Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Boston University





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Will Iran suspend uranium enrichment in order to get the U.S. to negotiating table?

Iran and the U.S. Talk About Talks
And so the diplomatic dance begins: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week issued a U.S. response to the various negotiating initiatives from Tehran, in the form of an offer to join the EU3 at the negotiating table with Iran on condition that Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment activities. At face value, that precondition could cast the move simply as a step to turn the diplomatic tables on Tehran by responding to its calls for talks with a counter-offer framed in such a way that the Iranians can't accept it. Indeed, the initial response from Iran's foreign minister was to welcome the call for talks, but reject any preconditions. Still, the offer from the U.S. breaks a long-standing taboo against talking to Tehran on the grounds that this would legitimize its clerical regime, and although Washington conservatives are are spinning the offer as an opportunity to reveal Iran's true intentions and thereby build support for punitive action, it may just easily result in a diplomatic process that eventually sees Iran's regime rehabilitated in exchange for giving up the means to pursue nuclear weapons. And that may be precisely the outcome that Washington hawks who favor a policy of "regime-change" had hoped to avoid.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal makes clear the conservative fear that the U.S. offer moves it onto a diplomatic track that leads to far more concessions to Iran than Washington should be willing to make: "Given the concessions he has already won by refusing to cooperate, Mr. Ahmadinejad won't be in any hurry to oblige now," the Journal writes. "Already yesterday, Iran was pocketing the direct talks and demanding that any negotiation be 'without preconditions.' This was entirely predictable, and you can bet this new Iranian demand will soon be echoed in Paris, Moscow and all too many precincts in Washington."

Secretary Rice's initiative came amid growing pressure on the Bush Administration in Washington, and among its key allies, to negotiate directly with Tehran, although that call had been previously resisted by hawkish elements in the Administration. It appears to have had the effect of forging a consensus between the U.S. and the EU3 over the next steps in dealing with Iran's nuclear program, although it remains to be seen whether it contains enough to persuade China and Russia will back the threat of a Chapter VII Security Council resolution at this stage.

Rice sought to make clear that the U.S. was not offering a comprehensive "grand bargain" to rehabilitate Iran, because of concerns over Iranian support for terror attacks and radical groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. But Iran has previously offered comprehensive talks on all matters of concern to Washington including the nuclear issue, Iraq, the fate of al Qaeda prisoners in Iran, and the Islamic Republic's stance on Israel and the Palestinians. That was in an April 2003 offer, rebuffed by the Bush Administration. And Iran sees its strategic position as vastly improved since that time, now that the U.S. has become bogged down in Iraq and sees its Afghanistan project in mounting danger of unraveling. Believing the U.S. now needs its help more than ever, Tehran will drive a harder bargain.

On the nuclear issue, Iran's reluctance to accept unilateral suspension of uranium enrichment as a precondition for talks is based on the idea that this surrenders too much leverage -- Iran's view of the three-year negotiation process with the EU was that it got nothing in exchange for its suspension during that period, and that by stalling the Europeans actually weakened Tehran's position. This time, Tehran will expect something in return for a suspension: A finite period of negotiation, and perhaps some form of political recognition from the West (which moves in the direction of security guarantees) at the outset of the process. It may also seek to fudge the issue of suspension by verifiably halting its enrichment activities for "technical" reasons in order to allow a negotiation process to begin.

Iran may be moved to find a compromise formula because the offer of direct talks moves substantially towards a key Iranian diplomatic goal. The debate in Tehran is certainly likely to intensify, and the regime may be forced as the diplomatic process gains momentum, to act to ensure that it speaks with a single, clear voice to avoid the danger that the divisions between its power centers results in the sending of mixed signals that could sabotage diplomacy. The deep mistrust of each side for the other is unlikely to abate any time soon, but the latest diplomatic gambits from both sides suggest the opening of an opportunity that will be seized by the diplomatically inclined elements on both sides, and those caught in between. (Inter Press Service, May 31, 2006)

  • Trita Parsi suggests Iran will respond to Rice with a counter offer, probably accepting a suspension of uranium enrichment but only if it gets something in return. "The ultimate Iranian goal would be if the United States agrees to talk and the United States agrees to resolve some of these issues diplomatically with Iran in a way that reduces the Iranian threat perception from United States," says Parsi. "I think if that happens there are strong reasons to believe that Iran will agree to suspend enrichment. But they would offer to do so within a specific time frame. I do not think they would do it the same way they did it with the Europeans back in 2003, when they said, 'we'll suspend enrichment as long as negotiations take place.' From the Iranian perspective, that was a mistake because then the Europeans could drag on the negotiations without reaching any solution and Iran would not be able to enrich. What they suggested to the Europeans on January 30th of this year was to suspend enrichment for two years and within those two years find a solution, a solution that both sides can accept. So, I would say that if the United States agrees to talk and there is less of a threat perception on the Iranian side—threatening language on both sides obviously has to be reduced—then I think it is definitely doable to get a time-specific period in which the Iranians will agree to suspend nuclear enrichment." (Council on Foreign Relations, May 31, 2006)
  • In a forum on Iran policy, Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass offers of a some thoughtful guidelines for U.S. diplomacy in the nuclear standoff. may signal an Iranian willingness to find a formula for accommodating Western preconditions for talks. "The United States must ask itself what it is prepared to live with," says Haass. "The uranium enrichment program is not a black or white affair; there are many shades of gray, in terms of size and transparency. The Iranians talk about their rights. If that is going to be an essential element of any diplomatic package, then an interesting question is how to define that right in a way that is enough for the Iranians and not too much for the West.
    "It is very important to make the distinction between giving a conditional security guarantee and giving a regime guarantee. It is not up to the United States to guarantee the Iranian regime, or any other regime; history will take care of that. Instead, the United States should be talking about the evolution of Iranian society. What the United States can offer is a conditional security guarantee of the form, 'f Iran does not attack the United States, the United States will not attack Iran.' Just because Iran receives such a security assurance, that will not make it exempt from this administration's general call for movement in the direction of markets and more democratic societies, respect for the rule of law, human rights, and the like.
    "Calling explicitly for regime change is not smart. It actually strengthens the hand of the regime in Iran because it seems like outside interference. It also makes it more difficult for the United States to garner international support, because this will be used as an argument against American foreign policy. One of the many ironies of U.S. policy toward Iran is that after five years of often explicitly calling for regime change and clearly having a foreign policy toward Iran in which desire for regime change enjoyed priority, the only change in the Iranian regime is that hardliners have increased their power." (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May, 2006)
  • The New York Times reports of a possible slowdown in Iranian enrichment experiments may signal an Iranian willingness to find a formula for accommodating Western preconditions for talks. (New York Times, May 30, 2006)
  • Gareth Porter reports that Iran's 2003 offer to Washington included an offer to accept peace with Israel and "cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel's 1967 borders. Iranian academic Trita Parsi tells him that the negotiating document carried the backing of Ayatollah Khamenei, and sought to address all of Washington's grievances over Iranian behavior. But it was rebuffed by the Bush Administration. (Asia Times, May 26, 2006)
  • The Washington Post reports on the upsurge in negotiating initiatives from Tehran, noting that they have broken a taboo in Iran on contacts with the erstwhile "Great Satan" and provoking a debate over Washington's own taboos over contacts with the regime that held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days. (Washington Post, May 24, 2006)
  • Kaveh L. Afrasiabi explains why Germany now holds the pivotal role in shaping a diplomatic outcome, but that it can only achieve that goal if it acts independently of the U.S. That poses a major challenge to a Chancellor elected in part on a promise to repair relations with Washington. (Asia Times, May 26, 2006)
  • Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer makes the case for bargaining with Iran, and offers an explanation of why European negotiating initiatives have failed until now: "First, the European offer to open up technology and trade, including the peaceful use of nuclear technology, was disproportionate to Iran's fundamental fear of regime change on the one hand and its regional hegemonic aspirations and quest for global prestige on the other," he writes. "Second, the disastrous U.S.-led war in Iraq has caused Iran's leaders to conclude that the leading Western power has been weakened to the point that it is dependent on Iran's goodwill and that high oil prices have made the West all the more wary of a serious confrontation. The Iranian regime's analysis may prove to be a dangerous miscalculation, because it is likely to lead sooner rather than later to a 'hot' confrontation that Iran simply cannot win. After all, the issue at the heart of this conflict is this: Who dominates the Middle East -- Iran or the United States? Iran's leaders underestimate the explosive nature of this issue for the United States as a global power and thus for its own future." The answer, he says, is to offer Tehran a "grand bargain" around which an international consensus could be built that would withstand the pressure of oil prices. And that would require the U.S. abandoning its hostility to direct talks, and also its desire to effect regime-change in Iran. (Washington Post, May 29, 2006)
  • Alexey Arbatov explains how Russia's middle ground position on the Iran standoff reflects Moscow's own interests, which are not the same as those of Washington. "By demanding the immediate cessation of Iranian enrichment activities, Russia is following its own economic and security interests and is demonstrating cooperation with the United States (and the West in general) on nonproliferation," he writes. "By opposing UN sanctions and US military force, Moscow is accommodating its interests in cooperation with Iran and in avoidance of the inevitable economic, political and security damage of war. In this way Russia is also indirectly forging a united front with China, India and many other countries in opposing US unilateralism and arbitrary policy of force, permeated with double standards and a disregard for other nations' differing interests and views.
    "By treating the cessation of Iranian enrichment activities as a temporary measure to be enforced only as long as it takes the IAEA to sort out its questions with Iran's past compliance, Russians may be privately telling Iran that it can pursue a full-scale fuel cycle after the IAEA is satisfied. At the same time, Moscow could tacitly argue to Washington (and actually believe it) that such a freeze may last indefinitely depending on IAEA investigative zeal, and anyway would gain time to find other ways of putting the brakes on Iranian nuclear cycle programs." (Carnegie Endowment, May 30, 2006)
  • Paul Kerr explains why the goal of regime-change is incompatible with the non-proliferation objective of the diplomatic process. If the U.S. is unwilling to take "regime-change" off the table, the Iranians are unlikely to abandon the option of pursuing a nuclear deterrent. (Council on Foreign Relations, May 25, 2006)
  • The policy dispute in Washington is reflected in an online debate between Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute and Karim Sadjadpour of the International Crisis Group over the issue of talking to Iran. (Council on Foreign Relations, May 19, 2006)
  • In a rare interview with a Western news outlet, President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad is taken to task over his views on the Holocaust. He remains combative throughout, on this question as well as over the nuclear issue. (Der Spiegel, May 30, 2006)
  • Background Material on Iran
  • Full text of Secretary of State Rice's offer to Iran. (U.S. Department of State, May 31, 2006)
  • Full text of President Ahmedinajad's letter to President Bush. (Council on Foreign Relations, May 9, 2006)
  • Hassan Rohani's proposals for resolving the crisis. (TIME.com, May 9, 2006)
  • Gareth Porter explores the April 2003 offer by Iran for talks to settle all differences with the U.S. and accept peace with Israel. (Asia Times, May 27, 2006)
  • The International Institute for Strategic Studies offers a detailed assessment of the challenges involved in using military strikes to prevent Iran having the means to acquire nuclear weapons. (Strategic Comments, Spring, 2006)
  • Zbigniew Brezinski offers a cogent summary of the reasons why attacking Iran would be a monumental act of strategic folly for the U.S. -- its consequences would be so calamitous, he argues, that they may even prematurely end the era of American dominance on the global stage. He also warns that such an act would be illegal both under U.S. and international law. Brezinski argues that negotiations with Iran remains the best way to achieve U.S. Goals, including liberalization of Iran's domestic politics. (LA Times, April 23, 2006)
  • Seymour Hersh reports on U.S. military planning for an attack on Iran and explains the reasons that advocates of such a course of action are winning teh debate inside the Bush administration. (The New Yorker, April 10, 2006)
  • Martin Jacques notes that Washington appears to have missed the fact that China is not simply being a reluctant partner in pressuring Iran, it is actively resisting the U.S. agenda. That, says Jacques, is because China's booming economy has allowed it greater freedom of expression on the world stage, compared with its habit, even in the recent path, to studiously avoid upsetting Washington. (Guardian, May 10, 2006)
  • The Center for Strategic and International Studies offers a detailed technical assessment of Iran's nuclear program, and also parses the strategic options available to the U.S. if diplomacy fails. (Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 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)
  • Iran's UN ambassador Javad Sarif, in a New York Times op ed, sets out sets out Tehran's negotiating position on the nuclear issue. Iran has no intention of building nuclear weapons, he insists, and is willing to negotiate on the basis providing new guarantees to win Western confidence in this assertion, including expanded inspections and the creation of an international consortium to supply Iran's reactor fuel. (New York Times, April 7, 2006)
  • Christopher de Bellaigue offers a comprehensive analysis of the Iranian regime's nuclear intentions and its strategy for handling the standoff with the U.S. (New York Review of Books, April 27, 2006)
  • The Oxford Research Group assesses the effectiveness of military options against Iran, and concludes they are unlikely to restrain Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but will promote chaos and instability. (Oxford Research Group, February, 2006)
  • Ray Tayekh explains the factional disputes at the heart of the Tehran regime, suggesting that the path of confrontation is preferred by a new generation of conservatives hardened during the Iran-Iraq war, and that the current atmosphere of crisis strengthens their hand domestically. (The National Interest, Spring, 2006)
  • Henry Sokolski suggests that the current debate over how to stop Iran going nuclear is fruitless. Instead, he offers a long-term strategy for managing Western rivalry with a nuclear-armed Iran. (Transatlantic Institute, March 16, 2006)
  • Previously on Iran:
    -- 05.10.06: U.S. Thwarted in Iran Diplomacy

    -- 04.26.06: Awaiting the Real Diplomacy
    -- 04.19.06: U.S. Fails to Prevail in Iran Diplomacy
    -- 04.12.06: March to War or Smoke and Mirrors?
    -- 04.05.06: Military Action Against Iran?
    -- 03.29.06: Bush Iran Strategy Hits a Wall
    -- 03.22.06: Has Britain Put U.S. on the Spot?
    -- 03.15.06: Regime Change or Normalization?
  • Stuck in Iraq

    President Bush and Tony Blair are due to meet later this week to discuss Iraq and prospects for drawing down significant numbers of Coalition troops, with the swearing in of an incomplete Iraqi government -- its three most contentious positions remain unfilled -- their best hope for reversing the negative tide. But there is little reason to expect a new government formed out of the same political deadlock that hamstrung the previous one to produce a substantially different result. The new government has entrenched the sectarian principle in Iraqi politics, making government another theater of the same conflict that is played out with weapons on the streets as the death toll from vicious "ethnic cleansing" continues to rise, prompting many observers to suggest that a civil war is already underway.

    The U.S. and Britain are hoping to transfer responsibility for much of the day to day security to Iraqi security forces, and are expecting the new government to take bold steps to dismantle the militia forces that are the infrastructure of civil warfare. But the sectarian divisions plague the security forces themselves -- they've proved most effective in situation where Kurdish and Shiite troops in government uniforms are deployed against their sectarian foes. And Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's own political base is a coalition of political parties led by parties closely tied to militia forces. Maliki's own political position is weak, and he is forced to rely in particular on the support of the Kurdish factions who are pulling increasingly away from the national government -- indeed, one of its first tests will be the move by new oil minister Hussein al-Shahristani to rein in the Kurdish administration in the north which has recently negotiated three separate oil drilling contracts independently of the central government. And as soon as the new government moves to revisit the constitution, as promised in the deal to secure Sunni participation, it faces a crisis over the Kurdish claim on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which could open a second front of the civil war.

    Prime Minister Maliki said this week that he expects Iraqi forces to be in control of all but two provinces of Iraq by year's end -- perhaps in response to pressure from the Shiite base, which has become increasingly annoyed by U.S. efforts to bring the former Baathist Sunnis into the political process -- but Coalition leaders are more optimistic about pulling out over a four-year period. The idea of Iraqi forces being in a position to assume control of most of the country any time soon seems optimistic, and yet the reality suggests that there may not be enough Coalition troops in Iraq to guarantee security in the face of a mounting sectarian conflict. Even now, those troops are relying so heavily on aerial bombardment and search-and-destroy missions that they are fueling the growth of more radical factions. And yet, the British experience in Basra suggests that an overly permissive attitude to the presence of militias allowed those militias to infiltrate and dominate local Iraqi security forces, and when their political leaders turned against the presence of Coalition forces, the Brits effectively lost control of what had once been the most tranquil part of post-Saddam Iraq. In short, as politically desirable as it may be for the Coalition leaders at home, there appears to be no prospect of an exit from Iraq any time soon. Nor, however, is there much optimism that their continued presence in Iraq can ensure success. (Informed Comment, May 22, 2006)

  • The security situation in Iraq will deteriorate precipitously if the U.S. attacks Iran, warn Ray Tayekh and Steven Simon. That's because Iraq will be the initial theater in which Iran responds to any such attack, and Tehran has prepositioned substantial special forces capability, with safe houses and intelligence-gathering capability across southern Iraq, and the U.S. military are vulnerable to both a military and a political onslaught from Iraqi Shiite militants. There is, however, a major restraint on Tehran's ability to set Iraq ablaze: Destroying the new order in Iraq would be counterproductive to Iran's own interests, since the ascent of its allies to power via the democratic mechanism in Iraq has substantially expanded Tehran's regional influence. Indeed, from a strategic perspective, Iran has clearly been the major beneficiary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and that in itself will give Iran pause before initiating a campaign whose outcome may reverse Shiite power in Baghdad. (Washington Post, April 29, 2006)
  • The Sunni insurgents, for their part, see a U.S. attack on Iran as their best hope for recovering lost ground in Baghdad. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, in a harrowing look inside the organized nightly sectarian bloodbath in Baghdad, was told by one of his Sunni guerrilla sources, "Our only hope is if the Americans hit the Iranians, and by God's will this day will come very soon, then the Americans will give a medal to anyone who kills a Shia militiaman. When we feel that an American attack on Iran is imminent, I myself will shoot anyone who attacks the Americans and all the mujahideen will join the US army against the Iranians. Most of my fellow mujahideen are not fighting the Americans at the moment, they are too busy killing the Shia, and this is only going to create hatred. If someone kills one of my family I will do nothing else but kill to avenge their deaths." (The Guardian, May 20, 2002)
  • An AP interview with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad offers a sober assessment of the challenges facing the new government. The reaction of leading Sunni politicians to the new government suggests that their constituency may be likely to resist the outcome. He also says that now that the government has been formed, it's time for the U.S. and Iran to talk about Iraq. (Washington Post, May 21, 2006)
  • Sami Moubayed suggests that Maliki's political difficulties in filling the security posts in his cabinet suggest he'll struggle to live up to his promise to use "maximum force" to restore security. (Asia Times, May 22, 2006)
  • Simon Jenkins suggests Iraq is a failed state, and that the only option available to Bush and Blair is to partition the country and leave. "A crucial illusion of American and British policy is that the occupation is somehow maintaining the integrity of the state and its government," he writes. "It is not. It is undermining both. In truth there is no state and coalition troops are merely squatting in camps dotted across the landscape, emerging occasionally to kill or get killed. There are two consequences of each refusal to leave. First, the troops offer an ever more inviting target for insurgency and a magnet for anti-western guerrillas from across the region. This in turn boosts the militias as alternative power networks and encourages politicians to back them rather than the army. Second, each postponement of withdrawal undermines the independence and self-reliance of the current Iraqi leader... Washington and London still do not hear the message, that their occupation is hugely unpopular among Iraqis, except for those VIPs whose lives literally depend on it." (The Sunday Times, May 21, 2006)
  • Jenkins offers an equally savage critique of Tony Blair's arrival to support Maliki a day after the new Prime Minister announced his cabinet. "London and Washington just don't get it," he writes. "Americans and Britons are not deeply loved by Iraqis just now. Their presence is resented and their patronage of Maliki will not strengthen but weaken him. It can only undermine his autonomy and authority in the eyes of his supporters (and delight his many foes)." (The Guardian, May 22, 2006)
  • Ned Parker suggests that mixed signals from Washington over troop withdrawal may be bolstering the Sunni insurgency, which trades on the conventional wisdom among its base that the U.S. has no intention of leaving Iraq. (The Times, May 22, 2006)
  • Lt. Gen. William Odom argues that the U.S. has no prospect of achieving its goals in Iraq, and remaining there imperils U.S. strategic interests on a number of other fronts. (Foreign Policy, May-June, 2006)
  • Previously on Iraq:
    -- Partitioning Iraq?

    -- New Government, Same Problems
    -- Political Paralysis in Iraq
    -- The Magnitude of Failure in Iraq
    -- A Generational American War?
    -- What's Left of Iraq?
  • A Palestinian Civil War?
    Tension between the Hamas-led Palestinian government and the Fatah organization of President Mahmoud Abbas has escalated into a head-on confrontation, now that the former has fielded a new security force comprised of fighters from various militant groups. Firefights on the streets of Gaza had an air of inevitability about them once President Abbas had ordered the Fatah-dominated security forces under his control to assert its authority, and claim to a monopoly of force, on the streets of Gaza after warning Hamas that he deemed its new force illegal. But Hamas claims to be simply acting on the basis of the division of authority over security forces between the president and the elected government. The Bush Administration has come down firmly behind Abbas, insisting that he should have full control of all security forces -- a 180-degree reversal of the position it took when Yasser Arafat was president and Washington demanded that the security forces be put under the control of the elected government. Until now, both sides have avoided a direct confrontation, for fear that the resultant chaos will destroy all institutional authority in the Palestinian territory. But pressure from the rank and file may be propelling it, particularly from the Fatah side -- Abbas has limited control over his security forces, which are an economic base for many of the militants of his organization. Hamas claims that it wants its own security force precisely to prevent existing armed groups from using their weapons to protect and advance their own positions. But presumably the Hamas rank and file would like to break the Fatah monopoly on salaried security jobs.

    Abbas is in a precarious position, goaded by Washington and by his own base to adopt a more confrontational strategy towards Hamas, yet aware that his own base -- the Fatah organization -- has been discredited in the eyes of the Palestinian electorate, and support from Washington, if anything, has negative value on the Palestinian street. Hamas is the more disciplined organization, yet it needs Abbas in place to cover for its own inability, or reluctance -- at this stage, at least -- to engage with Israel. But even if the Bush administration is inclined to greet the showdown as an opportunity to reverse the results of the Palestinian election, Abbas may be reluctant to go that far. And both sides will likely come under strong pressure from Arab countries in the days ahead to find a compromise. They will be aware that the only winner in a Palestinian civil war will be the Israeli leadership, whose inclination to unilaterally set borders benefits from political chaos on the Palestinian side -- even if the long-term security impact of that chaos may, nonetheless, imperil Israel. The logical outcome of the policies being pursued by all parties now is the collapse of the Palestinian Authority. The consequences for the Palestinians are obvious, but for Israel, too, it would force the resumption of direct administrative control over Palestinian cities that ended with Oslo. For the U.S., it would mean an end to any prospect of a two-state solution, with Washington now seen as indistinguishable from Israel in Arab eyes. And for the Arab regimes, it means intensified instability, perhaps even in their security forces, as their citizenry responds to the Palestinian debacle. Yet, there's a conspicuous absence on all sides of the political maturity necessary to avert a new catastrophe. (Haaretz, May 19, 2006)

  • Khaled Amayreh explains why Israel, the Arab countries and the U.S. all destined to suffer from the collapse of the Palestinian Authority, yet all apparently unable to take the steps necessary to prevent it from occurring. (Al-Ahram, May 18-24, 2006)
  • Anna Coote reports that the health infrastructure of the Palestinian territories is collapsing in the face of the financial blockade promoted by Israel and the U.S. to starve the Hamas-led government of funding. (Guardian, May 15, 2006)
  • Former President Jimmy Carter has denounced the U.S. response to the Hamas election by a vicious collective punishment that will be disastrous for U.S. interests in the Middle East. "Innocent Palestinian people are being treated like animals, with the presumption that they are guilty of some crime. Because they voted for candidates who are members of Hamas, the United States government has become the driving force behind an apparently effective scheme of depriving the general public of income, access to the outside world and the necessities of life." (International Herald Tribune, May 6, 2006)
  • Mohammed Yaghi warns that if the U.S. manages to topple Hamas, Fatah will not be restored to power -- instead, the Palestinian territories will begin to look more like Somalia. The big winner might be al-Qaeda. (Washington Institute for Near East Studies, May 16, 2006)
  • Al-Jazeera reports talks between Israel and Hamas have been conducted in Israeli prisons. At the same time, imprisoned Fatah militant Marwan Barghouti appears to have hammered out a principle agreement with Hamas over a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. Selling it to those on the outside may be another matter. (Al Jazeera, May 11, 2006)
  • Danny Rubinstein profiles the diplomatic skills of Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, and notes that he'll need all of those skills if he's to find a way out of the dilemmas of power. (Haaretz, May 15, 2006)
  • Previously on Israel and Palestine:
    --Blockade Will Destroy Palestinian Authority
    --The Politics of Terror
    --Reality of Hamas Power Forces Strategic Reassessments
    --Hamas Inherits a Policing Dilemma
    --Israel Hopes to Negotiate its Borders with U.S.
    --Jericho Raid Humiliates Abbas
    --Hamas and Israel: An Unspoken Peace?
    --Rice Fails to Secure Hamas Blockade
    -- Is the U.S. Trying to Reverse the Palestinian Election?
  • Oil Turns Geopolitical Tide Against U.S.
    The international headlines of the past month would have been unthinkable five years ago – for a start, the U.S. was forced to retreat on two major foreign policy positions in the space of a single week: First, the Middle East "Quartet" successfully pushed back against U.S. efforts to cut all funding to employees of the Palestinian Authority; and then Washington's European allies in the Security Council persuaded it to once again back off its drive for sanctions against Iran to await the outcome of yet another European attempt to offer Tehran new incentives for compliance. Elsewhere, Russia's President Vladimir Putin responded to a tongue-lashing on democracy from Vice President Dick Cheney by mostly ignoring Washington, although he did drolly remark that "to talk of an end to the arms race is premature." China, also, shrugged off such symbolic slights as its president being denied a state dinner in Washington and continued to expand its own diplomatic ties in a broad swathe of countries traditionally aligned with the U.S. while also making clear that its resistance to Washington's Iran agenda was based on a broader strategic perspective: Indeed, Beijing joined with Moscow in moving to induct Iran as a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a Central Asian security body created by Moscow and Beijing to counter U.S. efforts to expand its own influence in the region. Turkey, long a close U.S. ally, is cutting an increasingly distant stance, alarmed by Washington's failure to ensure an outcome in Iraq that protects its interests.

    Even in Latin America, once a mostly unchallenged U.S. sphere of influence, the political pendulum has swung largely against Washington, with the main political contest now being one between more European-like mainstream socialist ruling parties such as those in Brazil and Argentina, and the more nationalist-populist rulers of Venezuela and Bolivia (whose recent move to nationalize its energy reserves was a provocation made possible by the shifting strategic balance). Of even greater concern to Washington may be the fact that China is emerging not only as an increasingly important trading partner of many Latin American countries, but is also beginning to take a role in training some Latin American armies.

    A profound shift is occurring from the post-Cold War moment in which the sole surviving superpower – the "hyperpower" feared by the French – could dictate its terms in most corners of the globe, to one in which the "multipolarity" that seemed like a fantasy in the thinktanks of Paris and Beijing is fast becoming a reality. And the primary factor reigniting this newly competitive geopolitical environment may be oil. China has emerged as a growing power by virtue of its economic growth and its share of U.S. debt, but its growing inclination to challenge the U.S. may be based in part on securing its own, increasingly expansive national interests, particularly in respect of energy supplies. As oil prices have risen from the $17 a barrel to over $70 a barrel, Russia has risen from the penury and supplicant relationship with the West that characterized the Yeltsin era. President Putin has detached Russia from the West to pursue policies guided primarily by Russia's own national and regional interests. And some key U.S. allies in Europe, most notably Germany, are inclined for reasons of their own energy security to seek to balance their U.S. ties and a relations with Moscow.

    The negative impact of the current oil market on the U.S. strategic position has been exacerbated by Iraq, where U.S. failure to prevail in the occupation phase has not only signaled the limits of U.S. power, but also significantly tightened oil supplies. And both dimensions -- the U.S. military's troubles in Iraq, and the seller's market for oil -- have strengthened Iran's hand in the nuclear showdown.

    "In the space of 12 months," writes William Engdahl, "Russia and China have managed to move the pieces on the geopolitical chess board of Eurasia away from what had been an overwhelming U.S. strategic advantage, to the opposite, where the U.S. is increasingly isolated. It's potentially the greatest strategic defeat for the U.S. power projection of the post-World War II period." And that, he says, will accelerate the reemergence of the realists at the helm of U.S. foreign policy. (Asia Times, May 9, 2006)

  • M.K. Bahdrakumar writes that President Vladimir Putin has now made clear his nationalist vision, which stands in marked contrast to the foreign policy posture of his predecessor. Put, says Bahdrakumar, favors "a Russia that is free from the Yeltsin-era delusions regarding relations with the US. This stands comprehensively dismantled; its trammels in the political, economic, military or social spheres have been cast aside." He continues, "Russia has no need of the Yeltsin era's vacuous liberal rhetoric, either. Russia will set a course of fundamental revival, relying paramountly on its own resources, aimed at making the country capable of safeguarding its vital interests. This involves Russia consolidating its national strength -- Russia, in other words, must become a strong state within its natural habitat of the Eurasian space. Russia indeed is not required to render any apology to Washington while setting out its national priorities. Putin himself set the example by completely ignoring Cheney's warning to the Kremlin on good conduct." (Asia Times, May 11, 2006)
  • Carnegie's Andrew Kuchins, in conversation with Bernard Gwertzman, offers a thoughtful summary of the factors that have driven Russia to challenge the U.S.. Putin had set out to reverse the economic and geopolitical decline of the Yeltsin era, although that didn't necessarily require challenging Washington. But after the two sides had cooperated to destroy the Taliban, relations went sour starting with Washington's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and the U.S. reaction to the Khodorkovsky affair, as well as to the democratic insurrections on Russia's borders. (Council on Foreign Relations, May 11, 2006)
  • Reuters reports that Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick has told Congress that the future of U.S.-China relations will be determined by Beijing's response to the Iran nuclear crisis. But his comments didn't seem to have any impact on China's opposition to a resolution threatening sanctions. Indeed, it's rather unlikely that Beijing sees the matter of Iran's nuclear program as a make-or-break issue in its relations with Washington, as much as an opportunity to signal the U.S. on the extent to which the geopolitical picture is changing. (Reuters via Washington Post, May 11, 2006)
  • The Daily Star reports that Turkey is increasingly dependent on energy supplies and a trade relationship with Iran, and the two sides have also identified a common interest in suppressing Kurdish independence in Iraq. As a result, while formally backing whatever the UN decides, Turkey is looking to China and Russia to ensure that no Security Council action is taken that threatens its relations with Tehran or leads to military action that Ankara deems a disastrous outcome. (Daily Star, May 11, 2006)
  • Nicole Stracke argues that the EU's interests are better served by working with China and Russia to resolve the Iran standoff than by following a U.S. strategy that precludes a diplomatic solution. "The position of the EU-3 was further complicated by having to consider the U.S. approach, which includes a rejection of direct talks with Tehran," she writes. "Washington has also pursued double standard, for example, by punishing Iran for its nuclear program while not advocating a similar policy vis-a-vis North Korea. Furthermore, it has been unwilling to give Iran the same security guarantees it gave North Korea in September 2005, when the Bush administration agreed 'that it has no intention of attacking North Korea with nuclear or conventional weapons,' though North Korea and Iran were both members of the 'axis of evil'... In light of the current deadlock and the limitations on the EU's negotiation power, one should question the (EU)'s wisdom in sticking with the U.S. without looking at other options, especially through China and Russia." (Daily Star, May 11, 2006)
  • Christopher Dickey notes that events have had a strange habit of confirming conspiracy theories on the Bush Administration's watch particularly the fact that Halliburton's stock price has increased more than five-fold since it took office, while Exxon-Mobil's has doubled. (Newsweek, May 12, 2006)
  • NATO Braces for a Long, Hot Afghan Summer
    A pitched battle in the town of Mosa Qala in Helmand province is the latest signal that the Taliban is back. The Afghan insurgents marched into town to engage Afghan security forces, and held on overnight in a fierce firefight that saw the Afghan forces call in NATO support. And that's just the latest in a growing number of attacks in region where armed Taliban fighters move around in groups by daylight, asking locals to point out the location of government forces. Although President Hamid blamed unnamed Pakistani officials for backing cross-border raids, he is in fact confronting an indigenous insurgency being waged by the Taliban forces were dispersed, but not destroyed, by the U.S.-led operations in 2001. The Taliban have regrouped, and new alignments have taken shape as powerful local warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar made common cause with al-Qaeda, and they are intensifying their offensive in the hope of deterring the NATO forces that are assuming control of the area from the U.S. Taliban commanders believe the European and Canadian troops now being deployed in the south were not expecting to be plunged into a bloody counterinsurgency war, and that skepticism over such deployments in their home countries can be intensified by inflicting a steady stream of casualties. The Taliban already owns the night in much of southern Afghanistan, with locals in some areas turning to its courts rather than the government's own law enforcement system to settle disputes. If they can bloody the NATO forces, Taliban commanders believe, they can take effective control of the Pashtun heartland. (Asia Times, May 15, 2006)

  • Syed Saleem Shahzad has noted that Iraqi insurgent groups have shared their experience and methods with the Taliban, and have allegedly even sent as many as 500 men into the Afghan-Pakistan border region. Their presence and impact may be confirmed by the dramatic increase in the use of tactics honed in Iraq to target U.S. and allied personnel, specifically roadside bombings and suicide attacks. The Taliban strategy involves attacks on both sides of the border, and the belief that local warlords can be rallied to a general uprising against foreign troops in Afghanistan. (Asia Times, March 15, 2006)
  • Paul Rogers notes that the new instability in southern Afghanistan is fueled by an unprecedented expansion of opium production. Not only is poppy cultivation back to the highs of the pre-Taliban era, but – in what development economists might consider progress in respect of any other primary commodity – more of it than ever is being processed into finished heroin within Afghanistan's borders. (Open Democracy, May 5, 2006)
  • Declan Walsh reports that Britain's three-year strategy for turning around the security situation in Helmand involves ignoring the heroin trade, which has become a mainstay of the region's economy. That's because they're hoping to win over the 70 percent of the population they estimate swings between support for the government and support for the Taliban. But, he writes, skirting the drugs trade in which so many of the region's bad actors are involved may prove impossible. (Guardian, May 15, 2006)
  • Francis Reinheimer parses the challenge confronting the NATO mission in Afghanistan as it takes control of the south. NATO is to expand its troop presence from around 8,000 to around 17,000 by October, while the U.S. will draw down its own contingent of 19,000 by about 3,000 troops. But the scale of the mission looks likely to expand as the Taliban mounts its most ambitious offensive since its dispersal by U.S. led forces in 2001. Indeed, the Taliban is looking to preemptively raise the cost to NATO troops of entering the region. "Some U.S. military leaders have admitted that Stage III of ISAF's mission in Afghanistan will likely involve some of the fiercest fighting yet witnessed in Afghanistan, in part because insurgent forces have been allowed to grow in strength as well as numbers in the south. The security situation has generally deteriorated and there has been an upsurge in suicide bombings, attacks on schools, roadside bombings and other violent assaults on high-level figures and military targets." What may once have been a peacekeeping mission in Kabul has now turned into a challenging counter-insurgency deployment for NATO, as the U.S. seeks to reduce its commitment in Afghanistan in order to ease the burden created by the ongoing Iraq conflict. (Center for Defense Information, May 15, 2006)
  • Eben Kaplan explains that the "Taliban" that is wresting control of parts of Waziristan from the Pakistani authorities is not the same group as once ruled Afghanistan. Although they're similar in character and worldview, each is a domestically-based insurgency. (International Institute of Strategic Studies, April 27, 2006)
  • The International Crisis Group warns that the absence of political parties in Afghanistan's new legislature diminishes its chances of establishing a new order of democracy and stability. The government of President Hamid Karzai has done all in its power to prevent parties playing a role in Afghan democracy, but the result has been to leave him dependent on the goodwill of the Islamist conservatives and warlords who play the major organizing roles in a legislature without party organization. (International Crisis Group, May 15, 2006)
  • China's Interests Return Africa to the Strategic Spotlight
    The fact that the U.S. military command for Europe spends 70 percent of its time focused on issues in Africa should come as no surprise given the shifts in global trends that have seen Africa make an unlikely return to the geopolitical spotlight. In the wake of the Cold War in which each side backed its proxy forces in a classic "great game," the global focus shifted elsewhere and Africa was largely ignored as the continent was ravaged by AID, famine and the epic bloodbaths of Liberia-Sierra Leone and Rwanda-Congo, even as democracy took hold in some 40 percent of the continent's states and its healthier economies displayed impressive growth figures. But the twin crises of terrorism and energy security have compelled the U.S. to devote considerably more focus to African problems. West Africa has long been identified as a major source of oil imports for the U.S., but some of its Muslim nations have also been identified by al-Qaeda as theaters of operations. The big geopolitical shift, however, has been the emergence of Chinese influence. Although China is driven by its need to procure the extensive supplies of raw materials available in Africa, including oil and natural gas, it is approaching the continent in a manner quite different from Washington, offering African leaders a 'strategic partnership'. And in scale of economic investment, China may have the edge, too, with its emphasis on primary industries: Chinese imports from Africa, mostly raw materials, increased 81 percent in the past year. Chinese involvement in Africa also has clear political consequences, for example in the sluggishness with which the UN has responded to the crisis in Darfur, in part because of China's trade relations with the government of Sudan. (Wall Street Journal via Yale Global, April 28, 2006)

    New From CWPNM:
    Bibliography of analysis
    and criticism of international coverage in U.S. media

      Bacevich: Imperial Troubles

    U.S. Global Hegemony  Confronts Harsh Realities
    Once, Andrew Bacevich fought in the same ideological trenches as the neoconservatives in publications such as the National Review and the Weekly Standard. But as the former Vietnam veteran and long-time professional military officer began to sense that the neocons had been seduced by visions of American Empire, he began to distance himself from them, becoming one of the most thoughtful critics of the current malaise in U.S. national security policy. In a typically thoughtful interview, Tom Engelhardt of the always excellent Web magazine TomDispatch, engaged Bacevich on a range of contemporary crises confronting the U.S.

    "It's become incontrovertible that the Iraq War is not going to end happily," Bacevich tells Engelhardt. "Even if we manage to extricate ourselves and some sort of stable Iraq emerges from the present chaos, arguing that the war lived up to the expectations of the Bush administration is going to be very difficult. My own sense is that the officer corps -- and this probably reflects my personal experience to a great degree -- is fixated on Vietnam and still believes the military was hung out to dry there. The officer corps came out of the Vietnam War determined never to repeat that experience and some officers are now angry to discover that the Army is once again stuck in a quagmire. So we are in the early stages of a long argument about who is to be blamed for the Iraq debacle. I think, to some degree, the revolt of the generals reflects an effort on the part of senior military officers to weigh in, to lay out the military's case. And the military's case is: We're not at fault. They are; and, more specifically, he is -- with Rumsfeld being the stand-in for Robert McNamara. Having said that, with all the speculation about Bush administration interest in expanding the Global War on Terror to include Iran, I suspect the officer corps, already seeing the military badly overstretched, doesn't want to have any part of such a war. Going public with attacks on Rumsfeld is one way of trying to slow whatever momentum there is toward an Iran war. I must say, I don't really think we're on a track to have a war with Iran any time soon -- maybe I'm too optimistic here -- but I suspect even the civilian hawks understand that the United States is already overcommitted, that to expand the war on terror to a new theater, the Iranian theater, would in all likelihood have the most dire consequences, globally and in Iraq.

    ... There are a couple of important implications that we have yet to confront. The (Iraq) war has exposed the limited depth of American military power. I mean, since the end of the Cold War we Americans have been beating our chests about being the greatest military power the world has ever seen. Overshadowing the power of the Third Reich! Overshadowing the Roman Empire! Wait a sec. This country of 290 million people has a force of about 130,000 soldiers committed in Iraq, fighting something on the order of 10-20,000 insurgents and a) we're in a war we can't win, b) we're in the fourth year of a war we probably can't sustain much longer. For those who believe in the American imperial project, and who see military supremacy as the foundation of that empire, this ought to be a major concern: What are we going to do to strengthen the sinews of American military power, because it's turned out that our vaunted military supremacy is not what it was cracked up to be. If you're like me and you're quite skeptical about this imperial project, the stresses imposed on the military and the obvious limits of our power simply serve to emphasize the imperative of rethinking our role in the world so we can back away from this unsustainable notion of global hegemony.

    "Then, there's the matter of competence. I object to the generals saying that our problems in Iraq are all due to the micromanagement and incompetence of Mr. Rumsfeld -- I do think he's a micromanager and a failure and ought to have been fired long ago -- because it distracts attention from the woeful performance of the senior military leaders who have really made a hash of the Iraq insurgency. I remember General Swannack in particular blaming Rumsfeld for Abu Ghraib. I'll saddle Rumsfeld with about ten percent of the blame for Abu Ghraib, the other ninety percent rests with the senior American military leaders in Baghdad… (General Ricardo) Sanchez being number one. So again, if one is an enthusiast for American military supremacy, we have some serious thinking to do about the quality of our senior leadership. Are we picking the right people to be our two, three, and four-star commanders? Are we training them, educating them properly for the responsibilities that they face? The Iraq War has revealed some major weaknesses in that regard."

    Click here to read the full interview. (TomDispatch, May 22, 2006)

    Amir Taheri: "Fantastic Credibility"

    Iran's "Nazi" Clothing Laws: Anatomy of a Media Hoax
    Last Friday saw a flurry of stories going up across the media and the blogosphere claiming that Iran's parliament had adopted legislation that would compel all non-Muslim minorities to wear strips of cloth on their clothing identifying themselves as such to others. Naturally, the idea that Iran's Jews would be forced to wear yellow, just like the yellow Star of David that Nazi laws forced Jews to wear, created a connection between the Iranian regime and the Nazis, which was exactly the intention of its author. The story spread virally before anyone noticed that it was all based on a single story in Canada's National Post, in which no sources or evidence was offered in support of the claim. No sooner had the reports begun to appear than even in Israel, a consensus quickly emerged among Iran watchers that they were bogus, although that didn't stop government officials in the U.S., Canada and Australia, as well as various Jewish human rights groups, from issuing fierce denunciations -- which, in turn, actually reinforced the sense that the story may have been valid.

    Taheri stuck by his story, but the paper that originally published it beat a hasty retreat. The same afternoon, they'd published an article expressing skepticism over the claims, and this week the National Post formally apologized for running a story that it now says is not true.

    Jim Lobe explains that the story was fabricated on the basis of a parliamentary discussion over a national dress code, which in reality it had no reference to minorities, and appeared directed more at Iranian women. A Jewish member of parliament in Iran, Maurice Motamed, was incensed, and said the story was a "fabrication" and "an insult" to Iran's minorities. But some of the newspapers aligned with neoconservative politics that had first amplified the story refused to let it go. Perhaps it fit too well with their beating of the war drums against Iran.

    Writes Lobe, "the (New York) Sun, without endorsing the specific contents of the National Post articles, refused to drop the story, quoting 'a leading spokesman for Iranian Jews,' the secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, Sam Kermanian, as thanking 'the world for its outcry' over the original reports and praising Taheri as 'someone with fantastic credibility'. " Perhaps someone ought to apprise Kermanian of the etymology of "fantastic." (Asia Times, May 24, 2006)

    Bend it like Mahmoud? Ahmedinajad warms up with Iran's national team

    Iran Heading for World Cup Showdown?
    Unable to make much headway on the drive for sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, some Western politicians are looking for innovative ways to punish Tehran. And with Iran due to join 31 other countries at the sporting world's premier event next month -- soccer's World Cup -- some European politicians, backed by Israel, want the host nation, Germany, to ban President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad from attending. Ahmedinajad is known to be a soccer fan, and he also demonstrated a keen sense of the populist appeal of the sport when he recently challenged the Mullahs by attempting to reverse a decree banning women from attending matches. Some politicians even hoped to have the whole Iran team banned, but FIFA, soccer's governing body, has ruled out that option. Still, with German law making a crime of Holocaust denial, Israel and some European politicians are hoping that Germany will prevent the Iranian president from attending. German officials have also said they have no indication that Ahmedinajad plans to attend any of his country's matches and note that the fact that he would have to answer criticism for his stance on Israel and the Holocaust might deter him. Then again, his track record suggests that prospect may actually encourage him. His attendance would certainly put Germany on the spot, and if sensitive negotiations are underway between the West and Tehran, the abrasive President may see showing up at the World Cup as just the ticket to creating a new furor and sabotaging efforts at rapprochement. (Sunday Times, May 7, 2006)

    Different Paths: Brazil's Lula and Venezuela's Chavez

    Left vs. Left in Latin America
    It has long been self-evident that the Left has turned back the tide in Latin America since the triumph of U.S. geopolitical and economic perspectives at the end of the 1980s. A decade of neo-liberal economics has done little to lift much of the region out of poverty, and has only deepened the divide between rich and poor. And Latin American nations have seen countries such as Argentina prove that the sky does not fall in when even deeply troubled nations buck the IMF.

    "Starting with Hugo Chávez's victory in Venezuela eight years ago and poised to culminate in the possible election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico's July 2 presidential contest, a wave of leaders, parties, and movements generically labeled "leftist" have swept into power in one Latin American country after another," writes Jorge G. Castañeda. "After Chávez, it was Lula and the Workers' Party in Brazil, then Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, and then, earlier this year, Evo Morales in Bolivia. If the long shot Ollanta Humala wins the April presidential election in Peru and López Obrador wins in Mexico, it will seem as if a veritable left-wing tsunami has hit the region. Colombia and Central America are the only exceptions, but even in Nicaragua, the possibility of a win by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega cannot be dismissed."

    Indeed, as the furor over the announcement by Bolivia's new populist leader Evo Morales that the country's hydrocarbons would be nationalized demonstrates, today the major political contest in Latin America is no longer between Left and Right, but between two contending outlooks on the Left. "One is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist, and it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past," he writes. "The other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded. The first is well aware of its past mistakes (as well as those of its erstwhile role models in Cuba and the Soviet Union) and has changed accordingly. The second, unfortunately, has not."

    He offers a thoughtful history of the Left in Latin America, establishing the factors that have driven the emergence of what he terms the "right Left" (as opposed to the "wrong Left" personified by Chavez). Much more European and Centrist in outlook, it remains the region's best hope for democratic development. Castañeda warns against a knee-jerk Cold War type response to the provocations of Chavez, suggesting that the more aggressive the response from Washington, the more damaging the outcome will be to both U.S. and Latin American interests. The more centrist Left of Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Brazil ultimately have the policies that negate the Venezuelan leader's posturing, but if he becomes the object of a renewed push into the region by the politically discredited administration in Washington, Chavez will emerge the winner. (Foreign Affairs, May-June 2006)

    Ahmedinajad: Scary, perhaps, but he's not in charge

    Iran's President Rattles Sabers, But He Doesn't Call the Shots
    Memo to the editors of America: Mahmoud Ahmedinajad does not, repeat NOT, rule Iran. Executive power in the Islamic Republic, and particularly control over foreign policy and security issues, is ultimately in the hands of unelected clerics -- and Ahmedinajad is not one of them. While the U.S. news media seemed well apprised of this fact during the presidency of the reformist Mohammed Khatami, for some reason it has been forgotten now that Iran is ruled by a conservative populist who loves making wild threats, particularly where Israel is concerned. That may be grist to the mill for those seeking to make the case that Iran represents a global menace -- and the Iranians have themselves to blame for not speaking with one voice -- but Ahmedinajad's rants do not represent Iran's positions. So, when the U.S. media reports that Iran has called off talks with the U.S. over Iraq because Ahmedinajad has said they're no longer necessary, it behooves editors to dig a little deeper, for the simple reason that Ahmedinajad does not make foreign policy.

    Executive authority over all matters of foreign policy and national security remains in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, who, incidentally, backed the candidacy of former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani against Ahmedinajad's. The Supreme Leader, of course, tends to consult on these matters and follow the consensus on the National Security Council, a body of about a dozen figures, including representatives of the Expediency Council, chaired by Rafsanjani, and the heads of the security forces, as well as President Ahmedinajad. But his voice is simply one of many, and he has to lobby for his positions -- which is one reason he spends so much time making demagogic speeches designed to rally popular support for his uncompromising positions.

    The National Security Council is chaired by Ali Larijani, who also ran for president against Ahmedinajad. And Larijani, who is in charge of Iran's negotiations over the nuclear issue, as well as the proposed talks with Washington over Iraq, reports not to the president, but to the Supreme Leader. And the message projected by Larijani is quite different from that of Ahmedinajad. For example, the U.S. press reported Ahmedinajad's threat that Iran might withdraw from the Non Proliferation Treaty, but Larijani explains why this is not necessary. Still, Iran's ambiguous communication with the world works to the advantage of hard-liners in the West, while Iranian pragmatists are increasingly worried about the damage being wrought by Ahmedinajad's reckless rhetoric. Iran's nuclear policy is increasingly the focus of an escalating power struggle within the Tehran regime, but that in itself should alert Western journalists and editors to the fact that as juicy as his quotes may be, Ahmedinajad's bluster can hardly be construed as Iran's policy. (Time, April 20, 2006)

    The Poor Man's Air Force
    Mike Davis provides a fascinating history of the car-bomb and its evolution as a weapon in contemporary conflict, from its roots among anarchists in New York through its uses by both sides in Israel-Palestine in the mid 1940s, through internecine Mafia wars in Sicily in the early 1960s via Algeria, to more contemporary incarnations in Beirut, Ireland and Sri Lanka. Davis explores the emergence of the technology that levels the playing field in destructive power between conventional armies and terror outfits. Summarizing their advantages, he notes the following:

    "First, vehicle bombs are stealth weapons of surprising power and destructive efficiency. Trucks, vans, or even SUVs can easily transport the equivalent of several conventional 1,000-pound bombs to the doorstep of a prime target. Moreover, their destructive power is still evolving, thanks to the constant tinkering of ingenious bomb-makers. We have yet to face the full horror of semi-trailer-sized explosions with a lethal blast range of 200 yards or of dirty bombs sheathed in enough nuclear waste to render mid-Manhattan radioactive for generations.

    "Second, they are extraordinarily cheap: 40 or 50 people can be massacred with a stolen car and maybe $400 of fertilizer and bootlegged electronics. Ramzi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, bragged that his most expensive outlay was in long-distance phone calls. The explosive itself (one half ton of urea) cost $3,615 plus the $59 per day rental for a ten-foot-long Ryder van. In contrast, the cruise missiles that have become the classic American riposte to overseas terrorist attacks cost $1.1 million each.

    "Third, car bombings are operationally simple to organize. Although some still refuse to believe that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols didn't have secret assistance from a government or dark entity, two men in the proverbial phone booth -- a security-guard and a farmer -- successfully planned and executed the horrendous Oklahoma City bombing with instructional books and information acquired from the gun-show circuit.

    "Fourth, like even the 'smartest' of aerial bombs, car bombs are inherently indiscriminate: "Collateral damage" is virtually inevitable. If the logic of an attack is to slaughter innocents and sow panic in the widest circle, to operate a "strategy of tension," or just demoralize a society, car bombs are ideal. But they are equally effective at destroying the moral credibility of a cause and alienating its mass base of support, as both the IRA and the ETA in Spain have independently discovered. The car bomb is an inherently fascist weapon.

    "Fifth, car bombs are highly anonymous and leave minimal forensic evidence. Buda quietly went home to Italy, leaving William Burns, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Bureau of Investigation (later, to be renamed the FBI) to make fools of themselves as they chased one false lead after another for a decade. Most of Buda's descendants have also escaped identification and arrest. Anonymity, in addition, greatly recommends car bombs to those who like to disguise their handiwork, including the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Syrian GSD, the Iranian Pasdaran, and the Pakistani ISI -- all of whom have caused unspeakable carnage with such devices.

    In his followup piece, he examines the politics of some of the groups using car bombs and how the weapon interacts with those. He also notes that car bombing and IEDs in Iraq have forced an occupation authority to retreat into the tiny quadrant of the capital known at "The Green Zone." (TomDispatch, April , 2006)

    Beirut Takes a Time Out From the 'Clash of Cultures'
    In the not too distant past, the observation that Beirut "has a lot of secret stuff going on" would have referred to clandestine political and military operations of radical factions, espionage duels, kidnappings and the plotting of a bloody civil war. Today, it's the raison d'etre offered by the publishers of Time Out Beirut, the local edition of the London-based magazine franchise that showcase hedonistic delights of all the world's great metropolises for a weekly readership. The idea that Beirut will have its own edition, starting as a monthly, may be the surest sign that the city has put the scars of civil war behind it, and epitomizes a new optimism in the wake of the Syrian withdrawal. And it also blows something of a raspberry in the direction of those who insist that we're in the throes of a clash of cultures. (Daily Star, April 7, 2006)

    Hamas's cabinet is sworn in

    Should the West Engage With Radical Islamists?
    Mark Perry and Alastair Crooke are former Western intelligence officials who have, along with a number of their colleagues, been holding talks with officials from Hamas, Hezbollah and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. These officials, who worked at the highest levels of British and U.S. intelligence, have recognized that the political momentum in the Arab world is with the Islamists, but in the course of their discussions they have recognized a profoundly important distinction between the interests and agendas of nationally-based groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and the transnational jihadists of al-Qaeda. (Indeed, the same distinction was clearly on view recently when Hamas firmly rejected Al Qaeda's demand that it fight on and reject compromise -- the premise of the brusque rebuff by Prime Minister Ismail Haniya was that the Palestinians don't need Al-Qaeda's advice. Crooke and Perry believe that the West is making a tragic mistake if it continues to conflate these two groups, rather than recognizing the considerable basis for dialogue and even common interests (particularly in democracy) with some of the nationally-based Islamist groups. They sought to brief the U.S. government on their discussions but were rebuffed, on the grounds that such a briefing would be seen to be legitimizing talks with terrorists. They write:

    "The question of legitimacy is important because for democracies, legitimacy is not conferred, but earned at the ballot box. Hamas and Hezbollah would welcome a dialogue with the West not because it would confer 'legitimacy' - they already have that - but because such a dialogue would acknowledge the differences between Islamist movements that represent actual constituencies from those (such as al-Qaeda and its allied movements) that represent no one....

    "There is no question that two of the groups with whom we spoke - Hamas and Hezbollah - have adopted violent tactics to forward their political goals. They are not alone: Fatah (whose candidates for election the US supported with US$2 million in campaign funds) continues to use violence (and kidnap Westerners), so do the Tamil Tigers, so did the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the African National Congress. So too does the United States. America's insistence that Hamas and Hezbollah 'renounce violence' and 'disarm' is dismissed by these groups as not only an invitation to surrender but, in light of the continuing and increasingly indefensible use of alarmingly disproportionate US and British firepower in Iraq, the rankest hypocrisy.

    "The West's seeming abhorrence of violence is derived from its deeply rooted belief that political change is possible without it. But defending this proposition requires an extraordinary exercise in historical amnesia....

    "The leaders of major Islamist organizations view the issue of violence in the same way Americans do - as a legitimate option that is applied to establish deterrence and stability and to defend and promote their interests. For Hamas and Hezbollah, 'armed resistance' is a way of balancing the asymmetry of force available to Israel. Both groups place their use of violence in a political context.

    " 'Armed resistance is not simply a tool that we use to respond to Israeli aggression,' a Hamas leader averred. 'It gives our people confidence that they are being defended, that they have an identity, that someone is trying to balance the scales.

    "Hezbollah puts this idea in the same political context: 'It may be that some day we will have to sit down across from our enemies and talk to them about a political settlement. That could happen,' reflected Nawaf Mousawi, the chief of the Hezbollah's foreign relations department. 'But no political agreement will be possible until they respect us. I want them to know that when they're sitting there across from us that if they decide to get up and walk away, they'll have to pay a price.'

    "The West's insistence that opening a political dialogue be preceded by and conditioned on disarmament is simply unrealistic: it suggests that we believe that 'our' violence is benevolent while 'theirs' is unreasoning and random - that a 19-year-old rifle-toting American in Fallujah is somehow less dangerous than a 19-year-old Shi'ite in southern Lebanon.

    "In fact, political agreements have rarely been preceded by disarmament. United Nations demands for the disarmament of the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO) in 1978 unraveled a conflict-ending political agreement (a situation put right when the rebels were allowed to keep their weapons), and Northern Ireland's 'Good Friday Agreement' allowed the IRA to keep its weapons until a political process (leading to 'decommissioning') reflecting their concerns was put in place.

    "The West often views Islamic violence as random and unreasoning, but Hamas and Hezbollah believe that violence can shift practical political considerations to create a psychology in which armed groups can use the tool of de-escalation as a way of forwarding a political process. That is to say, absent a political agreement, Hamas and Hezbollah will not voluntarily abandon what they view as their only defense against the overwhelming weight of Israeli military power.

    "Disarmament (or 'demilitarization') is possible: it worked in Northern Ireland and South Africa. When coupled with substantive political talks, the unification of armed elements into a single security or military force - demilitarization - provides the best hope for increased stability and security in Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza."
    (Asia Times, March 30, 2006)

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