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Breaking: Incident in the Persian Gulf

CNN is reporting that, according to U.S. officials, "5 Iranian Revolutionary Guard boats harassed, provoked 3 U.S. Navy warships in the Strait of Hormuz on Saturday." There's no story yet, but I think it's a safe bet that hardliners in the Guard are seeking to create an incident on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to the region. Why would they do that? Well, it makes for good distraction from their sinking popularity ahead of March's legislative elections. It forestalls the admittedly dim prospects of a U.S.-Iran rapprochement. It complicates Bush's efforts to buck up the United States' Arab allies (though depending on how they react to this news, it may simplify his mission). And as an added bonus, it'll probably send oil prices upwards for a short while. We can't exclude the possibility that some Guard higher-ups are speculating in the oil markets and turning a tidy profit from these sorts of incidents.

UPDATE: Reuters has more:

A radio transmission from one of the Iranian ships said, "I am coming at you. You will explode in a couple of minutes," CNN reported, citing a U.S. official.

Much more here from Mike Nizza at the NYT's Lede blog.

UPDATE2: Iran's Foreign Ministry is playing down this encounter:

That is something normal that takes place every now and then for each party, and it (the problem) is settled after identification of the two parties," he told the state news agency IRNA.

The incident was "similar to past ones" that were resolved "once the two sides recognized each other."

As blogger "Cernig" notes, this explanation doesn't pass the smell test, but it does indicate that the provocation was not official Iranian policy.

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Morning Brief, Monday, January 7

2008 Elections

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Most of the latest polls have Barack Obama and John McCain in the lead over rivals Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, in some cases by double-digit margins, going into Tuesday's New Hampshire primaries.

Asia

The U.S. military faces growing problems at its secret prison in Bagram, Afghanistan.

The New York Times profiles Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who took over from President Pervez Musharraf late last year as Pakistan's chief of Army staff. Responding to another Times story, Pakistani officials denounced possible U.S. plans to launch counterterrorism operations in Pakistan.

Former Indonesian dictator Suharto, 86 and ailing, is said to be near death.

Europe

Iran deported a German diplomat for alleged involvement in "non-diplomatic activities."

For the first time since the 1800s, British incomes may surpass those of Americans.

Poland's new government appears to be backing away from U.S. plans to install parts of a missile shield in the country.

Is Nicolas Sarkozy getting married

Middle East

Al Qaeda operative "Azzam the American" called for the assassination of George W. Bush during the U.S. president's visit to the Middle East this week.

On his trip, Bush will be looking to reinvigorate Middle East peace talks and shore up crumbling Arab support for isolating Iran. For its part, Tehran characterized the trip as "interference in the relations of the countries in the region."

Buoyed by success in Iraq, the U.S. military is getting along better with the press these days.

Elsewhere

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has been reelected with 52.8 percent of the vote. The opposition is crying foul, but Western observers say the vote was free and fair.

Kenya's opposition leader canceled protests slated for Tuesday, saying he preferred international mediation to resolve his country's election crisis. Thousands of members of the current president's tribe have fled the violence in Nairobi in recent days.

Russia's Gazprom is close to inking a deal to develop Nigeria's extensive gas deposits.

Today's Agenda

  • The war-crimes trial of ousted Liberian President Charles Taylor resumes in The Hague.
  • In a landmark case, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments over whether lethal injection constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment."
  • Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi visits South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and Ethiopia.
  • At last, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert return to late-night TV.

Web Exclusive

The List: Five Elections to Watch in 2008

Election mania is gripping the United States, where Americans are turning out in droves for one of the most exciting primary seasons in memory. But elsewhere in the world, voters are looking at their own electoral contests with a dollop of trepidation and, in some cases, a healthy dose of dread.