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Will cold shut down Russia's protests?

Like many Russian leaders before him, Vladimir Putin is finding Russia's brutal winter to be a formidable ally. A major antigovernment demonstration is planned for this Saturday in Moscow, but with temperatures of around -10 expected, opposition leaders may find it hard to garner a strong turnout. The New York Times reports:  

When it is that cold, it can be difficult to breathe, let alone send a Twitter message, and organizers are scrambling to come up with ideas — free tea and coffee, hundreds of Japanese space heaters — to entice people out of their homes and keep them alive long enough to make a political point.

There also have been calls for the political sermonizing to be curtailed and the rally to be kept short.

“Otherwise, many will freeze,” Grigory Chxartishvili, better known as the writer Boris Akunin, said at a meeting of the organizing committee this week. “And afterward our rally will be blamed for causing the flu and pneumonia.”

Not surprisingly, authorities are warning people to stay indoors, with health inspector Gennady Onishchenko issuing this baffling statement

“Whatever side you are on, I categorically forbid you going to the protest wearing the clothes you [usually] wear," Onishchenko said in remarks reported by Russian news agencies.

"Get hold of your granny’s felt boots and sheepskin coats that aren’t moth-eaten and which used to be a sign of luxurious prosperity in the eighties, and then you can go to either protest.”

 

Opposition leaders are adivising protesters to dress warmly and not worry about looking fashionable for the photographers, although journalist Anastasia Karimova chose to make a statement about the cold using a time-honored approach to Russian political messaging in the above photo, which was posted to her Facebook page. (The sign reads "Cold is not scary.")

Ukraine is currently suffering an even worse cold snap, with temperatures below -30 and more than 100 deaths since last Friday.  

 

 

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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.