks to a "generous financial contribution" from the government of Norway. The program "aims to support national efforts on drugs and crime" and consists of three sub-programs: 1) illicit trafficking and border management; 2) drug demand reduction and HIV control; and 3) crime, justice and corruption.
There are counter-narratives to UNODC's high regard for Iran's anti-narcotics efforts, including allegations that law enforcement personnel in Iran are in fact partaking in and facilitating the sale of illicit drugs for profit on the black market. Regardless of government complicity, the fact remains that thousands of individuals are arrested each year with the technical and material support provided by sub-program 1, including body scanners, drug-detection kits, sniffer dogs, vehicles, and night-vision devices.
Of those arrested, hundreds will subsequently be sentenced to death by Iran's judiciary on drug allegations. Iran is a global leader in executions, with only China exceeding it in number of people put to death annually. According to Iran Human Rights, a Norway-based group that documents executions in Iran, at least 580 people were executed in the country in 2012. In these documented cases, at least 76 percent of executions were due to drug-related charges.
Since news of the frequency with which Iran puts individuals to death for drug-related offenses has come to light, UNODC and donor countries have come under fire for their support of the program, and human rights groups have encouraged donors to request greater transparency from the Iranian government about how their money is spent in this joint initiative.
While the Norwegian government provided the initial cash infusion to the integrated program, it has since ceased funding sub-program 1 and requested that its support only be applied to sub-programs 2 and 3. The Danish government, meanwhile, announced last month that it would no longer provide financial support to the program following revelations that its donations were indirectly sponsoring the death penalty in Iran. At the time of the decision, the Danish government had provided about 5 million Danish kroner (or $875,000) annually in the previous two years to the program and was expected to provide about 7 million Danish kroner ($1.2 million) over the next two years.
While Denmark's decision to cut the funding has been welcomed by human rights groups, there's more work to be done. Questions remain over the transparency of the program -- specifically UNODC's ability to ensure that donor countries who have restricted their support to only sub-programs 2 and 3 will indeed have that money applied to the intended targets.
To this end, the France-based anti-death penalty group Together Against the Death Penalty (Ensemble contre le peine de mort, or ECPM) has started a petition calling on other European Union member states to follow the Danish example. Short of governments cutting off funding altogether, ECPM and its organizational co-signers are requesting that funding from donor countries be conditioned on an immediate moratorium on death sentences for drug-related offenses in Iran and that contribution amounts be made public and solely allocated to prevention programs.
Given that abolition of the death penalty is a pre-condition for entry of any nation into the European Union, it is time the EU call on its member states to apply more scrutiny of its support for such activities abroad as well. The case of Iran is a fine place to start.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
It's open season in Tehran: For five days beginning on May 7, presidential hopefuls are registering to run for president in the country's June 14 presidential election. And the number of entrants into the rough-and-tumble world of Iranian politics is staggering, with more than 200 candidates signed up as of Thursday.
So the race must be wide, wide open, right? Not exactly. While nobody's quite sure who the frontrunners are yet, they will most likely be largely loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as the Associated Press points out.
That's because the country's 12-member Guardian Council will vet the vast array of candidates between May 12 and May 17, applying a rigorous set of standards to narrow the field way down. In 2009, for instance, only four of 475 names made it through the lightning round. So what, exactly, does the Guardian Council look for in whittling down the candidates? Presidential hopefuls can be disqualified for failing to meet a host of criteria enumerated in Article 115 of the Iranian Constitution.
Like its U.S. counterpart, the Iranian Constitution stipulates that a viable candidate must have Iranian citizenship. Not only does the presidential hopeful need to be a citizen (I found no mention of an age limit), but he also must be of "Iranian origin." Candidates who aren't Shiite Muslims or "religious and political personalities" need not apply.
Some of the constitution's conditions read more like a help-wanted ad. A viable candidate, for instance, must have "administrative capacity and resourcefulness" and no criminal record (incidentally, the latter is not a prerequisite to hold the highest office in the United States). The candidate must demonstrate "trustworthiness and piety" and must have a firm "belief in the fundamental principles of the Islamic Republic of Iran."
Those are high bars to clear -- particularly when compared with the low bars to registering. And that means we won't see much more of some of the more colorful aspirants who have already registered or have been floated as candidates .
On Tuesday, for example, Razieh Omidvar became the first woman this year to throw her hat into the ring. While it is often reported that the constitution explicitly forbids women from running for president, the language is, in fact, a bit more ambiguous. In 2009, the spokesman for the Guardian Council said it "has never announced its opinion on whether a registrant is a man or a woman," suggesting that it is open to interpreting the constitution's language in favor of both male and female participation. Still, Omidvar shouldn't get her hopes up. The spokesman was quick to add, "[w]henever a woman has been disqualified, it has been because she's lacked general competence."
Then there's Mostafa Kavakebian, a reformist politician who was disqualified by the Guardian Council in 2009 and also registered on Tuesday, even picking green as his campaign color in homage to the Green Movement that arose after the country's disputed presidential election four years ago. While his persistence is admirable, Kavakebian is just as unlikely as Omidvar to make the cut a second time around.
Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, Ahmadinejad's current chief of staff, may be one of the more high-profile contenders. But conservatives in the country, who are locked in a power struggle with Ahmadinejad, predict he will also be knocked off the slate. Though he has yet to register, Ahmadinejad has been grooming Mashaei to take over in what the Guardian describes as a "Putin/Medvedev-style reshuffle."
Meanwhile, Ali Rahimi, a 59-year-old surgeon who graduated from the University of Kentucky, does not seem deterred by the many factors that could keep him out of the running. "I am extremely overqualified,'' he told the Washington Post after registering, "so I want to see what sort of reason they come up with for refusing my candidacy.''
If there's a sure bet in this election, it's that Iranian authorities will find one.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Iran's English-language, state-sponsored media service PressTV may have stumbled onto something, in spite of itself. An article published Thursday cites a bizarre YouTube rant by financial analyst and PressTV contributor Mike Stathis (author of recent articles "Jewish Mafia tied to death of America" and "Zio-Saudis use petrodollar to wage war," which are as unhinged as their titles suggest), in which he accuses Starbucks of blocking PressTV's website but not, for example, pornographic websites.
The YouTube video, which PressTV's article does not link to, lays out Stathis's conspiratorial theory, which is that Starbucks is censoring PressTV's site as part of an effort by a hypothetical Jewish cabal to control U.S. opinion. Stathis has some unkind things to say about Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and investment guru Peter Schiff (no, he does not connect those dots beyond "they're both Jewish"; yes, it's just as nonsensical in the video). And he takes a break from his rant to talk to a pornographic webcam recording he claims he's accessing from a Starbucks. The whole thing is strange and uncomfortable to watch, and not terribly work appropriate. I can't say I recommend it.
Here's the thing, though: Stathis is on to something. On Friday, I walked across the street to Starbucks. Sure enough, PressTV's website wouldn't load. In an effort to find another website that wouldn't load (and probably put myself on a few watch lists), here are some other sites I tried: Iran's other English-language state news agency Fars, the Syrian Arab News Agency, Russian propaganda machine Pravda, white supremacist web forum Stormfront, and PornHub, which is exactly what it sounds like. They were all accessible -- at the glacial speed of coffee shop Wi-Fi, but accessible. I walked two blocks to another Starbucks. Once again, PressTV gave me an error message, while Stathis's crazy YouTube video loaded without a hitch. Same thing at a third Starbucks. Back here at the FP office: PressTV's site loaded, no problem.
When reached for comment, Laura Mill, a spokesperson for Starbucks, told FP, "We do not filter our content or websites that can be accessed in our stores in the U.S. There're some global nuances, but in the U.S. there's no filtering." IT specialists at Starbucks told her the site might be blocked by the Internet service provider.
Starbucks's Wi-Fi is provided by AT&T, which did not reply to a request for comment by press time. But PressTV was easily accessible on the protected Wi-Fi network at the AT&T store across the street from one of the Starbucks locations I visited Friday. Starbucks's Wi-Fi also has AT&T terms and conditions that users agree to when logging in. And buried in the fine print, AT&T passes the buck back to Starbucks:
The owner or operator of the Location may have implemented URL filtering or other content filtering services which block access to certain websites or content while at the Location ('content filtering').
As it happens, AT&T's terms and conditions protect it from liability for just about any disruption in service you can imagine (and a few that you probably didn't think of):
AT&T will not be liable for any failure of performance, if such failure is due to any cause beyond AT&T's reasonable control, including acts of God, fire, explosion, vandalism, nuclear disaster, terrorism, cable cut, storm or other similar occurrence, any law, order or regulation by any government, civil, or military authority, national emergencies, insurrections, riots, wars, labor difficulties, supplier failures, shortages, breaches, or delays, or delays caused by you or your equipment.
Something does seem to be blocking access to PressTV at Starbucks, but whether that's a person or just a glitch -- and why PressTV and not, say, the Fars News Agency as well -- remains unclear. But if you think it's evidence of a grand conspiracy to deprive the American public of Iranian propaganda, maybe it's time to take off your tinfoil hat.
As Barack Obama arrives in Mexico for the first visit of his second term in office, talk has inevitably turned to the United States' floundering war on drugs in Latin America. And as efforts are made to scrutinize what the United States and Mexico are doing wrong, it's worth looking at where things are going right. In recent years, one unlikely victor has emerged in the global war on drugs: Iran.
It's a favorite topic for Iran's state-run news outlets. The Islamic Republic has been lauded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for having "one of the world's strongest counter-narcotics responses." While the country continues to have one of the highest rates of opium addiction, Iranian security forces seize a larger volume of heroine and opiates than any other country, according to a 2012 U.N. report.
In October, Italy's U.N. representative Antonino de Leo said the praise is warranted. He even drew a direct comparison to Latin America's war on drugs when he told the New York Times that Iran's success is all the more impressive because "[t]hese men are fighting their version of the Colombian war on drugs, but they are not funded with billions of U.S. dollars and are battling against drugs coming from another country."
Iran has also cooperated with the U.N., dispatching thousands of police officers to tightly patrol the border with Afghanistan and devoting vast resources to the problem of addiction inside the country. In an April article for Foreign Affairs entitled "How Iran Won the War on Drugs," Amir A. Afkhami discussed how a recent turn to preventative methods has vastly improved Iran's drug addiction problem, noting that by the year 2002, "over 50 percent of the country's drug-control budget was dedicated to preventive public health campaigns, such as advertisement and education."
Iran's latest effort to curtail drug trafficking came as recently as Wednesday, when the government signed a memorandum of understanding with Armenia on a counternarcotics campaign. "Iran, located at the crossroad of international drug smuggling from Afghanistan to Europe leads international efforts in fighting drug networks and narcotic traffickers," the country's Fars News Agency boasted in its report on the bilateral agreement.
But Iran's victory has come at a steep price. According to Human Rights Watch, the past few years have seen a dramatic increase in drug-related executions in the Islamic Republic. In 2011 alone, 81 percent of the country's over 600 executions were due to drug-related offenses, including the use of narcotics.
For this reason, Faraz Sanei of Human Rights Watch warned in a 2011 Guardian op-ed that we should be careful about crowning Iran a victor in the global effort to combat trafficking:
In praising Iran's "strong" anti-narcotics response, [U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Yuri] Fedotov focused on Iran's seemingly effective supply-and-demand reduction programmes, including innovative treatment and rehabilitation measures for more than 150,000 people in communities and prisons.
Yet he said nothing, publicly at least, about the other human tragedy that is unfolding – the dozens of prisoners Iran has hanged and unceremoniously buried following flawed trials, or the hundreds of others who await a similar fate. The silence is especially puzzling since the UN agency opposes the death penalty for drug-related offences.
If this is what victory in the war on drugs looks like, it makes you wonder whether it's a battle that can ever be truly won.
If Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin is to be believed, Russia has stopped worrying about U.S. missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. In a speech delivered Tuesday at the Russian embassy in London, Rogozin claimed that the American missile shield no longer poses a threat to his country -- a statement that contradicts years of Russian officials howling about the presence of U.S. missiles near the Russian border.
"We have solved the issue of penetrating the missile shield," Rogozin said, according to RIA Novosti. "We regret that the United States waste their money on missile defense and compel us to do the same. The missile shield is nothing for us, it's a bluff. It poses no military threat, but remains a political and economic problem."
American officials have repeatedly tried to assure the Russians that the missile defense system is intended to counter the missile threat from Iran, but this has done little to assuage the Russians. In his remarks Tuesday, Rogozin called the system "excessive" and "provocative by nature" -- attributes that made Russia feel "compelled to search for a wise and asymmetric response."
Could it be that Russia has found a way to circumvent the missile defense system?
If so, Rogozin would certainly be in a position to know. Prior to his elevation to deputy prime minister, Rogozin served as the Russian envoy to NATO and as President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to the alliance on missile defense issues. In his current role, Rogozin oversees the Russian defense industry, a position that would certainly give him the insight to comment on innovations in Russian missile technology.
While Rogozin's comments may amount to nothing more than bluster, he has previously alluded to Russia's desire to create an effective military counterweight to U.S. missile defense systems. In February, he replied to comments by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen defending the alliance's missile shield by writing on Twitter that "we also feel responsibility for protecting our population from your missile threat and will create a reliable air and space defense." In June, 2011, Rogozin wrote in the International Herald Tribune that for "Russia it is a matter of principle to remove any threat to its strategic capabilities, which guarantee our sovereignty and independence."
But until now, there has been no indication from Russia that it has found a way to counter U.S. missile defense systems through technical means.
Interestingly, when in March the United States chose to bolster its missile defense systems in the Pacific region in response to threats issued by North Korea, it effectively canceled the final phase of the missile system the Russians opposed. That development led to hopes that Russia and the United States might reach a rapprochement on the issue -- one that did not appear.
Perhaps that was because Russia has been waiting to unveil a military breakthrough to render the issue irrelevant.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
Journalists have had their hands full this week with reports of Iran's fake time machine, not to mention the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that shook the country's south. But somehow, in all the excitement, an Iranian proposal to annex Azerbaijan went largely unnoticed.
On Tuesday, Iran's Fars news agency reported that Azerbaijani-speaking lawmakers in Iran had introduced a bill to re-annex their neighbor to the north. Iran lost Azerbaijan in 1828 -- "The most frustrating chapter in the history class!" Fars laments -- when it was forced to sign the Turkmenchay treaty, ceding the territory to Russia. The legislators propose revisiting the terms of the treaty, which, according to Fars, means "the 17 cities and regions that Iran had lost to the Russians would be given back to Iran after a century."
For its part, Azerbaijan has told Iran to "bring it" -- diplomatically speaking. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Siyavush Novruzov of the ruling New Azerbaijan Party has declared that revisiting the treaty would result not in Azerbaijan being annexed to Iran, but rather in Tehran ceding its northwestern territory to Azerbaijan.
While all this may sound like the makings of an international showdown in a strategically sensitive region, here's the comforting part: in the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, both sides have repeatedly brandished the treaty as an empty threat. Take a look at this January 1992 edition of one Kentucky daily:
Screenshot of the Kentucky New Era
Or a December 2011 headline from Azer News that reads, "MP wants to 'annex Azeri territory to Iran.'"
On the other side of the border, Azerbaijan has threatened more than once to reclaim the region in Iran known as "Southern Azerbaijan." And as we wrote in February 2012, minority lawmakers in Baku have even provocatively suggested changing the country's name to "Northern Azerbaijan," implying ownership over the Iranian territory to the south.
Writing in Foreign Affairs in January, Iran expert Alex Vatanka explained why, despite significant cultural and linguistic overlap, the two countries remain tense neighbors. After securing independence in 1991, Azerbaijan failed to become the close Shiite ally that Tehran wanted, he notes. And since 2003, Vatanka adds, "Baku has grown both considerably richer -- thanks to revenues from energy exports -- and noticeably bolder in its foreign policy."
This boldness -- which includes the purchase of weapons and technology from Israel in exchange for granting the country a foothold on the Iranian border -- has driven an increasingly substantial wedge between Azerbaijan and Iran. In other words, don't be surprised if we see this headline crop up again ... and again and again.
Iran may have just scored a massive, albeit largely symbolic, victory in its cold war with the United States. And it is a very cold war -- because the battle being waged is over ice cream.
On Monday, the Iranian ice cream company Choopan appeared to unseat Baskin-Robbins as the reigning Guinness World Record holder for the largest tub of ice cream. In celebration of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, Choopan made a five-ton batch of chocolate ice cream in a carton more than six feet wide and five feet tall. Representatives from the Guinness Book of World Records were on hand to observe the occasion but have yet to announce whether the Iranian company officially beat Baskin-Robbins's 2005 record of four tons of vanilla.
The Iranian state news outlet PressTV was on hand to record the achievement. "I'm here with my family to see the biggest ice cream in the world in Iran, and Iran is making it, and I think everyone is having fun," one woman told a reporter. "First, I came to this event because it gives me national pride for our achievement, and of course I love ice cream," said another.
When reached for comment, Baskin-Robbins issued a statement to FP saying, "While we understand another company is vying to break this record, we remain focused on serving our guests around the world our delicious variety of ice cream flavors, custom ice cream cakes and frozen treats, and wouldn't rule out trying to break another record in the future."
This is just the latest battle in the long-churning U.S.-Iranian ice cream war, and it was previously fought on the proxy battlefield of Baghdad. In December 2010, as the United States wound down its commitments there while still trying to maintain its influence, Liz Sly reported in the Washington Post that an Iranian ice cream franchise was investing where American companies wouldn't.
[Ice cream parlor co-owner Ali Hazem] Haideri says he did not deliberately site the outlet near the embassy, and indeed seems somewhat anxious about the store's proximity to rockets aimed at Americans.... Yet there's something brazen about the Green Zone location of a franchise whose Web site declares that its goal is "to exalt the name of Iran and reinforce Iranian identity."
With no immediate plans from American companies to try and retake the record, the ice cream war could melt away before it has a chance to morph into a large-scale culinary conflict like the great Lebanese-Israeli hummus war.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
On Monday, Barack Obama released a message to the Iranian people marking the beginning of Nowruz, an ancient holiday celebrating the start of the Persian New Year and the advent of spring. In a YouTube video with Farsi subtitles, the president offered a brief note of celebration before launching into the crux of his message: "the world's serious and growing concerns about Iran's nuclear program, which threatens peace and security in the region and beyond." He continued:
As I have every year as President, I want to take this opportunity to speak directly to the people and leaders of Iran. Since taking office, I have offered the Iranian government an opportunity -- if it meets its international obligations, then there could be a new relationship between our two countries, and Iran could begin to return to its rightful place among the community of nations.
In past years, Obama's annual Nowruz address has been regarded by some as a shining example of soft diplomacy and by others as a cynical case of political opportunism -- but all have agreed that the president is seizing the moment to send a message to the Iranian people and government. Which raises the question: What about the millions of non-Iranians who also celebrate the holiday?
Foreign Policy caught up with Adil Baguirov, who serves on the board of directors of two D.C.-based advocacy organizations -- the U.S. Azeris Network and the U.S. Turkic Network -- that have repeatedly lobbied Obama to make his Nowruz address more inclusive and less politicized. "The Turkic people who number some 200 million spanning across Eurasia, from Yakutia to Europe, were once again overlooked" in this year's message, he wrote in an e-mail.
But, he notes, this wasn't always the case. Baguirov drew a pointed distinction with the Bush years, when the president would "congratulate not only all the Iranic people (people of Iran, Tajikistan, Afghanistan , and some people living in other regional countries, as well as the diaspora in U.S.), but all the Turkic people and diaspora that trace their heritage from Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgysztan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as a multitude of autonomous regions in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, the Turcomans in Iraq, the Uzbeks and Hazara's in Afghanistan, the Uighurs in China, and others."
In his 2006 Nowruz message, for example, Bush noted that for "millions of people around the world who trace their heritage to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan, India, and Central Asia, Nowruz is a celebration of life and an opportunity to express joy and happiness." (It's worth noting that Bush focused a bit more on Iran in 2003, and devoted his entire 2002 address to Afghans and Afghan-Americans after the fall of the Taliban.)
Baguirov, for his part, said Obama's approach is as if Iran's Ayatollah Khamenei spoke directly to the American people on Christmas or New Year's Day. "Other countries, especially if they have been celebrating those holidays far longer, would be rather baffled and even offended by such preferential treatment," he pointed out.
Clearly, the Obama administration now sees Nowruz as a chance to address Washington's increasingly fractious relationship with Tehran, and to reach out to and draw support from the Iranian people. Whether or not Iranians appreciate the gesture, it's clear at least some other Nowruz celebrants don't.
Several news outlets, including the pro-reform Shargh daily, said French lawyer Isabelle Coutant-Peyre is in Iran for talks with officials over how and where to file the lawsuit. She is also the lawyer for notorious Venezuelan-born terrorist Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, known as Carlos the Jackal.
This isn't the first time the Iranian government has complained about the film's portrayal of the Iranian people during the 1979 hostage crisis. In February, the government even organized a conference to highlight the anti-Iranian ideology behind Ben Affleck's film and other movies. The lawsuit was discussed on Monday during yet another conference in Tehran for Iranian cultural officials and movie critics entitled "The Hoax of Hollywood."
While the details of how (and if) Iran will go about suing Hollywood have yet to be released, one can't help but wonder: Does Iran actually have a case?
The short answer? Not really. "The threshold for a defamation suit in this context is pretty steep," Cory Andrews, senior litigation counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation, told FP. To prove defamation, you have to not only establish that what is presented as fact is actually false (a difficult task when dealing with a partially fictionalized movie), but also that the plaintiff's reputation was injured, causing financial damages. "I'm not sure how the current Iranian regime would go about proving damages," Andrews notes. "The film is loosely based on events from 1979, not 2013. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is dead, and as a general rule of law you cannot libel the dead."
Even if Iranian officials choose to pursue a case of group libel -- a controversial legal theory, typically raised in cases of racial hate speech -- they would still have to prove that the regime suffered an injury to reputation and measurable damages as a result of the film.
As for where Iran could file its lawsuit, Noah Feldman, a professor of international and constitutional law at Harvard, tells FP, "The Iranianans could bring suit in any place where the film is shown, I suppose, and rely on anti-defamation laws." Still, he adds, "it seems highly unlikely to go anywhere in any credible jurisdiction."
Then again, Andrews reminds us, "it's the easiest thing in the world to file a suit." So while Iran might have an exceedingly difficult time proving their case, that won't necessarily stop them from giving the makers of Argo a minor headache in the process.
© 2012 - Warner Bros. Pictures
Last night, Argo, Ben Affleck's account of the Iranian hostage situation, surprised few when it claimed the Academy Award for best picture. Also unsurprising was the reaction of Iranian media.
The film, which looks at Hollywood's role in helping smuggle six hostages out of Iran amidst the fraught 1979 revolution, has garnered intense criticism from the country for its negative portrayal of Iranians. The Iranian government even organized a conference to discuss the ideology behind films like Argo, and their use in promoting an anti-Iranian, Islamophobic agenda. And when Michelle Obama presented the Oscar via live feed from the White House, this seemed to confirm the worst fears for many in the Iranian media.
In a rare occasion in Oscar history, the First Lady announced the winner for Best Picture for the anti-Iran Film ‘Argo,' which is produced by the Zionist company Warner Bros.
Mehr News dubbed the award the "most political Oscar" saying, "the anti-Iranian movie ‘Argo', the 85th Academy Awards ceremony, unveiled the bare politicization in Hollywood."
Meanwhile Iran's state TV called the whole thing an "advertisement for the CIA."
In his acceptance speech, Affleck included a couple of shout outs to the frustrated nation:
I want to thank our friends in Iran living in terrible circumstances right now. I want to thank my wife who I don't usually associate with Iran.
Not the most diplomatic of speeches, this prompted Mehr to further lament: "Ben Affleck continues to show a bleak picture of Iran: Iranians live in terrible circumstances.”
The state-owned, Press TV, went in a different direction. In a snub worthy of the Academy, they chose not to acknowledge the film at all in their coverage of the evening, making it seem, for those who wouldn't know better, that Life of Pi and Amour were the big winners of the night.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
A Dead Sea's worth of water has disappeared from the Middle East. It sounds like something out of Carmen Sandiego, but it's actually the finding of a joint study by scientists from NASA, the University of California, Irvine, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, published today in the journal Water Resources Research.
Using gravity-measuring NASA satellites -- which allowed them to bypass political boundaries and gather data from space -- the scientists learned that between 2003 and 2009, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins lost 117 million acre feet of stored freshwater. Jay Famiglietti of UC Irvine described the findings:
GRACE data show an alarming rate of decrease in total water storage in the Tigris and Euphrates river basins, which currently have the second fastest rate of groundwater storage loss on Earth, after India.... The rate was especially striking after the 2007 drought. Meanwhile, demand for freshwater continues to rise, and the region does not coordinate its water management because of different interpretations of international laws.
According to the researchers, the countries directly impacted by this trend are Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran -- not exactly the world's most politically stable states.
So how will this play out? While "water wars" are often forebodingly cast as the next big source of global conflict, water security researcher Peter H. Brooks, writing in Foreign Policy, has dismissed some of the hype as alarmist and not all that new, citing Mark Twain's own observation that "Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fightin over." But, he adds that the Tigris and Euphrates basins -- which are ripe with border disputes, conflict over Kurdish minorities, and now major conflicts in Syria and Iraq -- might be more prone to the insidious effects of water instability than other places around the globe.
In 2009, responding to severe water shortages, Iraqi parliament demanded an increase in the share of Turkish river waters. Despite this and continued droughts, Turkey has continued building dams. As broader regional instability permeates into Syria and Iraq, expect water to play an increasingly important role in future local and international disputes between these three countries.
Already, there have been pitched battles over dams in the Syrian civil war, and regional dynamics could shift as Iran seeks water from Afghanistan. As if countries in the Middle East need something new to fight about.
BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
Reddit was once a site by, for, and about the concerns of "internet people." But in the past year, it has seen its popular AMA (ask me anything) sub-forum has become a popular way for celebrities, scientists, politicians and others to gain legitimacy with the online masses. Even President Obama did one.
The latest aspiring leader to allow Reddit users to ask him anything is Dr. Hooshang Amirahmadi, a long-shot candidate for the Iranian presidency. Amirahmadi is a professor at Rutgers who left Iran for the United States in 1975 because of the political situation. He registered as a candidate for the 2005 presidential election but allegedly was disqualified by the Guardian Council for his joint U.S. citizenship.
Here are some of the highlights from yesterday's session:
In 2005, I put my name down as a candidate, but it was not really serious. I entered the race about one month before the election day and my purpose was not really to stay the course, but rather to make a statement. Much of Iran's intelligentsia was boycotting that election and I was afraid that by boycotting, we are going to get someone elected that will not be hospitable to democracy and human rights. History proven me right.
In my administration there will be no restriction on any type of media. I believe in free speech.
The biggest problem for Iran is a lack of trust between the US Iran. I have lived 40 years in the US, I understand both cultures and laungages. I can easily build trust between the two countries. particularly because I have never been part of the problem between the US and Iran. I have tried to be part of the solution for 25 years.
Why is he doing this? Well according to Amirahmadi:
At this point, no candidate (not me, not Messrs. Ghalibaf, Velayati, etc.) is allowed to publicly campaign in Iran. In that sense, all candidates are in the same boat. No candidate can publicly campaign until he gets the approval of the Guardian Council, which will be delivered in late-May. So far, my campaign has been very active campaigning in the United States, Dubai, and the United Kingdom. We will be travelling to Iran in March, but not for public campaigns. With your help, we want to take our message of peace around the world.
Several Iran watchers, expatriates and Iranians (using proxies to gain access to Reddit) came out claiming that many of Amrahmadi's proposals aren't even within the scope of presidential power, even if he manages to obtain permission from the Guardian Council to run. They're still waiting for a response.
Amirahmadi has promised another AMA on February 12 starting at 6 PM EST. Iran's election is scheduled for June 14, 2013. I suppose an Ahmadinejad AMA might be too much to hope for.
Forget nuclear ducks. This morning Iran revealed its latest science and technology development: a space monkey. According to Iran's Al-Alam TV, a monkey, launched in a Kavoshgar rocket, successfully reached a height of 120 kilometers, before returning safely to earth.
This launch comes on the heels of a tragic failed attempt to send a monkey into space in October of 2011. After having successfully launched a turtle, a mouse, worms, and even a monkey doll into space, Iran's first actual monkey did not return alive.
These forays into space travel have prompted Western concerns that this is all really part of Iran's growing nuclear program:
Western countries are concerned the long-range ballistic technology used to propel Iranian satellites into orbit could be used to launch atomic warheads. Tehran denies such suggestions and says its nuclear work is purely peaceful.
Iran joins a long list of countries who have employed monkeys and other mammals to bravely go where no man has gone before, including the US, China, France, and Russia. Unlike these other countries, Iran doesn't seem to name their animals. Maybe it's better not to get too attached.
If Sen. John Kerry is confirmed as secretary of state, one of the first issues to cross his desk will be Iran's nuclear program. Kerry has discussed the issue before. We've poured over the WikiLeaks cables, which paint a broad portrait of Kerry's diplomatic style. In those classified documents, he discussed how he might approach the issue.
The first reference comes from a conversation in February 2005 with French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. Kerry told Barnier that "his conversations in the region had convinced him that Iran remains committed to a nuclear weapons program, but agreed that there were no good alternatives to negotiating." Though he did not rule out a military option, he did point out it "would be difficult," and pointed to U.N. sanctions, which have since been put in place and periodically ratcheted up, as an alternative. Still smarting from his defeat in the presidential election in 2004, Kerry remarked that "his own intention, had he been elected president, was to pursue front channel and back channel contacts with the Iranian regime."
Five years later, Kerry got the opportunity to open some of those back channel contacts. In a February 2010 meeting with Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Kerry commented that Washington's behind-the-scenes signals to Tehran had gone unanswered. He "observed that the Iranians are scared to talk...Our instinct is that we need to find a way to talk to him." Al-Thani then reportedly offered to be an intermediary. "What if I talk to the Iranian President. What would you have me say?" he asked.
Senator Kerry responded, "The U.S. seeks serious discussion and sought to create a new foundation for a relationship based on Iran's non-confrontational compliance with IAEA requirements and other mutual interests." Those interests include dealing with drug-running, the Taliban, and illicit trade. The Chairman told the Amir he feared that Iran still thinks it is dealing with the 1953 America that tried to overthrow the Iranian government.
The United States recognizes Iran's ambitions to be a regional player, Kerry told al-Thani, and wants a dialogue about what sort of power it will be.
Of course, that conversation took place nearly three years ago. A lot has changed -- or, maybe very little has changed, and as a result patience in Washington is running low. Kerry's views may have shifted since then, but he'd probably still agree with the comment he made then to al-Thani: "It is crazy to continue on this collision course."
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
Iran's Mehr News on Sunday published the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' "six-point plan" to supposedly solve the crisis in Syria.
The plan goes much further than Iran has publicly in the past, though it resembles Kofi Annan's much-maligned plan from the spring. It also doesn't mention one key point: What happens to Bashar al-Assad?
Here's where it gets more interesting. Apparently, Syrian vice president Farouk al-Sharaa has given an interview to Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper, which has generally taken a neutral line or one sympathetic to Assad. “We must be in the position of defending Syria’s existence. We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime," Sharaa reportedly said. Now which individual could he be talking about?
Sharaa, oft mooted as a transitional figure, has been the subject of an impressive number of rumors on Syrian opposition websites over the last year or so -- sometimes these have him defecting from the regime, sometimes he and his family members are killed, and so on.
But apparently he's still alive, and now seems to be positioning himself as some kind of transitional leader, or at least as a broker between the regime and the rebels.
“The opposition with its different factions, civilian, armed, or ones with external ties, cannot claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian People, just as the current rule with its ideological army and its confrontation parties lead by the Baath, cannot achieve change without new partners,” al-Akhbar quotes him as saying.
He continues: “The solution has to be Syrian, but through a historic settlement, which would include the main regional countries, and the member of UN Security Council. This settlement must include stopping all shapes of violence, and the creation of a national unity government with wide powers." The full interview will be posted Monday, the paper says.
Maybe it's just a coincidence that these two stories both came out today. The al-Akhbar interview could be a fake. And it's important to remember that the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't always speak for the supreme leader. But it sure does look like Iran isn't ready to make a last stand with Bashar, eh?
Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. this afternoon, President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi of Yemen expressed unwavering support for the controversial CIA drone program in his country.
Hadi praised the "high precision that's been provided by the drones," adding that they leave "zero margin of error if you know exactly what target you're aiming at." He further acknowledged that drone strikes form an essential component of the campaign against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) because of the Yemeni Air Force's inability to carry out night operations with its aging fleet of Soviet-made MiG-21s. "It's highly unlikely," he said, that these aircraft "would be successful."
Hadi's public endorsement of the U.S. drone program, which has expanded exponentially under President Obama, represents a shift from his predecessor's policy of denying U.S. involvement. According to a 2010 U.S. diplomatic cable, for instance, President Ali Abdullah Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours."
Hadi also accused Iran of seeking a foothold in his country by creating a "climate of chaos and violence."
Yemen, which is in the midst of a delicate GCC-led transition following the ouster of longtime dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, faces a conflict with Houthi militants in the north, a stubborn separatist movement in the south, and a growing Al Qaeda presence in the country's tribal hinterlands. Much of the country's infrastructure -- including schools, roads, and hospitals -- has been destroyed in the fighting and thousands of citizens have been displaced.
At the same time, Yemen is grappling with critical water and energy shortages, a burgeoning youth population, and the second highest unemployment rate in the Arab world.
In the mist of this crisis, Hadi charged, Iran is trying to "thwart the political solution in Yemen" as a hedge against its waning influence in Syria. Iranian spy networks, he said, are "backing military action" in the south and "buying political opposition figures and media figures."
Hadi sought to portray the security situation in Yemen as a regional and international threat as part of his bid to drum up assistance from international donors. AQAP, he said, is a "common enemy" that poses a "serious and real threat" to the West as well as the Arab world. Moreover, if Yemen descends into civil war, he warned, the situation will likely be "way worse than Somalia or Afghanistan to the area, to the region, and to the world."
Following Hadi's address at the U.N. General Assembly yesterday in which he called for "more logistical and technical support" in the fight against Al Qaeda, the Friends of Yemen -- composed of the P-5 and the GCC -- promised an additional $1.46 billion in financial assistance to Yemen, bringing the total to nearly $8 billion pledged by international donors.
When questioned by the Atlantic Council's Frederick Kempe about his country's most pressing needs, however, Hadi hinted at still more economic assistance: "Seventy five percent of the solution" to Yemen's crisis, he said, "is an economic solution."
The Atomic Energy Organization of Iran has been attacked by malware once again.
In a letter made public on the company's website, an unknown Iranian scientist from the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) contacted Mikko Hypponen, chief research officer of Finnish security company F-secure, with an unusual complaint:
I am writing you to inform you that our nuclear program has once again been compromised and attacked by a new worm with exploits which have shut down our automation network at Natanz and another facility Fordo near Qom.
According to the email our cyber experts sent to our teams, they believe a hacker tool Metasploit was used. The hackers had access to our VPN. The automation network and Siemens hardware were attacked and shut down. I only know very little about these cyber issues as I am scientist not a computer expert.
There was also some music playing randomly on several of the workstations during the middle of the night with the volume maxed out. I believe it was playing 'Thunderstruck' by AC/DC.
Though Hypponen emphasized that he could not verify the attacks upon the Natanz Uraniam enrichment facility in central Iran and Qom, a research facility in an undisclosed section of southwest Tehran, he confirmed that the message was sent from the AEIO.
This sort of thing isn't new. Music was central to 1989's Operation Just Cause, in which U.S. soldiers attempted to coerce Panamanian President Manuel Noriega from his refuge in the Vatican embassy by blaring loud music at the building. In documents acquired by the National Security Archives, U.S. SOUTHCOM admitted U.S. military DJs took requests, blaring a playlist that ranged from Paul Simon's 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover, Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run and, an apparent favorite, AC/DC's You Shook Me All Night Long.
More recently, U.S. Psychological Operations Company (PsyOps) admitted to the use of heavy metal in Iraq as a mechanism to break uncooperative prisoners' resistance. Similar use was reported by the International Committee of the Red Cross as part of the "cruel, humane and degrading" treatment of Guantanamo inmates. Though the use of heavy metal as a interrogation technique incited some record companies to warn that the United States may owe royalty fees, military officials were unrepentant. As one officer told Newsweek, "Trust me, it works."
Though hackers have been known for their peculiar brand of humor -- see Stuxnet's hidden biblical references -- the use of music in cyber warfare is certainly a new development. Start planning your requests.
Sara Johannessen/AFP/Getty Images
Russia and Israel may disagree on Iran's nuclear program, but President Vladimir Putin and his entourage of about 400 officials and businessmen were warmly welcomed by Israeli officials during the Russian leader's first visit to the country in seven years. Upon arriving at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Putin was "greeted by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and an IDF honor parade." Later that day, he attended an inauguration ceremony in Netanya for a memorial to the Soviet Red Army soldiers killed in World War II, along with Lieberman, President Shimon Peres, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Speaking at the ceremony, Putin invoked Russia as both war and peacemaker:
"Russia who so greatly helped win the war is the same Russia that can help peace in the Middle East."
Putin's agenda also included a stop at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, but his 24-hour tour made plenty of time for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and other Israeli officials about regional issues -- namely Iran and Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu said during a joint news conference that he and Putin "agreed that the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran ‘presents a grave danger first of all to Israel, and to the region and the world as a whole.'"
Israeli officials, however, are not optimistic that their concerns will have any impact on Russian policy:
"Let's not exaggerate. It is a very brief visit," said a senior Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for reasons of diplomacy. He added, "Do not expect any major breakthrough."
According to Haaretz, Peres did not have much success with Putin at the state dinner that evening:
"President Shimon Peres pressed Putin further, asking that he ‘raise his voice' against a nuclear Iran. Putin responded by saying that Russia has a ‘national interest' to secure peace and quiet in Israel but did not elaborate further."
Despite the fact that talks about Iran were more process than substance, Tel Aviv University Russia specialist Boris Morozof notes that Israel and Russia do have "points of common interest," such as military technology, counterterrorism, and Israel's vast natural gas fields.
On Tuesday, Putin traveled to the West Bank, where he "inaugurated a Russian cultural and language center in Bethlehem" and toured the Church of Nativity. He also told President Mahmoud Abbas that Russia "has no problem recognizing a Palestinian state," called his Palestinian counterpart's position on negotiations with Israel "responsible," and referenced Israeli unilateral actions as "not constructive."
Russia is a member of the Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic body charged with mediating the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whose members also include the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. The Quartet has made little progress since its inception in 2002, but Abbas reportedly "called for an international peace conference to take place in Moscow."
Jim Hollander - Pool / Getty Images
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius has been on a tear lately: breaking news on the files found in Osama bin Laden's Abbottabad safe house, revealing details of the backchannel negotiations between Erdogan and Ayatollah Khamenei, and now, channeling the Obama administration's negotiating strategy toward Iran.
At a time when Thomas Friedman is writing his 35th column complaining about the state of America's train system and urging New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to launch a third-party bid for the presidency, Ignatius is far and away America's must-read columnist right now. Iggy has always been known for his top-notch sources, especially in the intelligence community, but his columns seem especially well-sourced of late -- it's almost as if he has a weekly lunch with Tom Donilon or something.
Let's take a look at his latest. Ignatius says that "the smart money in Tehran is betting on a deal" -- picking up on a rise in the Iranian stock market to argue that a nuclear agreement is in the offing. "So far," he writes, "Iran is following the script for a gradual, face-saving exit from a nuclear program that even Russia and China have signaled is too dangerous. The Iranians will bargain up to the edge of the cliff, but they don’t seem eager to jump." According to Ignatius, under this deal, "Iran would agree to stop enriching uranium to the 20 percent level and to halt work at an underground facility near Qom built for higher enrichment. Iran would export its stockpile of highly enriched uranium for final processing to 20 percent, for use in medical isotopes."
In exchange, Iran would get ... nothing, at least right away. Ignatius suggests that the Europeans would agree to delay implementing their oil embargo, set to take effect July 1, and the Americans would delay their own fresh round of sanctions due to be implemented in late June.
Frankly, I don't see how this can work. There do seem to be signs that Khamenei is laying the political groundwork for a deal, for instance by bringing his pragmatic former president, Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, back into his good graces. But any deal that doesn't visibly benefit Iran -- rather than merely preventing future harm -- will inevitably be viciously attacked within the country's fragmented political system. And I suspect, given his past behavior, that the supreme leader will stick his finger in the air before staking out a clear public position.
It seems equally unlikely that President Obama will risk handing an electoral issue to his rival Mitt Romney by making any real concessions to Tehran. Americans may not be eager to fire up the B-52s -- and the Pentagon certainly isn't -- but they don't want to see their president look weak. And even if Obama did cut a deal, Republicans and pro-Israel groups would likely make a lot of noise, and might even be able to derail it.
Then there's Israel, which has set the bar extremely high for these negotiations, insisting among other things that Iran shut down its Fordow enrichment plant -- the one it spent years building in secrecy and burying 200 meters beneath a mountain outside the city of Qom at a cost of millions of dollars. Indeed, everything the Obama administration agrees to apparently has to be vetted with the Israelis, who have completely unrealistic notions about what Iran is willing to accept.
Moreover, the intricately choreographed arrangements of the type Ignatius suggests seem hard to imagine given the deep levels of distrust between the two sides. It beggars belief to think that two countries whose diplomats will barely even sit in a room with one another can work out "confidence-building measures" that will survive the political maelstrom news of a deal would unleash. We are not anywhere close to a Nixon going to China moment, in any sense of that hackneyed historical analogy.
What will most likely happen, as Time's Tony Karon lays out here, is that the can gets kicked further down the road: Talks will proceed for the sake of talks, and a decision about whether to bomb will be deferred until at least November (unless Iran crosses a red line like installing next-generation centrifuges at Fordow).
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that if you want to know what the Obama administration is thinking, read David Ignatius. But don't expect to be optimistic once you do.
Last week, I explained how upcoming nuclear talks could get bogged down in disagreement if Western powers demand that Iran, as a confidence-building measure, stop enriching uranium to 20 percent (which is steps away from weapons-grade material) and ship existing stockpiles of the higher grade uranium out of the country.
Over the weekend, the New York Times reported that the United States and its European allies will indeed open negotiations with this demand, along with a call for Iran to shutter a nuclear facility burrowed under a mountain:
The hard-line approach would require the country's military leadership to give up the Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qum, and with it a huge investment in the one facility that is most hardened against airstrikes....
"We have no idea how the Iranians will react," one senior administration official said. "We probably won't know after the first meeting."
Indeed, with negotiations set to begin this Saturday in Istanbul, the Iranians are already reacting. Fereydoon Abbasi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, called the demands outlined in the Times article "irrational."
But Abbasi also struck a note of compromise (or, at the very least, flexibility) -- suggesting that Iran might consider returning uranium enrichment to the lower levels required for power generation once it had amassed enough 20 percent material to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and other research.
Iran meter: The Times report hasn't just provoked a strong reaction in Iran. In the United States, former CIA officer Paul Pillar is dismayed by America's reported negotiating position -- particularly the part about dismantling the Fordo nuclear facility.
"The Western message to Tehran seems pretty clear: we might be willing to tolerate some sort of Iranian nuclear program, but only one consisting of facilities that would suffer significant damage if we, or the Israelis, later decide to bomb it," he writes. "Not the sort of formula that inspires trust among Iranian leaders and gives them much incentive to move toward an agreement."
Here at Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt homes in on the same demand, and is equally concerned that the United States is formulating fatally flawed opening bids. "It would be an extraordinarily humiliating climb-down for [the Iranians] to agree to shut the facility down at this point and then dismantle it," he notes.
If Pillar and Walt are right, is there any reason for optimism about the upcoming talks? In fact, there are hints that while the Fordo demand may be a non-starter, uranium enrichment could offer more fertile ground for negotiations -- and that both sides recognize this reality. Take this passage from the Times article:
While opening bids in international negotiations are often designed to set a high bar, as a political matter American and European officials say they cannot imagine agreeing to any outcome that leaves Iran with a stockpile of fuel, enriched to 20 percent purity, that could be converted to bomb grade in a matter of months.
Or this report today from the Associated Press on the buzz in Iran:
What could get traction -- suggested the hardline newspaper Kayhan -- is a so-called "enrichment level stabilization." That means halting the 20 percent enrichment, the highest level acknowledged by Iran, and continuing with lower levels of about 3.5 percent needed for ordinary reactors....
Mehdi Sanaei, a moderate lawmaker, said a possible bargaining position could be an agreement to temporarily stop 20 percent enrichment in exchange for lifting some economic sanctions.
In other words, there's still hope for a diplomatic breakthrough, though it's difficult to stay optimistic when these reports mingle with the news that the United States is dispatching a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf.
Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images
The "Pareto Principle" posits that, for many phenomena, 80 percent of output comes from 20 percent of input (you can apply this "80/20 rule" to everything from the large share of business a company derives from its small base of dedicated customers to, more depressingly, the short period of time you spend getting most of your work done at the office).
As the world's top powers prepare for nuclear talks with Iran in mid-April (today's over-heated sideshow: Iran is dithering about whether to hold the summit in Turkey, Iraq, or China), we should keep the 80/20 rule in mind. Particularly the fact that much of the initial disagreement between negotiators may stem from one thorny number: 20 percent.
On Wednesday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed that Israel is asking its allies to pressure Iran at the talks -- wherever they take place -- to transfer all uranium enriched to 20 percent to another country. "Israel is prepared to wait for the negotiations' results before it decides on a course of action," he explained. "It's not a matter of weeks, but not of years either."
Iran meter: Barak may not have a difficult time convincing Western powers to pursue his goal. Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association recently told Reuters that the White House may focus "on halting 20 percent enrichment of uranium as a first-step confidence-building measure." (Other experts predict Washington's opening salvo will also include an attempt to suspend work at the Fordow enrichment facility.)
Why 20 percent in particular? "Nuclear bombs," Reuters explains, "require uranium enriched to 90 percent, but much of the effort required to get there is already achieved once it reaches 20 percent concentration, shortening the time needed for any nuclear weapons 'break-out.'"
But the 20 percent goal may be a hard sell. Iran began enriching uranium to 20 percent in 2010 -- after previously enriching it to the 3.5 percent level required to fuel nuclear power plants -- and it's been doing so in earnest. Tehran now has roughly 250 pounds of 20 percent enriched uranium and has nearly tripled the number of devices producing the higher grade uranium in the past three months, according to the Associated Press.
And while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested in September that Tehran would stop refining uranium to 20 percent if it received fuel for a medical research reactor (which requires higher-level enrichment than power plants), there are signs that Iranian negotiators may be less amenable to such a fuel swap this time around. In March, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei boasted that Iran's 20 percent enrichment had "surprised the enemies," while the Iranian lawmaker Aladin Borujerdi declared that "the parliament will never allow the government to go back even one step in its nuclear policy."
Sure, it could all be bluster. But we shouldn't underestimate the power of that 20 percent figure to cause big problems -- and undercut confidence before it has a chance to take root.
IIPA via Getty Images
Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, may have told reporters on Friday that international sanctions have been "more effective than people think." But his prime minister -- a longtime sanctions skeptic -- struck a different tone today. The "sanctions are painful," Benjamin Netanyahu conceded, but they haven't yet produced a "halt or retreat in the Iranian nuclear program" or loosened the regime's "political grip."
The comments came shortly after a report by Israel's Channel 10 on an Israeli military assessment that a three-week-long Iranian-led missile attack on Israel would produce fewer than 300 civilian casualities -- a lower estimate than Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's suggestion in November that fewer than 500 people would be killed in such an assault. Here's more from the Jerusalem Post:
According to the estimates, described as a worst-case scenario, thousands of missiles would be launched toward Israel from Lebanon, Syria, and Gaza as part of the Iranian attack. The scenario took into account Israel's defenses as of 2012, with the Iron Dome rocket-defense system not yet at its full deployment.
Missiles would also be launched at Israel from Iran, according to defense experts briefing the ministers, however, they added, Tehran's conventional missile capabilities are limited.
To coincide with Netanyahu's press conference on Tuesday, the prime minister's office released an animated Passover-themed video touting his achievements, including the development of the Iron Dome (see 0:40, where a smiling Israel fends off scowling rockets with an umbrella):
Iran meter: In criticizing sanctions, Netanyahu may be emphasizing that Israel has not abandoned the military option -- particularly ahead of nuclear talks between Iran and the world's top powers this month. And Anshel Pfeffer at Haaretz thinks the military's casualty estimate may have become public for similar reasons.
"It would seem that the leaked briefing was put out by someone in the cabinet who is interested in allaying the Israeli public's fears of the repercussions of a military strike on Iran," he writes.
If so, it's by no means certain that Israelis will take the bait. In the most recent monthly Peace Index poll by The Israel Democracy Instititute and Tel Aviv University, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they thought a retaliatory assault by Iran would cause more casualities than Barak's estimate of 500 civilians. (Israel's shortage of gas masks and bomb shelters surely hasn't bolstered confidence.)
As tensions mount, so too have suspicions that Iran-related leaks by government officials -- whether via Bloomberg's report on Iran's elusive centrifuge "workshops" or the New York Times' report on a U.S. simulation of an Israeli strike -- are politically motivated. In leaking information to the media, Ron Ben-Yishai at Yedioth Ahronoth charged last week, the Obama administration has "shifted from persuasion efforts vis-à-vis decision-makers and Israel's public opinion to a practical, targeted assassination of potential Israeli operations in Iran."
Whether or not these allegations have merit, one hopes that all the speculation about political posturing doesn't blunt the impact of legitimate risk assessments about the fallout from a conflict over Iran's nuclear program.
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
With all the talk about an April 13 date being set for nuclear talks between Iran and the world's top powers, another important milestone got lost in the shuffle: today, March 30, when President Obama is required by a U.S. sanctions law to determine whether, as Reuters puts it, "the price and supply of non-Iranian oil are sufficient to allow consumers to 'significantly' cut their purchases from Iran." If the answer to that question is yes, then, beginning in June, the United States can proceed with its effort to isolate Tehran by sanctioning foreign banks that continue to purchase Iranian oil.
Obama's conclusion? There may not be oil, oil everywhere, but there's enough of it to greenlight sanctions. The Associated Press has more:
The president said he based his determination on global economic conditions, the level of spare oil capacity, and increased production by some countries, among other factors. He said he would keep monitoring the global market closely to ensure it can handle a reduction of oil purchases from Iran.
With oil prices already rising this year amid rising tensions over the nuclear dispute between Iran and the West, U.S. officials have sought assurances that pushing countries to stop buying from Iran would not cause a further spike in prices.
That's particularly important for Obama in an election year that has seen an increasing focus on gas prices.
Iran meter: Obama's decision clears a path for the administration's aggressive sanctions strategy, which it favors over military conflict.
But there's a wrinkle. Globalization has proven a double-edged sword for sanctions regimes. As scholars Steve Smith, Amelia Hadfield, and Tim Dunne note, an interdependent world economy can make countries more vulnerable to international sanctions. Yet globalization also means that countries facing sanctions can seek out alternative markets and suppliers.
This reality has been on vivid display recently. Bloomberg takes a look today at how China and India are evading U.S. and EU financial sanctions by buying Iranian oil in exchange for local currencies or goods such as wheat, soybean meal, and consumer products. During a meeting in New Delhi this week, the BRICS group of emerging world powers -- Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- declared that they would continue trading with Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions.
This doesn't necessarily mean Western sanctions are doomed. Turkey, the fifth largest buyer of Iranian oil, announced today that it would cut imports of oil from Iran by a tenth in the face of U.S. pressure. And the Congressional Research Service's Kenneth Katzman tells Bloomberg that Iran's "junk-for-oil" program with countries such as China and India is economically unsustainable. "Iran cannot stabilize the value of its currency with such unorthodox payment methods," he explains.
But the big question is whether, come June, the United States will actually sanction Chinese and Indian banks -- an action fraught with political landmines. Obama's announcement today doesn't get us much closer to answering that question.
For more support for keeping the Iran meter at Natanz to Worry About, check out Amir Oren's argument for why Israel may be postponing an attack on Iran and Karl Vick's report on Israel's intelligence services scaling back covert operations inside Iran. (And for a gripping account of how an Israeli strike might play out, read Gary Sick.)
Note to readers: Earlier this month, I dismissed the importance of Azerbaijan's pledge to prevent any country from using its territory as a launching pad for an attack on Iran, arguing that Israel probably wouldn't strike Iran through its neighbor to the north anyway.
This week, Mark Perry reported at Foreign Policy that Azerbaijan has granted Israel access to airbases near its border with Iran, which could heighten the prospect of an Israeli strike. Authorities in Azerbaijan have denied the allegations, and some others have expressed doubt that Israel would actually use Azeri airbases as part of an attack. But the report does raise the question of whether my headline -- "You can stop worrying about Azerbaijan" -- needs revising.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Iran suspended accreditation for Reuters today, but not, as one might expect, over reporters prying into the country's nuclear activities or besmirching the good name of the Supreme Leader. Instead, Reuters is reportedly being sued by a group of female Iranian ninjas, like the one pictured above.
A video produced by Reuters about the thousands of women learning ninjutsu was unfortunately titled, "Thousands of female Ninjas train as Iran's assassins." The inference that the women -- whose interest in the ancient martial art is primarily motivated by "staying fit," according to one participant -- are violent marauders offended the athletes, who are overseen by the Ministry of Sports' Martial Arts Federation. In case it wasn't obvious, you don't want to offend a highly-trained cadre of Iranian ninjas. Anger these black-belted beauties and they'll ... take their legitimate complaint to the appropriate authorities who will suspend your press credentials. Hiiiii-yah!
Reuters released a statement about the gaffe, saying, "We acknowledge this error occurred and regard it as a very serious matter. It was promptly corrected the same day it came to our attention." The agency is currently in negotiations with Iran to regain accreditation (There are 11 accredited Reuters employees in Iran). However, the ninjas argue that the damage has already been done.
"It can harm our chances to travel to other countries to take part in global tournaments and international championships because Reuters is considered by many to be a reliable source," Raheleh Davoudzadeh told PressTV, Iran's semi-official news agency.
While the assassins line might not seem like the highest order of business for a country facing sanctions and potentially an armed attack, glibly labeling a group in a way that plays into stereotypes about violence is no laughing matter. As poll after poll shows, language matters tremendously when people are asked to consider military action.
Don't believe us? Why don't you tell her that.
Sanctions-saddled Iran may be importing fewer BMWs than it used to, but recent reports suggest that it's voraciously raking in wheat. Today, Bloomberg highlights a pending deal to buy as much as 3 million metric tons of wheat from India, which is engaged in the high-wire act of trying to do business with Iran while maintaining good relations with the United States and Israel.
Some 120,000 tons of hard red winter wheat grown in the Plains is on its way to the Islamic Republic, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The sale of another 60,000 tons has been finalized, according to trade sources, and Iran may ultimately buy some 400,000 tons of U.S. wheat this year.
Iran can import wheat from the United States and other countries because sanctions don't cover agricultural products. But why is Iran on a wheat shopping spree in the first place? After all, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has dubbed the new Iranian year the "Year of National Production" and argued that Iran can overcome sanctions by consuming domestic products. What's Iran up to with all the wheat?
Iran meter: The short answer is we're not exactly sure. Iran may be stockpiling grain for reasons unrelated to sanctions to the specter of conflict (such as concerns about dry weather and the quality of the domestic wheat crop), but sanctions are most likely influencing the decision. And the aggressive purchases would seem to enhance Iran's ability to withstand the international isolation that President Obama is betting on to head off a military confrontation.
Christopher Gadd of the Macquarie Group, for example, has noted that wheat imports may help Iran keep high food prices -- and especially bread prices -- from fueling Arab Spring-style unrest. The purchases also highlight the fact that Iran still has trading partners -- even if these relationships are increasingly predicated on complex barter deals such as sending Pakistan iron ore and fertilizer in exchange for wheat.
But while sanctions don't technically apply to grain, they are making it difficult for Iran to finance imports of raw materials such as wheat, since many banks are reluctant to offer Iranian traders letters of credit (Turkish banks, among others, are stepping in to fill the void). Gadd tells Bloomberg that around 400,000 tons of mostly Russian and Ukrainian grain are currently idling outside Iranian ports for this very reason.
Plus, the sanctions drumbeat continues, with the U.S. Senate now eyeing Iran's oil revenues. And while a report by Iran's Press TV today suggests that the energy sector is doing just fine -- the country's oil minister boasts of a world record in making "62 percent physical progress [in building a gas refinery] in 20 months" -- it's going to take a more momentous (and comprehensible) milestone to make a convincing case that Iran can weather a seemingly relentless barrage of sanctions.
Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty Images
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