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June 30, 2009

Iran's War on Journalists

The Committee to Protect Journalists recounts some disturbing news from Iran:

In recent days, the Iranian government has launched a campaign designed to malign the foreign press, blaming demonstrations that followed the contested June 12 presidential elections on foreign news media, particularly British and U.S. news outlets. On June 19, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blamed foreign media for social unrest, calling it "evil" for allegedly misleading and agitating the Iranian people. According to Iranian news reports, an official also claimed that the BBC, not government gunmen, had shot Neda Agha Soltan, the demonstrator whose death was caught on camera and broadcast across the world, purportedly to agitate the people of Iran against the government.

Fars News agency today posted an 11-page "confession" by Tehran's Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari, who was detained on June 21, in which he is reported to have said, according to a translation on The Washington Post's Web site: "The activities of Western journalists in news gathering and spying and gathering intelligence are undeniable." The document also claims Bahari said: "I, too, as a journalist and a member of this great Western capitalism machine, either blindly or on purpose, participated in projecting doubts and promoting a color revolution."

America Surrenders


It's hard to know what to make of this column from Thomas Sowell. He writes:

A quadrupling of the national debt in just one year and accepting a nuclear-armed sponsor of international terrorism such as Iran are not things from which any country is guaranteed to recover.

Just two nuclear bombs were enough to get Japan to surrender in World War II. It is hard to believe that it would take much more than that for the United States of America to surrender — especially with people in control of both the White House and the Congress who were for turning tail and running in Iraq just a couple of years ago.

Perhaps people who are busy gushing over the Obama cult today might do well to stop and think about what it would mean for their granddaughters to live under sharia law.

I admit, I'm having a very difficult time imaging a scenario wherein America, with its 300 million people, 10,000 nuclear weapons, 12 aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, long distance bombers, etc., gets hit with two Iranian nuclear bombs and then surrenders to Iran. And then, presumably after Iranian occupation forces land in Washington, we institute Sharia.

But maybe I'm missing something.

Photo via Davi Sommerfield under a CC License.

Iraq: Obama's First Test


I'm skeptical of claims that anytime any event happens overseas it's a "test" of the president. That strikes as a rather Washington-centric view of the world. Nevertheless, there are "tests" and then there are tests. And the U.S. pullback from Iraqi cities today strikes me as the latter.

At issue is a basic question: is the U.S. military an Iraqi police force, or do we let the country go its own way, even it entails renewed bloodshed?

The American pullback will test both the durability of the surge/Awakening's security gains and the Obama administration's pledge to end the war. It could very well end up in a political win-win: the Obama administration can take credit for fulfilling its campaign pledge to end the war, and the Bush administration can take credit for preventing Iraq's slide into chaos. This is the ideal, and we should all be hoping it comes to pass.

But things could go awry. Today's car bombing hints at a future of renewed violence. In such an environment, there will be a fair number of analysts, pundits and politicians who will pressure the Obama administration to slow, or even reverse, the drawn down. Then, the administration will have to choose not just between the political question of keeping faith with its pledge, but between a basic strategic issue of whether it is in America's interest to police Iraq indefinitely or whether it's time for us to leave.

Photo credit: AP Photos

June 29, 2009

Was It a Legal Coup in Honduras?

The expulsion of former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya by the Honduras military has sparked a lively debate over whether or not the takeover should be called a "coup". The reason for the debate is simple enough -- "coup" conjures images of a military junta seizing power by extralegal force and repressing all opposition akin to Argentina in the early 1980s. Defenders of the Honduran military action point out that this action was not extralegal and was, in fact, authorized by the legislature and the courts in response to Zelaya's own illegal attempt to extend his power in an imitation of his international mentor, Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Critics, however, believe that this is just a rhetorical shill to cover up some kind of bias against Zelaya's leftist politics.

What both sides miss is that a "coup" isn't always extralegal. In short, what is happening in Honduras may be an example of a coup that is not only legal, but mandatory. The oddness of this concept to American minds requires an explanation.

Civil-military relations in the United States are founded on assumptions both inside and outside the military that derive from the work of the late Samuel Huntington in The Soldier and the State. Under Huntington's ideal of "objective civilian control," the military is granted substantial autonomy over a professional sphere of managing the application of violence, but is given no political role. Various forms of "subjective civilian control" where the military becomes embroiled in civilian political struggles are argued by Huntington to be militarily deficient and presumed by most westerners to be morally deficient as well. Americans frequently assume that this ideal is universally shared as an intrinsic component of a democracy.

But this American presumption is more a pretension than an objective description of how societies organize themselves politically. While it is true that American and European consultants make a priority of encouraging developing democracies to adopt Huntingtonian ideals (NATO's "Partnership for Peace" is a notable example, as is the reformed curriculum of the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly-known and still-protested as the "School of Americas"), some countries explicitly endow their military with a role in maintaining democratic governance. For example, in Turkey, the military is constitutionally empowered to act as a check on the potential for Islamic parties to undermine the secular foundations. In 1962 and 1980, the Turkish military undertook coups that were not only seen as legal, but mandatory and necessary. This military influence has continued to function in less aggressive forms during more recent political crises involving the banning of Islamic parties and the selection of the head-of-state.

Like the Turkish military, Latin American armies have a long tradition of political involvement. While in some cases, most notably Argentina, this tradition has been intentionally deconstructed (the disaster of the "dirty war" and defeat in the Falklands War provided a strong impetus for change), officers have continued to hold a widely-accepted political role in other countries. It is worth remembering, for example, that in spite of his pretensions of outrage over this coup in Honduras, Venezualan dictator Hugo Chavez was himself the leader of a coup attempt in 1992.

As more news continues to filter out of Honduras, it appears as if the Honduran military was specifically authorized by a court order to arrest a President that was judged to be out of control. The fact that the American military would never be so authorized should not distract us from the possibility that legal authorizations for military interventions into politics might exist in other countries' constitutional arrangements. The takeover in Honduras might be, in fact, a legal coup.

The author is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. His dissertation forces on variations in the political and policy-making roles of the U.S. military.

(Cross-posted at PoliGazette)

Poll: Afghan Election Preview

On August 20, Afghanistan will hold its second presidential election since the Taliban were run out of town in 2001. New polling from the International Republican Institute Right (pdf) shows incumbent President Hamid Karzai with a 3-to-1 lead over his main rival, Ali Ahmad Jalali. However, Karzai needs to claim 50 percent of the vote for a first ballot victory, otherwise he'll face a run-off.

Angus-Reid has some good background on the Afghan election here.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Russia: Lose a Deal, Gain French Support

What is adding insult to injury between two close countries like Russia and Belarus? Never mind that a supposed allied union between the two is a long way from actual reality. What's probably irking Kremlin is the fact that Belarus, one of the most active users of Russian military technology, has decided to switch to European technology instead. The first AS 355NP Ecureuil 2 AS 355NP light helicopter was recently acquired by the Belarusian border patrol. At present time, Belarus is using Soviet-made used the Mi-8 helicopters - one of the most wide-spread helicopters variants in the world. Belarus Border Services stated that the current plan is to completely replace Soviet models with the European machines. Earlier, the border service did examine the Russian models as an alternative, but decided in favor of the European helicopters because of Mi-8's high prices and high fuel consumption rate. That's gotta hurt the Kremlin's feelings somewhat. ...

... but not too much. Leave it to the French to boldly expand their military-industrial horizons, all with the help of Russia. According to RIA-Novosti Information Agency, Russia's "Rosoboronexport" defense export conglomerate and France's Thales International Industrial Group will join efforts in promoting their joint production of weapons to the world market. According to Michael Bychkov, one of "Rosoboronexport's" executives, both sides signed a memorandum of cooperation on June 25, pledging to work together on naval developments.

It should be noted that an international industrial group Thales is one of the world's leading manufacturers of defense products. In 2008, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the company delivered its products to customers in the amount of more than $9.3 billion, taking tenth place among other top defense corporations in sales volume. Memo to Pentagon: Thales also actively participates in supplying technology and products to NATO countries, so how exactly will its cooperation with Moscow affect French military relationship with Washington? Especially given how much Russia and US compete on the global arms market? Anyone?

Key areas for Thales is the development and manufacture of aerospace information systems, as well as military and marine supplies. The company also participates in the modernization of weapons from different countries, providing high-tech components to its customers. Back in July 2008, "Rosoboronexport" has signed a contract with Thales for the delivery of French-made thermal vision technology for the Russian Army.

Remember the sinking of the Russian nuclear submarine "Kursk" back in 2000? The death of its entire crew, and the subsequent bungled rescue efforts forced Russia to seek Western assistance in trying to raise the ship from the bottom of the Barents sea. Russian military has recently frozen the construction of "Belgorod" nuclear strike carried, the same type of submarine as the unfortunate "Kursk," according to Russian Navy Chief Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky. Nuclear submarine "Belgorod" - or Project 949A Antey - was to be the latest in a series of similar ships for the Russian naval forces. The vessel was 70-80% ready when the construction stopped.

"While we have not precisely determined the appropriateness of this ship or the direction of funding for the construction of a new series of submarines, this boat will remain in its present state," noted Vysotsky. Nevertheless, an informed source in the main headquarters of the Russian Naval Forces reported of a possible re-equipping of "Belgorod" with the latest set of high-range cruise missiles. Here is a thought - would Thales have anything to do with this, since the first joint Russo-French defense cooperation will be with naval technologies? We certainly hope not. "Kursk" was one of 11 submarines of this type built by Soviet Union and later Russia from 1986 to 1996, some of which are still in service. It is the largest submarine in the world - at almost 470 feet long, it features a "double-hull," is twice as wide as the largest US nuclear strike submarine, and can go to the depth of more than 1,500 feet.

And speaking of large ships - the most successful and effective force projection around the world is done with aircraft carriers. United States operates the largest ships of this kind in the world, and its navy rules the seas and oceans with several carrier battle groups. Presently, China is reading for the construction of its own aircraft carriers to be able to project its forces and defend its economic interests globally. During the Cold War, Soviet Union operated several small aircraft carriers, though none of them was as large or carried as many aircraft as its American counterparts. Given the importance of this type of ship for any aspiring power, the competition for control of the seas would intensify - with a few caveats.

According to Admiral Vysotsky, in the near future, Russia will not build ordinary aircraft carriers, but will develop so-called "naval aviation units," since the establishment of the standard ships of aircraft type today "is dead." In particular, he reported that Russian naval doctrine envisages the construction of new aircraft carriers, which will include a "space component, air, marine and advanced technologies in other areas."

Vysotsky stated that this is a complex issue, which necessitates a thorough study of all the technical details: "We are at the very beginning of the path of a new image of the fleet. Navy is not built for two years. If we want to have a new fleet by 2050, it should have been built yesterday - and we have the capability for that." While such thinking is not new, it is questionable whether Russia can pull of a feat of this kind, given its slow pace of modernization of naval technologies, many of which are past the point of official retirement. Maybe France can give Russia a hand?

Poll: Obama's Foreign Policy

A Washington Post/ABC News poll surveyed the public on several foreign policy related aspects of President Obama's tenure to date:

International affairs

Approve: 61
Disapprove: 32
No opinion: 7

The threat of terrorism

Approve: 57
Disapprove: 36
No opinion:7

The situation with Iran

Approve: 52
Disapprove: 36
No opinion: 12

Do you think Obama's policies are making the United States (safer) from terrorism, (less safe), or are they not making much difference in that?

Safer: 32
Less safe: 22
Not much difference: 44
No opinion: 2

I don't think we can draw any general conclusions from this other than all the so-called "tests" the administration has supposedly faced to date in North Korea and Iran have been passed, at least so far as the general public is concerned.

June 28, 2009

The Clerical Rift in Iran

The Tabnak news agency, quoting Etemad newspaper (belonging to Karroubi) stated that the Keyhan newspaper has stopped publishing Ayatollah Javad Amoli´s column. This has been a permanent feature of the newspaper for a number of years.

This is yet another sign of the growing rift between the clergy and Ahmadinejad. It must be noted that Ayatollah Amoli (relative of Aki Larijani) was a supporter of Ahmadinejad. In fact it was at his house where Ahmadinejad was filmed talking about his holy moment a the UN when he felt an aura surrounding him.

However, due to Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei´s efforts to reduce the power of the clergy, relations soured. In fact, according to Rooz daily, prior to the elections, Ayatollah Amoli belonged to a group of clergy who issued a fatwa stating that cheating in elections are forbidden (haram).

Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, Ahmadinejad´s messianic ally, issued another fatwa saying that it is permissible (halal) to cheat, if its in the interest of the regime. Keyhan sides with Khamenei and Ahmadinejad.

This development is yet another important indication of the chasm created between Tehran and Qom. How much has this caused? The results will become evident when the question of finding a replacement for Khamenei arises, or when Khamenei dies. The hand over of power, and how smooth or hard it will be, is going to be a good yard stick to measure the damage.

Chavez: United States to Blame for Honduras Crisis

Today Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has stated that the “North American empire and the extreme right" are behind the arrest of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya.

And again,

Behind these soldiers is the Honduran bourgeoisie, the rich that convert Honduras into a banana republic, and into a political and military base for the North American empire (my translation).

Yeah, that’s it. With chaos in Iran, American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, a nuclear North Korea, and a faltering economy, US interests include destabilizing a poor Central American country for military and political purposes.

The official response of the United States has been one of condemnation, albeit a lighter tone than heard around the world. Reuters has reported on the reaction from foreign governments. Let’s just say, the coup plotters aren’t getting a lot of love.

Poll: How is Obama Handling Iran?

Rasmussen Reports has returned to the subject of the public's take on President Obama's handling of the Iranian protests. Here's the latest:

Forty percent (40%) of U.S. voters now say President Obama has not been aggressive enough in supporting the reformers in Iran protesting the results of the presidential election. That’s a five-point increase from a week ago.

But a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 42% say the president’s response has been about right, a figure that has changed little since the protests escalated.

Just five percent (5%) now believe the president has been too aggressive and 13% are not sure.

(See the earlier results here.)

One element of these numbers which is slightly unclear is the definition of "aggressive." Does the portion of the population desiring a more "aggressive" response want more aggressive rhetoric, or a more aggressive policy toward Iran? The previous survey asked the following question:

Has President Obama been too aggressive in supporting the reformers in Iran, not aggressive enough, or has his response been about right?

Those unhappy with the president's handling of this may desire some stronger words, or maybe they want a deeper U.S. involvement in the protests. It's hard to say.

For more on Iran, check out our Around the World page.

Honduras Coup: President Zelaya Arrested


Honduran troops have arrested president Manuel Zelaya, who then was taken to an air base outside of Tegucigalpa.

AP reports

President Manuel Zelaya's private secretary told the AP that Zelaya was arrested and brought to a base on the outskirts of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

An AP reporter saw dozens of green-helmeted soldiers surround the president's house Sunday morning and then later jump in trucks and drive away, according to the report. About 60 police continue to guard the house, it said, adding that the president did not appear.

Zelaya was arrested right before the voting on the referendum was scheduled to start.

Noticias24 reports that four units of 200 soldiers stormed the presidential residence at 6 a.m.

Electricity has been cut off in the capital, and it is rumored that Zelaya has been flown out of the country.

Honduran daily La Prensa reports that Zelaya is now in Costa Rica. The Honduran Congress will be holding an emergency session today.

Mexico: Florence Cassez to Stay

A follow-up on a story I posted about last March, the Florence Cassez case, which was a top topic of discussion during Nicolas Sarkozy's trip to Mexico:

The big story in both countries [France and Mexico] was the Florence Cassez case: Cassez was sentenced to sixty years in prison after having been arrested at her Mexican boyfriend's house. She claimed not to know that he was the leader of the Zodiacs kidnapping gang and that there were three hostages in the house. During Sarkozy's state visit on Monday the two governments announced that they would create a commission to study the case and make a report and recommendations in three weeks. This is a very sensitive case in Mexico because of increased public pressure to halt what is perceived as impunity by criminals in a country with the highest kidnapping rate in the world.

This week Mexican authorities decided that Cassez will have to serve her entire 60-year sentence in Mexico, as
there are no conditions that would enable it to consent to the transfer of Florence Cassez to her country of origin, France, as mentioned in the Strasbourg Convention.
She was given the choice of remaining at Santa Marta prison or being transferred to Tetepan prison. She opted for the transfer to Tetepan, after describing Santa Marta as the "gates of hell," where she was under suicide watch.

The French government had declared that it reserved the right to suspend or reduce Cassez's sentence if she was transferred to France. Mexican President Felipe Calderón's statement was unequivocal: "The Mexican government has the unavoidable duty to ensure that the sentence passed by a judge should always be served."

June 27, 2009

Honduras in Turmoil


In today's Wall Street Journal,

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya's push to rewrite the constitution, and pave the way for his potential re-election, has plunged one of Latin America's poorest countries into a potentially violent political crisis.

A day after Mr. Zelaya fired the head of the country's armed forces, hundreds of troops on Thursday deployed around the Congress, presidential palace and airport in Tegucigalpa, the country's capital. It wasn't clear whether the troops were responding to orders from Mr. Zelaya, or Honduras' other civilian and military powers, all of which oppose the president.

Zelaya wants a referendum to be held this Sunday that would allow voters in the upcoming presidential elections in November to also vote on rewriting the constitution. Zelaya's term is scheduled to end in January.

Most recently, rewriting the Constitution is one of the trademarks of Chavista-style regimes like Ecuador and Bolivia, but the maneuver is not limited to them.

There is strong opposition to the referendum:
* When the armed forces refused to distribute the ballots, Zelaya fired the chief of the armed forces, Gen. Romeo Vásquez, and the defense minister, the head of the army and the air force resigned in protest.
* Yesterday the Supreme Court ordered by a 5-0 vote that Vásquez be reinstated.
* Honduras's Supreme Electoral Tribunal ordered authorities to pick up all the ballots and electoral material, which were held by the country's air force.
* The country's Attorney General requested yesterday that Congress oust Zelaya.
* The courts have declared the referendum unlawful. Last Tuesday the Congress passed a law preventing the holding of referendums or plebiscites 180 days before or after general elections. Congress has also named a commission to investigate Zelaya.

Zelaya insists on holding the referendum and refers to these actions as "a technical coup". UN General Assembly president Miguel D'Escoto - the same guy who declared Fidel Castro "the closest thing we have to a saint" - denounced Zelaya's opposition as staging a coup d'etat against Zelaya, a sentiment voiced also by Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. Hugo Chavez declared that "we are not going to watch with our arms crossed the goings-on in Honduras," and insisted "we will do what we will have to do so the sovereignty of the Honduran people will be respected."

Now the Honduran Congress requested that the Organization of American States withdraw its election observers sent for the Sunday referendum, since their presence would legitimize a vote declared illegal by the Supreme Court.

All the same, Zelaya insists, "Sunday's referendum will not be stopped."

Where Was Hillary During Iran Protests?

Good question.

June 25, 2009

More Weenie Diplomacy: Now with Venezuela and Syria

The first version of weenie diplomacy wasn't going down too well, so the July 4 invites to Iranian diplomats were rescinded. Now, not surprisingly, the administration is trying the next best thing:

US and Venezuela to restore ties (h/t Gateway Pundit)

The normalisation of diplomatic ties "will take place in the coming days, and as soon as the ambassadors have resumed their functions we will move forward to a more fluid communication," Nicolas Maduro, the Venezuelan foreign minister, said on Wednesday.
At the same time, Obama sending ambassador to Syria after years
President Barack Obama plans to return an ambassador to Syria, filling a post that has been vacant for four years and marking an acceleration of Washington's engagement with the Arab world, the White House said on Wednesday.
When I say "the next best thing" to weenie diplomacy with Iran, I mean that Iran, Syria and Venezuela have ever-closer ties:

* Direct IranAir flights from Tehran to Caracas, with stops in Damascus, which started in March, 2007.
* The December 2008 report from Italian daily La Stampa on how Iran is using Venezuela do duck UN sanctions by using aircraft from Venezuelan airline Conviasa to transport computers and engine components to Syria for use in missiles.
* Hezbollah's increased presence in Venezuela.
* Hezbollah adopting Chavez as a hero.
* Reports of Venezuela and Bolivia providing Iran with uranium (see prior post).

And, of course, Chavez's unflinching support for Ahmadinejad, while showing great disrespect for President Obama.

Can't have the Iranian diplomats over for hot dogs? Then kiss and make up with their friends.

June 24, 2009

Has Obama Shifted on Iran?


In yesterday's press conference, President Obama said he was "appalled" by the violence occurring in Iran. Daniel Larison sees signs that the president is moving toward the hawks:

Whether or not he was affected by the drumbeat on the Post op-ed pages, he has started moving in the direction that those writers wanted. One could even try to defend changing rhetoric as circumstances change, but to deny that there has been any change is silly and, I’m sorry to say, something we have seen several times from Obama over the last two years.
I think it's important to distinguish between rhetoric that deplores regime violence in stronger terms, and rhetoric that wades into the mechanics of how Iran is supposed to resolve the situation and which factions should prevail. There is indeed a difference between expressing concern and being "appalled." But this rhetorical shift strikes me as warranted by events, which have taken a turn toward increased violence, and doesn't strike me as a major concession to those who want the president to call for the overthrow of Iran's revolutionary government.

I think Trita Parsi makes a good point in this regard:

But here is one legitimate criticism , the Iranians are missing two words from Obama: "I condemn." Protesters and political leaders I've spoken to in Iran want the US to speak out forcefully against the government's human rights abuses and condemn the violence. Philosophical formulations about respecting the wishes of the Iranian people aren't enough: The president should clearly condemn the Iranian government's violations and use of brutal force against its own people.

After all, condemning violence is different from taking sides in Iran's election dispute. Not only would it be compatible with American values, it would also reduce pressure on the president to entangle the US in Iranian politics. Clarity on the human rights front strengthens the president's ability to avoid siding with any political faction in Iran.

The president faces two essentially implacable sets of critics on this issue. No matter what he says, the Supreme Leader and his cohort are going to decry it as meddling. And no matter how strongly he condemns the violence, his neoconservative critics won't be satisfied until it is paired with concrete steps to unseat the regime (which I suspect is a bridge too far for this administration).

Photo credit: AP Photos

June 23, 2009

Obama's Statement on Iran

From today's press conference:

I strongly condemn these unjust actions, and I join with the American people in mourning each and every innocent life that is lost.

I've made it clear that the United States respects the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic of Iran and is not interfering with Iran's affairs.

But we must also bear witness to the courage and the dignity of the Iranian people and to a remarkable opening within Iranian society. And we deplore the violence against innocent civilians anywhere that it takes place.

The Iranian people are trying to have a debate about their future. Some in Iran -- some in the Iranian government, in particular, are trying to avoid that debate by accusing the United States and others in the West of instigating protests over the elections.

These accusations are patently false. They're an obvious attempt to distract people from what is truly taking place within Iran's borders.

This tired strategy of using old tensions to scapegoat other countries won't work anymore in Iran. This is not about the United States or the West; this is about the people of Iran and the future that they -- and only they -- will choose.

The Iranian people can speak for themselves. That's precisely what's happened in the last few days. In 2009, no iron fist is strong enough to shut off the world from bearing witness to peaceful protests of justice. Despite the Iranian government's efforts to expel journalists and isolate itself, powerful images and poignant words have made their way to us through cell phones and computers. And so we've watched what the Iranian people are doing.

This is what we've witnessed. We've seen the timeless dignity of tens of thousands of Iranians marching in silence. We've seen people of all ages risk everything to insist that their votes are counted and that their voices are heard.

Above all, we've seen courageous women stand up to the brutality and threats, and we've experienced the searing image of a woman bleeding to death on the streets.

While this loss is raw and extraordinarily painful, we also know this: those who stand up for justice are always on the right side of history.

As I said in Cairo, suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech.

If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights and heed the will of its own people. It must govern through consent and not coercion.

That's what Iran's own people are calling for, and the Iranian people will ultimately judge the actions of their own government.

Iran’s Clenched Fist Election: What Next for U.S. Policy?

Our friends at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have organized a great live-stream event on the Iranian elections; assembling a wonderful panel of speakers to address the vote and its chaotic aftermath.

The panel will feature Abbas Milani, Ambassador Nicholas Burns and Carnegie's own Karim Sadjadpour. The event will be moderated by David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Carnegie has gathered questions from experts, analysts and otherwise interested individuals from all over the globe for today's event.

The discussion begins at 12:15 p.m. ET, and you can watch it in its entirety right here on RealClearWorld:

Launch in external player

June 22, 2009

Chavez Reaffirms His Support for Ahmadinejad

During his Sunday Aló Presidente show, which by law has to be broadcast on all of the licensed TV and radio stations in the country, Hugo Chávez reaffirmed his support for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who he refers to as " Iran's great president,"saying:

"We send a greeting to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran't great president, to Ayatollah Ali Hamenei, and to the Iranian people. We ask the world to respect Iran because they are trying to undermine the Iranian revolution's strength."
Chávez then insisted,
"We ask the world for respect. Ahmadinejad's triumph is a victory in full order. They're trying to stain Ahmadinejad's victory, and by doing so they aim to weaken the government and the Islamic revolution. I know they won't be able to do it."
You can watch him here (video in Spanish):

He also claims to have congratulated Ahmadinejad over the phone last week, and his government issued a statement rejecting "the ferocious and unfounded campaign of discredit that was activated by foreign powers against Iranian institutions."

He did not specify who "they", or who those "foreign powers" are.

Khamenei's Neurosis


Juan Cole has some fun with Chatam House's critical analysis of the Iranian presidential election:

As I had noted earlier, the official results ask us to believe that rural ethnic minorities (some of them Sunni!) who had long voted reformist or for candidates of their ethnicity or region, had switched over to Ahmadinejad. We have to believe that Mehdi Karroubi's support fell from over 6 million to 330,000 over all, and that he, an ethnic Lur, was defeated in Luristan by a hard line Persian Shiite. Or that Ahmadinejad went from having 22,000 votes in largely Sunni Kurdistan to about half a million! What, is there a new organization, "Naqshbandi Sunni Sufis for Hard Line Shiism?" It never made any sense.

Agreed. I suppose the one contrarian perspective here is that Ahmadinejad had four years to embrace nationally popular issues, such as the nuclear energy program, and also used energy subsidies to buy off villages and the poor (attempted to, anyway). Indeed, Michael Totten and I had this same debate via email, and in most cases, Michael had a reasonable and factual retort to every point I could muster in Ahmadinejad's favor. There's only so much advocacy you can do for the Devil.

The Chatam analysis only reaffirms this point. All in all, it makes me feel somewhat validated for my initial, gut response to the whole incident. In 1979, it was the people in the streets demanding an Islamic Republic. Today, it's still the people in the streets calling for an Islamic Republic. But instead of the impediment being a mostly secular dictatorial Shah, it's instead, this time around, a quasi-clerical dictatorial Mullah.

And for what? What forced Khamenei to act with such haste and carelessness? He is apparently so nervous and fearful for his own grip on power - as well as his own financial security - that he was willing to hand the theocracy over to the state's security forces. Fearing his own rule over the Islamic Republic was at risk, he instead decided he'd rather preside over a Junta than nothing at all.

So worried he must have been, that gambling on another Khatami-esque candidate simply wouldn't do. So rather than deal with Mousavi, the Supreme Leader decided to make a complete mockery of the already questionable election process in Iran.

Unlike some, I don't view Mir Hossein Mousavi as a revolutionary figure. If anything, his message merely appears as such in juxtaposition to a Supreme Leader who has abandoned the principles of the revolution.

And this is the real tragedy of the week's events. The tie that seemingly binds Mousavi's base isn't revolution, but recognition. All these Iranian nationalists wanted to know was that their voices - while greatly limited - mattered at least somewhat to the ruling elites.

The Chatam findings have answered that question for them, and Khamenei's answer was clearly a resounding 'no'.


All photos credit: AP Photos

Iranian Nationalism

Spencer Ackerman is puzzled by Reza Pahlavi's endorsement of the June 12 movement:

This is deep in the weeds of a political dynamic I can hardly say I fully understand, but how much sense does it make for the exiled son of the shah to give a speech at the National Press Club in support of the Iranian opposition? With Mir Hossein Moussavi claiming a source of legitimacy from the Islamic Revolution that deposed the guy's father, is aid and comfort from the remant of the ancien regime really necessary here?

Whether or not it's necessary, I suppose is subjective. Some will praise it, others will scoff.

But the position is not a bizarre one for the son of the deposed Shah. Reza in fact volunteered to return and serve in the Iranian air force against Saddam Hussein in the 1980's. This was of course after the regime has removed his dying father from power.

I think it's just another strong testament to Iranian nationalism. Unlike other countries in the region - rife with tribalism and sectarianism - Iran has a binding identity that stands out in the region -- despite its ethnic and religious diversity.

This in fact frustrated Khomeini, who thought very little of the western nation state model and wanted people to fight and die for Islam rather than country.

Greenland: Brazil of the Arctic?

I hope readers make sure to check out Dan McGroarty's latest RCW column on Greenland. here is the money quote:

The largest island on Earth that is not itself a continent, Greenland is home to 58,000 inhabitants - and a treasure trove of resources, ranging from oil and gas to uranium, molybdenum, platinum, coal, gold and diamonds. In resource terms, that makes Greenland as a stand-alone state something akin to Saudi Arabia - save that the Saudis are a uni-dimensional resource superpower, shackled for better or worse to the petro-economy. Greenland today subsists largely on its shrimp, salmon and cod fishing industries, supplemented by transfer payments from Denmark, which amount to nearly half of its government revenues. Take it as given that an independent Greenland will harness its economic future to its resource sector.

Greenland's new step toward independence comes as its neighbors - Norway, Canada, the U.S., and Russia - have taken a new interest in the Arctic region's resource potential. Europe's East-West conflict, revived by a resurgent Russia, is likely to play itself out on the northern front. Will Greenland, a de facto NATO nation via its status as a Danish territory (the U.S. has maintained Thule Air Base on the northwest side of the island less than 1,000 miles from the North Pole since 1941), see its future security interests aligned with NATO - and will NATO offer an independent Greenland full alliance membership? Russia, in its latest strategic military forecast, avers that military conflict over resources is a possibility for which it is prepared. This conjures a scenario when a future president orders American troops into a "blood for oil" conflict north of the Arctic Circle.


Looks like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad finally got hip to Twitter:

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Russia: Hedging Its Bets and Drinking Less Cognac

Russia's geopolitical position has been historically vulnerable - its history shows succession of challenges and opponents that eventually led to a military confrontation with Moscow. So its not surprising that from time to time, Russia would hedge its bets and try to burn candles at both ends in order to keep its neighbors in check. The strategy worked well in the Middle East - Russia is seen as a key player and power broker for both Israel and its Arab and Iranian neighbors.

When it comes to China, Moscow has been developing a strong military-economic relationship with its giant neighbor for the past two decades, seeking to avoid any major internal or external component to jeopardize these ties. So its comes as a surprise that Russia has had a hand in the development of a third generation advanced fighter jet for the Republic of Taiwan - mainland China's official opponent. This was reported recently by Agence France-Presse, referring to the Chinese edition of The China Times. The information source argues that technology for the fifth generation F-35 Lightning II, which is currently being developed by the American corporation Lockheed Martin for the United States and its allies, was used in creating the Taiwanese fighter.

According to The China Times, Taiwan has begun work on a new military aircraft after appeals to the U.S. with a request for the sale of 66 fighter aircraft F-16C/D. Washington, as previously reported, denied this request, not wanting to spoil relations with Beijing. Chinese journalists also point out that the plane, developed by a public company Taiwan Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC), has two engines and has a short take-off capability. Its development, according to The China Times, was completed only after Russia sent its experts to Taiwan - the source did not specify what Russian organization or company they represented.

This is certainly a new turn for the Russian defense industry and presents a dilemma for the United States. Washington and Taipei have a very close defense relationship, even if certain military hardware is not sold to the ROC from time to time. Taiwan is one of the high-tech sources for a great deal of technology that powers high-tech American industry, as well as American military developments. Russians were always keen on seeing first hand how far Western - and US in particular - military development has advanced, since at this time, Moscow can only watch on the sidelines as America and her allies implement next- generation high-tech military gear. Did the Russians get a chance to see first hand the advanced technology that Washington sold to Taipei, and did they take good notes to take back with them? An even larger question is what this news may do to the Moscow-Beijing military cooperation. Russia has sold a wide variety of advanced high-tech aircraft to mainland China recently, including Su-27 multi-role fighter bomber. China, making sure it was able to level the playing field, quickly reverse-engineered the Russian plane and began its indigenous production under J-11 designation.

Russians recently expressed concern that China is making plans to produce its own version of an even more advanced plane that Russia sold to Beijing about 8 years ago - Su-30 Flanker multirole fighter, a more advanced version of Su-27. Since all of Taiwan's military aircraft are designed and fielded against mainland China, Russian know-how now is part of ROC's high-tech air force pointed at the mainland. One has to wonder what Beijing thinks about all this, and whether Moscow's action was a pay back of sorts for China deciding to copy Russian technology.

Russia and Belarus announced their join military exercises to take place later this year. Designated "West 2009", the strategic exercise will take place in autumn 2009, and will consist of a series of defensive drills. Russian and Belorussian General Staff of the Armed Forces in their respected Ministries of Defense recently completed the planning. The main arena of exercises will be Obuz-Lesnovsky site on the territory of Belarus, where the maneuvers will begin on September 30, 2009. The exercises will include aircraft landing with arms and military equipment for up to 600 people.

At around the same time, from September 27 - 28, there will be a separate exercise developed by the Russian General Staff that will include approximately 13,000 troops, with about seven thousand troops from Belarus, and six thousand from Russia.

On June 16, ITAR-TASS news agency, citing the Russian Armed Forces Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Makarov, reported that the tensions between Moscow and Minsk on other issues (such as previously reported arguments over the official union between two countries) will not affect plans for the "West 2009" exercise: "I think politics is politics and the military must do their job, and not confuse one with another", - stressed the Russian general.

While military issues give major headaches to many Russian officials, one of the best ways to get rid of such discomfort - not to mention the need to be in a good mood - was high-quality Armenian cognac. Armenia - and her neighbor Georgia - are some of the oldest wine and liqueur producing regions in the world, with local development dating back thousands of years. For resource-poor Armenia, export of its wine and cognac was a significant source of much-needed income. But the global economic slowdown has affected even the seemingly endless Russian appetites for strong alcohol - production of cognac in Armenia in 2009 will decline by 55-60 percent, according to the assessment of the Union of Armenian Winemakers. The drop in sales volumes is due to reduced consumption of cognac in Russia, the principal market for this products. According to the Union Chairman Avag Arutiunian, between January and April of this year, the decline in the production of brandy was 45.3 percent. Arutiunian added that such a drop in sales could result in a reduction of 20-40 per cent of Armenian grape preparation, putting many of the country''s wineries in a difficult situation. Production of cognac in Armenia grew steadily since 1999, resulting in global recognition and demand for "Ararat" and "Noah" brands.

And while Russians may drink less Armenian brandy, they certainly keep their neighbors guessing over the next Russian Ambassador to Ukraine. According to several sources, among the candidates for the post of Ambassador is Mikhail Zurabov, described by recently removed former Ambassador Viktor Chernomyrdyn as a "normal, young, dark-haired and ministerial." The Press Secretary of Russian President Natalia Timakova refused to comment on the possibility of appointing Zurabov. "We are guessing", - said Oleg Grishin, the press secretary of Ambassador Chernomyrdin, noting that Zurabov is mentioned as the first on the short list of possible candidates. The source close to the presidential administration said that the former minister has long been applied to the important diplomatic work, and is noted as the key team member of Vladimir Putin's cabinet. Zurabov worked as the Minister of Health until the fall of 2007, and has been serving as the Adviser to President Medvedev on issues of social reforms.

Poll: Obama's Handling of Iran

Rasmussen Reports has some new numbers out measuring reaction to President Obama's handling of the Iranian protests:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that a plurality of voters (43%) think the president’s response has been about right....Thirty-five percent (35%) of voters say the president has not been aggressive enough in supporting Iranian reformers, while nine percent (9%) say he has been too aggressive.

Democrats overwhelmingly view the president’s response as about right while 49% of Republicans say he has not been aggressive enough. Voters not affiliated with either party are closely divided on the question.

Fifty-four percent (54%) of all voters say it makes a significant difference in terms of U.S. national security which candidate is elected president of Iran. Twenty-six percent (26%) do not think it makes a difference to America’s security which candidate wins. Twenty percent (20%) aren’t sure.

Only 25% of voters believe Iran is even somewhat likely to become a free, democratic, and peaceful nation in the next few years. Just three percent (3%) say it’s very likely.

Sixty-five percent (65%) say it is not likely that Iran will become free, democratic and peaceful in the short term.

June 21, 2009


Really all that can be said about this BBC Persian video of clashes in the streets of Tehran.

Walking Softly On Iran

Writing at CNN, Fareed Zakaria supports the argument I have been making regarding President Obama's approach toward Iran:

CNN: What should the United States do?

Zakaria: I would say continue what we have been doing. By reaching out to Iran, publicly and repeatedly, President Obama has made it extremely difficult for the Iranian regime to claim that they are battling an aggressive America bent on attacking Iran. In his inaugural address, his New Year greetings, and his Cairo speech, there is a consistent effort to convey respect and friendship for Iranians. That is why Khamenei reacted so angrily to the New Year greeting. It undermined the image of the Great Satan that he routinely paints in his sermons. In his Friday sermon, Khamenei said that the United States, Israel, and especially the United Kingdom were behind the street protests, an accusation that will surely sound ridiculous to most Iranians. The fact that Obama has been cautious in his reaction makes it all the harder for Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to wrap themselves in a nationalist flag.

CNN: But shouldn't the U.S. be more vocal in support for the Iranian protesters?

Zakaria: I think a good historic analogy is President George H.W. Bush's cautious response to the cracks in the Soviet empire in 1989. Then, many neo-conservatives were livid with Bush for not loudly supporting those trying to topple the communist regimes in Eastern Europe. But Bush's concern was that the situation was fragile. Those regimes could easily crack down on the protestors and the Soviet Union could send in tanks. Handing the communists reasons to react forcefully would help no one, least of all the protesters. Bush's basic approach was correct and has been vindicated by history.

The parallel to the last days of the Cold War is valid. Both Iran now and Eastern Europe then were cases of regimes that maintained their legitimacy in part by pointing to the threat of meddling by an outside power. In Iran's case, the CIA sponsorship of the 1953 coup in Iran provides a particularly compelling societal narrative that the Iranian government has habitually exploited for 30 years. By refusing to provide evidence in support of such claims, President Obama is stripping the Iranian regime of one of their most powerful tools of control. As a result, they are flailing about with increasingly blatant acts of repression that sacrifice long-term legitimacy in the name of short-term control. Sooner or later, history always shows such bets to be losing.

Critics of Obama's careful approach proclaim that this telegraphs "weakness" and threatens to undermine U.S. influence. But they consistently refuse to respond to requests that they detail exactly how and where it does so. The standard conservative critique is, in this particular area, thus revealed as fundamentally empty -- they aren't making an argument, just a recycled assertion that appears to derive from nothing more sophisticated than a vague sense of offended machismo. And strategic theorists going all the way back to Clausewitz and Sun Tzu have diagnosed this kind of thinking as dysfunctional and self-defeating. Conservative critics should refresh themselves on their own intellectual tradition.

President Obama has it right on Iran.

Peru-Bolivia: Hanging by a Thread

Peru-Bolivia relations are hanging by a thread, opined one Peruvian senator this past week. Although neither country is threatening to cut diplomatic ties with the other, the causes of the conflict are ideological and are unlikely to subside in the near future.

First there is the back and forth over the Bagua incident, where at least 34 Peruvians were killed in a showdown between the police and a group of Amazonian Indians. The latter were blockading a road that leads into the Amazon region which President Garcia would like to open up to foreign investors. President Evo Morales of Bolivia has called the government crackdown “genocide.”Morales is also fundamentally against opening up the Amazon. In a letter to indigenous leaders, Morales states that “free trade agreements break up harmonious human relationships with nature; they commodify natural resources and national cultures; they privatise basic services; they try to patent life itself."

Peru responded to the genocide comment by recalling its ambassador to Bolivia back to Lima for consultation. The government has stated that there is no excuse for Morales to refer to the Bagua incident as genocide since a United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights and the fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples declared this past week that no genocide has occurred. The Garcia government sees the Morales administration as meddling into Peruvian sovereignty and has even implied that Bolivia has manipulated the Peruvian indigenous groups in order to stir them to action.

Despite the outcry, the Garcia administration was forced to repeal the two decrees that were the cause of the crisis in the first place. On Thursday, Congress passed the bill repealing the decrees by a total of 84-12. President Garcia even admitted that it was a mistake not to consult the heads of the indigenous groups prior to implementing the decrees. This may signify that the political elite in Peru are coming to terms with the fact that indigenous groups in Peru are much better organized politically than they were in the past.

Garcia and Morales have never been on good terms since both came to power in 2006. Garcia was highly offended when Morales openly sympathized with Garcia’s main opponent, Ollanta Humala, in the 2006 elections. Humala, who comes from Incan descent, beat Garcia in the first round of voting but was knocked out in the second round when corruption allegations surfaced right before the elections.

Garcia and Morales have also knocked heads on granting political asylum to each others’ nationals. This past May, Peru granted political asylum to three former Bolivian cabinet officials accused of involvement in the killing of 63 protestors in the Andean city of El Alto in 2003 during the Sanchez de Lozada administration. The protestors (mostly Aymara Indians) were frequently blocking access to the airport as well as to oil and gas supplies. After Morales (who is also an Aymara Indian) came to power in 2006, Bolivia indicted 17 former government officials for the 2003 incident. Former President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, who fled to the United States, was tried in absentia in May.

In 2007, Bolivia granted political asylum to Walter Chavez, a former member of the Peruvian revolutionary group Tupac. Chavez was facing charges of terrorism by the Peruvian government. At the time, he was working as a political aide for Morales.

The divide between Garcia and Morales is deep. Morales opposes Garcia’s push for a regional trade pact with the European Union and also criticizes Peru’s free trade agreement with the United States. Garcia is an economic liberal, while Morales is a Bolivarian leftist. If Peru’s large indigenous population continues to mobilize, then right-of-center parties may not last long in Peru. In the meantime, however, it is hard to see how Peru-Bolivia relations improve.

June 20, 2009

Wither Rafsanjani?

Steve Clemons brings some very bad news for the Mousavi camp.

UPDATE: And now, it would appear, the regime has arrested five of Rafsanjani's family members -- including his daughter. (h/t Andrew)

Is Today Tiananmen? (Updated)

It's now 4:00 pm in Iran. There are conflicting reports over whether or not the day's anticipated rallies will go on as scheduled. The Iranian government is reporting that the Combatant Clerics Assembly - affiliated with former President Mohammad Khatami - has canceled its rally for this afternoon.

The Guardian Council has apparently agreed today to recount a "random 10 percent of the votes" from last week's elections. So clearly, as most assumed, the Council's conciliatory gesture to Mousavi/Karroubi/Rezaee was simply a way for the government to stall for time and come up with a plan. So what's the plan?

Many are fearing massive state crackdowns today, as both the Basij and the IRGC are expected to be present at today's rallies in Tehran. Twitter is abuzz with unconfirmed speculation and hearsay, however, messages on the Facebook pages of both Mousavi and his wife Zahra Rahnavard seem to confirm that the rallies remain on as planned.

We'll keep you updated.

UPDATE: Rumors that Mousavi is walking from his party office to the Ministry of Interior with a crowd behind him.

I'm not very comfortable with republishing 'tweets', you can go elsewhere for that, but I thought this one was on point: "Khameni must realize that if he starts killing people the rallies will get bigger. #IranElection #gr88 #iran09."

Indeed. Let's hope that the Supreme Leader has reached the same logical conclusion.

UPDATE II: AP is reporting that there are firetrucks surrounding Revolution Square. According to Al Jazeera, Iran's deputy national police commander issued a warning today. "As of today, the police will strongly confront any illegal gatherings and those without permission," said Ahmadreza Radan.

CNN reports that thousands are trying to get into Tehran, but are being shut out. (h/t Pitney)

Also from Pitney, an e-mailer writes: "HARD conflict between the people and the Special Guard. people: down with khamenee"

UPDATE III: It sounds as though the riot police are going for thuggish-lite today. SOP: Disperse the crowds, keep them moving, isolate them, and then target them, if necessary. Sounds like there are small demonstrations around the city, but nothing has been confirmed.

UPDATE IV: State-controlled Press TV WAS reporting that two have been hurt in a "blast" at the shrine of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, but the story is either down or has been pulled (h/t The Lede)

Tweet: "Bomb blast will clear way gov to prosecute Mousavi/Rafsanjani as traitors to Revolution #iranelection."

3,000 incredibly brave people. They have my praise, but it sounds as though this may have been quelled. Where is Mousavi? Karroubi? (h/t The Lede)

UPDATE VI: Ratio of security forces-to-protesters doesn't sound good. (h/t Al Jazeera)

Al Jazeera is also reporting the explosion near Khomeini's shrine as a "suicide blast."

I think it's wonderful that Mohsen Makhmalbaf speaks "for Mousavi. And Iran," but where exactly is Mr. Mousavi?


Allegedly a scene from Tehran this afternoon:

(h/t Andrew)


A Tweet: "RT from Iran:: Critical question now, where are Mousavi, Karoubi and Khatami? #iranelection #Tehran #GR88 #Mousavi"

Good question.

UPDATE X: Seems the validity of this alleged 'suicide blast' is now in question.


Sounds as though the regime is laying the foundation for a tougher crackdown:

The police have attempt to portray the protesters as rioters by detailing the damage they have caused, and claimed public backing for a violent crackdown.

Iran's deputy police commander, Ahmad-Reza Radan, said 400 police have been wounded since last Friday's vote.

He claimed 10,000 complaints have been been made, according to state-run Press TV. "They have called on the police to deal with rallies firmly," he said.

"The recent rallies destroyed 700 buildings, burst 300 banks into flame, damaged 300 cars and 300 public properties," Radan added.

UPDATE XII: Rumors floating around that Mousavi is speaking somewhere in Tehran, on the streets. Cannot confirm or deny just yet.

UPDATE XIII: More on the speech. (h/t Pitney)

UPDATE XIV: Brian Ulrich notes:

If Larijani and Tavakkoli aren't just working for their own advantage, it seems likely that they were acting in support of Khamene'i's efforts to reposition himself above the fray, move Ahmadinejad off center stage, and make the battle about the system of government rather than the election.

This sounds about right, and it's good strategy. As I've noted on The Compass, calling for Ahmadinejad's head is one thing; questioning the legitimacy of the Supreme Leader is something else entirely. This dynamic suits Khamenei better, as it's a battle Mousavi probably won't win.

UPDATE XV: Rough translation of Mousavi's letter to the Guardian Council.


There is a list of embassies in Tehran floating around, as injured protesters are being encouraged to go to them instead of hospitals. The hospitals are very like stocked full of Basijis.

Question: If the embassies become overwhelmed, what happens then?

In 1906, over 10,000 Persian constitutionalists occupied the British embassy in protest of the Qajaris (this was pre-UK hatred, obviously. The Russians were mostly the villains at that time). UK embassy is now rumored to be accepting the injured.

It always seems to come back to the British in Iran.

UPDATE XVII: Mousavi allegedly "washed in readiness to be martyred." (h/t Pitney)


Jeff Weintraub answers the question in my blog title:

The Tienanmen moment? Yes and no. Yes, it looks as though the Iranian regime has decided that the moment has come to crush the protests by force. But in 1989 the Chinese regime seems to have wanted to have a concentrated, visible bloodbath in Tienanmen Square itself (to send a clear message). In this crackdown, the Iranian regime seems to be trying to avoid that.

(h/t Andrew)

UPDATE XIX: In a way, I fear what happened today may be the worst possible outcome. The Iranian government's brutality has been put on display, but that's in part due to the lower-than-anticipated turnout in Tehran (judging from secondhand info, sitting at a disadvantage in the United States). Had the crowd been larger, I suspect anyway, that it would have tied the hands of the regime. You can't shoot at 100,000+ people and expect to get away with it. You can, however, isolate and scatter a few thousand people. These are very brave Iranians, and I shudder to think what might happen to them after today.

That's it from me, for now. Will be back later with more updates and more thoughts.

UPDATE XX: OK, one more item. The Lede appears to have confirmed that a brutal video of a gunned down woman posted on Facebook is indeed legit. This is appalling and wicked. [CORRECTION: NYT still hasn't verified this video. Please click over at your own risk, as it is terribly violent. I will confirm or deny its veracity when I know for sure.]

What was it that President Ahmadinejad once called the government in Jerusalem? A "rotting, stinking corpse," I believe? I can then only imagine what that makes this cabal in Tehran.

June 19, 2009

When "Something Happens" in Iran

Daniel Larison writes:

if Mousavi’s forces prevail, who will have won? The Islamists or the non-Islamists? Silly question. For all the talk of democracy, the protesters are invoking the legacy of the Islamic revolution, which they believe has been betrayed, and they are employing the rhetoric of that revolution, which is nothing if not Islamist. Indeed, at the moment their hopes rest to a disproportionate degree with anti-Khamenei clerics who might decide to oust him. Should that happen, I hope that we will not be treated to some convoluted explanation that velayat-e faqih is actually a profoundly secular idea embodying the separation of religion and state, but given the commentary of the last few days I wouldn’t be surprised.

Indeed. Perhaps said commentators will treat us to the virtues of its teachings, and wax poetic about the influence Plato's The Republic had on Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Stuff of Which Revolutions Are Made


I'm mostly in agreement here with David Ignatius:

This is politics in the raw -- unarmed people defying soldiers with guns -- and it is the stuff of which revolutions are made. Whether it will succeed in Iran is impossible to predict, but already this movement has put an overconfident regime on the ropes.

To understand why the regime is frightened, ask yourself this question: How many of the demonstrators in the mile-long parades along Vali-e Asr Avenue were Iranian nuclear scientists -- or their siblings, or cousins? We read that the oldest daughter of opposition presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi is a nuclear physicist, but how many more?

And how many disgruntled Revolutionary Guards and war veterans?

Nobody knows, and that's the point: The regime must be frightened of the forces it has unleashed. The more it attacks its own people, the more vulnerable it becomes.

Yes -- the makings.

The problem here is that the figureheads of this movement are old guard, establishment types. I'm sure there's a wide spectrum of thought on the streets of Tehran today; ranging from recount, to re-vote, all the way up to full blown regime change. But we don't know how those respective views divvy out, and so far, their stated goals have been modest. Good, understandable and inspiring, yet modest nonetheless.

My concern is that this is too easily deflatable. I don't know that Khamenei is going to unleash his IRGC dogs on the people, because as Ignatius aptly points out, there's no way at this point for them to know who they're targeting. If the son or niece of a prominent imam or figurehead were to be harmed, how do you measure the backlash?

Khamenei is a calculated fellow, but these demonstrations have left him without a calculator.

One way he could defuse the situation would be to order a national referendum. It has been done before, and it was the impetus behind the constitutional amendments of 1989. Or, allow a re-vote. Or heck, just make Mousavi president. He'll have egg on his face, but that's better than outright regime collapse.

And then my question - and my query to the "something is happening" crowd - is what happens next? How many simply go home? The protesters have limited the Leader's options, but they haven't left him without any options.

And that is the key difference between now and 1979.

Photo credit: AP Photo

The Isolated Imam

Amnesty International condemns the Iranian Supreme Leader's speech.

June 18, 2009

Oficially the Coolest Thing Ever

Google Translate now does Persian, and appears able to translate entire websites in relatively quick fashion. I normally use this site for my own personal Farsi studies, but Google - as usual - appears to have blown them away.

My suggestion? Head on over to AEI's IranTracker page, and start testing this tool out on the great Farsi-language news roundup Ali Alfoneh and Michael Rubin put together every day.

New York Times has more on Google's smart gesture.

(h/t Nico Pitney)

Kiss the Ring

The Times reports:

The moderate Iranian leader who says that he was robbed of victory in last week’s presidential election faces a fateful choice today: support the regime or be cast out.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, has told Mir Hossein Mousavi to stand beside him as he uses Friday prayers at Tehran University to call for national unity. An army of Basiji — Islamic volunteer militiamen — is also expected to be bussed in to support the Supreme Leader.

The demand was made at a meeting this week with representatives of all three candidates who claim that the poll was rigged, and it puts Mr Mousavi on the spot. He has become the figurehead of a popular movement that is mounting huge demonstrations daily against the “theft” of last Friday’s election by President Ahmadinejad, the ayatollah’s protégé.

So it appears to be, as Jesse Jackson once put it, "choice time" for Mir Hossein Mousavi. Needless to say, if he obeys his Supreme Leader, he will dash and deflate the hopes of the many thousands of Iranians who took to the streets of Tehran and elsewhere this week on his behalf.

Deny Khamenei, and Mousavi challenges the very legitimacy of the Supreme Leader. Now, sitting presidents, such as Mohammad Khatami, have challenged Khamenei in the past. But this is very different. It's being reported on Twitter that both Mousavi and Karroubi are asking their followers to skip Khamenei's Friday prayer session. Tony Karon has heard mixed reports. We obviously cannot confirm either way at the moment, but if true, this is a big deal. As Karon points out, if Mousavi refuses to yield he will no doubt be accused of treasonous activity, and the leash could come off of the IRGC.

Friday will be interesting.

UPDATE: So what now? The Ayatollah Speaks:

"Arm wrestling in the street must stop," he said. "I want everyone to put an end to this. If they don't stop this … they will be held accountable for all of this."

He insisted that it was "natural" for people to support different candidates but that the foreign media was responsible for portraying supporters of Mousavi as opposed to the Islamic revolution.

"Enemies try through various media, and some of these media belong to the Zionists … they try to make believe that there is a fight between supporters of the opposition and the Islamic establishment," said Khamenei. "They have no right to say that, that is not true."

He described the 85% turnout at the election as a "great accomplishment" and a "political earthquake" for Iran's enemies. The supreme leader said he was bringing a message for "leaders of world arrogance, the western countries".

"This is not a competition between outside and inside the establishment as Zionists, media in the UK, in the US, have been trying to say," he said. The US and Israel routinely come under fire in the supreme leader's sermons but Khamenei singled out the UK as the "most treacherous", prompting chants of "death to the UK" from the crowds.

The message is pretty clear: You're either with the Islamic Republic, or you're with the Zionists and the West.

So what happens now? Mousavi apparently skipped the event. Will he continue to march and encourage public dissent in direct defiance of Khamenei? Do Khamenei's kid gloves now come off?

A Change in President Is NOT a Change in Government

Matt Steinglass:

It’s just too big, it’s going on for too many days, it’s in too many cities, and it’s too all-embracing. The regime has completely lost control of the space of public politics, and the opposition has been very skillful in taking it over. You can’t allow your opposition to develop a message so simple that everyone can embrace it. When you have a situation where all anyone needs to do to signal they’ve joined the opposition is to step into the street and start walking, where all they have to do is cry “Allahu Akbar” and it means they want the President to resign and cancel the elections, you’ve lost.

Who knows, maybe I’m wrong. But I just can’t see Ahmadinejad holding on to power in the face of this.

I know I'm a broken record here, but this really can't be said enough: President Mir Hossein Mousavi would not be a change in government. Anything that will or won't change between Iran and the west could just as likely occur under President Ahmadinejad. President Obama realizes as much.

My heart and my sympathies are with the "Green" demonstrators, but, contrary to the views of a few, this does not yet resemble 1979. The protests are too small, and the endgame too uncertain. One has to truly understand just how unpopular Pahlavi was in Iran before they begin making such comparisons. Thus far, it isn't even close.

This isn't a revolution. It may be the start of a wonderful reform movement in Iran, and I truly hope it is. But it's incredibly narcissistic to assume that this unrest is in any way the indicator of major change in Iran. A more truly liberal Iran would be one that does not finance global terrorism, destabilize the region or pursue nuclear weapons in violation of international law. That would be a more liberal Iran. A President Mousavi may hope to bring that about, but there's no guarantee he'll actually deliver the goods -- Khatami couldn't.

This writer wants a more free and liberal Iran for the citizens of Iran. But there are bigger questions facing the world than whether or not Iranians get a fair vote. There needs to be substantive, constitutional reform in Iran before the country will become a more honest and open actor in the region. Maybe this movement can bring that about, but I don't see it yet.

What's happening in Iran this week is wonderful, but it doesn't answer all of the questions.

It's Not About Us

Cato's Justin Logan makes a good point about how Washington's pundit class is handling the protests in Iran:

The second, related tendency is that of narcissism: to make foreign countries’ domestic politics all about us. In this game, American observers anoint from afar one side the “good,” “pro-Western” team and the other the “bad,” “radical” one and urge Washington to press its thumb on the good side of the scale. But doing so would risk winding up Iranian nationalism, a very real force that binds Iranians together more tightly than their differences pull them apart.
It's more than narcissism, it's hubris. As if our words will sanctify the righteousness of a cause and our silence will damn it.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Chavez "helping out" Ahmadinejad?


Today James Tarranto posts,

'Those Palestinian Animals'
The Jerusalem Post reports that some Iranian dissidents claim the Tehran regime has imported Palestinian terrorists to help crush the opposition:
"The most important thing that I believe people outside of Iran should be aware of," the young man went on, "is the participation of Palestinian forces in these riots."

Another protester, who spoke as he carried a kitchen knife in one hand and a stone in the other, also cited the presence of Hamas in Teheran.

On Monday, he said, "my brother had his ribs beaten in by those Palestinian animals. Taking our people's money is not enough, they are thirsty for our blood too."

It was ironic, this man said, that the victorious Ahmadinejad "tells us to pray for the young Palestinians, suffering at the hands of Israel." His hope, he added, was that Israel would "come to its senses" and ruthlessly deal with the Palestinians.

The Post includes an apposite disclaimer: "Amid the violence, confusion and government restrictions on communication, the accuracy of conflicting accounts is hard to ascertain." But certainly these claims are no less credible than Roger Cohen's "reports" about happy Iranian Jews.
In the past few days I have received questions from several people asking about the rumors that Hugo Chavez is sending some of his thugs to "help out" Ahmadinejad. This rumor has also been mentioned in a couple of Spanish-language cable TV shows, particularly in view of the frequent direct flights between Caracas and Tehran.

I have not been able to find any actual evidence to confirm these rumors. The ties between Iran and Venezuela are many, and strong as ever. However, evidence of Chavez's backers in Iran is yet to be found.

As to the issue of future Venezuela-Iran relations: I expect that Iran will continue to expand its influence in the hemisphere, regardless of any electoral outcome.

How You Conceive of the National Interest

In a post titled "The Good Neocons," Andrew Sullivan writes:

Not all of them wish Ahmadinejad had won, or insist that the revolution is already crushed, or fear a more moderate Islamic republic because it would still threaten Israel, or just reflexively want to use this, of all things, as another bludgeon against Obama. Some are actually thrilled to see democratic forces break out, period.

I'm not sure I follow. So to simply question the direction of the unrest in Iran this week makes one a "bad neocon"?

Isn't a more moderate nuclear-armed Iran still a proliferation threat to the region? Aren't the concerns of Israel (an ally state) at least on par with the concerns of Iran (not an ally state)? In short: Aren't there greater geopolitical questions that these demonstrations simply do not answer?

Stephen Walt posed the same question yesterday, in the form of a hypothetical:

Which world would you prefer: 1) a world where Ahmadinejad remains in power, but Iran formally reaffirms that it will not develop nuclear weapons, ratifies and implements the Additional Protocol of the NPT, comes clean to our satisfaction about past violations (including the so-called "alleged studies"), permits highly intrusive inspections of Iran's nuclear facilities, and ends support for Hamas and Hezbollah as part of a "grand bargain" with the West; or 2) a world where Mir Hussein Mousavi -- who was the Ayatollah Khomeini's prime minister from 1981 to 1989 -- wins a new election but then doesn't alter Iran's activities at all?

This is hypothetical, of course, and almost certainly does not reflect the likely policy alternatives. But your choice of which world you'd prefer probably reveals a lot about how you conceive of the national interest, and the degree to which you think foreign policy should emphasize concrete security achievements on the one hand, or normative preferences on the other.

So which is it?

Nobody Knows, and That's OK!

Money quote from Charles Kurzman:

Such moments of mass confusion are unsettling and rare. They usually fade back into routine. Occasionally, however, they create their own new routines, even new regimes, as they did in 1978-1979. In later retelling of these episodes, especially by experts, confusion is often downplayed, as though the outcomes might have been known in advance. But that is not how Iranians are experiencing current events. Their experience, and their response to their experience, will determine the outcome.

So this week, while the political future of Iran seems undecided, let us take note of the undecidedness, so that we won't forget it.

The War on Realism

Neoconservatives have never been fans of realism, but these last few days have seen a resurgence of ideological ax grinding. Here's Jonathan Tobin:

Though the administration’s spin masters are trying to avoid painting the president as a cynical observer who couldn’t care less about the beastly behavior of his proposed “engagement” partner, the meaning of his failure to speak out is becoming more and more obvious. After six months in office, it is time to face up to the fact that what Americans got when they elected Barack Obama last November is the second term of the first President George Bush’s foreign policy.

The first Bush presidency was, of course, the heyday of foreign policy “realism.” It was the elder Bush who was unmoved by the Tiananmen Square massacre. Making a stink about the snuffing out of a movement for Chinese liberty would have interfered with his friendship with the Beijing gerontocracy behind the slaughter. And it was the elder Bush who opposed freedom for the Baltic states and Ukraine when the Soviet Empire was tottering.

I'm not really sure if Tobin is serious here. Just to recap: the realist elder Bush successfully, and peacefully, wound down the Cold War and helped reunify Germany. The younger Bush initiated a war and long-term occupation of Iraq which has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people and billions of dollars spent.

But realism is bad.

June 17, 2009

Iran Needs a Magna Carta

It sounds as though Robert Fisk is doing some really fascinating and brave reporting from inside Iran, but something from this Radio National interview raised an eyebrow:

We've got another great demonstration by the opposition tomorrow evening in the centre of the city. I suspect what they're going to have to do is think whether they can have a system where they reintroduce a prime ministership, so the president has someone underneath him.

Maybe we'd have President Ahmadinejad and a Prime Minister Mousavi or maybe a joint presidency.

All this is what people talk about but it means changing the constitution, it means having a referendum. They didn't believe that the opposition could be so strong and would keep on going.

This strikes me as a very bad idea. The very last thing Iran needs is yet another power source within the regime off which the Supreme Leader can play and leverage his rivals. Part of the problem in Iran is that there are far too many bureaucracies, far too many councils, and far too many delineations of authority. When someone's authority is challenged in Iran they don't clarify it, they create another body to mediate it.

Not happy with the caliber of candidates you have in parliament? Let the Guardian Council handle it! Is your parliament not getting along with your Guardian Council? We have the answer: an Expediency Council! Is your Supreme Leader mucking up the Guardian Council? No problem, call the Assembly of Experts!

And it gets worse than this, believe me.

As I mentioned yesterday, I think talk of revolution in Iran is somewhat premature. If it comes to violence, I don't think the demonstrators can hold. But even if Khamenei were to yield, then what? Mousavi becomes president? So what? The country will remain ripe for exploitation until there's substantive constitutional reform there. Arguably the most functional organization in the country is the IRGC, and that's because they have the guns.

Iran doesn't need to toss out the baby, they just need to clean up the bathwater - they could really use their own Magna Carta. Movements built around identities can be easy for mobilization purposes, but in many ways it's like rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic. I think a constitutionalists movement - akin to the one the country saw in 1906 - would be far more impressive than getting Mir Hossein Mousavi elected to a quasi-functional office.

How about this for a hypothetical:

-- Force the Supreme Leader to sign away certain powers, and clearly enumerate the powers he does have. Reaffirm him as the symbolic figurehead of the Islamic Republic, and the "protector" of the revolution - like a monarch. Let him maintain the ability to make certain appointments, such as the Expediency Council, but make them pass the muster of parliamentary approval.

-- Dissolve the Guardian Council, and have the Expediency Council assume their duties. Put their budget and resources under strict control of the Majlis (parliament). Speaking of which, merge the Assembly of Experts - already an elected body - with the Majlis, forming an upper and lower house of parliament. Let the Assembly maintain its present duties, but add to those the approval of all the Supreme Leader's governmental appointments.

-- Dissolve the presidency, and create a singly-elected executive in the prime minister. Grant the Supreme Leader the kind of authority often bestowed upon presidential figureheads and monarchs, and give him the discretion to call for national elections.

Or something like that. Any other suggestions?

Now to the Polls

A New York Times/CBS News poll (pdf) on the Obama administration is out. It's mostly about domestic issues but they did sneak in a few foreign policy questions (although none on Iran). Right now, 59% of those polled approved of how President Obama was handling foreign policy vs. 23% who disapproved. The numbers were much the same on terrorism (57% approved, 24% disapproved).

Is Bob Kagan Wrong?

Here's Bob Kagan:

Obama's policy now requires getting past the election controversies quickly so that he can soon begin negotiations with the reelected Ahmadinejad government. This will be difficult as long as opposition protests continue and the government appears to be either unsettled or too brutal to do business with. What Obama needs is a rapid return to peace and quiet in Iran, not continued ferment. His goal must be to deflate the opposition, not to encourage it. And that, by and large, is what he has been doing.

Now here's President Obama from today:

“It's important to understand that although there is amazing ferment taking place in Iran, that the difference between Ahmadinejad and Mousavi in terms of their actual policies may not be as great as has been advertised,” the president told CNBC. “Either way, we were going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States, that has caused some problems in the neighborhood and is pursuing nuclear weapons. And so we've got long-term interests in having them not weaponize nuclear power and stop funding organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. And that would be true whoever came out on top in this election.”

I believe Kagan is at least half right. There is no evidence that President Obama is attempting to "deflate" the opposition group being led by Mir Hossein Mousavi. Someone hoping to deflate a movement doesn't help to secure said movement's primary means of communication. And there's no guarantee President Obama could do or say anything that would assist the demonstrators anyway. The risk of undermining those demonstrators, on the other hand, is rather high.

However, it's pretty clear from his remarks today that President Obama's Iran strategy doesn't pay much credence to elected Iranian officials. There are bigger things going on in the region than whether or not these protesters have full enfranchisement, and Obama is clearly acknowledging that. A recount or re-vote in Iran doesn't really address the threat of a nuclear arms race in the region, nor does it end the regime's support for asymmetric terrorist organizations in Palestine.

Mousavi is not Nelson Mandela. He's not even Barack Obama. I think the President's position has thus far been sensible, and that's why Bob Kagan is at best half right. He seems to understand what Obama is doing, but he understands it for all the wrong reasons.

UPDATE: Michael Crowley is sort of on the same page, although Mousavi has not expressed much recent interest in nuclear weapons. It's the program itself that generates unanimous national support.

Don't Give Twitter All the Credit

Pirate Bay has apparently joined the "Green" cause.

The Price of Idealism

Leslie Gelb has a great line in his book Power Rules: "Without vision, men die. With vision, more men die."

Over to you, Jonah Goldberg:

One of the worst things about the Republican party has always been its Kissingerian realpolitik, the “it’s just business” approach to world affairs that amounted to a willful blindness to our ideals beyond our own borders. The Democratic party may not have always gotten the policies right, but it had a firm grasp of the principle.

In the 1990s, liberals championed “nation building,” and many conservatives chuckled at the naïveté of it. Then came Iraq, and Republicans out of necessity embraced what liberals once believed out of conviction. The result? Liberals ran from their principles, found their inner Kissingers and championed a cold realism whose chill emanated from the corpse of their ideals.

Oh my. So, conversely, the Republican party of 2003 found their inner-nation builders and championed a warm military adventure in Iraq whose heat radiated from the actual corpses of thousands of dead Americans and tens of thousands of dead Iraqis.

But realism is bad.

Iran vs. South Korea

Iran's soccer team wears symbolic green bands.

Notice the player on the far right's green band.


Photo Credit: AP Photo

Shouldn't We Look Before We Leap?

One of the major reasons the Iraq war was such an early disaster was that its architects had almost no idea of how Iraqi society worked and what the outcome of regime change would be.

Sure, they thought they knew. We had confident assertions about how Iraq had a middle class, how they loathed Saddam Hussein, how nationalism would trump sectarianism, and how their oil wealth would enable a quick recovery.

It's worth recalling this history when listening to neoconservatives rush headlong to condemn President Obama for his handling of Iran's massive protests. In the Washington Post we have Robert Kagan retailing an oldie-but-goodie from the run-up to the Iraq war, claiming that the president is "objectively" on the side of the Supreme Leader against the protesters. Dan Senor and Christain Whiton suggest we wade in directly on the protestors behalf.

What's missing from these suggestions is any actual evidence that they understand what's going on on the ground in Iran and why our intervention is going to produce the outcome we want. Nowhere in either article is there any suggestion - much less evidence - that the protesters are looking to overturn the entire Islamic Revolution - clerics, Revolutionary Guard and all. Are they simply demanding a recount so they can vote in Mousavi - who is, we should all remember, a member in good standing in the Islamic Revolution, not a Western liberal.

The bottom line is that even if the protesters succeed in getting a total redo of the elections or even succeed in deposing Khamenei in favor of a new Supreme Leader, those decrying President Obama's reticence won't be happy. Imagine for a moment if Mousavi had won and Khamenei let the results stand. Would Robert Kagan and fellow neoconservatives be penning op-eds about how this signals the will of a more conciliatory Iran? Of course not.

The point is that no pundit or analyst has any firm understanding of how these protests are going to end and what they are going to produce. So it's worth recalling that in this debate, those urging for quick, decisive and bold intervention into Iran's domestic politics were utterly - disastrously - wrong when it came to Iraq.

Photo Credit: AP Photo

June 16, 2009

Abusing the "R" Word in Iran


There has been a lot of speculation around the web and in print media as to whether or not what we're witnessing in Iran this week is the beginning of something bigger. We've even heard the "R" word get tossed around, as images of young Iranians marching and praising God in the streets of Tehran evoke images of 1979.

I would, however, advise a bit of caution in throwing the word "revolution" around, especially from an American perspective. The cynic in me would note that we've seen similar demonstrations and protests in Iran, most recently in 1999. Much like today, pundits and analysts were convinced then that street clashes between Iranian students and thuggish Hizballahis were the early indicators of something bigger to come. But that "something" never came, and the reform movement in Iran was subsequently thwarted and crushed.

It's also important to keep some perspective when comparing modern day Iran to the Iran of 1978 and 1979. While this week's demonstrations in Tehran have been impressive, they've yet to reach the range and level of participation as the national strikes and demonstrations of the Khomeinist revolution. As far as we can tell, the current upheaval is mostly isolated to Tehran. And while the many thousands marching on behalf of Mir Hossein Mousavi's election challenge are indeed awe-inspiring, they do not come close to the numbers reached during the Iranian Revolution, when anywhere between 25-30 cities per day were consumed by riots and upheaval. It's believed that nearly 10% of the Iranian population participated in those demonstrations at their height*, which is simply unheard of in the history of popular protest.

Of course, the "Green" revolution could grow. But it will take a lot more than Twitter and western hubris to make it so. Most Iranians have no idea what a 'Tweet' is, and these aspiring revolutionaries will need the nation's clerical class to assist them in turning the tide of public opinion. It looks as though that may be happening.

But even if this isn't the dawn of a revolution, it can still be something pretty inspiring and hopeful. It took Ayatollah Khomeini nearly two decades to build the popular movement that would eventually overthrow the Shah. There were protests and crackdowns dating back to the Kennedy administration. They enjoyed small victories, followed by crushing defeats. These things don't happen overnight.

But the important takeaway point is that the dedicated young men and women we see today seem ready to inherit a country that is rightfully theirs. It's often said that Khomeini's formative years came at the receiving end of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's repressive and anti-Islamic policies. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's formative years came during the hostage crisis and the Iran-Iraq War.

For the kids getting pummeled in the streets of Tehran this week, this is their formative moment. Much like the revolutionaries who preceded them, these young Iranians will remember the crack of the state's billy clubs, and the dismissive remarks of a Supreme Leader indifferent to their cries for fairness and freedom. Washing away the stains of Mossadeq and the wrongs of Jimmy Carter, these Iranians will have a new reason to someday reform their country.

It may not be the "R" word of our preference, but it's comforting nonetheless.

* As written by Charles Kurzman in his book "The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran"


All photos credit: AP Photos

The Leveretts and "Iran Experts"

So here's what I don't get about Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett's piece in yesterday's Politico on the current situation in Iran. One is certainly entitled to his or her own opinion on the matter, and if they truly believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won the Iranian presidential election fair and square, well that's fine.

But at what point do you, if you're the Leveretts, at least acknowledge the fact that you are not a part of the clear consensus forming around the issue? At what point do you stop derisively referring to those with whom you disagree as "Iran experts," and accept the fact that you've become an increasingly marginal voice on the subject?

I don't happen to agree with Mr. and Mrs. Leverett. I do, however, agree with Karim Sadjadpour, Mehdi Khalaji, Meir Javendanfar, Gary Sick, Michael Rubin, Ali Alfoneh, Laura Secor, Reza Aslan, Patrick Clawson, Amir Taheri and many, many others who were either born in Iran, have spent considerable time in Iran, or have dedicated years of study and analysis to the country. These analysts reside all over the spectrum of Iranian policy thinking, but on this matter - the rigging of last Friday's election - they are at near unanimity.

But I guess I've been hoodwinked. Who knew?

P.S. - To be fair, I hold a great deal of respect for Ken Pollack and his Iran expertise, but he apparently remains on the fence over the rigging argument. I can't, however, confirm whether or not he intends to mock and insult all of the above-mentioned experts and analysts. But stay tuned!

UPDATE: Add Farideh Farhi's name to the suspicious list of "Iran experts."

UPDATE II: And Bob Baer.

UPDATE III: Scratch that. Baer has a thoughtful piece in Time arguing - more a word of caution - that Ahmadinejad may have won.

I did an interview with Bob back in October, and it should be noted that his more salient point has less to do with a rigged election, and more to do with the supremacy of Khamenei. he frankly doesn't care about the Iranian presidency. He makes a fair argument.

What to Do in Iran


George Packer isn't happy with the realism on display from the Obama administration as events unfold in Iran:

Part of realism is showing that you have a clear grasp of reality—that you know the difference between decency and barbarism when both are on display for the whole world to see. A stronger American stand—taken, as much as possible, in concert with European countries and through multilateral organizations—would do more to improve America’s negotiating position than weaken it. Acknowledging the compelling voices of the desperate young Iranians who, after all, only want their votes counted, would not deep-six the possibility of American-Iranian talks. Ahmadinejad and his partners in the clerical-military establishment will talk to us exactly when and if they think it’s in their interest. Right now, they don’t appear to. And the tens of millions of Iranians who voted for change and are the long-term future of that country will always remember what America said and did when they put their lives on the line for their values.

A strong declaration of support for those marching on the street might provide them with a psychological boost, but unless we're willing to pair our words with deeds, such a boost may not be decisive. Then what? If the Obama administration doesn't intend to intervene directly in these protests, why should they make strong declaratory statements about them?

June 15, 2009

The Iran We Wanted, and the Iran We Got

Karim Sadjadpour:

“In retrospect, it looks like the entire campaign was a show, in the sense that Ayatollah Khamanei was never going to let Ahmadinejad lose. Assuming these results are allowed to stand, I think we should be clear about what type of regime we are dealing with in Tehran. Just as we talk about Assad’s Syria and Mubarak’s Egypt, I think we are now dealing with Khamanei’s Iran.”

And just as we deal with Mubarak's Egypt - and as some have insisted, should be dealing with Assad's Syria - the United States will talk to Khamenei's Iran.

Prior to the vote, the two schools of thought tended to be as follows: the election doesn't matter vs. the election kind of matters. I was in the latter camp. While I feel for those Iranians who voted for Mousavi, and firmly believe that they have been disenfranchised, the concerns of the few cannot change the regional considerations of the west.

Hopefully, President Obama - in his efforts for rapprochement with the regime - will acknowledge this, and insist that direct negotiations be with Khamenei and not Ahmadinejad.

The Khatami Factor


I don't have much time to blog today, but I wanted to direct readers toward an interesting piece in today's Washington Post by Ken Ballen and Patrick Doherty arguing for the legitimacy of last week's presidential election in Iran.

Others have already critiqued it, but I would just like to point out one or two of the questionable assumptions made in the Terror Free Tomorrow poll conducted by Ballen and Doherty. One being, that elections in Iran roll out much as they do in functional, fair and more representative democracies. This is not the Iran of 2009 (or 1388, if you prefer).

Remember that Iran's presidential election - although broken down in a province-by-province fashion - is not decided by a system of electors; it's a popular vote with the option for a runoff should no candidate pass the 50% mark.

Nearly 70% of Iran's population lives in cities, making their elections more akin to the urban machine systems of the 20th Century in the United States (there's a reason Ahmadinejad wanted to hand out potatoes to voters). Three weeks - accounting roughly for the time between the TFT poll and this weekend's vote - is plenty of time to organize, mobilize and whip up voter support in a country with Iran's population density.

And I believe, as my title alludes, that there's one other neglected X factor in this discussion: Mohammad Khatami. Ballen and Doherty are correct to note that Mousavi's name ID was rather low with the young. However, this is why campaign literature, posters and signs often adjoined the two men. Khatami - while somewhat of an elite player himself - is still immensely popular in the country. His appearance at rallies and on signage with Mousavi was no mere sign of support, but a calculated effort by the Mousavi team to raise their candidate's name recognition with the crucial youth vote in Iran.

Whether or not it worked, I do not know. But in a place like Iran, a lot can change in three weeks.

UPDATE: Jon Cohen echoes my point about the turnout model in Iran.


All photos credit: AP Photos

Israel's Attitude Toward Iran's Nuclear Weapons

Interesting polling reported by Haaretz:

Only one in five Israeli Jews believes a nuclear-armed Iran would try to destroy Israel and most see life continuing as normal should the Islamic Republic get the bomb, an opinion poll published on Sunday found.

The survey, commissioned by a Tel Aviv University think-tank, appeared to challenge the argument of successive Israeli governments that Iran must be denied the means to make atomic weapons lest it threaten Israel's existence.

Asked how a nuclear-armed Iran would affect their lives, 80 percent of respondents said they expected no change. Eleven percent said they would consider emigrating and 9 percent said they would consider relocating inside Israel.

June 14, 2009

Will Rafsanjani Act?


Uskowi believes it may be the last legal recourse for Mousavi:

The only legal course available to Mousavi and his supporters, if and when the Guardian Council rejects his appeal as expected, is the intervention of the Assembly of Expert. The Assembly, comprised of 86 leading Shia jurisprudence experts, has the constitutional power to select, supervisor and dismiss the supreme leader.

The supervision and dismissal clauses have never been used by the Assembly, and it is considered vey unlikely the Assembly would now use its constitutional power to force the supreme leader to nullify the election results. What makes it intriguing, however, is the fact that Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani was elected last year as the Assembly’s chairman and has strong support within the 86-person assembly, all clerics like himself. Rafsanjani has emerged as the most powerful opponent of Ahmadinejad and supporter of Mousavi.

In his now famous open letter to Khamenei last week, he warned Khamenei on his responsibility to insure a fair election. Some of us saw the reference as a veiled threat that the assembly can and might exercise its rights to “supervise” the leader and his decisions.

UPDATE: And it looks like Rafsanjani may have stepped in.

But Everyone I Know Voted for Mousavi!

There has been some push back against people such as myself who are convinced the Iranian election was rigged. These critics argue that an Ahmadinejad win is completely plausible, as he had a strong base and close ties to the Revolutionary Guards (a good GOTV machine...wonderful motivators, they are). Moreover, the crux of their argument pivots on the idea that the effete media - holed up in effete northern Tehran, doing their effete-y things - were drawn to the young, intelligent and vibrant message of Mousavi and his supporters. Flynt Leverett has argued as much.

I suppose we shouldn't be so quick to dismiss this counter-argument. It reminds me of an alleged quote, often attributed to a "Manhattan socialite," after having learned of George McGovern's crushing defeat at the hands of President Richard Nixon: "How could McGovern lose? Everyone I know voted for him."

I think Juan Cole does a pretty thorough job of dismantling this theory on the election, although I prefer the pithy retort of one Blake Hounshell:

If Ahmadinejad were really the victor, why would he be detaining the opposition? Why kick out foreign journalists?


These are not the actions of a magnanimous, confident victor

And this is not what democracy looks like. This isn't the behavior of a regime empowered by its citizens, but rather, one living in fear of them.

"God Is Great"

Iranians yell and chant from their rooftops into the Tehran night:

(h/t niacINsight)

A Reminder

If you're interested in what's going down in Iran, make sure to read Michael Totten. He has a very useful and frequently updated roundup of video, images and commentary.

World Record: Iran Edition

I asked a few Iranian analysts and experts - on the record - to provide some feedback on the situation in Iran this weekend:

Mehdi Khalaji:

Friday’s election in Iran was beyond an engineered election, with large-scale manipulation as we have become used to in recent years; it was a unique military coup led by the office of supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to keep Ahmadinejad’s government - backed by the Revolutionary Guard - in power for the next four years. Vice President Biden’s comment on Sunday that “monitors and officials do not yet have enough information to gauge whether the results are accurate” may seem true, and the election office in the Ministry of Interior maybe did count the cast ballots right. But there is much evidence that the government simply disregarded the votes and announced the numbers regardless of actual counts. The common practice in previous election was first the official announcement of the election’s final result by the ministry of interior, then its approval by the Guardian Council, and finally the official statement of the supreme leader. This time, even before the interior ministry’s final announcement, Ayatollah Khamenei issued a statement calling the election a “divine miracle," a “people’s epic” and a “completely fair and free one."

On June 4, in his keynote speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, Barak Obama admitted the U.S. government's involvement in the 1953 coup which led to the overthrow of “a democratically elected Iranian government." Since recent developments in Iran have been widely seen as a military coup under the cover of election, recognition of Ahmadinejad’s government would be interpreted by a majority of Iranian people as the U.S. support for another military coup in Iran.

Meir Javedanfar:

The current events in Iran do not only impact domestic policy, they also have regional ramifications. The country which stands to gain most from the current public animosity against Ahmadinejad is Israel. Owing to his denial of the Holocaust and his calls for the elimination of Israel, Jerusalem, over the last number of years has been trying to isolate Ahmadinejad.

The recent walkout by 30 European countries during Ahmadinejad's speech at the Durban conference was one achievement. However, the very fact that Ahmadinejad's election has created such a domestic backlash is a more notable accomplishment. This is especially true since tax payer's money from Iran has been used to finance support for Hamas and Hezbollah. This was demonstrated recently when during the recent Israel war against Gaza, Iranian cell phone users were charged a nominal fee as assistance to the people of Gaza. They were given no choice about it. There is also the fact that Hamas and Hezbollah have both backed Ahmadinejad's election and congratulated him. This will undoubtedly make them more unpopular in Iran.

However, if Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not push forward with the peace process, he will find that these achievements will be short lived.

The recent defeat of Hezbollah at the polls in Lebanon, and the backlash in Iran against Ahmadinejad's election and extremist policies have provided Israel with a golden opportunity to better relations with the PLO. Such a policy will further weaken extremist elements in the region, and more importantly, would improve Israel's own position in the region and with its most important ally, the United States of America.

Ali Alfoneh:

Elections in the Islamic Republic are neither fair nor free, but unlike Iraq under Saddam Hussein the Iranian leadership usually manages to manipulate the elections in a very sophisticated and elegant way in an attempt to portray itself as an Islamic democracy. The 2009 presidential election however was not an exercise in sophistication and elegance. The final election result - 85 percent voter turnout and Ahmadinejad victory with 62.63 percent of the total vote and a modest 33.75 percent of the vote to the closest contender Mir-Hossein Mousavi - not to mention ridiculously low number of votes of Rezai and Karrubi – shows that the Iranian leadership couldn't be bothered to produce an elegant fraud. Unlike earlier elections there is still no detailed data on breakup of the vote in the provinces, but allegations of lack of voting forms in constituencies supporting Ahmadinejad’s rivals, prohibitions against the presence of representatives of the rivals at many voting stations, and election results from native villages and towns of Mousavi, Karrubi and Rezai most surprisingly showing more than a 90 percent vote for Ahmadinejad, demonstrate rather clumsy rigging tactics

The question is why all the clumsiness? Why the demonstrative fraud insulting the intelligence of the electorate? Why beat up elderly women and young students in Tehran demanding to know what has become of their vote? And why the brutal repression of dissent in front of the entire foreign press corps? The Islamic Republic may consider this sickening theater a demonstration of power, and the drama may reveal the new rules of the game in a regime changing very fast. Ahmadinejad is indeed a candidate of change and during his presidency the trend towards the militarization of Iran has grown faster. Once ruled by the clergy and guarded by the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Republic under Ahmadinejad is developing into a military regime, ruled and guarded by the Revolutionary Guards. Four more years with Ahmadinejad will provide more change you can believe in. Whether it is change to the better or worse is another question.

Michael Rubin:

Reporters and academics interact disproportionately with reformists and intellectuals in Iran, most of whom are as horrified of Ahmadinejad as we are in the West. U.S. analysts therefore regularly underestimate the appeal of the Principalists in the provinces and among the poor and dispossessed. Mir-Hossein Mousavi understood Ahmadinejad’s appeal, and so urged massive turnout. It appears his calls were heeded. It also appears that the powers-that-be threw the election. The Iranian people may be outraged, but ultimately the brazenness of the fraud suggests two immediate conclusions:

1) Sovereignty in the Islamic Republic comes from God. To the regime’s leaders, it does not matter what the people think. To muddle through reform is a fool’s dream. If and when change comes in the Islamic Republic, it will come as it did in Ceausescu’s Romania, when the security forces revolt.

2) We should be extraordinarily cautious about diplomacy. The Supreme Leader clearly disdains both process and law. It will be far easier to undercut an agreement reached with “The Great Satan” than it will be to disenfranchise millions of Iranians.

More to Worry About

While the world is gripped by Iran's post-election chaos, Kori Schake reminds us that there's a little issue called Iraq:

According to the Brookings Institution’s Iraq Index, enemy initiated attacks are around 150 per month now, down ten-fold from 1,600 at their height. Iraqi casualties are still staggeringly high at 500 per month, but that is 3,500 fewer Iraqis losing their lives each month from when violence was at its height. By a substantial margin, those victims are Iraqi, civilian, and Shi’ia.

Politically, Iraq has made progress on about half the “benchmarks” demanded by Congress of the Bush administration. Worryingly, those Brookings grades as unmet are: the amnesty law, de-Baathification, federal funding to the provinces, the hydrocarbons law, resolving the status of Kirkuk, and the government absorbing Sons of Iraq into the security forces. To give a measure of the Maliki government’s resistance, of the 100,000 Sons of Iraq who helped break the back of the insurgency, only 5,200 have been integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces. Each of these issues could be flashpoints for violence as the United States disengages. And add to these troubles an Iraqi budget crunch that is slowing the pace of Iraq’s security force expansion.

But other than that, we've won.

“They Beat Me Like a Pig”

Roger Cohen, reporting from Tehran:

On Vali Asr, the handsome avenue that was festive until the vote, crowds swarmed as night fell, confronting riot police and tear gas. “Moussavi, Moussavi. Give us back our votes,” they chanted.

Majir Mirpour grabbed me. A purple bruise disfigured his arm. He raised his shirt to show a red wound across his back. “They beat me like a pig,” he said, breathless. “They beat me as I tried to help a woman in tears. I don’t care about the physical pain. It’s the pain in my heart that hurts.”

He looked at me and the rage in his eyes made me want to toss away my notebook.

Call to Iranian RCW Readers

If any of you are out there and are reading this site, we would love to hear and share your feedback. Please email us your accounts so that we can get a full understand of the situation this evening in the Islamic Republic. Tell us where you live, and what you are seeing and hearing.

Watching the Inevitable in Iran


There remains a lot of confusion and still unanswered questions about what is happening in Iran. An interesting debate is emerging, from what I can tell, over what exactly happened. I can't confirm whether or not opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi is under house arrest.

Some are arguing that the electoral outcome may well be what it appears: an Ahmadinejad landslide. I think these analysts make some valid points, but to me the crime is in the cover up. Consider me in the Sick-Sullivan-Cole camp until proven otherwise.

Even setting aside this election, anyone who pays close attention to Iran could see the writing on the proverbial wall: Ahmadinejad's "privatization" scheme, the IRGC's heavy influence in the economy, the populist condemnation of "corrupt" clerics from Ahmadinejad's camp, and so on.

I stick to my point from yesterday: Iran is no longer a theocracy. To blame this on "The Mullahs," or worse, Iran's "Right-Wing" is to fundamentally misunderstand what is taking place there. This is a secular power grab done under the guise of Islam and revolution. The perpetrators are the enemies of western rapprochement, and the proponents of economic isolation. The Revolutionary Guards benefit from Iran's economic isolation, much like the mafia benefited from prohibition and other criminalized behavior. As any stereotypical movie gangster might say, "why ruin a good thing?"

I believe we are witnessing the disposal of Islamic pretense, and in fact a more honest and apparent Iranian police state. How that affects their place in the region and the world is still to be determined.

This story is moving far too fast for the press to keep up with. For those of you interested in keeping tabs, I highly recommend Andrew Sullivan, Nader Uskowi, NIAC Insight, our friend Michael Totten and the folks over at Tehran Bureau. Don't forget Twitter, either. Iran is among the "emerging trends," and the social media giant offers us interesting, real-time news from inside the country.

And of course, keep refreshing RealClearWorld throughout the day, as we keep you updated and informed on the election's aftermath.

Remain critical of everything you read at this point, as everyone has their own agenda - including myself. Full disclosure, I hoped for a Mousavi win not because I thought it would have dramatic impact on U.S. interests in the region, but because I felt he would help liberalize and enhance what is a truly wonderful country and a wonderful people.

Apparently, the IRGC agreed.


All photos credit: AP Photos

Peru: The Anti-Venezuela

On June 5, an ongoing dispute between the Peruvian government and the indigenous groups that occupy the Amazon region erupted in bloody mayhem. Since then, both sides have been trying to win the publicity battle. For investor-friendly President Alan Garcia, a victory would mean one thing: not following Venezuela and Bolivia as a lynchpin for foreign investors.

So far, the facts as to what happened June 5 are a bit fuzzy. As a result, both sides are trying to advance their own version. Thousands of Indians had been protesting the government’s decision to allow investors into the Amazon region to look for gas and oil. A blockade of Indians at the Bagua province forced the police to try to recover the main roads. This led to the deadly confrontation. The government places the official count of dead Indians at 10. Indigenous leaders, however, say that hundreds of protestors are still unaccounted for and that police threw some of the dead bodies into nearby rivers.

President Garcia has taken a proactive stance by defending the government’s decision to open up the Amazon region and by condemning the protestors that he believes caused the ruckus. This past week, the Interior Ministry’s office released a video that shows graphic footage of some of the police officers (24 in all) that were killed in the incident. In the video, Garcia says that the brutal police killings shows the “ferocity and savagery” of the indigenous leaders that are leading the protest. One leader, Alberto Pizango, fled to Nicaragua after being accused of sedition for inciting the violence.

In an effort to quiet the Indians, Garcia decided to suspend the decrees that originally caused the protest. However, indigenous leaders are not satisfied since he did not repeal them. This past week, thousands of protestors emerged across Peru to show their disapproval for Garcia’s policies. In some instances, police were forced to spray tear gas into the mobs.

At the heart of the issue is Garcia’s desire to see Peru continue its China-like economic growth through foreign investment. Some analysts believe that Peru’s growth may enable it to be the only Latin American country to remain untouched by the worldwide recession. Furthermore, Peru enjoys the competitive advantage of being surrounded by Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, all countries that have chosen to nationalize their energy industries. With an abundance of resources and very little regional competition, Peru has attracted investors from around the world. Garcia would like to keep Peru’s reputation for being a stable country for business.

Nevertheless, the Peruvian government has failed to take into account the political effect of not including the Indians in the negotiations over the Amazon region. There are more than 50 indigenous groups that live in the Amazon, an area that encompasses two-thirds of Peru. They represent only 1% of Peru’s total population. Because of the Indians’ small numbers, the Peruvian government has never seen the need to negotiate with them directly. However, Peru’s indigenous groups are much more organized than they used to be as evidenced by the mass protests throughout Peru this past week. The Bagua incident even caught the eye of American actress, Q’orianka Kilcher, who came to Lima to support the Indians.

Time will only tell if Garcia has pushed the Indians too far. Deadly protests are certainly not good for business.

Russia: Near Abroad Boiling All Over

Georgia is still experiencing wide-scale opposition unrest, while its government is not giving ground in a stand-off that is lasting several months. The opposition is now resorting to physical attacks on the members of Mikhail Saakashvili's government, though the attacks are not serious at this point. On June 12, a group of opposition activists - about few dozen people - attacked the car of David Bakradze, the Georgian Parliament Speaker. Some oppositioners shouted "Shame!", kicked and beat the car with sticks, while others pelted the automobile with stones and bottles. As police tried to clear the way for Bakradze's car, an altercation ensued, with several of the activists hurt as a result.

A day earlier, government opponents hurled eggs at the car belonging to the chairman of the Georgian Election Commission Levan Tarkhnishvili. According to the eyewitnesses, the incident occurred on Thursday evening at the Rustaveli Avenue when Tarkhnishvili came to the nearby theater. Interfax News Agency reported that one of the oppositioners grabbed the official's jacket and demanded an answer to the question as to why Tarkhnishvili "sold Georgia out.". Afterwards, the Georgian opposition activists threw eggs at the official's SUV.

June 12 marked the first time in the past two months that the Parliament of Georgia held an official plenary meeting. Starting in April, when anti-government protests commenced across Tbilisi, the deputies were working on a limited schedule, primarily conducting field meetings of parliamentary committees, so as not to provoke a clash with protesters in the capital. Acording to the Russian information agency REGNUM, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has been forced to change residences due to ongoing protests. He moved from the capital Tbilisi to the another residence, located in Adjara region (about 250 kilometers from the capital, on the black sea coast). He still refuses to reign his post.

Saakshvilki's opposition continues to blame him in mismanaging the country's politics and resources. On June 12, Georgian opposition leader David Gamkrelidze accused Mikhail Saakashvili that he sold to Russia the country's only main railroad. Speaking at a meeting held in front of the Parliament of Georgia, Gamkrelidze said: "What other crime can the country's main official do? We already have a divided territory, strategic objects are sold to Russia...the country lost investments because of President's actions...." Gamkrelidze also noted that the contract for the sale of the rail road has not yet been signed, due to the fact that protests continue in Tbilisi. According to the Interfax News Agency, Chairman of the "Russian Railroads" Vladimir Yakunin is due to arrive in Georgia, with one of the possible topics for his visit to be the discussion over the sale of the Georgian railway. The representatives of "Georgian Railways" Joint Stock Company, denied information on the planned visit by Mr. Akunin.

In a move sure to further shake up the tumultuous Russia-Ukraine relationship, by the special decree of the President Medvedev, Victor Chernomyrdin was released from the post of Russian Ambassador to Ukraine. He was appointed to another post - a special representative of President of the Russian Federation on economic cooperation with former Soviet States.

Chernomyrdin, speaking at a June 11 reception at the Russian embassy, dedicated to the Day of Russia, bid farewell to Ukraine: "I am finishing my stay in Ukraine ... Thank you for everything" - said the already former ambassador.

Chernomyrdin was appointed an Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to Ukraine in May 2001. Prior to that, he was a deputy of the Russian State Duma, and president of the board of directors of Gazprom, Russia's mainstay energy giant. A seasoned and experienced politician, he served as Chairman of the government under President Boris Yeltsin in 1992-1998. In March 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev awarded to Chernomyrdin the "Order of Merit" for his contribution to strengthening the international authority of Russia.

The Russian Ambassador was not always well received in Kiev - largely due to his sharp comments about the host country. For example, in February 2009, the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs delivered an official note of protest to the Russian diplomat, because "he allowed himself to say unfriendly and very undiplomatic comments about the country and its leaders." In particular, Chernomyrdin said about Viktor Yushchenko - Ukraine's President - that "at first impression, he looks like a normal guy," but then expressed his hope that "more normal, sober people" will come to Ukraine;s government in place of its President. in Russia, Chernomyrdin is famous for his iconic quote: "We wanted to do better, but ended up as always."

President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko has instructed officials to prepare proposals on the introduction of customs and border clearance on the Belarusian-Russian border, similar to that which exists on the Russian side. At present, there is no official customs structure in place between the two countries. The move is explained as a possible response to the fact that Russia has not provided a $500 million loan to Minsk, an act that triggered an angry reaction from the Belarusian president.

June 13, 2009

More Video from Tehran


(h/t Michael Totten)

Something Smells Fishy

Some good sense from Juan Cole.


There are rumors - rumors, mind you - that Hashemi Rafsanjani has been detained by authorities. Rafsanjani is a former president, the head of the Expediency Council, and a key figure on the Assembly of Experts.

If true, this is huge. Will update as more info comes along.

UPDATE: Speculation is abound, especially in Iran judging from the 'tweets' I've been reading. There are rumors that Rafsanjani has resigned, and that Mir-Hossein Mousavi has been placed under house arrest.

Please note, none of this has been confirmed. However, it's telling of what has gone down in Tehran in a mere 24 hours. Yesterday's scenes of joy and song have now been replaced by fire, violence, and fear.

What happens next is anyone's guess.

Twittering While Tehran Burns

I must confess, I'm kind of a Twitter critic. However, today's protests in Iran are a fine example of the utility in social media tools like Twitter.

Iran and related topics are among the "trending topics" today - #IranElection #mousavi #iran #ahmadinejad - and real-time 'tweets' are coming in every minute from Iran and elsewhere. Cell towers are being shut down, and Iranians are well aware that the police state is preparing to come down on them.

And while Twitter provides the news, Flickr is providing the images.

Things are heating up, stay tuned.

Picture of the Day

Courtesy of Nader Uskowi:


Unrest in Tehran

Meir Javedanfar brings this video to our attention:

MSNBC is on the scene:

Not a Theocracy


Laura Rozen reports:

Overnight Saturday, Ghaemi, speaking to sources in Iran, said that there was an unconfirmed rumor that Mousavi, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami will soon issue a statement.

"Moussavi, Rafsanjani and Khatami are about to issue a joint-statement demanding a halt to the vote count and will demand a recount after an unsuccessful meeting with Khamenei that lasted until early this morning Tehran time," said Pooya Dayanim, a LA-based Iranian.

Ghaemi also said that Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a Paris-based Iranian film director, just did an interview with Radio Farda "in which he said he can say on behalf of Mousavi HQ, that the Interior Ministry had told them they are the winners, except they can't publicize it yet. And it was after that the events of last few hours unfolded. He was very certain in stating that."

"It sounds to me that the Mousavi camp was at first very cautious, and this is a very, very tense phase of this isssue," Parsi told The Cable overnight Saturday. The opposition "wants to take this to Khamenei and test their assumptions and see to what extent is Khamenei going to stand by Ahmadinejad and to what extent they can they convince him not to do so.

"They calculate, they need to do this first, before they do a public fight," Parsi continued. "They calculate, that they have to go the quiet route first.

"If they went directly into the streets ... it could have been a pretext to clamp down," Parsi added. "They don't want to do that without assuring themselves that they have no other options."

What's emerging here could be interesting. Iran hawks prefer to label the Iranian police state as simply "The Mullahs," but the legitimate clerics in this dispute are the ones standing with Mir-Hossein Mousavi against ONE Mullah and his secular police apparatus. If the election has been rigged in such a fashion, then what you are in fact seeing is the dropping of religious pretense in the "Islamic" Republic of Iran. This is a secular police state in action.

"Iran hands have used words like "coup" to describe what they believe may be taking place," writes Rozen.

Meanwhile, Mousavi himself perhaps put it best:

"I’m warning that I won’t surrender to this manipulation," he said, adding that the election outcome “is nothing but shaking the pillars of the Islamic Republic of Iran sacred system and governance of lie and dictatorship."

For more on Iran's secular transition, I highly recommend our own Meir Javedanfar's most recent piece.

June 12, 2009

Surprise, Confusion, Anger and Joy in Tehran

The Iranian elections are not over yet. Votes are still being counted. Soon after the polls closed, government owned press and organizations announced wide ranging results within hours. At midnight, Tehran time (15:30 EST), government officials responsible for the elections said that 20% of votes were counted and Ahmadinejad was leading by approximately 70%, while Mousavi had 30%. Within half an hour the government run English language station Press TV reported that more than 40% of the votes were counted, with Ahmadinejad leading the pack.

This created confusion, and anger. Reformists want to know how can results change so much. According to BBC Persian, Mousavi has written a letter to the Supreme Leader Khamenei. However, as time goes an Ahmadinejad victory seems more and more certain.

According to the Tehran based Asr Iran news, by 21:00 EST, 36 million votes were counted and Ahmadinejad has won more than 24 million, giving him more than 66% of the total. Unless a miracle happens, Mousavi and the opposition have lost.

Tonight, Ahmadinejad supporters have reason to celebrate. However, the question which will linger in the minds of the opposition at home and abroad is: did Ahmadinejad win fairly, or did “invisible hands” help him? We will have a good idea about the answer, in the not too distant future. The answer though, will not change anything.

Bigger Than Mousavi


Unsettling news from STRATFOR:

Prior to the announcement of the results, Mousavi held a press conference in which he said he was the winner of the election. The opposition camp is greatly concerned about fraud, and STRATFOR has been told that Mousavi has vowed to resist any fraud, even if it entails taking to the streets. This means there is considerable risk of unrest should Ahmadinejad emerge as the winner. But so far there is no evidence that the government is mobilizing security forces to deal with any such eventuality.

I think what Mousavi has managed to organize here today is impressive and laudable. But the frustration he has helped channel is bigger than him, and it may soon bubble over into something ugly if what appears to be early and blatant vote manipulation is allowed to continue.

The question then becomes, what are these Iranian "Greens" willing to do about it? If the election is an outright theft in Ahmadinejad's favor, will they allow it to stand?

(h/t Andrew Sullivan)

Photo credit: AP Photos

The Bed the Neocons Must Lie In, Ctd.

Abe Greenwald writes:

There are only so many times you can say it, but it bears repeating: the four candidates were winnowed down from a pool of 475 by the Guardian Council. That Iranians “peacefully” embrace this autocratic manipulation as electoral freedom is a sad sign of a beaten down citizenry, not an indication of nascent democracy.

I find this curious. Did Mr. Greenwald embrace the blue and purple fingers in Iraq and Afghanistan unflinchingly? Is he under the false assumption that vote rigging, voter suppression and exclusionary tactics didn't occur in these elections?

What about our allies in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt? Does he truly think the citizens of these autocratic nations would scoff at Iran's "sad sign" of a democracy?

The Bed the Neocons Must Lie In


Monitoring various corners of the political blogosphere today has been informative and amusing. The fact that some columnists and pundits have been so taken aback by Iran's public displays of democracy is in fact more telling of the false choice often offered on Iran.

Some believe - and have reminded us ad nauseum as of late - that "something is happening" in Iran. What that is, no one seems to be certain of. The shock and surprise is understandable, as much of the rhetoric we've heard from the Right regarding Iran seems very, very inconsistent with the scenes we've witnessed this week.

Those who have argued that Iran is a completely top-down, totalitarian state are now scrambling to qualify the quasi-anarchic scenes of joy and protest in the streets of Iran this week. Indeed, those who once over-simplified the complex and congested power structure in Iran are now rushing to dismiss the power and legitimacy of the Iranian president.

Max Boot, for example, is correct to throw cold water on Mir-Hossein Mousavi's "reformist" bona fides. His dilemma, however, is that he resides in a camp that diminished Iran's complex power structure, opting instead to make Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the face of Iranian intentions, and the 'Mullahs' the quick and easy bumper sticker bad guys. Meanwhile, the only legitimate 'Mullah' running in this race is Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karroubi; arguably the most reform-minded of the bunch, and an unlikely victor in today's contest.

Mousavi is not Iran's Barack Obama, nor is he their John Kerry. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't Sarah Palin, or Harry Truman, or Martin Van Buren. Karroubi isn't Ralph Nader, and the Supreme Leader isn't Dick Cheney. This isn't Prague Spring or Tiananmen Square.

What this is is a surprisingly fun and hopeful election in a surprisingly democratic and dynamic country - A surprise, that is, if you mistakenly believed the Iran hawks over the past four years. many of those hawks remain frustratingly correct to this day, but they unfortunately did a disservice to their own argument by choosing to exaggerate rather than educate.

We should celebrate what's happening in Iran today, no matter who ultimately gets the job of president. What we shouldn't do is continue making false and sweeping assumptions about the surprising/unsurprising Islamic Republic of Iran.

UPDATE: Now the problem, of course, is that the Left is likewise going to do an about-face on the efficacy of the Iranian presidency. Suddenly, somehow, Iran will change course on nuclear weapons, and relations with the west will automatically improve. That may well be the case, but it's worth reminding these newly-minted optimists that we've witnessed this before: the election of Mohammad Khatami was well received in the west, and it was widely believed that "something was happening in Iran" back then, too. We of course now know that the nuclear weapons program carried on unhindered during Khatami's tenure as President, and that Iranian support for asymmetric terrorist organizations in the region didn't skip a beat.

The truth of the matter is that Mousavi has ruled out any discussion of the Iranian nuclear energy program, much as Ahmadinejad has. The current president simply makes the same point in a far more bellicose fashion, which gets to the heart of the big difference between these two gentlemen.

Mousavi would be a substantive upgrade - I have already said as much. But we mustn't succumb to hyperbole just yet.

Photo credit: AP Photos

Iran Votes

A married couple casts their ballot in Iran.


The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei casts his ballot.


Reformist challenger, Mir-Hossein Mousavi Khameneh shows off his purple finger.


Iranians gather at a polling station.


Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


All photos credit: AP Photos

June 11, 2009

Al Qaeda Flees


Critics of the Obama administration's nation building efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan have noted that one of the glaring vulnerabilities of the plan is al Qaeda's ability to pick up and move on. So while we continue to wage a campaign against the natives, the transnational threat (i.e. the one that would actually kill Americans in America) can relocate.

As the New York Times reports, this could be happening in Pakistan:

American officials say they are seeing the first evidence that dozens of fighters with Al Qaeda, and a small handful of the terrorist group’s leaders, are moving to Somalia and Yemen from their principal haven in Pakistan’s tribal areas. In communications that are being watched carefully at the Pentagon, the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency, the terrorist groups in all three locations are now communicating more frequently, and apparently trying to coordinate their actions, the officials said.

The report stresses that these are fighters - not the senior leadership - but it's not a stretch to imagine that if things get hot in Pakistan, they'll hit the road too. Of course, that's a good thing. Wherever they wind up won't have nuclear weapons, even if the prospect of al Qaeda getting their hands on a nuke is more of a sensational headline than serious probability. If they're moving across borders they're going to be very vulnerable. But it does raise the question of what we do if/when other jihadists base camps pop up in other failed/failing states. Particularly, what happens if these camps arise while the U.S. is still nation building inside Pakistan?

The U.S. military can deploy rapidly - but not as rapidly as al Qaeda. And once the U.S. military does deploy, they tend to stay put.

The Obama administration, as well as Senators Kerry and Lugar, have a lot invested in helping Pakistani civil society - to the tune of $5 billion. If the NY Times reporting is accurate, and if a broader movement of al Qaeda leadership should occur, it raises a number of questions: Is the money we've promised to Pakistan still good if bin Laden and company depart? Is the establishment of a new safe haven in Somalia going to require the U.S. to nation build there too?

Photo credit: AP Photos

American Views of Iran


Today, the world may get a better sense of how Iranians are feeling about their economy and their relationship with the West (even if those views are immaterial to the real power in Iran). But what of America's views of Iran?

A recent CBS News poll offers a glimpse:

A CNN/Opinion Research Corporation Poll conducted in early April asked Americans their views of a number of foreign countries, and Iran received the most negative opinions of any country -- 87 percent said they view Iran unfavorably. That figure included 47 percent who held a "very" unfavorable opinion of the country.

Significant majorities have held negative perceptions of Iran since CNN started asking about the country in 1989. That year, 89 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of Iran – the highest ever in that poll.

Still, there is evidence that Americans are willing to go down the diplomatic road with Iran. According to a CBS News/New York Times Poll released in April, 53 percent of Americans favored the U.S. establishing diplomatic relations with Iran even while that country has a nuclear program; 37 percent were opposed to such relations...

Moreover, there is little desire among the public to engage Iran militarily. A February CBS News/New York Times Poll found that just 13 percent of Americans expressed the view that Iran is a threat to the U.S. that requires military action now. Most – 58 percent - said Iran is a threat that could be contained through diplomacy. In recent years, Americans have consistently favored diplomacy with Iran over military action. On this matter Democrats (69 percent) and Republicans (50 percent) agree that Iran can be contained through diplomatic means.

Yet on the diplomatic front, there seems to be some resistance to the idea of simply negotiating with Iran. Rasmussen Reports notes:

Sixty-two percent (62%) of U.S. voters say Iran should be required to stop developing its nuclear weapons capabilities before a meeting is allowed between the Iranian president and the president of the United States...

...Forty-nine percent (49%) of Americans say the United States should help Israel if it launches an attack against Iran, but 37% believe the United States should do nothing.

Secretary Gates has said for the administration's part, they'll be taking a "wait and see" approach.

For more articles and analysis on Iran, check out the RCW country page.

Photo credit: AP Photo

Reset This


Russian President Dmitry Medvedev sights an automatic weapon at a special forces training center while visiting the provincial capital Makhachkala, Dagestan, southern Russia, Tuesday, June 9, 2009. Second right is Chechenya's regional President Ramzan Kadyrov and third right is Dagestan's regional President Mukhu Aliev. Photo credit: AP Photos.

Gush Watch

Just to add to Greg's post on our event in Washington yesterday, I'd like to remind readers to not get taken up by the cursory gushing of a few commentators regarding tomorrow's presidential election in Iran.

For some perspective, I would recommend the more stayed and balanced analysis of Laura Secor:

These days, Mousavi calls himself both a reformist and a believer in revolutionary "principles" (the latter is a catch-phrase among the fundamentalists around Ahmadinejad), and he enjoys support from both camps. He has accepted the endorsement of the main reformist party, but at the same time, he has made a point of keeping his distance. In a televised presidential debate with Ahmadinejad on June 3, Mousavi openly accused the president of dictatorial tendencies. From his public statements, it seems likely that as president, Mousavi would ease up on political repression and bring technocrats back into government (under Ahmadinejad, they have been replaced largely by political cronies). These are important steps for the long-term health of Iran's economy and civil society, but it would be foolish to expect even as significant a change as that which followed Khatami's election in 1997.

Mousavi is not Iran's Barack Obama. He's more like John Kerry, and this election year is strikingly like 2004 in the United States. The incumbent president is deeply unpopular at home and abroad. He came to power with a dubious mandate, but governed in a polarizing fashion that has divided even his one-time allies. Iranians have paid the price in every area of life that is touched by the government. The election is Mousavi's to lose--but to win it, he will need to unite a divided opposition, and inspire at least a few of the beleaguered urban voters who have stopped going to the polls.

Handicapping Iran's Elections


Tomorrow, Iranians go to the polls with the possibility of unseating the internationally reviled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But what, if anything, can these elections tell us about Iran? Yesterday RCW and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy convened a panel to review the state of play in Iran and what impact these elections will have on Iran's relations with America.

To offer some blog friendly highlights:

1. No matter who wins, don't expect change on key issues such as Iran's nuclear program and support for militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. According to the American Enterprises' Ali Alfoneh, the only winner will be the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei - and he drives policy on these issues.

2. While the West frets about Iran's growing nuclear program and terror-ties, these issues aren't really on the radar for ordinary Iranians. They're are far more concerned about the economy, said Meir Javedanfar, director of the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis company and frequent RCW contributor.

3. The West is often blinded by characterizations of the players in Iran's political drama, said the Washington Institute's Mehdi Khalaji. "Reformers" aren't looking to fundamentally rework the Iranian system. They're clerics who cut their teeth in the revolutionary era but have no political allegiance to the current Supreme Leader.

On this point, Alfoneh recalled a debate between the reformist camp and Ahmadinejad supporters over Iran's nuclear program. The reformists noted that during their tenure, Iran was able to import sophisticated technology and nuclear know-how, often with willing help abroad. When the confrontational Ahmadinejad took over, the nuclear program was subjected to sanctions and had to proceed under much more onerous circumstances.

The message for Western observers rooting for a reformist win seemed to be, "be careful what you wish for."

Still, it's not totally doom and gloom. All the panelists agreed that, when pressured, the Supreme Leader will back down. He ended the Iran-Iraq war after repeated public pronouncements to the contrary. Javedanfar noted that while the Supreme Leader does not have the Iranian people as his top concern, he does try to forge a consensus and would be unlikely to proceed along a course that was resolutely opposed by a majority of the Iranian people.

Photo credit: AP Photo

June 8, 2009

Steps To De-Nuclearization

Today at RCW, Greg Scoblete criticizes SecState Clinton's commitment on behalf of the U.S. to respond to a nuclear attack on Israel as if it were an attack on the U.S. Greg finds the promise simply redundant:

The entire premise of extending this guarantee to Israel strikes me as somewhat illogical. If Iran is going to launch a nuclear weapon at Israel - then they are clearly suicidal and no amount of U.S. retaliation is going to matter. If they are not suicidal, then Israel posses a sufficient deterrent. Is there any scenario wherein 100-plus nuclear weapons landing on Iran is not enough?

I would remind Greg how similar commitments have been used in the past as steps to discourage or reverse proliferation of nuclear weapons technology. The most common reason that states pursue nuclear weapons is to ensure their security. Thus, in order to get them to give up such weapons, some comparable security guarantee must be provided -- a "nuclear umbrella". Such promises were key to preventing nuclear weapons development in Germany and South Korea during the Cold War as well as reversing moves towards nuclear weapons by Taiwan in the late 1970s.

The question of whether such promises can work in the case of Israel is a fair one. Ever since the failure of the League of Nations, the promise that one state will respond to an attack on another -- even an ally -- as if it were an attack on itself has suffered from a credibility problem. And Israel uniquely has a very strong principle of self-reliance in its defense policy and is thus unlikely to accept a U.S. "nuclear umbrella" as sufficient reason to abandon its open-secret nuclear deterrent. But the history of the "nuclear umbrella" as a tool to promote de-nuclearization (or at least present the image of promoting de-nuclearization to skeptical states in the region) is sufficient to answer Greg's question.

Quote for the Day


Following the hunt for Gordon Brown from afar is a bit like watching one of those National Geographic programs in which some natural killer -- a tiger, maybe, or a shark, a hawk, a particularly icky spider -- tracks down and destroys its prey before devouring it for the camera.

Key to the awfull thrill is the utter lack of awareness of the prey that it has only moments left to live.

-- Kelly McParland, National Post

Photo credit: AP Photo


I know they don't shy away from the robust use of American power over at Commentary, but this from Jennifer Rubin raises the bar. Reflecting on Obama's speech in Cairo, she writes:

Indeed, the president suggested we don’t even have the right to tell Iran what it can and cannot do.

Indeed, indeed. The president has some nerve.

Hillary Puts Israel Under the Umbrella


Appearing on ABC's This Week, Secretary of State Clinton said a nuclear attack on Israel would be treated as a nuclear attack against the U.S. It's hard to understand this policy, for a variety of reasons:

The principle reason behind the so-called nuclear umbrella was to both dissuade an adversary with a much greater nuclear arsenal (i.e. the Soviet Union) from attacking non-nuclear nations and, in so doing, to dampen the urge of non-nuclear states to seek nuclear weapons in self defense. The umbrella kept the Soviets at bay and the nuclear club elite.

Neither rationale applies to Israel. They are already a nuclear weapons state and their arsenal is, and will remain, orders of magnitude more destructive than any presumptive Iranian capability. Some argue that because Israel is small, any nuclear attack would incapacitate its ability to launch a counter-attack, thereby diminishing the credibility of Israel's nuclear deterrent. Such statements overlook the considerable investment Israel has made in insuring against precisely just such a scenario. Though the details of its nuclear force are understandably secret, Israel is reported to possess an arsenal of some 200 nuclear weapons, capable of being launched from land, air and sea (via three submarines).

The entire premise of extending this guarantee to Israel strikes me as somewhat illogical. If Iran is going to launch a nuclear weapon at Israel - then they are clearly suicidal and no amount of U.S. retaliation is going to matter. If they are not suicidal, then Israel posses a sufficient deterrent. Is there any scenario wherein 100-plus nuclear weapons landing on Iran is not enough?

Photo credit: AP Photo

Obama's Muslim Message


Shortly before President Obama spoke in Cairo, a pair of polling outfits took the pulse of the American and Egyptian publics. First, the U.S.:

Just 28% of U.S. voters think America’s relationship with the Muslim world will be better a year from today.

Twenty-one percent (21%) say that relationship will be worse 12 months from now, according to a new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. A plurality of voters (45%) expects it to be about the same.

Democrats are more confident than Republicans and voters not affiliated with either major party that the president’s outreach efforts and his recent stressing of his Muslim roots will lessen tensions between the United States and the Muslim world.

Meanwhile, World Public Opinion took the pulse of Egyptians:

Asked how much confidence they have in Obama to do the right thing in international affairs, 39 percent say they have some or a lot of confidence--up sharply from the 8 percent who viewed George W. Bush positively in January 2008. Views of the United States government have also improved with favorable views rising to 46 percent from 27 percent in an August 2008 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll.

However, there has been little change in the views of US foreign policy. Sixty-seven percent say that the US plays a negative role in the world.

Large majorities continue to believe the US has goals to weaken and divide the Islamic world (76%) and control Middle East oil (80%). Eight in 10 say the US is seeking to impose American culture on Muslim countries (80%). Six in ten say it is not a goal of the US to create a Palestinian state. These numbers are virtually unchanged from 2008.

Looks like the president has his work cut out for him.

Photo credit: AP Photo

RCW Event: Do Iran's Elections Matter?

This week's election has created quite a media buzz in recent days, but what will the final results mean for average Iranians? How would a new Iranian president - or another four years of Ahmadinejad, for that matter - affect President Obama's Iran policy?

RealClearWorld is pleased to be cosponsoring a special policy discussion on this week's Iranian presidential election with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Please join us Wednesday at 9 a.m. (EDT) for a special live webcast of the event, as the Washington Institute's own Mehdi Khalaji will be joined on the panel by AEI's Ali Alfoneh, as well as Iran expert - and regular RCW contributor - Meir Javedanfar.

June 7, 2009

Russia Scaling Back at Economic Forum

The global crisis continues to affect Russia, including its premier economic forums, long held as indicators of the country's economic health. The mood is very different this year at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum, the main economic and investment event in the Russian Federation, which draws the top commercial and political elites from all over Russia and the world. The Forum's budget is scaled back significantly, and even the entertainment for the rich and influential will be different - last year's "Pink Floyd" concert will now be replaced by the music group "Duran Duran." The guest number has been cut from 2,500 to just 1,500, and each will be fed by traditional Russian cuisine at 100 Euros per person. Last year, participants arrived on private yachts that barely fit on the embankment of the Neva River. Now, according to the St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko, everything should be done "modestly, but with dignity." This year, instead of sailing to town on their yachts and private ships, the businessmen will arrive on their personal aircraft - St. Petersburg "Pulkovo" airport is prepared to accept 150 private planes.

At the opening of the Forum, Anatoly Chubais - former MP and Chairman of Russian Nanotechnologies State Agency - signed an agreement to create the largest production of solar cells in Russia, and commented on major economic issues and trends: "No one can say what will happen to the economies of China and the United States. It is now clear that Russia is fully dependent on them." Alexander Shokhin, President of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, joked: "If we all stand on our knees and pray for the U.S. economy to revive, our country will also bounce back from the crisis."

Elvira Nabiullina, Minister of Economic Development, confirmed that the risk of the "second wave" of the crisis still exists, but in her opinion, Russia has all means to weather the troubles. According to Sergei Polonsky, chairman of one of the largest real estate companies, "this autumn in Russia, there will be a sharp increase in property prices - real estate will cost more than before the crisis."

Russian business was presented in the former imperial capital by the country's commercial elite, since the absence at the forum can be regarded as a sign that one's company is in trouble. Politicians and economists have also sought to reassure investors and businessmen - the Head of Russian Savings Bank German Gref said that the fall in GDP in Russia is slowing down every day: "In the second half of the year, we will see stabilization, after which the country will begin the economic revival."

At the forum, Minister Nabiullina met with Catherine Ashton, European Commissioner for Trade. Both discussed the possibility of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organziation. Nabiullina noted that this year Russia marks the sad date - 16 years of country's attempts to join the WTO. At the end of negotiations, it was stated that Russia may join WTO before the end of the year.

Belorussian President Lukashenko spoke to the Russian media about his country's relationship with the Russian Federation, noting that his republics's strategic support for Moscow is "priceless." With that backdrop, he noted that Russian economic assistance to Minsk during current global crisis is "inadequate." Speaking of the external threats to Russia (in particular, on the part of NATO), he said that "no tanks ever had an easy path through Belarus towards Moscow, and this will remain for the time being." The President urged Moscow to pay closer relationship to the strategic importance of Belarus to Russia: "You think that ten million people who are now a shield for Moscow - is that free? Is Belarus unimportant to you? Important. Who now performs an important function? Belarus - Air Defense, Army and so on. You that think that all of this should be pro bono?"

In the autumn 2008, Russia has agreed to grant Belarus a two billion dollar stabilization loan, but so far, Minsk has received only $500 million from this amount. Some observers believe that further financial support depends on the consent of the republic to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which was long sought from Belarus by the Russians.

In an interview, Lukashenko did hint that money was offered for the the recognition of the two break-away Georgian republics: "I said to the Russian leadership that we can solve this problem. But nonetheless, they said that if we recognize Ossetia and Abkhazia, there will be $500 million dollars." During the interview, Lukashenko gave no definitive answer whether his country will recognzie the provinces.

Ongoing opposition protests in Georgian capital Tbilisi are becoming more dangerous to the participants - on June 3rd, unknown individulas kidnapped two female activists of the youth wing of "Democratic Movement - United Georgia," headed by Nino Burjanadze, former Speaker of the Parliament. The criminal investigation has been launched into the event, but the Ministry of Internal Affairs has not officially commented about the incident. The victims reported that the kidnappers pushed them into the jeep, took to the outskirts of Tbilisi, and stopped near the cemetery. The young women were asked questions about their political party, and one of them was beaten. Both activists were released about six hours after the abduction.

Guatemala: The Next Mexico

There is wide speculation that Mexican drug traffickers may be setting up shop in Guatemala in light of President Calderon’s war against organized crime. A recent article in the LA Times, “Drug Violence Spilling Into Guatemala,” highlighted the increasing presence that the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel are having with the crime-ridden Central American country. The transfer, however, may be more indicative of the adaptable nature of drug trafficking than of any real success of Calderon.

Since 2008, there have been at least 30 members of the Zetas arrested in Guatemala. The Zetas, former Mexican special forces turned drug traffickers, have been working with members of Guatemala’s special forces, the Kaibiles. In a recent raid that left five anti-drug agents dead, Guatemalan forces retrieved eight anti-personnel mines, 11 M60 machine guns, bullet proof vests and two armored cars that investigators say belong to the Zetas. There were 3,800 bullets and 563 grenades recovered that defense officials say once belonged to the Guatemalan military.

Guatemala seems like a logical choice for drug traffickers wanting to escape the heat of President Calderon’s war. It has all the characteristics of a country where drug lords can hide with impunity. High corruption and weak institutions have ravaged Guatemala since it ended a 36-year civil war in 1996 between the military and leftist political groups. Poverty is rampant; less than 10 percent of the population owns 70 percent of the land. This means that rich drug lords will find no shortage of peasants (and government officials) willing to help out for a few extra bucks.

Criminals and gangs already operate within Guatemala with impunity. Most Guatemalans have no faith in the police to end crime. According to the UN, fewer than 5 percent of all crimes even go to trial. Guatemala has a paltry police force of only 20,000 officers. In last year alone, there were over 6,000 homicides in Guatemala which experts say were mostly drug-related.

Furthermore, Guatemala is going through a political crisis right now that could possibly end in an all-too-familiar military coup. On May 10th, Rodrigo Rosenburg, a Harvard-educated lawyer, was gunned down while bicycling on a busy avenue. Fours days before his murder he made a video in which he began by saying, “If you are watching this message it is probably because I have been murdered by President Álvaro Colom…” Rosenburg claims that the Guatemalan president has been funneling drug money through some of the social organizations that his wife runs. President Colom, who in 2007 became the first leftist to win the Guatemalan presidency since the CIA ousted Jacobo Árbenz in 1954, must defend himself against these charges as well as involvement in the murder if he wishes to stay in power. Guatemala is already approaching failed statehood. Any political crisis may only hasten its decline.

The United States government has apportioned $10.6 million of the multiyear $1.4 billion Merida Initiative to go to Central American countries. Guatemala has already received its first installment of $10.6 million. However, some of the same arguments that were made against sending money to Mexico can be more accurately made against Guatemala. First, with so much corruption, how can the United States be sure that the money is being used properly? Second, will a militarized approach that has been the focus of Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative be successful in ending drug trafficking in Guatemala?

Calderon’s crackdown in Mexico has no doubt led traffickers to find different routes to the United States. However, the United States and Latin American countries have been successful in shutting routes before (the Caribbean route through Miami in the 1980s). With so much money to be made, traffickers have shown the ingenuity to simply find different ways to get to the United States. The latest interest in Guatemala among drug lords is only in keeping with the adaptable nature of the business.

Meanwhile, Guatemala teeters towards becoming the next Mexico.

June 6, 2009

"They fell, but o'er their glorious grave floats free the banner of the cause they died to save"


U.S. and French flags are displayed on the graves of the American Cemetery of Colleville-sur-Mer, near Caen, Western France, Friday, June 5, 2009. Photo credit: AP Photo.

June 5, 2009

The Neocons & Mossadeq


It's no surprise that neoconservatives were not thrilled with Obama's speech in Cairo. What was interesting was one of the specific points they took issue with: Obama's reference to the U.S.-backed overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran in 1953.

Here's David Frum:

It is something worse than absurd to use a speech on Islam to apologize for America’s part in the overthrow of the Mossadeq regime in Iran in 1953. Mossadeq was a secular nationalist, passionately opposed by Iran’s religious establishment. That establishment finally seized power for itself in 1979, and since then it has made a martyr of Mossadeq. For the United States to apologize to the present Iranian regime for the overthrow of Mossadeq would be a little like president Eisenhower apologizing to Josef Stalin for the murder of Trotsky. Agreed, we didn’t much like Trotsky — but Stalin is not the man to receive that apology, and neither are the mullahs the people to receive an apology for the events of 1953.
Huh? Stalin ordered Trotsky's murder - not the U.S. This analogy only makes sense if U.S. agents murdered Trosty, then turned around and apologized to some future Communist dictator.

And either way, it's irrelevant. The fact that Mossadeq was "passionately opposed" by Iran's religious establishment doesn't exactly excuse the U.S./UK-backed coup against him - does it? And since when does the "passionate opposition" of Iran's religious establishment carry water with Frum? They're passionately opposed to Israel too - does that excuse their antisemitism?

And here goes Max Boot:

Another example of moral equivalency: “In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically-elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians.” That is accepting the (false) narrative of the Iranian Revolution, which holds that America’s role in overthrowing Mossadeq more than half a century ago — a development that would not have been possible had the leftist prime minister not lost support in the Iranian street — is just as bad as the campaign of mass murder and kidnapping that Iran continues to support at this very moment.

Again, I'm not sure I understand the argument. Clearly the Iranians aren't saying the overthrow of Mossadeq is as bad as the Mullah's domestic repression. I think Boot's trying to say that the Mullahs blame their hatred of America on the decision to overthrow Mossadeq and, later, to back the Shah's repressive regime.

I don't doubt the Mullahs whip out Mossadeq as a propaganda figure to use against the U.S. But that should not make America's honest grappling with the incident verboten. This hue and cry over Obama's mild critique of America's poorly considered intervention in Iran is understandable, however. If we look back on that incident and conclude that it was a mistake, we'll be less apt for Round 2.

Photo via Wiki Commons.

Berlusconi: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

The headline says it all:

Berlusconi's fury as photographs of topless women and naked man cavorting at his villa are published.
[Hat tip: National Post]

June 4, 2009

Map of Middle Eastern Oil Flow

The Washington Institute has an interesting map (pdf) tracking where Middle Eastern oil goes.

Speaking of cool maps, don't forget these greatest hits:

* Map of Middle East empires through the ages.
* Map of the global Internet.
* Map of world alcohol consumption.
* Map of global proliferation.

And last but certainly not least, the interactive RCW World Map.

Obama in Cairo


There's not a lot more to add to the deluge of commentary on President Obama's speech today. I thought it was a good speech, given the ambition and scope. Still this nugget caught my attention:

For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel's founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

That is in Israel's interest, Palestine's interest, America's interest, and the world's interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome with all the patience that the task requires.

It's difficult to see how the two state solution is a core American interest - on par with the need for strategic resources or the defense of our own population. We've lived lo these many decades without two states. I suspect we'd be just fine with the status quo a while longer. The central problem for the U.S. is not the lack of a resolution (although that matters), but the lack of a resolution despite our continued involvement in the conflict.

At a certain point, one would think that continued failure would force a more broad-ranging appraisal of whether it is in our interest to try to make the two parties come to terms. After all, six decades is a long time to try and fail at something. But, for a multitude of reasons, we seem to want to keep going back to the well.

Meanwhile in Russia...

Some historical revisionism:

As the Kremlin presses a campaign to recast Russia's 20th century history in a more favorable light, a research paper published Thursday on the Defense Ministry's Web site blamed Poland for starting World War II.

The unorthodox reading of history appears to be the latest effort by Russian historians to defend the Soviet Union and its leaders, especially their role in what Russians call the Great Patriotic War.

Russia has angrily rejected claims that a Stalin-era famine in Ukraine amounted to genocide, and Russia's Supreme Court recently turned down an appeal to re-open an investigation into the massacre by Soviet secret police of Polish military officers and intellectuals in Russia's Katyn forest during World War II.

I don't think this marks the rise of Russia as a global autocratic menace, as some would have it. But it certainly doesn't bode well for internal liberalization.

Too Many Tea Leaves on Iran

I think Andrew Sullivan and Joe Klein are getting a little carried away with election season in Iran. While I share their enthusiasm for displays of democracy and free speech, I think there are a few things of note worth reminding them:

* Presidential debates in Iran, even contentious ones, are not a new occurrence. They've practically gone on since the very beginning of the revolution.

* Mahmoud Ahmadinejad going at it with Hashemi Rafsanjani is not groundbreaking. Rafsanjani lost to him in 2005, and the two men hate each other (they supposedly can't stand to even be in the same room). Rafsanjani is not of the conservative faction that Ahmadinejad comes from, as Klein mistakenly assumes.

* Large public demonstrations in support of reformers are also not a groundbreaking occurrence in Iran. It was believed in 2005 that Rafsanjani enjoyed reformist support, especially from young voters, but the turnout in the end was poor. Mir-Hossein Mousavi, much like Rafsanjani in 2005, remains a virtual unknown to Iranian youth, or worse, is associated too much with the older, revolutionary regime (Mousavi was of course prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war). He will rely heavily - as we saw at a recent campaign rally - on the mass appeal of former President Mohammad Khatami to mobilize young voters on his behalf.

* This is not a case of "Red Iran" vs "Blue Iran," as Andrew Sullivan seems convinced of. While Mousavi would no question be a better president for the average Iranian, we mustn't assume that he is akin to Khatami or the reformist movement he spearheaded in '97. Mousavi is a right-wing pragmatist, and his positions thus far have been more rational than radical. Will he challenge the state security apparatus? Will he appoint genuine reformers to positions of importance, and challenge the entrenched political system in the face of arrest, or perhaps even assassination? All of these things, Mohammad Khatami did. It remains to be seen if Mousavi would truly follow in his footsteps. As it stands now, the election is more like "red Iran" vs. "Redder Iran."

* Unless there is substantive and systemic reform of elections in Iran, the presidency - no matter how well-intentioned - can always be rendered toothless. Khatami was eventually undone by a hardline Majlis (parliament), and the balloting process is only more rigid and exclusive today.

Don't misunderstand me, I think Iranians deserve better than Ahmadinejad, and Mousavi would certainly be an upgrade. But it remains to be seen if a change in the presidential office will drastically improve the lives of Iranians, and moreover, the regional interests of the United States.

UPDATE: Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link love.

June 3, 2009

Greatest Article Headline Ever

Has to go to the Times:

We MPs are fungi, in the dark, covered in manure.

Lieberman: No Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran?

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has dismissed the idea:

"We do not intend to bomb Iran, and nobody will solve their problems with our hands," he told reporters. "We don't need that. Israel is a strong country, we can protect ourselves.

"But the world should understand that the Iran's entrance into the nuclear club would prompt a whole arms race, a crazy race of unconventional weaponry across the Mideast that is a threat to the entire world order, a challenge to the whole international community," he said. "So we do not want a global problem to be solved with our hands."

Give him his due, this is a fair and sensible point by Lieberman. Israel does not have the logistical means to attack Iran and maintain a first strike capability. Moreover, it's understood by everyone that the United States polices the Mideast airways, and an Israeli air strike would understandably be viewed as a tacit attack from the U.S., in addition to Israel.

So Lieberman has a point. Why should Israel do the west's dirty work? Attacking Iran, and risking almost certain retaliation in some form, doesn't add up strategically for such limited and uncertain returns.

[h/t Blake Hounshell @ Passport]

Obama in Cairo

The basic conundrum for U.S. policy in the Middle East is that our policies are deeply unpopular in the Middle East and yet, there is a bi-partisan consensus around maintaining those policies. This is the feedback loop that President Obama will try to break with his much touted speech in Cairo.

Far better, in my view, to heed the words of Edward Luttwak and just leave well enough alone:

With neither invasions nor friendly engagements, the peoples of the middle east should finally be allowed to have their own history—the one thing that middle east experts of all stripes seem determined to deny them.... We devote far too much attention to the middle east, a mostly stagnant region where almost nothing is created in science or the arts—excluding Israel, per capita patent production of countries in the middle east is one fifth that of sub-Saharan Africa.

At the point the Middle East collectively decides it no longer want to sell any oil on world markets and instead rely on their vibrant, diversified economies to generate wealth for their people, and at the point where all other oil suppliers dry up and alternative energy sources collapse, a friendly phone call to Saudi Arabia might be necessary. Until then, why bother?

June 2, 2009

Silly Iran Arguments

One of my more frequent gripes regarding Iran is that legitimate policy concerns often become blurred or ignored all together by hyperbole and alarmist exaggeration.

Take, for example, President Obama's comments regarding Iranian energy needs. Nothing about this is controversial. While it's true that Iran sits upon a plentiful supply of oil and natural gas, the country has limited processing and refinery capabilities, partly due to years of isolation and sanctions.

Iran also depends on exporting their energy resources so that they can subsidize their theocratic welfare state. That's why, despite one of the largest natural gas reserves in the world, Iran has been vulnerable in recent years to Russia and Turkmenistan. It's no different than the U.S. importing over 90% of its uranium needs, or even coal (which we clearly have in abundance).

Iran's nuclear power for electricity needs are reasonable and understood. In addition to my points above, Iran has also become an increasingly urban country. This puts heavy, concentrated use on the nation's energy grid. Domestic production would help alleviate this problem, as well as their reliance on neighbors who use gas as leverage over them.

This is why the U.S. should take such energy concerns seriously, and demand that the Iranians take them seriously. This could mean, among other ideas, considering the Kazakh proposal to host a regional fuel bank.

UPDATE: Michael Goldfarb is concerned that President Obama is inviting the Iranians to parties, while at the same time pressuring the Israeli government. Apparently, sharing embassy hot dogs holds greater value than $2.775 billion in aid.

America's Shifting Approach Toward Central America

Yesterday, Mauricio Funes broke the twenty-year dominance of right-wing power in El Salvador by becoming the first candidate from the former Marxist guerrilla group, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), to win the presidency. On hand at the inauguration was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who has indicated that the Obama administration is committed to “a new approach to the region.”

This is no small change. During the 1970s and 1980s, the United States was committed to financially supporting the Salvadoran military who was fighting a brutal insurgency led by the FMLN. After 12 years of fighting over 75,000 people were left dead and a quarter of the population fled the country. This is why today Salvadorans represent the second largest Latino group in Southern California (second to Mexicans).

After a peace agreement was signed in 1992, the FMLN moderated and became a legitimate political party. However, they could never beat the conservative Arena Party (National Republican Alliance), who up until now has been in power since 1989.

This past March, 46 Republican congressman signed a letter to Secretary of State Clinton, stating that “an electoral victory of the FMLN could bring about links between El Salvador and the regimes in Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and other states that promote terrorism.” During the Bush administration, senior officials often voiced their opinions about politics in Central America. Under the Obama administration, the United States seems to be charting a new path. The press in El Salvador recognizes this. One article in recent days about Hillary Clinton’s views of Funes is titled “No Queremos Imponer Ideas, Queremos Aprender (We do not want to impose ideas, we want to understand).”

It is too early to tell how Funes will govern. He has tried to divert Arena criticism that he will align with leftists Hugo Chavez and Daniel Ortega. He often compares himself, instead, with Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In fact, both Chavez and Ortega were noticeably absent from Funes’ inauguration.

More interesting will be how American policy adapts if Funes does align with Chavez and Ortega. Republicans have criticized President Obama for conducting a “listening tour” to try to win back American favor with the rest of the world. El Salvador could be a test for American policy.

At Russia's Periphery ...

Lots of events took place at Russia's periphery recently that hid from the US mainstream media. In the Moldovan break-away (and de facto independent) region of Transdnistria, its pro-Russian and communist government seeks the adoption of Russia's tricolor flag as its own. Upon hearing the news, Russian diplomats were "in shock." On Friday, May 29, it became known that the flag initiative was endorsed a Transdnistrian parliamentary committee. According to the Head of the Committee Galina Antyufeeva, "we are still on course laid out in the 2006 referendum that called for unity with Russia, and our whole policy is based on that. We discussed the amendments to the law on state symbols of the Transdnistria Republic, which relate to the establishment of the national flag of Transnistria. We are planning on making it the exact copy of the Russian flag,"

And speaking of unity with Russia - it turns out that most Belorussians do not want to be in a unified state with the Russian Federation. According to the recent polling done by the Belorussian Institute of Strategic Studies, 54.8% of respondents are categorically against a joint Belarus and Russia state with a single currency, a single president and the parliament. Only 20.4% of people spoke in favor of such a union. It also turns out that there are more supporters of Belorussian accession to the European Union - 33.5% of respondents - than those who seek to join with Russia. The majority of Belarusians still expressed the hope that their republic would remain an independent state. Recently, Belorussian President Lukashenko lamented the lack of progress on such a unified state. Turns out, his dream may be even harder to implement if so many of his own people are set against it.

Pro-Russian sentiments can make one popular in states undergoing political turmoil. Viktor Yanukovich, former Ukrainian President and current head of the Regions Party of Ukraine, leads the list of his country's most trusted politicians. According to a survey conducted by the Center for Social Studies "Sofia," he has the trust of approximately 34.3% of those surveyed. Current Prime Minister (and until recently pro-Western hero of the "Orange Revolution") Yulia Tymoshenko has 29.3% of trust, while former heavyweight boxing champion and current politician Vitali Klitschko has 27.5% of such support. Current pro-Western President Viktor Yuschenko is disliked by more than 87.5% of the people. The survey was conducted nationwide, and revealed distrust of the people towards their government and lack of confidence in the Ukrainian economy.

The results should be surprising for those in the West who advocate for a closer US-Ukrainian relationship - pro-Russian Yanukovich was the catalyst for the famed 2004 "Orange Revolution" that brought to power the Orange coalition of Yuschenko-Timoshenko. His fortunes then ebbed and flowed - his Regions Party, which generally is more pro-Russian and is centered in Ukraine's industrial and populous eastern regions, then did generally well in elections, gathering the majority of parliamentary votes, but not enough to lead the government. Yanukovich then became Prime Minister in an uneasy coalition with rival Yuschenko, then again became political opponents. His party is projected to do well in the upcoming 2009 elections. If this poll is indeed accurate, then it speaks volumes about what the ordinary Ukrainians are thinking about their country's attempts to join the West politically and economically.

Why Cairo?, Cont.

Related to my post on the matter, Shadi Hamid reports over at Democracy Arsenal that the Muslim Brotherhood will be in attendance for President Obama's Cairo speech.

Why Cairo?


There's been a fair amount of debate and discussion over the anticipated intent and effect of President Obama's address to the Muslim world, scheduled for Cairo, Egypt this Thursday. But while I've noticed some disagreement over the substance and purpose, I've heard very little about the choice of location.

If the president really wants to address the so-called Muslim World (a questionable label, at best), wouldn't it make sense to do so from the most populous Muslim country, one of the most prosperous, and arguably the most democratic?

The country I'm alluding to? Indonesia. I asked Dr. Marcus Mietzner of Australian National University - an expert in Indonesian elections and military affairs - for his thoughts on the choice of Cairo over Jakarta, and he offered the following insights:

Obama's decision [is] understandable and politically rational. While Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation, the political center of Islam is still the Middle East. This is where political problems are most protracted, and this is where Obama wants to find an audience. Indonesia is not a player in these conflicts, despite its ambitions to act as a mediator. Had Obama given the speech in Jakarta, no doubt he would have been accused of choosing an easy path - speaking in front of mostly moderate Muslims and even former class mates from Menteng.

A fair point, but while the Cairo selection certainly makes political sense, I fail to see what makes it the easier one. As Michael Crowley points out, it would seem as though Obama is already inoculating himself against charges of hypocrisy vis-a-vis the U.S. relationship with Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian police state. If Obama really wanted to make a statement to the so-called Muslim World, he could have chosen a place like Jakarta - a democratic and politically pluralistic country struggling with the difficult balancing act of religion and governance.

The fact that "political Islam" is mostly confined to the Middle East could be, one might argue, part of the problem. The United States has for decades made the false choice in the region between Islamic theocrats and quasi-secular autocrats. The assumption has been that the two are mostly irreconcilable, with the historical preference often going toward the malleable and corruptible autocrat.

However, as my co-blogger Greg Scoblete often points out, the need to pivot preferred powers off of less favorable powers in the region has waned with the end of the Cold War. Many have suggested that this is the moment for the U.S. to apply pressure on Jerusalem over policies that are inconsistent with American interests. So why should Cairo and Riyadh be any different?

Alliances won't break because the American president critiques an ally - see Israel. Whitewashing Mubarak's human rights record for the sake of "stability" is the same faulty logic used by several of Obama's White House predecessors. Choosing "stability" often leads to anarchic instability, as was demonstrated in 1979 Iran.

So Cairo it is. But does the United States gain anything by prolonging the same false choice in the Middle East?

UPDATE: Thanks to our friend Michael Totten for the Insta-link.

Also, check out this post by Cato's David Boaz from last month. He is equally puzzled by the Cairo selection, and reminds us that Islam and the Middle East aren't necessarily synonymous.

Chimerica: Owning The Bank That Owns Us

An old axiom points to the perverse nature of high debt: When you owe the bank a million dollars, the bank owns you. But when you owe the bank a billion dollars, you own the bank.

At this point, the United States debt to China is approaching a trillion dollars, with no end in sight. And U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geitner is in China now attempting to calm restlessness over seemingly out-of-control fiscal deficits while wheedling reforms out of the Chinese economy at the same time.

The biggest concern, of course, is that China will begin to scale back its purchase of U.S. government debt or, in a scenario feared by many conservatives, use the threat to "dump" U.S. securities as leverage over the United States. Either scenario could be economically devastating to the U.S., as decreased demand for U.S. debt would increase the costs of borrowing by driving interest rates upward while at the same time causing strong inflationary pressures as the Federal Reserve "monetized" the deficit by in essence creating new money with which to buy U.S. debt from itself.

But while these concerns over the impact of creating more U.S. debt than the global market can absorb are valid, the scenario of China as the Potter-esque banker foreclosing on U.S. government debt are probably overblown. China simply cannot credibly threaten to undermine the value of U.S. securities without destroying its own economy. The following comment by a Chinese finance official is revealing: "We hate you. We hate you. But we will buy your bonds."

This American leverage also extends to the realm of intervening in internal Chinese policies. Immediately after assuring Chinese officials that the U.S. will reduce its fiscal deficits (details, as always with such matters, are left for some undefined future point), Geitner quickly moved on to encourage Chinese officials to increase their government investments in health care and the ability of their own workers to provide a market for global output, thus hopefully making China a more multi-faceted pillar of stability in the global economy. But whatever its wisdom as policy, the image of the debtor demanding policy changes from the creditor -- especially when the creditor is as jealously protective of its exclusive prerogatives over internal policy matters as China -- is perverse enough to call into sharp relief the odd nature of the Chinese-American financial relationship.

Quite simply, the economic destiny of the United States and China are now linked beyond the ability of government policy or even military crisis to change. If the U.S. goes bankrupt, so does China. China is learning the same lesson with regards to sovereign debt that the bondholders of GM and Chysler have learned with regards to corporate debt -- the value of that debt depends on maintaining a political as well as an economic relationship. What Moritz Schularick and Niall Ferguson have called "Chimerica" may be the fundamental organizing principle of the new global economy. Neither the U.S. nor China can survive without ensuring the health of the other.

The interdependence long highlighted by academic scholars of the neo-liberal school has moved out of the dusty pages of largely unread undergraduate textbooks to become the dominant factor that must be dealt with in diagnosing and treating the global economy through its worst illness in nearly a century. For while interdependence has the power to spread wealth and prosperity, it also has the equivalent power to spread debt and vulnerability. And as the world's largest debtor, the U.S. holds a perverse kind of power over its creditors to force them to continue propping up the U.S. or, at least, not do anything that would fatally undermine the U.S.' teetering fiscal pyramid scheme.

China owns the U.S., but the U.S. owns China more.

Mitt Romney's Foreign Policy

Mitt Romney gave a wide-ranging speech at the Heritage Foundation yesterday, sketching out his vision of foreign policy. One portion jumped out at me:

There are four competing nations or groups of nations, representing four different ways of ways of life, that are vying to lead the world before the end of this century."

One is the world’s democracies, led by America. Our strategy is based on two principles: free enterprise and individual liberty. These have led us to become the most powerful nation in the history of the world.

China represents a different strategy. Theirs is also based on two principles: free enterprise is one of them. They witnessed the bankruptcy of communism first hand, and have adopted free enterprise like it was their own. As a result, hundreds of millions of their poor have been lifted from poverty. But their second strategic dimension is not freedom, it is authoritarianism.

Another competitor is Russia. Like China, their strategy is also based on authoritarianism. But unlike China, their economic might is derived not from industry, but from energy. They seek to control the energy of the world, filling their treasury and emptying everyone else’s as we pay for what they have in abundance.

The fourth strategy is that of the Jihadists. By means of escalating violence, they intend to cause the collapse of the other three competing visions, dragging the entire world back into a medieval dictatorship ruled by Mullahs and Ayatollahs.

Is this really an accurate depiction of the international system? Can it really be said that either China or Russia are seeking to "lead the world?" Or that they're seeking to export authoritarianism around the globe? China can't even get a handle on North Korea. Russia is a shadow of its former imperial self. There is no evidence that Russia wants to control the "energy of the world" (would that include Middle East oil, American coal, nuclear power, etc.?) and in the event they even wanted to, they couldn't.

As for the jihadists, they are indeed a revolutionary threat. But they have even less capacity than either China or Russia to realize their ends and have very little in the way of worldwide support. Certainly nothing approaching what Communism had during the Cold War.

What's more, Romney undermines his thesis later on, when attempting to make the case that America's massive quantitative and qualitative military lead over Russia and China is really chimerical:

And then consider all the things we expect from our military that they do not expect from theirs. We respond to humanitarian crises, protect world shipping and energy lanes, deter terrorism, prevent genocide, and lead peace-keeping missions. And most significantly, our military is required to maintain a global presence; theirs is not. It is a far more demanding task to keep worldwide commitments than simply to build a force that can accomplish regional objectives.

China wants to lead the world and cripple freedom, but they're building a military focused solely on achieving regional objectives. That doesn't add up.

Romney did make some good points regarding the dangerous levels of debt the U.S. has accrued, but such concerns seem a bit strained if, as he asserts, we have to ramp up defense spending still higher after the post 9/11 defense binge.

UPDATE: UN Dispatch's John Boonstra catches some more fuzzy math regarding Romney's assertion that the U.S. military leads peace keeping missions:

I'm finding it hard to recall American troops rushing in to prevent genocide in Rwanda or Darfur...and a quick check of the numbers reveals that the United States currently contributes a whopping 96 personnel (75 of whom are police, and only 10 of whom are troops) to the 90,000-plus involved in UN peacekeeping missions around the world . Not exactly leading the way. Russia, by the way, has contributed almost four times that many, and China has contributed over 2,000 personnel.

Photo credit: AP Photo

June 1, 2009

Will the British Surge in Afghanistan?

The Independent is reporting that British PM Gordon Brown is getting flack from his defense establishment for not committing more troops to Afghanistan:

Senior generals are bemused that the Prime Minister has turned down the advice of his own Defence Secretary, John Hutton, that a larger force should be sent to Afghanistan following the withdrawal from Iraq. Now they have warned Number 10 that the reputation of the armed forces will suffer in the eyes of senior American commanders unless Mr Brown authorises an autumn surge in troop numbers. Such a surge, they say, would signal Britain's intent to "pull its weight" in the Afghan conflict by plugging the shortfall in the multinational force.

On Saturday, two more British troops died in Helmand, bringing to 165 the total number killed in the conflict so far – just 14 fewer than the total number of British soldiers who died in Iraq.

Mr Brown has until now turned down, on cost grounds, the generals' proposal to send 2,500 extra troops in support of the projected US-led "surge" against the Taliban. Instead, he has authorised a deployment of 700 temporary troops to cover the period of the forthcoming elections in that country. But The Independent has learnt that defence chiefs have persuaded the Government to review the situation in the autumn. Even then, any increase is likely to be in the hundreds rather than in the numbers that the Army believes are needed.

Wherever you stand on the merits of nation building in Afghanistan, if you're going to do it, it would be useful to get all hands on deck.

Should We Bomb North Korea?

What is it about North Korea that brings out the best in our pundit class:

The most immediate thing to be said about this is that barring a serious provocation (i.e. mobilizing units to cross the DMZ, firing at U.S. or allied vessels, etc.) no U.S. administration - Republican or Democrat - is going to risk the deaths of thousands of South Koreans by bombing North Korea. It's just extraordinarily unlikely to happen barring some very sudden, dangerous change in North Korean behavior.

You have to wonder why Kristol and Hume, who surely understand this, would nonetheless just casually throw this option on the table. Will people come away thinking Obama is feckless for not risking the destruction of Seoul or that conservatives are unable to offer any serious alternatives to the Obama approach?

[Hat tip: Matthew Yglesias]

UPDATE: The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb goes to bat for his boss:

But rather than military action, new sanctions, or the elimination of food aid and fuel oil shipments that keep the regime in power, the Obama administration has opted to unleash the "the strongest possible adjectives" in response to North Korea's provocations.
That's interesting, because there's this story dated April 30, 2009:
The United States says it will not give North Korea further economic aid until Pyongyang returns to nuclear talks. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told lawmakers Thursday that the Obama administration has "no interest and no willingness" to give North Korea further economic aid.

Moreover, Japan, China, Russia and South Korea also supply the North with food and fuel. Even if the U.S. were to totally cut off its own shipments, it's likely that, at a minimum, China would continue to sustain the regime. And finally, as discussed above, military action is (at this point) not a serious suggestion.

I appreciate the fact that some commentators need to leverage the North's nuclear antics into some kind of indictment of the Obama administration. But it helps when that criticism is grounded in a serious alternative. Throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks isn't particularly useful.

As I said earlier, I think this Joshua Stanton piece from the New Ledger lays out some ways to put the screws to the North without any of the absurd talk of "limited air strikes."

Kennan vs Bush: Interests vs. Values

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

--- President George W. Bush, 2005.

Trolling through the Internet, I found this good piece on George Kennan by Lee Congdon. He writes:

Many evils exist in the world, but Kennan did not think it the responsibility of the United States government to root all of them out. “Government,” he wrote in an essay on morality and foreign policy, “is an agent, not a principal. Its primary obligation is to the interests of the national society it represents, not to the moral impulses that elements of that society may experience.” Interventions in the affairs of foreign governments in obedience to some moral imperative could only be defended, he insisted, if the practices against which they were directed were “seriously injurious to our interests, rather than just our sensibilities.”

I tend to think that dividing "morality" and "interests" cedes too much ground to those who insist the nation be guided by "morality." There is nothing immoral about limiting the scope of government action. Indeed, governments tend to overreach when they have a broader mandate and nothing pushes the government to overreach like appeals to morality, which don't admit of compromise.

Copied - Pardon, "Redesigned" - in China

This is a fun article - unless you are GM, Toyota, BMW or any other leading auto manufacturer. RCW earlier wrote about the ways that Chinese automakers are copying foreign car designs under its own labels - in some cases, bolt for bolt, curve for curve. This Russian entry from the internet daily "Kolesa" (Wheels) confirms this ominous fact - just take a look at the pictures, and you will clearly see BMW, Toyota, Bentley or Isuzu. The title of the article is "Copied the right way."

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