Everybody's talking about this New York Times story by David Sanger and Thom Shanker, which tells us that U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates sent a memo in January to "top White House officials" warning them that the United States "does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with ’s steady progress toward nuclear capability." Some are reading the story as a bombshell, but I think there's less here than meets the eye.
This is the quote that folks have seized upon:
One senior official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the memo, described the document as “a wake-up call.” But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran’s nuclear program.
Gates fired back today with an unusual statement on a classified memo, saying the Times and its sources had "mischaracterized" him. "The memo was not intended as a 'wake up call' or received as such by the President's national security team," Gates said. "Rather, it presented a number of questions and proposals intended to contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process."
That's probably an accurate explanation of what Gates was trying to do, but clearly some in the administration are trying to push a different narrative.
The Times also reported that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged his staff in December to make sure they had military options ready in case President Obama chose that course. Shocking! Mullen also made an effort Sunday to respond to the Times story, stressing that a military strike against Iran would be "the last option for the United States."
The Times is standing by its characterization of the memo: "Senior administration officials, asked Sunday to give specific examples of what was mischaracterized in the article, declined to discuss the content of the memo, citing its classified status."
So how about it: Do the Obama folks have a clear strategy for stopping Iran?
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Roger Cohen engages in some egregious rhetorical sleight of hand here :
Already, there are shifts in Israeli attitudes as a result of the new American clarity. Last year, Netanyahu described Iran’s leaders as “a messianic apocalyptic cult,” which was silly. Of late we’ve had Ehud Barak, the Israeli defense minister, setting things right: “I don’t think the Iranians, even if they got the bomb, are going to drop it in the neighborhood. They fully understand what might follow. They are radical but not total ‘meshuganas.’ They have a quite sophisticated decision-making process.”
This is persuasive if you ignore a couple stubborn facts. One, Barak's comments predate the recent blowup between the Obama administration and Israel. Two, Barak has long believed that Iran doesn't pose an existential threat to his country. Here's him saying as much back in September, and I'm sure I could find earlier examples. Three, Barak and Netanyahu come from different parts of the Israeli political spectrum; the two men aren't even members of the same political party. They have different points of view. There's precious little evidence Netanyahu himself has shifted his rhetoric.
Lesson: Beware pundits who throw around vague language like "of late." It's a sign they're trying to trick you, or at least being sloppy.
ABC News today published an "exclusive" scoop saying that an Iranian nuclear scientist, Shahram Amiri, has defected to the United States with the assistance of the CIA.
Except, er, Britain's Daily Telegraph reported the defection back in December, though the paper didn't say that Amiri had come to America and placed him in Europe at the time. The Telegraph's story was, however, more clearly sourced to "French intelligence sources" and contained a much richer account of how Amiri supposedly left Iran. The Telegraph also credited the subscription-only website Intelligence Online with breaking the news.
Also back in December, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki directly accused Saudi Arabia and the United States of colluding to "abduct" Amiri (amplifying some more indirect comments he had made back in October). The Telegraph story broke three days later.
The two accounts differ in important respects. According to ABC, "The CIA reportedly approached the scientist in Iran through an intermediary who made an offer of resettlement on behalf of the United States." But ABC doesn't say who reported that, and its story is sourced only to "people briefed on the operation by intelligence officials." (FYI: It so happens that a French delegation is in town for President Nicolas Sarkozy's visit.)
But Intelligence Online, the Telegraph says, reported that "The agency made contact with the scientist last year when Amiri visited Frankfurt in connection with his research work" and that "A German businessman acted as go-between. A final contact was made in Vienna when Amiri travelled to Austria to assist the Iranian representative at the IAEA. Shortly afterwards, the scientist went on pilgrimage to Mecca and hasn't been seen since."
Another apparent discrepancy between the two accounts concerns when the CIA began trying to recruit Iranian scientists. Citing "former U.S. intelligence officials," ABC says efforts to do so "through contacts made with relatives living in the United States" date back to the 1990s, whereas the Telegraph says a program called "the Brian Drain" began in 2005. It's not clear, however, whether the former officials were familiar with Amiri's case, or whether "Brain Drain," said to be aimed at inducing Iranian scientists to defect, was a separate initiative.
More to come, no doubt.
Iran's drug squad commander pointed out in January, that narcotics forces had seized 340 tons of drugs and arrested 170,000 ‘drug dealers' in the previous nine months -- what amounted to a new record for the Islamic Republic. What Iranian officials are less likely to point out is the other record they've hit in the past few months: Iran now has the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the world. By the end of February, (a month in which 12 journalists were arrested), the number rested at 52 -- a third of the global tally and more than double China's total of 24.
The information is detailed in a new report compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. CPJ adds that its count "does not include more than 50 other journalists in Iran who have been imprisoned and released on bail over the last several months." By arresting any who challenges the regime's authority, it seems as though Iranian officials are working overtime to usurp the 1996 record of 78 jailed journalists set by Turkey.
Although it seems to have fallen out of the news cycle ever since the disappointing Feb. 11 protests, Iran's still-alive opposition movement has yet to leave the attention of the Obama administration; an LA. Times article today reports that the administration is preparing to change the focus of its Iran policy from negotiations to greater support for the opposition as well as enforcing sanctions.
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
Though Iranian-Italian relations don't often make the headlines, trade between the two countries is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $9 billion. That makes Italy Iran's largest trading partner in the EU.
But perhaps the $9 billion figure should be revised upwards in light of some of the most recent news to come out of Rome: on Tuesday, March 2, Italian police arrested seven people -- five Italians and two Iranians -- on suspicion of engaging in illegal arms trafficking to the Islamic Republic. After making the arrests, police seized a variety of equipment, including rifle scopes, military scuba-diving jackets, flak jackets, mobile phones, and life vests.
While few details have been made publicly available, what has been released makes "Operation Sniper," the code name for the police investigation that ultimately led to the seven arrests, sound like something out of one of the Bourne movies.
According to Italian police, the dealers began their smuggling operation in 2007. After buying arms in Europe, the dealers would then launder the arms by transporting them to the U.K., Romania, and Switzerland before selling them to clients in Iran. Although Italian authorities haven't released any information regarding the identity of these clients, some have speculated that based on the nature of the equipment that was seized, the intended recipients were probably members of the Iranian secret service.
Though the smuggling operation was initially a success, it hit a snag in Romania when a customs official seized 200 gun sights that were illegally headed from Italy to Iran. Details remain sketchy, but this seizure appears to have tipped off police in other countries, as related arrests and seizures were soon made in Switzerland and Brtain. Thanks to the information gathered from these maneuvers, Italian police were able to successfully identify the smugglers in Italy and arrange a sting operation against them.
GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP/Getty Images
Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett just got back from a trip to Tehran. They write:
Shortly before we arrived in Tehran, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Islamic Republic is turning into a “military dictatorship”. As we drove around Tehran, we looked hard to see a soldier anywhere on the street but did not see a single one—except for a couple at the entrance to the Behest-e Zahra cemetery just south of Tehran, where many of the Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq War are buried. Over the years, we have spent a lot of time in a lot of Middle Eastern capitals. We have never been in one—including in Egypt and Israel—that has fewer guys in uniform on the streets than in Tehran right now.
I'm not sure this is a good metric. You won't find a lot of soldiers on the streets in Damascus, either -- and few would argue that Syria is not a dictatorship backed by force. As the Leveretts well know, Iran's apparatus of repression contains a lot of tools that aren't "soldiers," strictly speaking, and they don't need to be standing around in uniform to be nefarious.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy this morning, gave a tour d'horizon of Israel's current strategic position in the Middle East -- and also managed in the process to draw on some of the best traditions of Jewish comedy.
It all began when Barak took issue with Iranian ambitions in the Middle East, and specifically Iranian President Ahmadinejad's remark in Damascus that Arab nations will transform the region into an area "without Zionists and without colonialists." Barak riffed that Ahmadinejad was "looking for a 'New Middle East' -- it reminds me of [Israeli President] Shimon Peres," playing on the title of his former Labor Party ally's book.
This wasn't the only point where Barak drew a few laughs on issues that are rarely mined for their comedic potential. When tackling the subject of Iranian nuclear ambitions, Barak poured cold water on the idea that Iran would drop a nuke on Israel shortly after constructing its first weapon. "They're radical, but they're not total meshugenahs," he said of the Iranian leadership, proving that the mixture of yiddish and Persian military expansionism, while explosive, is also sort of amusing.
But Barak did not limit his comedic debut to remarks about Iran -- he also took aim at the domestic political opposition in Israel. When asked about the prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinian Authority or Syria, he criticized elements on the Israeli left who were attempting to delay talks because they did not have a role in the current Netanyahu government. He recounted the apocryphal story of an Israeli airman who was cut from the air force; after delivering this bad news, his superiors asked him what service he would like to join, and he stated that he wanted to be a member of the anti-aircraft artillery corps. When asked why, he stated, "'If I can't fly, then nobody can fly." The peace process, Barak was saying, needs supporters -- not more people manning the anti-aircraft guns trying to shoot it down.
These remarks, of course, were all in good fun -- but there's more to it than that. Barak's central message was that Israel will only find peace with its neighbors when it is a strong, self-confident state. It should be capable of possessing a clear-eyed view of the threats it faces, and able to take risks for peace, Barak argued. His point was that, though Israel will no doubt confront a number of difficult challenges in the year ahead, the situation was by no means dire -- it was even possible to make a few jokes about it. By taking this approach, Barak was the latest in a long line of public figures who discovered the serious implications of a little comedic timing. Lenny Bruce would be proud.
DIETER NAGL/AFP/Getty Images
As if there weren't enough controversies over Middle Eastern geography, Iran has lashed out recently on the name of the waterway to its south, most commonly called the Persian Gulf.
Tehran's ire first arose when a Greek steward, working for an Iranian domestic airline, scuffled with passengers over the usage of Arabian Gulf on the plane's in-flight monitors. He reportedly threatened to arrest passengers who had protested the alternate name, and the altercation escalated into a heated verbal exchange. The attendant was later fired for his "inappropriate and irresponsible behavior."
(Interestingly, in the Tehran Times write-up of the affair, the Arabian Gulf is four times referred to as the "forged term")
Furthermore, Iran has now warned that if airlines use the alternative term, they will be banned from using Iranian airspace:
The airlines of the southern Persian Gulf countries flying to Iran are warned to use the term Persian Gulf on their electronic display boards.
Otherwise they will be banned from Iranian airspace for a month the first time and upon repetition their aircraft will be grounded in Iran and flight permits to Iran will be revoked.
Let's just be thankful there isn't an Iran-Arab dispute over the in-flight meal.
All the chatter online is about the Cheney-Biden Sunday talkshow dustup, which was heavy on drama and light on news.
But the real story today is what the U.S. national security advisor, Gen. James L. Jones, said:
“We are about to add to that regime’s difficulties, by engineering, participating in very tough sanctions,” Jones said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.” Combined with internal dissent, the sanctions “could trigger regime change,” he said.
First, let's get one thing straight: There will be no tough sanctions. As FP's Colum Lynch has reported, China doesn't even have a go-to Iran hand right now, and has shown little interest in damaging relations with a country that supplies 11 percent of its oil imports. Beijing will see to it that whatever sanctions do pass the U.N. Security Council are toothless, as the Chinese have done on all previous occasions. They'll give just enough to allow the Obama administration to say it passed something, while wringing concessions out of Washington that we may never know about.
Second, whatever fresh U.N. sanctions do pass will not "trigger regime change," and I hope the White House doesn't really believe that. Yes, Iran's economy has real problems, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is being criticized for them. There's a danger, though, that new sanctions will only allow him to blame his screwups on the West without forcing his government to cry uncle on the nuclear issue. After all, we're talking about a regime whose founding ideology is built on isolation in the world and standing up to the "global arrogance." Sanctions, for Iran's hard-line leaders, are the diplomatic equivalent of throwing Br'er Rabbit in the briar patch.
The most optimistic scenario that I can come up with, realistically speaking, is that there's going to be a lot going on behind the scenes -- the kind of economic warfare waged by the Treasury Department's Stuart Levey, for instance, will scare off a good number of potential investors in Iran's overt economy. Some European countries, like France, will do their part. And meanwhile, continued sabotage operations (much of it through doing things like setting up dummy companies to sell Iran faulty nuclear-related equipment) will keep Iran's scientists from making any major breakthroughs. Hopefully, oil prices won't climb too high and over time the opposition will be able to build in strength. But regime change is a long-term hope, not a plan.
UPDATE: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's rhetoric has shifted, too. Speaking in Doha, Qatar, she said Iran is "moving towards a military dictatorship" as the Revolutionary Guards assume ever more power. She's right, by the way. But I don't think sanctions will work, and Clinton is about to get an earful from Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah about the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Stay tuned.
There's a lot of disappointment in the U.S. blogosphere today after the Iranian opposition apparently failed to overcome the regime's vigorous efforts to suppress any signs of disunity on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
Scott Lucas puts a brave face on the day's events, pointing out that at least the green movement lived on to fight another day. But this isn't Israel vs. Hezbollah, where not losing equals winning in many Middle Eastern minds; either the green movement can put millions of people in the streets and force the regime to change course, or it can't.
One interpretation, which Steve Walt suggests here, is that the opposition has been exaggerating the extent of its support all along and that some Iran-watchers are engaging in wishful thinking. That's certainly the argument I expect Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett to make tomorrow. Another possibility is that the regime successfully scared away (or foiled efforts to organize) large numbers of potential demonstrators. Many Iranians might not have seen today's holiday as a legitimate occasion for protest, and preferred to keep their true opinions to themselves. It might be all of the above.
Whatever the reason, there's a real danger now that the regime -- or elements within it -- will move much more aggressively now to shut the green movement down. That might not be possible over the long term, but what happens if opposition leaders like Mohammed Khatami, Mir Hossain Mousavi, and Mehdi Karroubi are arrested -- or worse, killed? Until now, that would have been a bridge too far. But after today? There are surely some hard-liners in Tehran who are baying for blood.
The site says that Ms. Rahnavard suffered injuries to her head and back from punches and baton blows.
She was attacked around Sadeqiyeh Square, where other members of the opposition were assaulted earlier in day. Bystanders eventually formed a protective circle around Ms. Rahnavard and helped her escape from the milita officers, the site says.
Frontline's Tehran Bureau blog interviews the son of opposition leader and former presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi:
How is your father Haj Agha Mehdi Karroubi?
We're treating him for burns to his face and eyes. He's having trouble with his lungs too. He was badly attacked with pepper spray. Plainclothes agents (vigilantes) approached him and kept spraying it in his eyes. He's resting at home though; he's not been hospitalized.
Any news of your brother Ali?
We haven't been able to figure out where he is. Everyone we call claims to have no information on him. We believe he's in the custody of the law enforcement agency.
(Hati tip: NIAC)
Thursday is shaping up to be another huge day of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in Iran, with pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad factions looking to demonstrate their ability to bring people into the streets for 22 Bahman, the anniversary of the founding of the Islamic Republic. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has called on the nation to "give all arrogant [Western] powers a punch in the mouth" by showing their support for the revolution and, presumably, him. The credibility of both sides is at stake.
Of course, the regime in Tehran is taking no chances -- arresting protest leaders, shutting down Gmail Wednesday, and restricting text-messaging services in the hopes of keeping the opposition from organizing and getting the word out. Already there are signs that reaching people within Iran is more difficult than usual. And Al Arabiya reports that foreign journalists -- many of whom are back in the country for the first time since last summer -- will be allowed to cover Ahmadinejad's speech only, and not the rallies themselves.
These are not the actions of a confident government.
And yet, there are still few reliable reports suggesting that the regime is fracturing. I've seen unsourced assertions saying so, as well as unverifiable accounts traced back to the National Resistance Council of Iran, a group dominated by the odious Mujahedin-e Khalq. (A great example of unduly credulous reporting is Richard Spencer describing the NCRI as an "umbrella opposition group in exile.") And key swing players like Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani haven't stuck their necks out too far to support the greens (more here).
Be on the lookout for real evidence that elements of the regime -- policemen, militia members, etc. -- are refusing to crack heads. My suspicion is that it's still too early for us to see that sort of fragmentation on a large scale; Iran's economy is going to need to get much worse before Ahmadinejad's lower-class base starts to turn on the regime in significant numbers. But I'm happy to be proven wrong.
Still think China's going to sign on to a new round of tough sanctions against Iran? Think again. China has most likely already passed the European Union to become Iran's No. 1 trading partner, the Financial Times reports:
Official figures say the EU remains Tehran’s largest commercial partner, with trade totalling $35bn in 2008, compared with $29bn with China.
But this number disguises the fact that much of Iran’s trade with the United Arab Emirates consists of goods channelled to or from China. Majid-Reza Hariri, deputy head of the Iran-China Chamber of Commerce, said that transhipments to China accounted for more than half of Tehran’s $15bn (€10.9bn, £9.6bn) trade with the UAE.
When this is taken into account, China’s trade with Iran totals at least $36.5bn, which could be more than with the entire EU bloc. No definite conclusion is possible because it is unclear how much of Iran’s trade with Europe is channelled via the UAE.
Iran imports consumer goods and machinery from China and exports oil, gas, and petrochemicals.
Today, China depends on Iran for 11 per cent of its energy needs, according to the chamber.
Look at it this way: Would the United States support hard-hitting sanctions against Saudi Arabia, which in November supplied nearly 8 percent of U.S. oil imports?
In case you just thought that Iran launched a rocket today just to remind everyone about their rockets, they also sent up some unfortunate animals on a scientific mission:
On Wednesday, Press TV said, the Iranian Aerospace Organization said live video transmission from latest launch would “enable further studies on the biological capsule — carrying a rat, two turtles and worms — as it leaves Earth’s atmosphere and enters space.”
I'm pretty sure Laika already covered this ground in 1957. Then again, if the rat starts training the turtles in martial arts, it will all have been worth it.
There's no two ways about it: The last year of foreign policy had more drama than a Scorsese epic and enough thrills to put Avatar to shame. From the fearsome battle in the Afghan hills to the U.S.-China love-hate relationship, and from the serious al Qaeda threats in Yemen to the hard-to-take-seriously pirates off the Somali coast, 2009 was arguably a much more interesting year for global politics than for movies. So with Oscar nominations due tomorrow, we're taking nominations for our own FP Oscars.
Who would you pick for the best actor of the year? Is President Barack Obama holding his own in an unfriendly world, or does the ubiquitous Brazilian President Lula deserve an Oscar? Is Muammar Qaddafi's persona just too good to be true, or do you prefer the smooth, suave diplomacy (and wacky domestic antics) of France's Nicolas Sarzoky?
You tell us what scandals, dramas, tragicomedies, and personal stories are your picks for the history books in 2009. Listed below are the categories and a few sample entries. Send your own nominations to Joshua.Keating@foreignpolicy.com or paste them in the comments below. May the best news win!
Best picture: What one story encapsulates the year?
Best drama: Spies, dissidents, treachery, and truth. Were the adrenaline-pumping protests following the Iran elections the most dramatic event? Or perhaps it was the long, drawn-out U.S. decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. If you have a humanitarian bent, the crises in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan might come a heart-wrenching first.
Best comedy: If it isn't a tragedy, the dysfunction of the U.S. Congress is certainly good for a laugh. Then again, how about the Copenhagen Climate conference that ended in a collective shrug? Or the British MPs who used their expense accounts to buy fancy rugs and re-dig their backyard swimming pools?
Best romantic comedy: Gordon Brown requested meeting after meeting with the U.S. president; Obama just didn't have time. Brown gave him a romantic antique biography of Churchill, and Obama gave him a DVD box set. Let's just say the special relationship isn't all it used to be. But then again, there are other comedies in Europe these days ... Berlusconi anyone?
Best romantic drama: Unclear whether this should be a drama or a comedy, but the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladamir Putin certainly have a relationship worth noting -- as their press photographer has shown time and time again...
Best action: A U.S. ship is seized in the Gulf of Aden and devious pirates take the Maersk Alabama captive on the high seas, demanding a ransom for their deed. But lo and behold! A brave captain sacrifices his freedom to save his crew. And the U.S. whacks three pirates in the end, bringing everyone home safely! Phew!
Best special effects: Hmm, how about that missile launch in North Korea? It hit right on target: the Pacific Ocean.
Best director: Nicolas Sarkozy is a whirling dervish of diplomatic activity.
Best actor: Very few world leaders can also claim their own daily television shows -- and surprisingly humorous ones at that. "Alo Presidente" hasn't exactly skyrocketed Hugo Chavez to fame (his coup attempt back in the 1990s did that), but man has this guy mastered media in the Drudge Era.
Best actress: On a more serious note, few women leaders have been more powerful this year in asserting political freedom than Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi. Or does Hillary Clinton have your vote? As one FP staffer put it, "she's the queen of 'the show must go on.'"
Best supporting actress: Is Carla Bruni the perfect companion for a perfectionist French president?
Best supporting actor: Let's be honest: One man whose entire year has been a story about other people's interests is the ousted president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. For all his posturing and pontificating, he was never running the show.
Best costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes.
Worst costume: Libya's Muammar Qaddafi designs his own clothes. You decide.
Lifetime achievement award: Fidel? Kim Jong Il? Mubarak? Most of the longest-lasting players on the world stage aren't particularly savory characters. Got someone better?
We'll post a full list of nominees based on your e-mails and comments on Monday, Feb. 8 and give you a chance to vote. The final winners will be announced at the end of the month.
We promise to keep the musical numbers short.
A new documentary shown on Iranian state TV claims that the death of Neda Agha Soltan, who became an international icon of the Iranian opposition movement, was a hoax. Radio Free Europe's Golnaz Esfandiari reports:
The program says that Neda threw blood on her own face before being shot dead in the car that was taking her to the hospital.
"Neda for a moment realizes their wicked plan and struggles to escape, but they quickly shoot her from behind," the narrator claims.
Among participants in the "plot" identified in the documentary are Arash Hejazi, a writer and physician who tried to save Neda and later said a Basij militia member shot her and was briefly detained by onlookers, and Neda's music teacher, who was with her at the time of her death.
Mario Tama/Getty Images)
The White House has posted the text of the statements U.S. President Barack Obama gave on the attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 and the brutal Ashura crackdown on protesters in Iran.
the American people should remain vigilant, but also be confident. Those plotting against us seek not only to undermine our security, but also the open society and the values that we cherish as Americans. This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist.
As a nation, we will do everything in our power to protect our country. As Americans, we will never give in to fear or division. We will be guided by our hopes, our unity, and our deeply held values. That's who we are as Americans; that's what our brave men and women in uniform are standing up for as they spend the holidays in harm's way. And we will continue to do everything that we can to keep America safe in the new year and beyond.
We call for the immediate release of all who have been unjustly detained within Iran. We will continue to bear witness to the extraordinary events that are taking place there. And I'm confident that history will be on the side of those who seek justice.
The White House included translations of the Iran portion into Arabic and Persian.
JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
I've been one of those who have been skeptical that the Iranian opposition will be able to force the regime to accomodate its demands. Seeing few signs that the Islamic Republic's apparatus of control -- the security forces and the Basij militia -- are fracturing, I've said repeatedly that I don't think the Green Movement has the upper hand. I think that's still true, even after today's apparently massive protests.
That said, the dual radicalization that is going on helps the opposition more than it helps the regime. On the opposition side, the chants used to be about the election and ensuring a fair vote; now they're about "death to the dictator" and "death to Khamenei," the supreme leader. A friend of mine who monitors the Iranian media for a living told me a few weeks back that he's seeing increasingly radical rhetoric in the press as well. So it's not surprising that today's protests quickly turned nasty as demonstrators fought back with stones, clubs, fire, pieces of sidewalk, and anything else they could get their hands on.
Meanwhile, the regime is showing its willingness to do whatever it takes to maintain control, even killing people on the Shiite holiday of Ashura, something even the shah never dared to do. The nephew of Mir Hossain Mousavi, the defrauded presidential candidate, was either brutally assassinated outside his home today or killed during the protests, depending on which account you believe. Former President Mohamed Khatami, a broadly popular reformist, was assaulted while giving a speech inside a mosque formerly frequented by Ayatollah Khomeini. And there are dozens of pictures of regime thugs beating women on the streets, in full view of everyone else.
At some point, you'd have to think, some in the security forces will want to have no part of this dirty business, and start to defect to the opposition. So far, though, we only have unconfirmed rumors that this is happening:
There were scattered reports of police officers surrendering, or refusing to fight. Several videos posted to the Internet show officers holding up their helmets and walking away from the melee, as protesters pat them on the back in appreciation. In one photograph, several police officers can be seen holding their arms up, and one of them wears a bright green headband, the signature color of the opposition movement.
Keep watching for this phenomenon -- if it keeps up, a regime increasingly seen as illegitimate will have a hard time holding on. As Steve Walt warns us, though, the United States could very easily screw things up, for instance by implementing gasoline sanctions that will hurt Iran's people more than the regime. The U.S. Congress is gearing up to pass such sanctions after the holiday recess, and the Iranian government seems dead set against compromising over the nuclear issue, so I'm not very optimistic that the right decisions are going to be made.
In January, the U.S. military will hold its first simulation of an attack from a long-range Iranian missile on the United States, as opposed to a North Korean one:
It also would be more difficult testing the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system against a missile that would be faster and more direct as it races toward the United States than a simulated strike from North Korea.
"Previously, we have been testing the GMD system against a North Korean-type scenario," O'Reilly said.
"This next test ... is more of a head-on shot like you would use defending against an Iranian shot into the United States. So that's the first time that we're now testing in a different scenario."
His comments came the same day that diplomats disclosed concerns among intelligence agencies that Iran tested a key atomic bomb component as recently as 2007. The finding, if proven true, would clash with Iran's assertion that its nuclear work is for civilian use.
The test would fire an interceptor missile from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at a simulated incoming missile, launched from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. An aide to O'Reilly estimated the cost at about $150 million.
Iran's long-range Shahab-3 missile has a maximum range of about 1,200 miles. Long enough to hit Israel or even Greece, but well-short of hitting the United States.
ALI SHAIGAN/AFP/Getty Images
With Iran holding five British yachtsmen, who were en route to a sailing race in Dubai, for the last five days to determine if they have "evil intentions," it's worth revisiting Karim Sadjadpour's recent FP piece on why Iran keeps arresting foreigners it knows to be innocent -- in that case the Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh:
The over-the-top severity of the sentence makes it eminently clear that this case really has little to do with Kian, and everything to do with Iran's negotiating posture toward the United States. A disaffected contact in the Iranian foreign ministry -- the vast majority of whom were thought to have voted for Mir Hossein Mousavi -- bluntly confirmed my suspicions. "Eena daran bazi mikonan," he told me. "These guys are just playing."
While neighboring Dubai and Turkey have managed to build thriving economies by trading in goods and services, Iran, even 30 years after the revolution, remains in the business of trading in human beings. In addition to Kian, Iran is now holding at least five other American citizens against their will, including three young hikers -- Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal (an outspoken Palestinian-rights activist) -- detained in June along the Iran-Iraq border in Kurdistan.
In a talk given this afternoon at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, retired Gen. John Abizaid outlined his view of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. He argued that it is foolish to approach issues on a country-by-country basis, complaining that "we look at Iraq through a soda straw. We look at Afghanistan through a soda straw." Instead, says Abizaid, the United States must develop a regional strategy that accounts for the roles of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
For the same reason, he suggested, the debate over whether or not to send more troops to Afghanistan has been over-simplified; the discussion should be broadened to include the relative demands of Iraq, Afghanistan and the region at large.
Abizaid also emphasized the ideological nature of the conflict, and the need for soft power to address the root causes of radicalism. He noted that Baitullah Mehsud, the top Taliban leader, is referred to as "the commander of the faithful."
"While we may chuckle at that title," Abizaid said, "the people fighting for him do not." When asked whether there should be a shift to a counter-terrorism approach in Afghanistan that relies more upon targeted strikes than nation-building, Abizaid responded that such a plan is impractical. Stabilization in Afghanistan and Iraq is a precondition for effective counter terrorist operations, he argued, because it provides the infrastructure needed to develop the "superb, superb intelligence" needed.
The theme of the talk was that instability anywhere in the region is a serious threat to surrounding countries. With our "ground forces spread thin" and "our 24-7 forces totally engaged," the United States must more fully incorporate diplomatic, political and economic plans to get a handle on the region. A number of questions were directed to the resources required for such a broad regional approach, and towards the end of the talk, the retired general was asked if the situation would be better in Afghanistan had the United States not invaded Iraq.
"All's I know is that we did what we did, and we are where we are," he answered.
News today that the G-20 has officially replaced the G-8 as "the world's premier economic forum," in the words of South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, was quickly -- and dramatically -- overshadowed by the revelation that Iran has a second, covert uranium enrichment facility.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking to reporters here in Pittsburgh, said that "we must have answers from Iran" about its nuclear program by the Oct. 1 meeting of the P5+1, the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Any decisions about what to do vis-a-vis Iran would not be made before that meeting, he said.
"It's the third time they've been caught red-handed," Brown said. "There has been serial deception over many years."
The prime minister wouldn't get into specifics about what sorts of penalities Iran might face should it fail to comply, but indicated that if sanctions are needed, they will "clearly be of a banking nature" and would "involve energy" and new restrictions on technologies that could be used for nuclear purposes.
"I think the IAEA will see that there is a breach of regulations," Brown said. According to the evidence he'd seen, "this could not have been for a civil nuclear facility," because the "level of production was not sufficient for a civil nuclear facility but could have been intended for a nuclear facility."
On the G-20, Brown made a more sweeping statement than either Korea's Lee or Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who earlier insisted that "we are not replacing the G-8 with the G-20."
"The old systems of economic cooperation are over," Brown said. Canada is due to host both the G-8 and the G-20 next year, in cooperation with South Korea, and Harper said that the G-8 would become more of a forum for discussing development issues, security issues, and, "for lack of a better word, geopolitics."
Brown said that the G-20 today would be issuing a "very strong view on remuneration," a somewhat peripheral issue that has nonetheless dominated discussions surrounding the summit, on the insistence of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
"We cannot be soft on these issues," Brown said some passion. "We have got to be tough … we will not condone the old system of bonuses … there is no return to the bad old days."
Brown also announced that G-20 leaders had agreed that it would be "premature" to remove the fiscal and monetary stimulus measures put in place over the past year, saying that "millions of jobs" would be at stake if countries acted too quickly.
Nevertheless, he said, "The action that we took at the London Summit [in April] has worked."
Noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whom FP interviewed at the height of the unrest after the Iranian presidential election in June, has issued the following statement:
Citizens of the World
As someone who is in contact with prominent members of the Green Movement in Iran, and as someone who is intimately informed of their points of view, I declare to the world, particularly to the people and government of America, that the Iranian Green Movement does not want a nuclear bomb, but instead desires peace for the world and democracy for Iran. The Green Movement in Iran furthermore understands the world's concerns and in fact has similar concerns itself.Mohsen Makhmalbaf
I have been also entrusted with the responsibility of informing the world that any accord or agreement signed with the current coup-empowered illegitimate government of Iran is considered bereft of legitimacy by the Green Movement, which enjoys the support of a majority of the Iranian people; all such agreements will be subject to review in future.
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images
After acquiring a massive following on the Iranian black market though Internet downloads and illegal DVDs, the U.S. sci-fi drama Lost has been approved for official distribution in the Islamic Republic. The Guardian reports:
Other long-running US dramas – including 24, Prison Break and Desperate Housewives – have been widely distributed on Iran's black market, but none has been given official approval.
Granting distribution and broadcasting rights to Lost would mark a policy reversal after officials previously criticised the series and warned media outlets against publicising it.
Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, recently sacked as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's culture and Islamic guidance minister, lambasted it for displaying "Zionist concepts". However, others insisted the programme was suitable for an Iranian audience because it has "eastern" themes.
"The atmosphere of this story, due to our classic literature, is familiar to Iranian and eastern viewers," Saeed Ghotbizadeh, a TV and cinema critic, told the Tehran-e Emrooz newspaper. "Eastern viewers can understand it better and would naturally like it.
Granted I gave up on watching Lost after about the first season but the themes seemed pretty western to me -- lots of Christian redemption vignettes and characters not-so-subtly named after enlightenment philosophers. Guess I missed something.
The officially distributed Iranian version of the show will be edited to "exclude "un-Islamic" scenes such as those featuring scantily clad women or male-female physical contact" -- so the authorities' decision might be less about exposing Iranian viewers to Lost's exploration of spirituality than preventing them from seeing Evangeline Lilly in a bikini. Somehow I think the bootleggers are going to stay in business.
As a side note, I would love to hear an Iranian viewer's take on 24.
Newly appointed state prosecutor Hojjatol-Islam Mohseni-Ejei might be one of Iran's worst clerics, but you would think his official biography would at least say nice things about him. But RFE/RL reports that until a few days ago, the official bio on Mohseni-Ejei's Website contained this not-so-flattering passage:
As head of the special court for clergy Gholam Hossein Moseni Ejei bit journalist Issa Saharkhiz during a fight at the weekly meeting of the press advisory council. Saharkhiz‘s complaint against him has not been investigated yet.
Akbar Ganji (eds: a prominent investigative journalist who has published a number of books and articles about the murders of political activists and intellectuals in the late 1980s) implicated him in the serial murders of intellectuals in his books.
It's not clear where the passage comes from or if this was a case of hacking or incompetence. The Bush White House did something similar once, but at least it was for another country's leader.
The increasingly friendly relationship between Iran and Venezuela is hardly a secret. Just yesterday, Venezuela announced that it will begin exporting 20,000 barrels of gasoline per day to the Islamic Republic. This followed a meeting on Saturday between Presidents Ahmadinejad and Chavez during which the two leaders promised to stand together to defeat imperialist foes.
Legendary New York District Attorney Robert Morganthau explained his concerns about the link in a talk at the Brookings Institution today, sponsored by the the American Interest magazine and Global Financial Integrity. According to Morganthau, some of the most dangerous aspects of the relationship take place far from the cameras, in the shadowy world of illicit finance:
The ostensible reason the the Iranian owned Banco International de Desarrollo (BID) was opened in Caracas was to expand economic ties with Venezuela. Our sources and experiences lead me to suspet an ulterior motive. A foothold into the Venezuelan banking system is a perfect "sanctions-busting" method -- the main motivator for Iran in its banking relationship with Venezuela. Despite being designated by OFAC we believe that BID has several correspondent banking relationships with both Venezuelan banks and banks in Panama, anation with a long-standing reputation as a money laundering safe-haven.
This scheme is known as "nesting." Nested accounts occur when a foreign financial institution gains access to the U.S. financial system by operating through a U.S. correspondent account belonging to another foreign financial institution. For example, BID who is prohibited from establishing a relationship with a U.S. bank could instead establish a relationship with a Venezuelan or Panamanian bank that has a relationship with a U.S. bank. If the U.S. bank is unaware that its foreign correspondent financial institution customer is providing such access to a sanctioned third-party foreign financial institution, this third-party financial institution can effectively gain anonymous access to the U.S. financial system. [...]
There is little reason to doubt Venezuela's support for Ahmadinejad's most important agenda, the development of a nuclear program and long-range missiles, and the destabilization of the region. For Iran, the lifeblood of their nuclear and weapons programs is the ability to use the international banking system and to make payments for banned missile and nuclear materials. The opening of Venezuela's banks to the Iranians guarantees the continued development of nuclear technology and long-range missiles.
Morganthau's office recently prosecuted British bank Lloyds for helping Iran move money through the U.S. financial system by stripping identifying information from wire transfers. He believes the cozy Chavez-Ahmadinejad relationship will only make such operations easier for the Iranians.
Morganthau stopped short of announcing specific prosecutions, but from the sound of it, some new revelations may be forthcoming.
Photo by David Shankbone. Used under Creative Commons license.
This summary from the transcript of today's State Department briefing reads like some kind of horrifying nuclear-diplomacy poem written by William Carlos Williams:
Not Expecting an Iranian Representative / Would Review Any Proposal Seriously If One Given / P5+1 Proposal is for Engagement / US Prepared to Respond to Some Kind of Meaningful Response / IAEA Report Shows that Iran is Noncompliant / Iran Have Been Provided a Path / Would Like a Response That Certain Obligations Must Be Met and they Welcome EngagementStill Waiting for an Official Response / All Iranians Need to Do is Response to Proposal
Not Certain if Iranian Leader Will Come
I suggest reading it out loud to your friends.
One of the big stories over the next few days, and, indeed, for the rest of this month, is going to be the (largely) Western drive to bring Iran's nuclear program to heel. Along with the war in Afghanistan, this issue could come to define Barack Obama's presidency, especially if Iran does weaponize or if the United States or Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Last week, the IAEA teed up a fresh round of debate by circulating a new report outlining Iran's technical progress since June 5 and its compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and various U.N. resolutions. You can read it here, though don't ask me to explain it all...
Commenting on the report, nuke wonk Jeffrey Lewis says, "Iran is not slowing its nuclear program, ok?" He then goes on to analyze Iran's recent expansion of centrifuges, which are grouped in "cascades" to enrich uranium.
"I continue to believe that Iran will install between 3-5 cascades a month for the next five years, barring some external intervention, until Natanz houses its complete set of 54,000 centrifuges," he adds.
The big news making headlines in Israel is the report's mention of "possible military dimensions" to Iran's nuclear program, a murky subject the agency wants Tehran to clarify. This is important because to be in compliance with the NPT, Iran has to prove that its nuclear activities are peaceful. Israel's Foreign Ministry is hammering the IAEA for allegedly withholding information on the militarization issue, which presumably means that Israel has supplied the IAEA with intelligence that the agency didn't discuss in the report.
(It also sounds like the IAEA is trying to get member states to let the agency share some of the documents they've given it directly with Iran, so that the Islamic Republic can respond to whatever it is being accused of.)
Asked Friday about the report, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, "As the IAEA's report makes clear, the recent limited and overdue steps Iran has taken fall well short of Iran's obligations and do not constitute the full and comprehensive cooperation required of Iran."
"Absent Iranian compliance with its international nuclear obligations and full transparency with the IAEA," he continued, "the international community cannot have confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iran's nuclear program."
On Wednesday, the P5+1, the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, are going to meet to talk over the report and figure out what to do next. Then, IAEA member countries will hold their annual meeting in Vienna, where Iran will top the agenda. Meanwhile, Obama has said that unless Iran takes him up on his offer of talks ahead of the U.N. General Assembly's opening session next month, he'll push for new sanctions that his secretary of state has said should be "crippling."
Then what? Stay tuned.
Photo by the Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images
The President begs to differ with the Ayatollah:
Mr. Ahmadinejad spoke in front of thousands of government supporters gathered in a covered arena at Tehran University. The president appeared unafraid to effectively contradict the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who on Wednesday said he was not convinced that reform leaders had conspired in advance with foreign forces to orchestrate the post-election unrest. The supreme leader did, however, stick by the government’s claim that the protests were planned.
If Ayatollah Khamenei was hoping to blunt calls for revenge, more arrests and severe punishment, Mr. Ahmadinejad showed no signs of softening.
“We must deal with those who led these events,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said. “Those who organized, incited and pursued the plans of the enemies must be dealt with decisively.” [...]
His remarks were clearly aimed at Mir Hussein Moussavi, Mehdi Karroubi, Mohammad Khatami, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani — some of the most important and influential figures in the Islamic republic’s 30-year history — whom the president has wanted to jail as enemies of the state.
In the past, Ahmadinejad has always backed down quickly from disagreements with the Supreme Leader. The president now seems intent on a confrontation and clearly thinks he's got the support and the muscle to get his way. It's seems pretty risky to say the least, but the rift is clearly coming to a head. As Stanford's Abbas Milani tells the New York Times:
“I honestly believe the cracks in the leadership are so severe, I don’t think they will be able to heal this.”
Update: Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thinks “this might just be theater.” Reached by e-mail, he told FP that “Khamenei wants to try and rehabilitate his image as a magnanimous leader who stays above the fray, and hence he issues more conciliatory statements ... while giving [Ahmadinejad] free reign to be the attack dog.”
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
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