Could Tunisia be a startup nation?

The Kauffman Foundation yesterday released its 2011 national Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, showing a 5.9 percent drop in U.S. startup activity from 2010. Not so in Tunisia, according to Mondher Khanfir, an entrepreneur in Tunis who recently co-launched Wiki Start Up, the country's first startup incubator:

"After the revolution, my friends and I wanted to work on innovation, so we built an incubator to create seed funds to make projects happen ... We launched last summer, and right now we have 15 startups and a portfolio of $20 million, but our capacity is 30 startups and we're looking to raise funds here in Tunisia and internationally."

Most of Wiki Start Up's entrepreneurs, he added, are young locals.

"We have two coming from the Diaspora, from Europe and the U.S., but the other 13 were started by Tunisians based in Tunisia, and they're all under 40."

The impressive list of sectors that Wiki Start Up represents includes energy, biotechnology, agribusiness, audiovisual engineering, and other knowledge-based fields. Khanfir says he is optimistic about the future and does not expect the political climate to effect entrepreneurial growth in Tunisia.

"The question is not the stability of the country or the region because we want to work more in the international marketplace. Things are getting more and more stable in Tunisia, and our early-stage startups are not affected by whatever turbulence and volatility there is now because we're working for the future. Tunisians are very entrepreneurial."

So who best embodies the Tunisian spirit of entrepreneurship?

"Mohamed Bouazizi was an entrepreneur, and he set himself on fire because he was not respected as one. He was a small entrepreneur, and he didn't have written permission from the Ministry of Commerce to act as a merchant, but what we need to do is take people who operate in the black economy and put them in the white one. For the last 20 years, the regime failed to promote innovation."

The U.S. State Department is already getting in on the entrepreneurial activity in Tunisia through its partners for a New Beginning program: the U.S.-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (NAPEO). In early November 2011, PNB-NAPEO brought a group of U.S. entrepreneurs and early-stage investors to Tunisia to "foster and deepen relationships ... and showcase local talent." It seems that the Kauffman Foundation is also keen on investing in Tunisia's entrepreneurial future: In late November, it sponsored a Global Entrepreneurship Week in Tunis.

Tunisia may have only just begun to build its post-revolution economy, but it's already on track to become a regional startup nation.  



Iran Watch: In the zone?

There are times when the United States and Israel seem miles apart on the question of how to confront Iran over its nuclear program. As in when President Obama talked about wielding "crippling sanctions" and diplomacy when meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier this month, while Netanyahu never mentioned sanctions and instead emphasized that Israel must remain the "master of its fate."

But over the weekend, the New York Times reported that Israeli and American intelligence officials may agree on more than we think:

Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful civilian purposes, but American intelligence agencies and the International Atomic Energy Agency have picked up evidence in recent years that some Iranian research activities that may be weapons-related have continued since 2003, officials said. That information has not been significant enough for the spy agencies to alter their view that the weapons program has not been restarted.

Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, agrees with the American intelligence assessments, even while Israeli political leaders have been pushing for quick, aggressive action to block Iran from becoming what they describe as an existential threat to the Jewish state.

The Associated Press has a similar report:

Despite saber rattling from Jerusalem, Israeli officials now agree with the U.S. assessment that Tehran has not yet decided on the actual construction of a nuclear bomb, according to senior Israeli government and defense figures.


Iran meter: If Israel shares America's view that Iran hasn't yet decided to built nuclear nuclear weapons, does that decrease the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? Not necessarily.

In Israel, the debate over a strike is less about whether Iran has decided to build nuclear weapons and more about whether it is on the verge of having the technological capability to do so, or reaching a point where an Israeli attack couldn't meaningfully disrupt the country's (increasingly fortified and underground) nuclear program.

Just today, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that Iran's nuclear program "is steadily approaching maturation and is verging on a 'zone of immunity' -- a position from which the Iranian regime could complete its program without effective disruption, at its convenience."

In an article for the New York Times in January, Ronen Bergman highlighted where Israel and the United States diverge on this issue:

Israel estimates that Iran's nuclear program is about nine months away from being able to withstand an Israeli attack; America, with its superior firepower, has a time frame of 15 months....

The Israelis suspect that the Obama administration has abandoned any aggressive strategy that would ensure the prevention of a nuclear Iran and is merely playing a game of words to appease them. The Israelis find evidence of this in the shift in language used by the administration, from "threshold prevention" -- meaning American resolve to stop Iran from having a nuclear-energy program that could allow for the ability to create weapons -- to "weapons prevention," which means the conditions can exist, but there is an American commitment to stop Iran from assembling an actual bomb.

Today's news, in other words, does little to muffle the drumbeats of war. But other developments large and small on Monday -- Israeli President Shimon Peres and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wishing Iranians a happy Persian new year, Iranians and Israelis engaging in an improbable love fest on Facebook,  the New York Times reporting on a U.S. war game that highlighted the geopolitical dangers of an Israeli strike on Iran -- offer us some reassurance that, at least for today, we have Natanz to Worry About.

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