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.
The results of last night's U.S. election swept the world over and over in waves of unbridled enthusiasm. It's as if the next American president doesn't just belong to Americans -- the global community feels that it, too, has a stake in Obama's success.
But what about the Middle East, where the United States is famously unpopular? So far, No. 44 has been greeted with rhetorical flowers and sweets. Today's messages to the president-elect -- from Israeli leaders, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Iraqi ministers, and even Iranian lawmakers -- were largely congratulatory.
The U.S. election received notably unremarkable attention from the Iranian media, but the buzz on Tehran's streets is positive if not a touch pragmatic and Iran's "intelligentsia" are cautiously optimistic about Bush's successor. As MP Hamid Reza Haji Babai put it today, "Obama has promised change and this is both an opportunity and test for the United States. We are waiting for that change."
Iran, as I mentioned yesterday, is holding its own presidential election next June. With Obama -- an African-American bearing the middle name Hussein who has spoken openly of his intention to negotiate -- in the White House, it will be far more difficult for extremists to demonize the United States, at least at first. This puts incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, already losing his grip on the Iranian parliament, at a clear disadvantage and may "breathe life into Iran's opposition reform camp," as former Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi hopes.
Iran is just one among many countries where a fresh start for the United States might do some good. As Andrew Sullivan so presciently deemed Obama back in Dec. 2007, he is a man "who is a bridge between" worlds. From today's vantage point, at least, the possibilities seem endless.
Photo: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
Take this with a grain of, um, arsenic, but the Iraqi Web site al-Malaf reported today that Hassan Nasrallah was poisoned last week, prompting a team of Iranian doctors to rush to Lebanon in order to save his life. The Hezbollah leader was reportedly in critical condition for a number of days before pulling through. The article quotes "diplomatic sources in Beirut" as confirming this report. But Hezbollah MP Hussein al-Hajj Hassan denounced the rumor as "a lie and a fabrication," though he admitted he had not seen Nasrallah during the past week.
Last week, the Iranian newspaper Khoursid reported that the Hezbollah leadership had chosen the head of the party's executive council, Hachem Safieddine, as Nasrallah's successor. While Hezbollah denied this story as well, some people will no doubt draw a connection between the succession chatter and rumors of Nasrallah being gravely ill. There aren't any verifiable facts in either of these pieces to draw definite conclusions. But, given Hezbollah's opaque organizational politics, those of us on the outside are often forced to sift through rumors and innuendo.
Some day I'm going to tell my grandchildren that I remember the days when ridiculous stunts involving massive amounts of food were dominated by Americans. I could live with Japan winning U.S. hot dog eating contests, but this is just too much:
Apparently, the crowd's hunger seems to have gotten the best of them before Guinness officials could measure this ostrich-meat monster. Never mind nukes -- I expect the next U.S. president to take concrete steps to ensure that the Iranians never again comes this close to sandwich dominance.
Back in August, we noted the popular firestorm in Iran over Interior Minister Ali Kordan's clearly faked Oxford law degree. The document, which Kordan used to help him bolster his credentials and gain his current position in the Iranian cabinet, is riddled with misspellings and punctuation errors and claims that Kordan's research at the university opened a "new chapter...to our knowledge in [Britain]." As if those weren't red alarms, Oxford has publicly disavowed the document.
It took Kordan until Wednesday to admit that the diploma was a fake, but he wasted no time in blaming an anonymous con artist. Iranian lawmakers are once again calling for Kordan's resignation, on the grounds that if he can't tell that a blatant fabrication isn't the real thing, he'll be easily duped when he serves as the overseer of the Iranian presidential contest next year. He's supposed to guard against election fraud and forgery.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was slated to give a speech at today's rally sponsored by New York Jewish groups protesting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to the United Nations General Assembly. The organizers of the event canceled her appearance to avoid the appearance of partisanship. (New York Sen. Hillary Clinton was also scheduled to talk but backed out last week after learning Palin had been added to the line of speakers.)
Palin's scheduled remarks, published today in the New York Sun, are in some ways fairly predictable. Yet in addition to the standard calls to support Israel and stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, the vice presidential nominee's speech is peppered with phrases guaranteed to hit the fear button in the Jewish community -- "Final Solution", "Never Again," and "Holocaust." The close of Palin's speech offered this:
Senator McCain has made a solemn commitment that I strongly endorse: Never again will we risk another Holocaust. And this is not a wish, a request, or a plea to Israel's enemies. This is a promise that the United States and Israel will honor, against any enemy who cares to test us. It is John McCain's promise and it is my promise."
As, I said last week, I don't think for a second that Iran is experiencing, or will experience, a change of heart when it comes to Israel or the United States. But anytime a politician uses the vocabulary of fear in this manner to incite solidarity, I get extremely wary.
In Iran, health experts have issued warnings on TV and radio discouraging people from overeating during the holy month of Ramadan.
They are right to worry. Some Iranians actually gain weight during this time because they overindulge at iftar, the evening feast when Muslims break their daily fasts, National Geographic News reports:
A colleague passed along the following tube of Iranian toothpaste, hilariously designed to look like Crest:
"Improve your dental hygiene," it reads on the front. "For long lasting tooth."
On the back, it explains that Crend "helps your dentist to fight against tooth decay and cavity. Crend can help improve your oral hygiene significantly." The sodium flouride content is 0.32 percent.
I doubt Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent warm fuzzies across Israel yesterday when he said that it's not Israelis Iran has a problem with, just the Israeli government.
"We have no problem with people and nations," the Iranian president declared. "Of course, we do not recognize a government or a nation for the Zionist regime."
Some analysts suggest that Ahmadinejad's words reveal a softening on Iran's feelings toward Israel, if only as a response to Western pressure.
My take? That's giving far too much international weight to the president's comments, which were likely meant only as a domestic show of support for Esfandiar Rahim Mashai, Iran's vice president. Mashai caused a lot of controversy in July when he said that Iranians were friends to all people, "even Israelis and Americans."
It's hard to believe, moreover, that such a lukewarm statement from Ahmadinejad constitutes a change in policy. The Iranian president was quick to add that it Israel is perpetrating a holocaust on the Palestinian people and repeat his certainty that the Holocaust was "fake." And which Israelis will be charmed by the stipulation that they were duped by an evil Zionist regime?
Finally, if there were any confusion on where the government of Iran really stands on this matter, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei did his part to reassure the world that indeed, the Islamic Republic's hostility to Israel and its people still runs red hot. Khamenei, while addressing thousands of worshipers in Tehran today, predicted the two countries were on a "collision course":
Who are Israelis? They are responsible for usurping houses, territory, farmlands and business. They are combatants at the disposal of Zionist operatives. A Muslim nation cannot remain indifferent vis-à-vis such people who are stooges at the service of the arch-foes of the Muslim world."
So, how much backtracking is really going on here? I'd hazard a guess and say: absolutely none. Ahmadinejad, who scoffed on Thursday at the idea of a two-state solution, said, "I have heard some say the idea of Greater Israel has expired. I say that the idea of lesser Israel has expired, too." Hardly the words of a changed man.
Last month, I blogged about the roundball diplomacy during the NBA's summer league in Utah, where Iran's national team was invited to participate as part of its preparations for the Olympics. The gesture was, by most accounts, a success, even though the squad subsequently went winless in Beijing.
Along the way, Iranian center Hamed Ehadadi piqued the interest of NBA scouts. The 7-2 Ehadadi averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds during the Olympics, capping the games with a 21-point, 16-rebound performance against a strong Argentina team, which faces the United States in the semifinals tomorrow.
Of course, as with all things Iran, there was a catch: The NBA informed its teams last week that it had "been advised that a federal statue prohibits a person or organization in the United States from engaging in business dealings with Iranian nationals." Ehadadi's NBA dreams had been dashed -- and it seemed like another missed opportunity for more roundball diplomacy.
Not so fast, however. The U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control has now offered its stamp of approval, and NBA teams are free to sign Ehadadi, pending final approval from the league and OFAC. Ehadadi expects to sign with the Memphis Grizzlies:
I will undoubtedly join Memphis Grizzlies by the end of next week. I met Memphis' officials yesterday to discuss joining the team… I received many offers from European teams but just playing in the NBA is my dream. Hopefully, I can join Memphis as soon as possible without any problem.
Ehadadi may not turn out to be a star in the NBA, but chalk up another victory for roundball diplomacy. David Stern is far from a perfect commissioner, but his emphasis on making basketball a global game appears to be paying off. Even if, in some cases, it works too well.
Great quote from Ephraim Halevy, the former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency:
Ahmadinejad is our greatest gift," Halevy told the Arab language television network Al-Hurra on Tuesday. "We couldn't carry out a better operation at the Mossad than to put a guy like Ahmadinejad in power in Iran."
Underscoring the point, the Iranian president wrote on his Web site Wednesday that Israel is a "germ of corruption" to be removed soon.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can't get a break at home. His newly approved interior minister, Ali Kordan, has been in office for just over a week, and a fake diploma scandal has only gained steam, complete with demands that the minister resign.
When there was a debate in parliament earlier this month over Kordan's qualifications for the post -- he's previously served as Iran's deputy oil minister and in the Revolutionary Guards -- Ahmadinejad had to go so far as to announce that Ayatollah Khamenei personally supported him, a rare (and extreme) strategy. Key to the issue were damning accusations about Kordan's honesty, with MPs claiming that Kordan lied about receiving an Oxford University law degree. So, Kordan produced his "diploma" (at right) and, with Khamenei's critical backing, sailed to approval.
Problem is, Oxford has now said the diploma is a fantasy. Have a look at the document Kordan produced: He must have made quite the impression at the university, seeing as how they saw fit to claim that his "research in the domain of comparative law... has opened a new chapter, not only in our university, but to our knowledge in this country." (Go ahead and ignore the misspellings and punctuation errors.)
When the the obviously faked diploma hit the Web, it caused a popular firestorm in Iran, with calls for Kordan to step down immediately if he can't produce the real thing. The Iranian Web site that first revealed the bogus document has now been blocked inside the country. Some analysts even think Ahmadinejad may have set Kordan up to embarrass his likely rival in the next presidential race, Ali Larijani. Kordan is a former aide to Larijani, who is also speaker of the parliament and looking slightly worse for the wear as the controversy continues. Stay tuned.
Somehow, I don't think this comment from Iran's Vice President Esfandiar Rahim Mashai is going to help anyone sleep easier in Tel Aviv:
Iranian media are quoting the country's vice president as saying Iranians are "friends of all people in the world — even Israelis."
As Haaretz observes, this isn't the first time Mashai has sounded a conciliatory note about Israel:
In late July, Mashai made similar comments, saying: "Iran wants no war with any country, and today Iran is friend of the United States and even Israel.... Our achievements belong to the whole world and should be used for expanding love and peace."
Some straight talk from Moammar el-Qaddafi:
What Iran is doing stems simply from arrogance," Gaddafi said during a visit to Tunisia after Tehran ignored another western deadline to accept an incentives package in exchange for full transparency on its nuclear drive. [...]
"In the event of a decision against Iran, this country will suffer the same outcome as Iraq... Iran is not any stronger than Iraq and won't have the means to resist (a military attack) on its own... The challenges are greater and exceed Iran's ability to reply."
Well, somebody's willing to step up and defend Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who was indicted for genocide last week. Yesterday, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described the International Criminal Court's prosecution as a colonialist effort to undermine Sudan's sovereignty:
Colonialist powers want to cut Sudan into pieces in their own ways, they want to prevent this country from having a constructive role in Africa and the Islamic world."
The comments were made at a meeting in Tehran with a Sudanese envoy who reciprocated his host's kind words by praising Iran's controversial nuclear program, saying, "This civilian technology would benefit the entire Islamic world."
I guess when you're under U.N. sanction, it can be hard to find someone who can relate.
I noted yesterday that Haaretz columnist Shmuel Rosner believes that Israel will attack Iran to force the international community to act. Now, maverick Israeli historian Benny Morris weighs in on the New York Times op-ed page, declaring flatly that "Israel will almost surely attack Iran's nuclear sites in the next four to seven months... an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable." Say what? Earlier, this week, I questioned a story in The Times of London saying that Washington had given Tel Aviv an "amber light" to proceed with attack plans.
What's going on? I have a guess: Israel is playing bad cop to America's good cop. The Times story provides one clue: "[T]he Israelis have also been told that they can expect no help from American forces and will not be able to use U.S. military bases in Iraq for logistical support." It's hard to imagine the Israelis could or would pull off a strike without U.S. help, so this is probably disinformation intended to send the message that Israel could act alone (which is doubtful for geographic, technical, and diplomatic reasons).
So, when Undersecretary of State William Burns meets with Iranian officials this weekend, he can thus implicitly present himself as their protector from the big, bad Israelis. Look here, Mr. Jalili: The United States is the reasonable one, willing to negotiate and compromise -- and only George W. Bush can talk the Israelis out of launching Osirak II. All you need to do is freeze your uranium enrichment and we can start talking for real. I'm sure Iranian leaders are aware of what is going on, but there may be just enough doubt in their minds to make this an effective gambit.
As usual, John Bolton is absolutely right. His policy prescriptions may be reckless to the point of foolishness ("When in doubt, bomb!"), but his understanding of what is happening in Washington policy... is unerringly accurate.
While much of the world was hyperventilating over the possibility that the United States (and maybe Israel) were getting ready to launch a new war against Iran, Bolton was looking at the realities and concluding that far from bombing, the U.S. was preparing to do a deal with Iran. He had noticed that over the past two years the U.S. had completely reversed its position opposing European talks with Iran.
First, the U.S. indicated that it would participate if the negotiations showed progress. Then, when they didn't, we went further and actively participated in negotiating a new and more attractive offer of incentives to Iran. Bolton noticed that when that package was delivered to Tehran by Xavier Solana, the signature of one Condoleezza Rice was there, along with representatives of the other five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany.
He had probably also noticed Secretary Rice's suggestion of possibly opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran -- the first step toward reestablishing diplomatic relations. And he didn't overlook the softening of rhetoric in Under Secretary William Burns's recent testimony to the Congress about Iran [pdf].
Now, just one day after Bolton's cry of alarm that the U.S. is going soft on Iran, we learn that the same Bill Burns will participate directly in the talks that are going to be held on Saturday in Geneva with the chief Iranian negotiator on the nuclear file. Bolton's worst suspicions seem to be confirmed.
Unlike many observers and commentators, Bolton has been looking, not at what the U.S. administration says, but what it does. Ever since the congressional elections of 2006, the U.S. has been in the process of a fundamental change in its policy on a number of key issues: the Arab-Israel dispute, the North Korean nuclear issue, and Iran. Since the administration proclaims loudly that its policies have not changed, and since the tough rhetoric of the past dominates the discussion, it is easy to overlook what is actually going on.
Bolton no doubt noticed that Rumsfeld is gone and replaced with Robert Gates, a very different sort of secretary of defense. He will have observed that the worst of the neocons (including himself) are now writing books and spending more time with families and friends, cheerleading for more war by writing op-eds from the outside rather than pursuing their strategies in policy meetings in the White House.
He will have seen the gradual shift of the policy center of gravity from Dick Cheney to Rice and Gates. He will have been listening when the Chairman of the JCS and others have said as clearly as they realistically can that the military option, though never renounced as a theoretical possibility, is the least attractive option available to us and in fact is close to impossible given our overstretch in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In other words, Bolton, as someone whose policies (in my view) are certifiably insane, recognizes real pragmatism and moderation in Washington when he sees it. And he does not like what he sees in this lame duck administration.
Over the past two or three years, we have been treated to one sensational threat after another about the likelihood of imminent war with Iran. All of these alarms and predictions have one thing in common: they never happened. Perhaps it is time for us to join Bolton in looking at the real indicators. When Bolton quits writing his jeremiads or when he begins to express satisfaction with the direction of U.S. policy, that is when we should start to get worried.
Haaretz correspondent Shmuel Rosner, writing in the The New Republic, argues that Israel might attack Iran not to destroy its nuclear program -- which it probably can't do -- but to force the international community to act:
The main goal of a hit would not be to destroy the program completely, but rather to awaken the international community from its slumber and force it to finally engineer a solution to the crisis. As one former Israeli official put it, any attack on Iran's reactors--as long as it is not perceived as a military failure--can serve as a means of "stirring the pot" of international geopolitics. Israel, in other words, wouldn't be resorting to military action because it is convinced that diplomacy by the international community cannot stop Iran; it would be resorting to military action because only diplomacy by the international community can stop Iran.
I don't believe this is Israel's first option. More likely, Israel's threats are intended to ratchet up the pressure on Iran to compromise. But as Rosner notes, "The more Israel pledges to stop Iran, the more it becomes necessary to deliver." If you keep crying "wolf!" and nobody listens, the best way to get people's attention is to shoot the wolf.
This is an interesting new development:
In a break with past Bush administration policy, a top U.S. diplomat will for the first time join colleagues from other world powers at a weekend meeting with Iran's chief nuclear negotiator... William Burns, America's third highest-ranking diplomat, will attend talks with the Iranian envoy, Saeed Jalili, in Switzerland on Saturday aimed at persuading Iran to halt activities that could lead to the development of atomic weapons, a senior U.S. official told the AP on Tuesday.
I wouldn't get my hopes up just yet for this move. As the official told the AP, "This is a one-time event and [Burns] will be there to listen, not negotiate... [O]ur terms for negotiations remain the same: Iran must suspend its enrichment and reprocessing activities."
The diplomats will be looking to hear Iran's answer to the latest package of incentives offered by the P5+1 (the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany). Judging by the Islamic Republic's initial response (pdf), we're likely to hear a lot of bluster and claims that Iran is being treated unfairly. But who knows? Maybe Burns's presence could change the dynamic.
Remember that little feud between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? Well, the spat between the two men isn't quite over.
Ahmadinejad shot back today at comments made by Velayati in an Iranian daily newspaper criticizing Ahmadinejad's hardline nuclear rhetoric, saying that the former foreign minister and Khamenei advisor had no role in the country's nuclear program:
Velayati is a respected man. Like everyone else in Iran, he is free to have personal views... But he is not involved in nuclear decision making."
Ahmadinejad may be more delirious than I thought if he actually thinks that "everyone in Iran is free to have personal views." Did he get the memo about Ahmad Batebi, Iran's estimated 250 executions last year, the systematic suppression of journalists and bloggers, or that the country was ranked 181st out of 195 countries in Freedom House's annual Freedom of the Press survey last year? Apparently not.
And with tensions brewing between Iran and the West, it would help to know who is actually in charge of the Islamic Republic. I never thought I'd say this, but let's hope it's Khamenei.
Over the weekend, Drudge and a good chunk of the blogosphere linked credulously to this story in The Times of London, written by one Uzi Mahnaimi. The story alleges that U.S. President George W. Bush has given Israel an "amber light" to attack Iran, according to a "senior Pentagon official."
Amber means get on with your preparations, stand by for immediate attack and tell us when you're ready," the official said.
If you read the entire piece, you'll see that it doesn't quite live up to its dramatic headline: "President George W Bush backs Israeli plan for strike on Iran." (The official is later quoted as saying, "If there is no solid plan, the amber will never turn to green," he said.)
The alarmism isn't entirely Mahnaimi's fault, since editors usually choose headlines. But our friend Uzi has a track record of breathless stories about alleged Israeli preparations to attack Iran. Here's one from January 2007 (using tactical nukes!), and another from December 2005. Or we could go back to July 2004. And remember that attack on Gaza? Mahnaimi is also notorious for reporting in 1998 that Israel was developing a biological weapon -- an "ethnic bomb" -- that would only kill Arabs.
The real story here is that the Israelis have developed plans to hit Iran's nuclear facilities -- did anyone think they hadn't? -- but the United States (correctly) thinks it's a bad idea. Read Jim Hoagland. He gets this story right.
Iran's state media faced the withering scorn of the blogosphere yesterday when online sleuths discovered that Sepah News, the voice of Iran's fearsome Revolutionary Guards, had doctored a photograph of the Islamic Republic's oh-so-scary missile test. Someone had pasted in a fourth missile, perhaps to cover up a dud launch. Top newspapers around the United States, to their chagrin, had given the bogus image frontpage treatment. (By pure luck, we weren't duped.)
Somehow, all the Photoshop fun has made Iran seem a lot less frightening. Almost like a big, friendly kitten.
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