The latest Iran frenzy

The news gods have apparently decided it's time for yet another round of Washington's favorite parlor game: "Will Israel attack Iran?"

The latest round of speculation was kicked off by a mammoth New York Times magazine article by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, who concluded, "After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence, I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012."

Veteran Iran hand Gary Sick ably dispensed with Bergman's argument here, noting that his reporting actually points toward the opposite conclusion:

Like virtually all other commentators on this issue, Bergman slides over the fact that the IAEA consistently reports that Iran has diverted none of its uranium to military purposes. Like others, he focuses on the recent IAEA report, which was the most detailed to date in discussing Iran’s suspected experiments with military implications; but like others, he fails to mention that almost all of the suspect activity took place seven or more years ago and there is no reliable evidence that it has resumed. A problem, yes; an imminent threat, no.

Bergman also overlooks the fact that Iran has almost certainly NOT made a decision to actually build a bomb and that we are very likely to know if they should make such a decision. How would we know? Simply because those pesky IAEA inspectors are there on site and Iran would have to kick them out and break the seals on their stored uranium in order to produce the high enriched uranium needed for a bomb.

Would Israel actually attack while these international inspectors are at work? No, they would need to give them warning, thereby giving Iran warning that something was coming. The IAEA presence is a trip wire that works both ways. It is an invaluable resource. Risking its loss would be not only foolhardy but self-destructive to Israel and everyone else.

But Bergman's article isn't the only recent bite at this apple. Foreign Affairs hosted a debate between former Defense Department officials Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl on whether the United States should bomb Iran itself; Foreign Policy's Steve Walt went several rounds with Kroenig; defense analysts Edridge Colby and Austin Long joined the discussion in the National Interest. Many others weighed in.

Today, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius threw another log on the fire when he reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June" and that the Obama administration is "conducting intense discussions about what an Israeli attack would mean for the United States." He added: "U.S. officials don’t think that Netanyahu has made a final decision to attack, and they note that top Israeli intelligence officials remain skeptical of the project." (Reuters notes archly that Ignatius was "writing from Brussels where Panetta was attending a NATO defense ministers' meeting.")

There have also been a number of items in recent days about Iran's murky ties to al Qaeda, including this Foreign Affairs article by Rand analyst Seth Jones and what appeared to be a follow-up report in the Wall Street Journal (never mind that the information was nearly two years old), as well as a steady drumbeat of alarmist quotes from top Israeli officials -- all reminiscent of the run up to the Iraq war. Add to this mix Iran's threat to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, an ongoing congresssional push for tougher sanctions, and the heated rhetoric coming from Obama's Republican challengers, and you have a recipe for a media feeding frenzy.

Most likely, the real drivers of this latest round are the Western attempts to persuade Iran's Asian customers -- China, India, Japan, South Korea -- to stop buying Iranian oil by persuading them that the only alternative is war. Those efforts are probably doomed, despite Israel's increasingly convincing ambiguity about its ultimate intentions. Asian countries simply don't care all that much about the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon -- they care about their own prosperity above all.

So, is Israel going to attack Iran, despite all of the doubts many have raised? There are only two people who know the answer to that question -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- and I don't think they'll announce their decision in the New York Times. The smart money's still betting against an Israeli strike, but the odds do seem to be getting shorter.


Tymoshenko's daughter: Ukraine becoming a 'Stalinist regime'

"The conditions of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regime are back in Ukraine," said Yevgenia Tymoshenko in a meeting with reporters in Washington today. 

The daughter of imprisoned former Ukrainian prime minister and opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is in Washington this week trying to raise awareness of her mother's condition and the deterioration of democracy in Ukraine. Yesterday, she testified on Capitol Hill and met with Vice President Joe Biden.

In today's briefing, she described the conditions in which her mother has been kept since she was sentenced to seven years in prison last October: 

When I see my mother, her health is not getting better. They’ve equipped the investigation room with a special bed where she can lie down because she cannot stand up or sit down or move without pain,. That’s where they continue interrogating her for a few hours every day while she’s lying down...

Her cell is always lit 24 hours a day and she’s under video surveillance, which they say is for her own safety but it’s obviously just to put more psychological pressure on her. Recently they stopped allowing normal food to her. Just bare food. Just bread with no necessary nutrients. She didn’t receive medical treatment, although authorities keep promising  all the time that it will be possible for an independent doctor to come and see her, but we haven’t seen the result. No hopefully, next week, independent doctors from Canada and Germany will be able to see her.   

Tymoshenko's prosecution in a chaotic, circus-like trial last year involved a 2009 negotiation with Russia over a natural gas sale, which authorities say harmed Ukrainian interests. Her colleagues Yuri Lutsenko -- the former interior minister -- and Valery Ivashchenko --the former acting minister of Defense -- are also currently on trial.

While several governments and organizations including the European Union have condemned Tymoshenko's prosecution as as a politically-motivated campaign against the country's most influential opposition figure, officials from President Viktor Yanukovych's government have maintained that the trial was carried out by law enforcement officials with no interference from the executive branch. Yevgenia, however, believes Yanukovych is directly responsible for her mother's treatment:

He says in interviews ... that all the branches of government are independent and he doesn't have any influence on them. It’s funny, when there was pressure on him and he said 'okay, tomorrow she will be taken to the hospital,' the next day she was taken to the hospital. Obviously, we know that the high council of justice that was created after his judicial reforms, that the majority of this council are presidential people, and they can hire and fire judges and start criminal cases against them.

Until her mother's sentencing, Yevgenia -- who returned to Ukraine in 2005 with her husband, a British rock singer, after nine years living in London --  was never involved in politics. "I’ve never wanted to be a politician," she said. "My mission is just to help my country’s democracy and obviously to help release these political prisoners."

While she says she does not fear for her safety, she believes that her phones are tapped and that she is monitored by state security forces. Her father, Oleksander, fled Ukraine fearing his own prosecution and has been granted asylum in the Czech Republic. 

Tymoshenko believes her mother's fate has had a chilling effect on the Ukrainian opposition, with many potential activists thinking, "if this can happen to [the former] leaders of this country than what can happen to me?"

I asked her is she believes there could be a repeat of the kind of anti-government uprising her mother helped lead in 2005, or even protests like those seen in Moscow in recent weeks.  "If my mom is out of prison, it's possible," she replied. "That's the reason she will not be freed unless the course of action is changed."