Every three weeks or so, within a few hours of one Israeli leader or another making a statement about the threat of Iran's nuclear program, my phone starts lighting up. It's never the press, which has become inured to Israel's periodic warnings. Rather, it is nervous hedge fund managers and securities research analysts calling to find out if this is "it." Are the Israelis on the verge of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities? No doubt, should Israel launch airstrikes against the Bushehr reactor or the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, it would be a market-shaking event. "No," I assure the financial whiz kids on the other end of the line, explaining that "if Israel's leaders were going to strike, they would not be broadcasting it to the world." The phone will then go quiet for a few weeks until the next time Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli security consultant, or my cousin Ari warns that time is running out.
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I believe the only appropriate word for this is "chutzpah":
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Wednesday accused his election rivals of adopting smear tactics used by Germany's dictator Adolf Hitler and said they could face jail for insulting him. [...]
"No one has the right to insult the president, and they did it. And this is a crime. The person who insulted the president should be punished, and the punishment is jail," he told supporters outside Tehran's Sharif University.
"Such insults and accusations against the government are a return to Hitler's methods, to repeat lies and accusations ... until everyone believes those lies," Ahmadinejad said.
"Ahmadi bye-bye." That's one of the chants that supporters of Iranian presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi were yelling Monday when they decked out in green and formed a stunning human chain along a 12-mile-long arterial road that runs through Tehran.
Many Iranians are fed up with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- the man who has presided over a crumbling economy and damaged Iran's international standing. They head to the polls Friday to select one of four candidates, and if the outcome is "Ahmadi bye-bye," the most-likely new president would be Mousavi, a relative unknown until recently.
FP has an Iran package to keep you in the know. Check it out:
Iran's Presidential Wannabes: Meet the four men vying to lead the Islamic Republic and learn where they stand on foreign policy and domestic politics.
Iran's Potato Revolution: Former Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi has spent the past two decades out of the public eye, pursuing his interests in architecture and painting. Now he's the man most likely to dethrone Ahmadinejad.
Who's Winning Iran's Google War? To understand Iranian politics, ask a search engine. Over the past 90 days, Farsi-language Google searches for "Mousavi" have increased 1,300 percent.
Iran's New Revolution: Candidate Mousavi may have less charisma than Michael Dukakis, but the rock star has Iranian youth screaming.
Ahmadi Bye-Bye in Iran? A photo review of the best moments from Iran's wild campaign.
Photo: Majid/Getty Images
Late last week, I suggested that Mir Hossein Mousavi, the Iranian reformist presidential candidate, faces a tough uphill battle against incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Today, a Terror Free Tomorrow/New America Foundation poll seems to confirm that analysis, putting Ahmadinejad ahead of Mousavi by as much as 20 percent.
Lisa Margonelli and Andrew Sullivan both picked up on the data, with Margonelli predicting "a potential win for the President," but one portion of the study hints that Mousavi, not Ahmadinejad, might actually enjoy the upper hand in this race:
[Eighty-nine] percent of Iranians say that they will cast a vote in the upcoming Presidential elections."
So what? Well, according to Mousavi's campaign manager, the chances of an Ahmadinejad loss reach 65 percent in models where at least 70 percent of eligible voters cast ballots.
If both the TFT/NAF poll and Mousavi's campaign are correct, the opposition candidate could put a major dent in Ahmadinejad's reelection plans.
The AP's recent report about Iranian reformist presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi paints an optimistic picture, describing enthusiastic voter outreach campaigns and other exercises of political freedom the country isn't typically known for. This is all very promising—both for Iran and the United States. But the report misses some fundamental points.
Roughly 46 million Iranians will be eligible to vote on June 12. According to Mousavi's campaign manager, the chances of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad losing the race shoot up to 65 percent if voter turnout exceeds 32 million. By contrast, he says, the odds of a regime change plummet to just 35 percent if voter turnout is limited to 27 million or fewer. Might this election hinge on five million voters?
If his calculations are correct, a best-case scenario for Mousavi would have to count on 70 percent of eligible voters showing up to the polls. That's an astronomical number, considering how badly turnout in recent years has been slumping.
Still, keep your eyes out for a surprise—this presidential race is fast becoming one of the most energetic and competitive in the nation's history.
Think you know something about Iran? Think again, says Fareed Zakaria in the latest issue of Newsweek:
In an interview last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Iranian regime as "a messianic, apocalyptic cult." In fact, Iran has tended to behave in a shrewd, calculating manner, advancing its interests when possible, retreating when necessary ... The regime jails opponents, closes down magazines and tolerates few challenges to its authority. But neither is it a monolithic dictatorship.
Zakaria's observations were upheld yesterday as supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad publicly (and peacefully) confronted those of his rival, moderate Mir Hossein Musavi. Musavi is challenging Ahmedinejad in the current round of presidential elections in Iran.
It's a little premature to make sweeping generalizations, but the fact that this demonstration of political freedom occurred at all suggests the United States deeply misunderstands its rival. Just as it's becoming clear now that Ahmedinejad doesn't represent "a monolithic dictatorship," it should be equally evident that vilifying Iran as an undemocratic, irrational power is neither accurate nor helpful.
(Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan)
Mohammad Khatami isn't running for president of Iran, but the former president still seems to be constantly in the headlines these days. President Ahmadinejad recently attacked his predecessor for bringing shame on the country. RFE/RL reports:
The president told Iran's state radio that Khatami’s 2005 visit to France was one of the saddest days of his life, because Khatami "had to climb several flights of stairs" in the Elysee Palace to reach Jacque Chirac, the then French president.
Ahmadinejad said he found it “insulting” to Iranians.
Oh snap! But Khatami wasn't just going to take that of course:
Khatami fought back, writing in the "Hayate Nou" daily, saying that the real insult was thrown during Ahmadinejad’s trip to Columbia University in New York in 2007, when Ahmadinejad was introduced to the audience as a “cruel and petty dictator.”
As for the Elysee Palace incident, Khatami wrote that actually Chirac had descended a few flights of stairs -- breaching official protocol -- to greet him.
Between this and last week's Azeri-gate, it certainly seems as if Ahmadinejad's supporters are trying their best to keep the focus on Khatami rather than the opposition who's actually running, Mir Hussein Moussavi. It does make sense that it would be easier to attack Khatami, who is in fact quite popular and well-known in the West, as a sell-out of the Iranian revolution that Moussavi, who was a favorite of Ayatollah Khomeini and in many ways on the conservative end of the Iranian political spectrum.
Khatami certainly has a right to defend himself from Ahmadinejad's petty attacks, but the best way for him to help the candidate he supports (who does seem to be gaining some momentum) may be to lay low for a bit.
Back in 2007, I wrote a post noting a video of Mohammed Khatami shaking hands with female supporters that had gotten the former Iranian president in some hot water. The post was titled "Mohammed Khatami's macaca moment," but Khatami's latest viral video sensation is actually more like George Allen's infamous racial slur.
In the video, which is making the round of the Iranian blogosphere, Khatami tells an insulting joke about Azeris. (I'm fairly sure it's the video above but Farsi speakers should correct me if I'm wrong.) This had lead to public protests in several cities by Iran's sizeable Azeri community. It's quite possible that the video was leaked in order to discredit Khatami's reformist ally Mir Hossein Musavi in the upcoming presidential election.
RFE/RL's Iran Election Diary Blog provides a translation, though I think it probably loses something from the original:
“There was a preacher from Ardabil whose expertise was telling the story of how Fatemeh Zahra [the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad] got married," he says. "[The preacher] said that the night she became a bride, she was being taken to the house [of the groom] and the Prophet was walking in front of her, while Imam Hassan and Imam Hossein [both the sons of Fatemeh Zahra] were walking with her.”
This is way over my head but the implication, apparently, is that Azeris are slow. In any case, Iran's reformists may want to keep cellphone cameras away from Khatami for the next three weeks.
The same blog also has a collection of (funnier) Iranian election jokes, such as the best reason to vote for Musavi over Ahmadinejad:
"He's made anti-Israeli and anti- American comments at international venues but nobody walked out."
Update: Some further explanation from commenter Nemesida below.
Guy Dinmore of the Financial Times reports that Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini is planning is flying to Tehran today to meet with his Iranian counterpart, and possibly President Ahmadinejad. This is a break from the official EU policy of avoiding high-level nation-to-nation contact with the Iranians:
Mr Frattini will be the most senior official from a European government to visit Iran in the four years since Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad was elected president.
Western diplomats expressed dismay that Mr Frattini intended to break EU ranks. They also said that Washington had not given Rome a “green light”. Allies have warned Mr Frattini that he risks handing a propaganda victory to Iran’s hardline president less than a month before he stands for re-election.
EU governments had agreed to shun Iran because of its refusal to halt its uranium enrichment programme in line with United Nations resolutions. The decision to keep contacts limited to Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief who last visited Tehran a year ago, was reinforced by Mr Ahmadi-Nejad’s rhetorical attacks on Israel.
Dinmore also notes that Italy has long resented being left out of the "EU3" group of Britain, France, and Germany that has dominated decision-making on Iranian issues.
Frattini's diplomatic freelancing raises some questions about the EU's ability ability to present a unified foreign-policy front. Recently-departed EU President Mirek Topolanek said earlier this month that the one regret of his tumultuous term was not keeping Nicolas Sarkozy on a shorter leash. The French president's shuttle diplomacy in the Caucasus and the Middle East "gave the impression that the French were dominating the show.” Given this impression, it's not exactly surprising that countries like Italy would look to pull off some diplomatic coups of their own.
I breathed a great sigh of relief with the Iranian government's announcement of the release of journalist Roxana Saberi, who Tehran convicted of spying for the United States.
Saberi was initially arrested in January for buying a bottle of wine. When in custody, officials realized she had no press credentials (which had been revoked in 2006). Her trial lasted only an hour, and she was sent to the infamous Evin prison with an eight-year sentence.
And, joining Spencer Ackerman here, I hope that Saberi's release will draw attention to the plight of two other imprisoned journalists: Euna Lee and Laura Ling of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore's Current TV.
North Korea has held the pair incommunicado since the end of March. The Wall Street Journal reports:
U.S. officials have said less about Ms. Lee and Ms. Ling than they have about an American reporter, Roxana Saberi, who was recently convicted of espionage in Iran. The strategy is partly a gamble that not provoking the North Koreans may lead to a speedy resolution, analysts say, but it's also a sign of the increased uncertainty in dealing with Pyongyang.
U.S. officials have said little about the journalists' situation, but have indicated they aren't making progress with Pyongyang. A person not in government who is familiar with the situation said that North Korea isn't talking to the U.S. at all.
Here's from a McClatchy story (h/t Andrew Sullivan):
North Korea appears to be holding the women in a protocol house in Pyongyang.
"The rumor was that they are being housed at one of the guest villas," said Han S. Park, a University of Georgia expert who was visiting North Korea as part of a private U.S. delegation after the women were captured. Park told CNN International that the North Koreans scoffed at any suggestion that the Americans were receiving harsh treatment.
"They laughed. 'We are not Guantanamo.' That's what they said," Park said.
Still, it's a worrisome situation. Washington has far more dialogue and slowly warming relations with Tehran. More importantly, both governments had something at stake in ensuring the Saberi incident didn't become the Saberi fiasco.
Not so with Lee and Ling, and the U.S. and North Korean governments. Even if the Swedish diplomat who conducts relations for the U.S. managed to negotiate for their release, he'd have few obvious carrots or sticks to reach for, and the DPRK would have little reason to be magnanimous.
I also hope the U.S. considers releasing or charging the foreign journalist it has in custody in Iraq. The U.S. says that Reuters photographer Ibrahim Jassam, arrested in a raid on his home in September, poses a threat to security and continues to hold him -- despite an Iraqi court ruling this winter that he should be freed.
STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images
An official Iranian text of Ahmadinejad's address to the conference on Monday referred to "the ambiguous and dubious question of the Holocaust". However, when the president delivered the speech he omitted the phrase, referring more vaguely to "abuse of the Holocaust". He also dropped a segment about Zionist "penetration" of western society.
At the controversial U.N. anti-racism conference in Geneva today, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad quite predictably began railing about how the Holocaust had been used as a pretext for establishing a "totally racist state" -- Israel -- in the Middle East. Dozens of delegates promptly stormed out of the conference hall:
Earlier in the speech, a heckler put a new spin on the "shoe-ing" trend by "clown-nosing" Ahmadinejad:
Israel is still fuming about the conference, even recalling their ambassador from Switzerland in protest. But in a lot of ways, Ahmadinejad's speech and the delegates' reaction to it was the best PR Israel could ever have hoped for.
So how did Iran respond to U.S. President Barack Obama's midnight overture?
Predictably, by kicking him in the teeth.
Speaking before an audience of thousands in Mashhad, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said Saturday that "changes in words" wouldn't be enough to recast the relationship.
So far, Khamenei sees more of the same. "We do not have any record of the new U.S. president," he told the crowd. "We are observing, watching and judging. If you change, we will also change our behavior. If you do not change, we will be the same nation as 30 years ago."
The Associated Press, however, sees a potential opening in this remark by Khamenei: ''Should you change, our behavior will change too.''
It remains to be seen just how much change from the U.S. side would be sufficient. Khamenei's advice? "Avoid an arrogant tone, avoid arrogant behavior, avoid bullying behavior, do not interfere in nations' affairs, be contented with your own share, do not define interests extra-territorially all over the world."
Here's what Iran's president had to say at a summit of the Central Asia's 10-nation Economic Cooperation Organization:
"After the collapse of the closed socialist economy, the capitalist economy is also on the verge of collapse," Ahmadinejad said in a speech.
"The liberal economy and the free market have failed," he said, pointing to the use of "thousands of billions of dollars" to bail out Western banks and companies.
Ahmadinejad proposed a single currency for the region to facilitate trade, though I'm not sure if even he'd go as far as Kazakh President (and fellow ECO member) Nursultan Nazarbayev's global "acmetalism" idea. The ECO definitely seems like a contender for the world's most outside-the-box regional trade federation.
Looks like the Obama administration has been reading Parag Khanna. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today acknowledged that all of Afghanistan's neighbors will have to be involved if the NATO intervention is ever to succeed. Iran looks likely to be on the invite list for a proposed conference on Afghanstan to be held this month.
It's a bold move with the potential of reopening negotiations between the United States and Iran -- on an issue of great importance to both countries.
And also not a bad move, if my diplomatic analysis counts for anything; the two spatting countries might even find some common ground. As Khanna pointed out, Iran is rapidly building up commercial investment in the country, and would surely prefer a stable host for its work.
With a delegation of American movie industry officials, including actresses Annette Benning and Alfre Woodard, visiting Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "art and cinema advisor" Javad Shamaqdari has decided that it would be a good time to demand an apology for Hollywood's "insulting" treatment of Iran. Particularly offensive are the films 300 and the The Wrestler:
The film "300," portrays the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C., in which a force of 300 Spartans held off a massive Persian army at a mountain pass in Greece for three days. It angered many Iranians for the way Persians are depicted as decadent, sexually flamboyant and evil in contrast to the noble Greeks.
Iranians also criticised "The Wrestler" starring Mickey Rourke as a rundown professional wrestler who is preparing for a rematch with his old nemesis 'The Ayatollah'.
During a fight scene, "The Ayatollah" tries to choke Rourke with an Iranian flag before Rourke pulls the flagpole away, breaks it and throws it into the cheering crowd.
Shamaqdari's case is pretty weak here. It's telling that neither of these movies has anything to do with contemporary Iran (The symbolism of 300 is debateable but that movie should only be offensive to people who aren't legally brain dead.) and I'm having a hard time thinking of another recent film that was in any way insulting to the country.
As The Atlantic's Ross Douthat has pointed out, Hollywood has generally shied away from Middle Eastern villains in the post-9/11 era compared with the 1980s and '90s.
Then again, this is the same country that accused Harry Potter of being a Zionist stooge so I'm not really sure if logic is the best response.
The Times is reporting that former Iranian president and current presidential candidate Mohammad Khatami was attacked by a mob in Tehran during celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the Iranian revolution:
During the revolutionary celebrations, attackers waving sticks approached the cleric, shouting “Death to Khatami. We do not want American government.”
According to Mr Khatami’s Baran Foundation, the attackers were repelled by his own supporters, who chanted, “Khatami, Khatami, we support you.”
Mr Khatami was escorted from the street by his bodyguards who took him to shelter in a nearby building.
The Iranian elections just got a whole lot more interesting. Mohammed Khatami, the reformist former president, has announced that he'll be challening Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June. Nasser Karimi for the AP:
Khatami's decision to run against Ahmadinejad could significantly shake up Iran's politics, appealing to citizens disillusioned by the country's failing economy and Ahmadinejad's staunch anti-U.S. foreign policy.
What remains to be seen is to what extent Khatami's entry into the race will energize young Iranians -- especially in Tehran -- who have become deeply disillusioned with politics. And, of course, Ahmadinejad and his hardline allies will probably stop at nothing to win. As the LA Times notes, the president has the Interior Ministry firmly under his thumb, and Khatami is not known as a fighter.
Another big question now: How will Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei play it? In ideology and temperament, he's much closer to Ahmadinejad, who he supported in 2005. But Khamenei's expressed some displeasure with the incumbent over the past year and he certainly doesn't want to be associated with the lousy Iranian economy. Maybe he'll decide to sit this one out?
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
The Iranian government has denied visas to the U.S. women's badminton team, who were scheduled to take part in an international tournament in Tehran in February. Iran's Foreign Ministry blamed a "time consuming" visa process.
Given the diplomatic significance of the the trip, it seems like the ministry probably could have expedited the process if it really wanted to. You have to wonder if something about the event made Iranian authorities nervous. The tournament was already going to be restricted to only female spectators so that international players could wear their normal uniforms rather than the hijabs and long sleeves worn by Iranian players. U.S. and Iranian men's wrestling teams compete frequently without any apparent visa difficulties.
Photo: LAURENT FIEVET/AFP/Getty Images
The Financial Times reported this morning that Mohammad Khatami is "expected to announce that he will contest the presidential elections in June," according to a handful of reformist politicians who seem to be trying to create a fait accompli by talking to the press.
So far, the moderate former Iranian president hasn't announced squat and seems to be hoping that Mir-Hossein Moussavi, an ex-prime minister also in the reformist camp, will run in his stead.
If he indeed runs -- pass. the. popcorn. As one leading Iranian reformist told the FT, "If it is Khatami versus Ahmadi-Nejad, this will be the most interesting election in the world."
But I'll believe it when I see it. Khatami seems like a good guy, but the rap on him has always been that he shies away from conflict. Does he have the stomach for political hardball? I'm not so sure, but as someone who's fascinated by Iranian politics, I'll be watching closely.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's demand today for a U.S. apology for " past crimes" against Iran reminded me of this bit from Geneive Abdo's recent FP piece on "Why Not to Engage Iran (Yet)" in which she remembers the last time the U.S. came close to apologizing to the Islamic Republic:
Each time an end to Iran’s estrangement with the United States appears to be in sight, various competing political factions try to ensure that it happens on their watch. Back in March 2000, when Mohammad Khatami was president, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright came close to apologizing to Iran for the United States’ involvement in Iran’s 1953 CIA-backed coup. “[I]t is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs,” Albright said.
Instead of celebrating the historic gesture, Khatami’s rivals condemned the United States for not going far enough in extending a direct apology. I was living in Iran at that time and was able to witness up close the great fear among conservatives that Khatami and his reform movement would gain all the praise and harvest all the political capital for an improvement in relations with the United States. Thanks to these conservatives and the United States’ second thoughts, this never happened and Iranians’ hopes were dashed once again.
Incidentally, Abdo has written a brand new piece for FP on why it will take more than just pledges and interviews from Barack Obama to actually make diplomatic progress in the Middle East. Check it out.
Though Iran's leadership has maintained its verbal assault against Israel for its invasion of Gaza, they have also made sure that their rhetoric does not lead to a violence by Iranian citizens. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stepped in yesterday to ban hardline students who had volunteered to serve as suicide bombers from traveling to Israel. Over 70,000 students had apparently signed up to serve, rallied by exhortations from President Ahmadinejad's hardline allies. This has led some to speculate about the existence of a rift between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei.
Not so fast. Ahmadinejad might be reckless, but there is no evidence that he sincerely desired tens of thousands of Iranian suicide bombers to descend on Israel -- a step that would virtually guarantee a war with Israel and the United States.
"[The situation in Gaza] is embarassing to Iran," Carnegie Endowment fellow Karim Sadjadpour told me. "Despite paying lip service to its Palestinian allies, it can really do nothing." Like Khamenei, Ahmadinejad likely encouraged widespread protests in Iran and the exhortations to fight Israel as a symbolic resistance, rather than a serious battle plan.
That is not to say that Ahmadinejad enjoys Khamenei's unyielding support. The deteriorating economic situation has damaged Ahmadinejad's domestic popularity, a fact not lost on Khamenei. Sadjadpour characterized the relationship between the two Iranian leaders as a "master-student relationship."
Ahmadinejad owed much of his success in the 2005 presidential election to Khamenei's support. Khamenei can quietly swing elections through his influence over the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Basij -- a volunteer paramilitary corps -- or disqualify potential presidential candidates through the Council of Guardians. As the Iranian presidential elections approach, analysts will be looking very carefully for which way this most important Iranian voter is leaning.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
With Gaza suffering and Eastern Europe shivering, one person seems to be in a perfect position to take advantage of both crises: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The president has been losing some popularity lately as the financial downturn has highlighted his dismal economic record. The anti-Israel outrage is providing him a boost, just when he needed it the most:
Whether or not Iran's Gaza strategy wins points on the international front, Israel's offensive has been a domestic windfall for Ahmadinejad and his circle of hard-liners, analyst Javedanfar said. On Tuesday, the president submitted to parliament a controversial bill to eliminate decades-old subsidies on fuel and electricity.
"This will make him even more unpopular," Javedanfar said. "But the Gaza affair is a gift to him, which he will use to distract the Iranian people from the economic [pain] about to hit them."
Ahmadinejad got another gift this week as the Russo-Urkainian gas-pricing dispute led to supply disrputions in Turkey. Iran is already Turkey's second-largest gas provider, sending 18 million cubic meters of gas per day. With the Russian supply looking questionable, Ankara has increased their order for Iranian gas. With the Gazprom spat becoming an annual occurence, can it be long before European countries start taking a second look at Iran as an energy source? Recovering oil prices can't hurt either.
Things may be looking up for Ahmadinejad, which is to say, down for everyone else.
Update: Al Qaeda's having a pretty good week too, says Marc Lynch.
I just noticed that the Jerusalem Post has a top-level link on its Web site called "Iranian Threat":
Kind of unusual for a newspaper, no?
Haaretz, in contrast, plays it straight:
UPDATE: A journo friend in Beirut writes in:
I am loving the Foreign Policy blog as always, but I am curious exactly how Haaretz "plays it straight" with sections titled "Diplomacy" and "Defense"?
I'm embarrassed to admit that I didn't really notice this myself until I'd been reading Haaretz for months. It's still the best source I've come across for Israel-Palestine related news.
Here's a thought. What if Barack Obama's first test on foreign policy comes not from an adversary, like Russia, or an avowed enemy, like North Korea, but from a close ally? To wit:
The IDF is drawing up options for a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities that do not include coordination with the United States, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
While its preference is to coordinate with the US, defense officials have said Israel is preparing a wide range of options for such an operation. "It is always better to coordinate," one top Defense Ministry official explained last week. "But we are also preparing options that do not include coordination."
First, keep in mind that militaries prepare contingencies for all kinds of scenarios. Second, this isn't really a new story -- I think we can safely assume that Israel has long been looking into its options to go it alone in striking Iran. Multiple news organizations, moreover, have reported that the Bush administration has told Israel not to do it. Third, there are real questions as to whether Israel has the capacity to take out Iran's nuclear installations. Doing so would require dozens, if not hundreds of sorties over multiple days across hostile territory, using F-15s that might not have the range to pull off the mission.
The real story here is the leak, clearly aimed at making President-elect Obama think twice about engaging Iran without assuaging Israeli concerns. There may also be some Israeli politics going on here, with the elections coming up early next year.
In my view, though, these kinds of leaks are very damaging, as they only strengthen Iran's hardliners and feed their seige mentality. Want to ensure Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's reelection? Keep leaking this stuff.
There seems to be a consensus in Washington about the United States' need to engage in talks with Iran. But how and when? Peter Baker reports on the debate brewing over this latter question:
Two leading research groups plan to issue a report Tuesday calling on him to move quickly to open direct diplomatic talks with Iran without preconditions.
The report by the groups, the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations, urges Mr. Obama to put all issues on the table with Iran, including its nuclear program. The proposal calls for "swift early steps" to exploit a "honeymoon" period between his inauguration and the internal political jockeying preceding Iran's presidential elections in June.
The report breaks with experts on Iran who say Mr. Obama should wait until a clear winner emerges in Iran and calls instead for "treating the Iranian state as a unitary actor rather than endeavoring to play its contending factions against one another." The report also calls on him to back Israeli peace talks with Syria.
Karim Sadjadpour, a prominent Iran analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has been arguing that the United States should "refrain from any grand overtures to Tehran" until after the Iranian elections. Sadjadpour worries that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current president, would otherwise be able to say that his hardline policies brought the Great Satan to its knees.
The trick, then, is to show enough leg that you help bring a more responsible government to power in Tehran, but not so much that the United States looks weak. A delicate task, no doubt.
UPDATE: The report is here.
The Bush administration once planned to announce the opening of an interests section in Tehran this month. That won't happen now, and the story illustrates the broken connection that is the U.S.-Iranian relationship.
An announcement set for September was delayed because of the Russian invasion of Georgia. But the proposal was back on track until a few weeks ago, when the administration became concerned about Iranian interference in negotiations with Iraq over a status-of-forces agreement. It seemed the wrong time for an opening to Tehran that Sunni Arab allies warned would be seen as a concession.
So now the issue of U.S.-Iranian relations will be handed over to the Obama administration. "We ran out of time," says one administration official. It's the most frustrating and dangerous bit of unfinished business the new administration will inherit.
One untold story about the security pact that the Iraqi cabinet approved today is the role of Iran. Mary Beth Sheridan's article in the Washington Post leaves this clue:
[T]he accord was attacked by Iraqi politicians when a near-final draft was distributed last month. Some explained their turnabout this week by noting that the U.S. government had accepted last-minute changes demanded by the Iraqi Cabinet.
The changes were mostly minor, according to people close to the negotiations, but may have allowed Iraqi politicians to portray themselves as driving a tough bargain. Lawmakers are wary of appearing too pro-American, and some faced pressure from Iran, which strongly opposes the accord, Iraqi officials and analysts said.
Sheridan reported in October on the Iranian pressure, which allegedly included "attempting to bribe Iraqi lawmakers," according to the U.S. military.
Assuming the deal passes Parliament, the odd man out would appear to be radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose spokesman said he was "shocked and surprised by this approval, which expresses devotion to the occupation by agreeing to the mandate the occupier wanted." Sadr's threat Friday to resume attacks if the agreement passed doesn't seem to have swayed too many votes: The cabinet approved the measure 27-1.
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