Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Boston University





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Iran's uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan

Iran Nuke Standoff Escalates
The Iran nuclear dossier heads to the United Nations Security Council, next week, after Russia failed to broker an eleventh-hour deal to reconcile the positions of the U.S. and its European allies on the one hand, and Tehran on the other. The Russians had hoped that by permitting Iran to conduct, under strict supervision, small-scale uranium enrichment on its own soil, Tehran would agree to suspension of industrial-scale enrichment and accept that the fuel for its nuclear reactors would be enriched in Russia. But the U.S. and the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) flatly rejected any arrangement that allowed ongoing enrichment activities in Iran, on the ground that it would help Iran perfect the know-how to create bomb fuel, and also create a legal pretext for the procurement of technology that could help a clandestine bomb program. Between the West's refusal to countenance any enrichment of uranium inside Iran (in light of evidence suggesting that Iran may be running a clandestine bomb program) and Iran's insistence that enrichment is its sovereign right under the NPT, there was simply too wide a gulf for compromise.

But having brought the issue before the Council -- in the form of an IAEA report assessing Iran's nuclear activities, which concluded that the UN nuclear watchdog was unable to certify that all of Iran's nuclear activities are transparent and for purely peaceful purposes -- the next steps for the U.S. and its allies are not clear. China and Russia remain resolutely opposed to sanctions, and Iran will almost certainly look to rally Arab support by pointing to the U.S. refusal to discuss Israel's nuclear capability and by painting the nuclear issue as the onset of another "regime change" adventure by the Bush administration. (The fact that Vice President Cheney this week threatened "meaningful consequences" for Iran's stand while the Israeli and American flags were depicted side by side in the backdrop -- he was speaking to the America Israel Political Action Committee -- may have played into Iran's propaganda strategy.) Reports suggest that the U.S. plans to sway Security Council members by showing them dossier of information drawn from a stolen Iranian laptop that makes a circumstantial case that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons although that strategy may also backfire, given the experience of Council members in the three years that have passed since then-Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered his indictment of Iraq.

The U.S. is demanding urgent action, claiming Iran has 85 tonnes of uranium gas stockpiled for enrichment, which once enriched would create enough material for ten bombs. (Of course, argument leaves out the fact that, according to the New York Times reporting on the assessment of scientists and proliferation experts, Iran may still be ten years away from the capability of turning that gas into weapons-grade material. But, mindful of the uphill battle it faces, the Bush administration appears to accept that it will have to move slowly at the Council, and an immediate push for sanctions is not realistic. And the Russians and Chinese will, no doubt, in the coming weeks, intensify their own efforts to find a compromise solution. (The Guardian, March 8 2006)

  • The West may have found things a little easier if Iran's president was still Mohammed Khatami. In an interview with Al Jazeera, the failed reformist blames the nuclear standoff on Western "double standards." But while he insists on Iran's right to pursue a nuclear energy program, he advocates negotiation and compromise, insisting that it is in Tehran's best interests to win the confidence of the international community on the nuclear issue. (Al Jazeera, March 7, 2006)
  • Ehsan Ahrari explains why the Russians see the escalating rhetoric over Iran as an echo of the pre-Iraq invasion period. (Asia Times, March 9, 2006)
  • Zeev Schiff of Haaretz, a reporter with impeccable sources in Israel's defense establishment, claims that Western intelligence agencies, and Russia's, believe Iran has an extensive covert bomb program that is making steady progress. Although this program has been concealed from IAEA scrutiny, the IAEA did come across such tell-tale evidence as specifications for fabricating enriched uranium hemispheres, whose only purpose is bomb production. (Haaretz, March 7, 2006)
  • The Center for Defense Information has posted extracts from the IAEA report on Iran which is to be discussed by the Security Council. (CDI, March 6, 2006)
  • The International Crisis Group sees two possible diplomatic solutions to prevent a breakdown from which Iran would quite likely emerge nuclear-armed. The first is that Iran would agree to refrain entirely from enriching uranium on its own soil, but for that to happen, warns the ICG, the U.S. would have to offer a far greater political incentive than is currently on the table. If the U.S. is unlikely in the near term to offer full recognition and rehabilitation of the regime in Tehran, the only other plausible outcome is for the West to back down on the principle of Iranian enrichment but in exchange for Iran agreeing to delay its onset by a number of years and submit to a far more intrusive inspection regime. As imperfect as this solution would be to all sides, the alternative is worse, the ICG argues. (International Crisis Group, February 28, 2006)
  • In an interview with TIME's Scott MacLeod, Iran's top nuclear negotiator suggests his regime remains open to a deal, even direct talks with the U.S.. But they would not be willing to be "harangued" by President Bush, and they insist that their right to uranium enrichment be recognized. (TIME, March 1, 2006)
  • George Perkovich warns that proposals allowing limited enrichment in Iran simply defer a confrontation and make it more difficult to rein in what will then be a fait accompli in Iran. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 7, 2006)
  • David Isenberg suggests that the same neoconservative ideologues who manipulated intelligence to stir America to go to war in Iraq are now are overstating a “threat” from Iran -- with remarkable success. The reality is that for technical reasons alone, Iran remains a number of years away from the capacity to assemble a bomb. (Center for Defense Information, March 1, 2003)
  • Visiting British MPs found that the Bush administration is divided on familiar lines over how to respond to Iran, with Secretary of State Rice more cautious than UN ambassador Bolton and Vice President Cheney. (The Times, March 6, 2006)
  • As in the case of North Korea, China's position may prove to be the critical influence on how the Iran standoff plays out. Dingli Shen suggests Beijing is caught in the dilemma of balancing its emerging status as a global diplomatic power, maintaing stqability and the nuclear status quo, and protecting Iran's sovereign right to civilian nuclear program and China's bilateral energy relationship with Tehran. Beijing's view is that Iran must account for its nuclear past under NPT commitment before it can demand full cycle rights under the treaty. Of course if it withdrew from the treaty, it could legally puruse both energy and weapons. Beijing's own concerns militate against support for a strategy of confrontation by either side. (Washington Quarterly, Spring 2006) 2006)
  • Reuven Pedhatsur argues that the U.S.-India nuclear agreement was a gift to Iran. It will be cited as Exhibit A in Tehran's efforts to rally support for its own positions in the Arab and Muslim world on the basis of the double standard so clearly adopted by the Bush administration on nuclear matters. (Haaretz, March 7, 2006)
  • Previously on Iran:
    -- Dangers of a Military Option

    -- Tehran Raises the Stakes
  • Iraq: Civil War and the Region
    There is nothing inevitable about civil war in Iraq, and yet the intensifying sectarian bloodshed is leading even the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad to warn that such an outcome is quite plausible. The democratic political process, far from creating a unifying political consensus, has in fact intensified the centrifugal tendencies as voters express their anxieties over the increasingly uncertain future by casting their vote on the basis of tribe or sect. Although recent headlines have been dominated by Sunni-Shiite tension, stoked by gunmen on both sides who randomly target innocents of the other side in retaliation for the last outrage perpetrated against their own, the sectarian split among Iraqi Arabs is only one of the factors paralyzing the political process.

    The move by President Jalal Talabani to force the Shiite bloc in parliament to withdraw the nomination as prime minister of incumbent Ibrahim al-Jaafari carries the support of the Sunni bloc as well as the smaller secularlist alliance. But while the Sunnis are angry at Jaafari over his perceived failure to restrain murderous sectarianism within Shiite ranks, Talabani's opposition may be based more on his Kurdish-nationalist affinities-- Jaafari opposes the Kurds' attempts to make the northern oil town of Kirkuk a part of their Kurdistan mini-state, and angered Talabani by holding talks on Iraq with the Kurds old enemy, Turkey. But the Sunnis actually agree with Jaafari on Kirkuk. And then, of course, there are the sharp divisions within the Shiite camp: Jaafari won the nomination by only one vote from the rival candidate Adel Abdul Mahdi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- and then only because he was backed by SCIRI's arch rival, the radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. These internecine dynamics have produced a stalemate in the process of selecting a new government, but they have not yet brought Iraq to a state of full-blown civil war. Given the weakness of the regime in Baghdad now and the likelihood that much of what now passes for a national army may in fact be committed on ethnic or sectarian lines in the event of civil war, a full-blown conflict for the acquisition and control of territory would require participation and backing from regional players. Some Iraqi analysts today see Iraq as a battleground between the U.S. and Iran. As the confrontation between Washington and Tehran intensifies, the prospects for avoiding civil war in Iraq may decline.
    (Al Ahram 2-8 March, 2006)

  • Juan Cole explains the little-recognized centrality of Kirkuk in the dynamics of civil conflict in Iraq. "Jaafari is not being attacked because he is weak, or indecisive, or because he could not keep order in the country," Cole writes of the Talabani challenge. "He is being attacked for the opposite reasons-- that he has decisively decided to fight the Kurds on their planned annexation of Kirkuk. The Kurds are powerful, so Jaafari reached out to Ankara for an ally. He was pressed by the Turks to make Kirkuk a city with a 'special status' as a way of denying it to the Kurds, and he may have acquiesced. This is the reason that Talabani went ballistic over the prime minister's visit to Turkey." (Informed Comment, March 6, 2006)
  • Brian Conley and Isham Rashid report on the cooperation between the Sunni Muslim Scholars Association and Moqtada Sadr's movement in taking steps to tamp down communal tension. These groups are united on the basis of a common Iraqi nationalism, in opposition both the presence of Coalition forces, but also to Kurdish attempts to take Kirkuk and create a de facto independent entity. Indeed, some partisans of the Sadr-MSA alliance see the talk of civil war as being fostered by Kurdish leaders precisely to create a climate for a secession. (Asia Times, March 10, 2006)
  • Borzou Daragahi and Megan K. Stack report that Iraq analysts see the "Lebanonization" of Iraq as irreversible -- in both the political process and the construction of security forces based on coopting rather than dissolving ethnic and sectarian militias, power in the post-Saddam Iraq looks set to be apportioned on the basis of an ethnic and sectarian balance of forces for the foreseeable future. Stack also notes that Shiites and Sunnis have switched roles in relation to the U.S. with the Shiites who initially welcomed the U.S. invasion now turning against the presence of Coalition troops while the Sunnis who were largely hostile to their presence are now looking to Coalition forces for protection. (Los Angeles Times, February 26 and March 6, 2006)
  • One of the paradoxes of the emerging alliance between Moqtada Sadr and the Muslim Scholars Association is the fact that much of the anti-Sunni violence in the wake of the Samarra bombing was conducted by rank and file members of Sadr's Mehdi Army. Amira Howeidy reports that leaders of the MSA believe that Sadr's forces have been infiltrated by the Badr Brigade of SCIRI. They don't blame Sadr, but see it as a case of him losing control over his forces. (Al Ahram, March 2-6, 2006)
  • Previously on Iraq: Is Sadr the Key to Avoiding Civil War?
    Mounting Anger at Coalition Forces in Iraq

    Hamas and Israel: An Unspoken Peace?
    The difference between Ariel Sharon and his Labor Party predecessors was not simply over the parameters and territorial boundaries of a peace settlement with the Palestinians; Sharon always insisted that no final peace settlement was possible for the foreseeable future, and instead Israel should pursue interim arrangements and some form of long-term truce. Similarly, the difference between Fatah and Hamas is not simply over the terms of a peace agreement, but whether one was possible: While the Fatah leadership has been holding on in vain for a completion of the Oslo process since the demise of Ehud Barak, while Israel has made clear that it intends to pursue a unilateral course to which the identity of the Palestinian government is, in the final instance, irrelevant. Now, the Palestinians have dispensed with Fatah and elected a government whose views on the issue of a peace deal are rather symmetrical with those of Sharon: a long-term truce (or "hudna" in their case) allowing the two sides to coexist without resolving all the issues that divide them.

    Rami Khouri argues that this new symmetry in the thinking on the Israeli and Palestinian sides marks an end to Oslo, but actually introduces the prospect of moving towards long-term coexistence. Both sides have tired of war, he argues, and are now beginning to find ways to get on with rebuilding their societies. The road ahead is replete with peril, as ever, but the combination of Hamas and Sharon's heirs may nonetheless be more than capable of achieving a modus vivendi that avoids violent conflict. (Daily Star, March 7, 2006)

  • And who elected you to lead the Palestinians? That seemed to be the response of the leadership of Hamas to the unsolicited advice of Al Qaeda's Ayman Zawahiri, who delivered a video sermon berating the Palestinian group to avoid recognizing Israel and to continue its armed struggle. Zawahiri has been shrill in his denunciation of Islamist groups, such as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, for participating in democratic elections. And it's not hard to see why: The decision by groupings such as the Brotherhood and Hamas to enter the democratic process opens a new channel of expression for Islamist grievances; one that essentially marginalizes Al-Qaeda, which by its ideology and transnational character can never enter politics in the way that national Islamist bodies can. (BBC, March 5, 2006)
  • Fatah is struggling to find its footing as an opposition party after the new legislature was seated. Hamas predictably simply reversed a series of votes taken in the lame duck legislature controlled by Fatah which had already been soundly defeated in the election, but sought to change a series of laws to give President Mahmoud Abbas effective veto power over the legislature. Fatah reacted by calling the move a "coup" attempt and storming out of the legislature, although it appears to have been Fatah that was trying to remake the law to its advantage in the new political circumstances. The skirmish suggests a unity government may not be imminent. (Haaretz, March 6, 2006)
  • Rashid Khalidi explains to Bernard Gwertzman that Fatah lost the election not simply because of corruption, but because its negotiations with Israel failed to improve Palestinian lives. It has no way back to power in the short term, he argues, and should instead focus on entirely remaking itself. "I think it is urgent to have the entire old guard drummed out of Fatah," says Khalidi. "I assume they will keep Abbas as a figurehead, but if Fatah has not fully renewed, it's worthless, it's good for nothing, it will have no impact on Palestinian politics in the near future, nor will it deserve to." (Council on Foreign Relations, March 6, 2006)
  • Graham Usher notes that while Israel was caught off guard by the Hamas victory, it won't affect Israeli policy toward the Palestinians which is based on a unilateral redrawing of boundaries to Israel's preference, with no need of a "partner" on the Palestinian side. (Al Ahram, March 2-8, 2006)
  • Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made clear that he intends to unilaterally redraw the boundaries in the West Bank, and settle areas currently deemed off limits even by the U.S.. (Haaretz, March 9, 2006)
  • Previously on the Hamas victory:
    --Rice Fails to Secure Hamas Blockade

    -- Is the U.S. Trying to Reverse the Palestinian Election?

    U.S. and India Rewrite the Nuclear Rules
    The historic deal announced in New Delhi Thursday, under which India will be allowed access to U.S. nuclear technology and fuel in exchange for subjecting the non-military part of its nuclear program -- 14 of its 22 facilities -- to international inspection has been greeted by some, including International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohammed ElBaradei, as a visionary breakthrough that will strengthen non-proliferation efforts on the basis of contemporary realities. Others, including a number of legislators on Capitol Hill, decry it as a tragic end-run around the NPT that sends the worst possible message to Iran, North Korea and other potential nuclear aspirants: That the best way to win acceptance as a nuclear nation is to simply go ahead and build and test weapons, show an intent to manage them responsibly and then wait for the international community to make its peace with the new reality.

    Iran lost no time in pointing to the hypocrisy of agreeing to supply fuel and technology to a state that stayed out of the NPT and used its nuclear energy program to build nuclear weapons, while denying the rights of an NPT signatory that has undertaken to refrain from building weapons (itself). Asked by U.S. journalists how he rationalized the decision in light of questions over the likes of Iran, President Bush said simply it was a question of "leadership." Advocates of the deal are certainly correct that India's nukes are an intractable reality, and that having them belatedly join the NPT on their own terms is better than nothing. To be sure, the NPT itself is under existential strain in a world where its basic premise -- not only that those without nuclear weapons would refrain from pursuing them, but also that those who have them would negotiate them away -- is widely ignored. But the India deal also makes it increasingly difficult to make the case that restraining Iran is a matter of enforcing universally accepted rules rather than singling out a regime in conflict with the West. Those in the Iranian leadership who may be inclined to press ahead with a nuclear weapons program may well be quietly joining in the celebrations of the U.S.-India deal. (The Times, March 3, 2006)

  • George Perkovich parses the terms of the India-U.S. nuclear deal and finds them wanting, but also acknowledges the breakthrough they represent: “U.S. and Indian leaders have, in their boldness, identified premises that must be questioned and policies that should be rethought in both bilateral relations and in the international non-proliferation regime.” Still, he says, the deal was done with little public discussion, and there is considerable room for improvement. (Carnegie Endowment, February 2006)
  • Randeep Ramesh suggests the real motivation behind the nuclear deal is to rein in an independent nuclear power that had managed to master the technical complexities of the reprocessing cycle all the way to being able to assemble a bomb. In response, the U.S. is trying to ensnare India in a series of rules designed to benefit Washington. (Guardian, March 3 2006)
  • The New York Times reports that members of both parties on Capitol Hill are concerned about the timing of the deal and the message sent to Iran and North Korea, while some arms-control experts suggest India got everything it could have asked for on its weapons program. (New York Times, March 3 2006)
  • Ron Hutcheson and Jonathan S. Landay report on congressional skepticism over the India nuclear deal. They also note that Pakistan has asked for a similar deal and been rebuffed because it is "not in the same place as India." A true enough political, economic and strategic assessment, but one that will fuel the fires of those claiming that the non-proliferation regime is being rewritten on the basis of political preferences. (Knight-Ridder, March 3 2006)
  • Claude Arpi suggests that the strategic rationale for the U.S. giving India a generous nuclear deal is Washington's belief that New Delhi will be an essential counterweight to Beijing. (Rediff.com, March 1 2006)
  • Parties on the Left in India, including some in the ruling coalition, were skeptical of the deal. Amit Baruah argues in the Hindu that India’s strategic options are expanding with its rising power, but that these options will be limited if India allies too closely with the U.S. (The Hindu, March 1, 2003)
  • New Delhi's Insistute for Peace and Conflict Studies offers a comprehensive discussion of India's strategic nuclear doctrine of credible minimum deterrence and its implications for the country's nuclear arsenal. (ICPS, February 2006)
  • Does Musharraf Need Bin Laden?
    There's something almost surreal about the fact that almost five years after 9/11, President Bush is heading for Pakistan -- knowing that it's the country where Osama bin Laden is based. The bizarre state of relations between the Bush administration and Islamabad was further underscored in a press conference shortly before his departure, where an Indian journalist asked why the U.S. had never questioned A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who had operated a veritable supermarket for rogue regimes looking to acquire strategic weapons. Bush replied: "Well, we were the nation that exposed the conspiracy to deal with — more than the conspiracy, the activities, let me rephrase that — we were the nation that exposed the activities of sharing technologies, sensitive technologies, nuclear weapons-related technologies. And we, of course, want to know as much about the A.Q. Khan network as possible. But had it not been for US intelligence, coupled with British intelligence, this network never would have been exposed. And the light of day helps understand proliferation." Indeed, or put more succinctly, Pakistan has refused U.S. requests to interview Khan.

    Shortly before Bush's arrival, the Pakistani security forces mounted a raid on a purported Qaeda cell operating in Waziristan, and claimed to have killed dozens of fighters -- the announcement of such successes shortly before Musharraf is due to meet top U.S. officials has become a familiar pattern. But they do serve to remind that the fact of Osama bin Laden lurking in the wilds of Waziristan gives Musharraf a free pass with Washington on everything from his military rule through A.Q. Khan. It's difficult not to wonder how difficult life might get for Musharraf if Bin Laden were ever caught or killed. But regardless of the fate of the Qaeda leader, the mounting tide of protest against his regime by both Islamists and the traditional secular opposition who claim he uses the 'Islamist Peril' to justify suppressing democratic opposition, as well as a secessionist rebellion in Baluchistan and ongoing hostility in Waziristan, suggests that the Musharraf regime may be fast becoming untenable. (TIME, March 1, 2006)

  • Paula Newberg suggests Musharraf's efforts to portray himself as the custodian of democracy in the face of extremism are mocked by his actions against the democratic opposition. The Bush administration should press Musharraf to move back towards freely elected government, she argues, because the crisis building in Pakistan as wider sections of the society turn against Musharraf will hurt U.S. interests. (Yale Global, March 1, 2006)
  • Simon Tisdall warns that Musharraf is now politically weaker than at any point since he seized power in 1999, and that the Islamists have never been stronger. But, he says, Bush is unlikely to heed advice to balance his ties with the general by engaging in contacts with democratic opposition groups, and pressing for greater democracy. (The Guardian, March 1, 2006)
  • Husain Haqqani explores the history of the relationship between Pakistan’s military establishment and the country’s radical Islamists, and finds the latter playing an integral role in realizing the vision of the military establishment that has ruled the country, brief democratic interludes notwithstanding, since independence. (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 2006)
  • Previously on Pakistan: Myth of an 'Islamist Peril'

  • The Arab identity of P&O's new owners was seized on by legislators looking to make political hay

    Racism Over Ports?
    Foreign Affairs managing editor Gideon Rose gets to the heart of the matter when he charges that any sober assessment of the issues in the furor over the acquisition of management contracts at six U.S. ports by Dubai Ports World must lead to the conclusion that the only problem being cited by the naysayers is simply that this is an Arab-owned company. Notwithstanding the fact that it has an excellent record of cooperation with the U.S. on security matters and is run by American executives -- or the fact that security in U.S. ports is the responsibility of Homeland Security regardless of who owns the management companies -- politicians began alerting the media with warnings about "a country involved in 9/11" taking over American ports. (Dubai may not have been more involved in 9/11 than Germany, but nobody was bothering with the details.)

    Tom Friedman echoed the racism theme, warning that to reject a company playing by the rules of the globalization game and international counter-terrorism simply because it is Arab will actually weaken the U.S. ability to win moderate allies in the Muslim world, and leave it even more vulnerable. The Nation notes that the real security issue in U.S. ports is the rules and procedures adopted by the U.S. government, and how much the U.S. taxpayer is willing to spend on keeping America's harbors safe. But Bill Greider sees a dark irony in the fact that the Bush administration is being stymied by a climate of fear it helped stoke.
    (Foreign Affairs, February 27, 2006)

    Fatman and Little Boy launched a generation of weapons designed to ensure U.S. strategic primacy

    No Limit on U.S. Nukes
    Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press argue that the end of the Cold War has removed restraints on the U.S. pursuit of nuclear primacy, because the MAD (mutually assured destruction) principle that served as the foundation for arms control no longer serves as a brake on U.S. ambitions. The Bush administration is pursuing a revitalized nuclear program as part of its strategy to remain, in perpetuity, the single superpower and to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor to replace the Soviet Union on the strategic map. That requires substantially altering the rules of arms control and non proliferation.

    “During the Cold War, MAD rendered the debate about the wisdom of nuclear primacy little more than a theoretical exercise," they write. "Now that MAD and the awkward equilibrium it maintained are about to be upset, the argument has become deadly serious. Hawks will undoubtedly see the advent of U.S. nuclear primacy as a positive development. For them, MAD was regrettable because it left the United States vulnerable to nuclear attack. With the passing of MAD, they argue, Washington will have what strategists refer to as 'escalation dominance' -- the ability to win a war at any level of violence -- and will thus be better positioned to check the ambitions of dangerous states such as China, North Korea, and Iran. Doves, on the other hand, are fearful of a world in which the United States feels free to threaten -- and perhaps even use -- force in pursuit of its foreign policy goals. In their view, nuclear weapons can produce peace and stability only when all nuclear powers are equally vulnerable. Owls worry that nuclear primacy will cause destabilizing reactions on the part of other governments regardless of the United States' intentions. They assume that Russia and China will work furiously to reduce their vulnerability by building more missiles, submarines, and bombers; putting more warheads on each weapon; keeping their nuclear forces on higher peacetime levels of alert; and adopting hair-trigger retaliatory policies. If Russia and China take these steps, owls argue, the risk of accidental, unauthorized, or even intentional nuclear war -- especially during moments of crisis -- may climb to levels not seen for decades."
    (Foreign Affairs, April-May, 2006)

    Turkish U.S.-bashing movie 'Valley of the Wolves: Iraq' has drawn record crowds

    Where the Bad Guys are American
    It's not likely to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, but the runaway success of the Turkish movie "Valley of the Wolves: Iraq" is a sign that local filmmakers have figured out a way to make pots of money out of the simultaneous loathing of American foreign policy and love of its action movies: Cast Americans as the bad guys in Rambo-style shoot-em-ups.

    On its website, which offers explanations, images and a trailer, the film is explained as a Rambo-style revenge fantasy in which a group of Turkish Special Forces soldiers head into Iraq to avenge some of their comrades who've fallen foul of U.S. forces and end up championing the stolen honor of the Iraqi people. The movie's popularity resonates with attitudes in the Turkish mainstream: The Prime Minister and his wife have seen the movie and recommended it to others, the first lady calling it "a beautiful film."

    And given the popularity of American action movies, the fact that the genre is now being turned against U.S. foreign policy represents a far more serious challenge than the droning video sermons of Bin Laden and Zawahiri.

    Nor does "Valley of the Wolves" have the genre all to itself. Over in Cairo, record crowds are turning out to see The Night Baghdad Fell, a vicious satire in which Egypt is conquered by an invading U.S. army. In the socially conservative Egyptian cultural landscape, the film's depiction of the fantasy of one of its main characters having sex with Secretary of State Condolleeza Rice, who is portrayed as a belly dancer, is no doubt contributing to its salacious appeal. (Knight-Ridder, February 14, 2006 and Al-Jazeera, January 10, 2006)

    The object of slander: Iran's national soccer team

    The Next Cartoon War?
    Even as people continue to die in protests sparked by the Prophet Muhammad caricatures, a German newspaper decided to open a second front by publishing a cartoon depicting Iran's national soccer team -- due to compete in Germany in the World Cup finals in June -- as suicide bombers. Iran immediately announced formal protests, and demanded an apology. Keep a watching brief on this one, which has the potential to merge the passions of the current cartoon war with the nationalist soccer passion of the Iranians in a volatile political cocktail. (The Guardian, February 15, 2006)

    Kim Jong Il visits China

    China and North Korea: Comrades Forever?
    U.S. strategy for dealing with the challenge of North Korea's nuclear weapons program is premised largely on the willingness and ability of China to hold Pyongyang's feet to the fire, using its status as North Korea's major trading partner to deliver good behavior. But, warns the International Crisis Group, China's position vis-a-vis North Korea is often misunderstood in Washington.

    "China's influence on North Korea is more than it is willing to admit but far less than outsiders tend to believe," the ICG writes. "Although it shares the international community's denuclearisation goal, it has its own concept of how to achieve it. It will not tolerate erratic and dangerous behaviour if it poses a risk of conflict but neither will it endorse or implement policies that it believes will create instability or threaten its influence in both Pyongyang and Seoul."

    China's priorities with regard to North Korea are not the same as Washington's. They include maintaining economic and social stability, preventing the U.S. from dominating a united Korea, and using its role in mediating the standoff to enhance its diplomatic prestige, while avoiding triggering a regional arms race. Although its almost $2 billion in trade and investment is the lifeblood of North Korea's economy, "there is virtually no circumstance under which China would use it to force North Korea's compliance on the nuclear issue." It fears that sanctions would do more harm than good, and also set a precedent that could prove uncomfortable for Beijing on other fronts. Its fear of a flood of refugees crossing the border also gives it a greater stake in maintaining the status quo on the Korean peninsula, or altering it very gradually through market reforms.

    "Although it cannot deliver a rapid end to Pyongyang's weapons program, China must still be an integral component of any strategy with a chance of reducing the threat of a nuclear North Korea," the ICG writes. "No other country has the interest and political position in North Korea to facilitate and mediate negotiations. It is also the key to preventing transfers of the North's nuclear materials and other illicit goods, although its ability to do this is limited by logistical and intelligence weaknesses, and unwillingness to curb border trade. Over the long-term, Chinese economic interaction with the North may be the best hope for sparking deeper systemic reform and liberalisation there." (International Crisis Group, January 31, 2006)

    U.S. Central Command's website and Newsletter
    Updating Info on Iraq, Afghanistan. the Middle East and the Horn of Africa