Department of Journalism, College of Communication, Boston University





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Fatah gunmen storm the Palestinian parliament in Ramallah

Israel and the Palestinians Drift Towards Catastrophe
A sharp escalation in violence between Israelis and Palestinians appears to be on the cards as Palestinian militants fire rockets from Gaza at Israeli towns, and Israel responds with shelling and missiles, as well as assassinations of suspected militants. Initially it was militants opposed to the Hamas government that were firing most of the rockets, in a strategy partly calculated to undermine its authority. But some Hamas militants on the ground, skeptical of the pragmatic positions of their parliamentary leaders, appear to have joined in. And the Palestinian civilian casualties that have occurred in the course of these exchanges have prompted Hamas to declare an end to its 16 month unilateral cease-fire, and take responsibility for a new escalation of rocket attacks. The move was hardly surprising given the mood on the streets in Gaza and the political cost Hamas calculates it sustains from inaction in the face of Israeli attacks. Hamas activists on the ground argue for an end to the cease-fire, on the grounds that the truce has brought them nothing -- everyone from Israel and the Western powers to Mahmoud Abbas is still dedicated to forcing Hamas out of power. Israel, meanwhile, has escalated its own responses to the rocket fire, and has threatened a large-scale military offensive in northern Gaza.

But the escalation in violence across the Gaza-Israel boundary is only one aspect of what may be the greatest crisis facing the Palestinians since 1948. Gunmen loyal to the Fatah party of President Mahmoud Abbas are clashing almost daily with gunmen of Hamas in what may be becoming a low-intensity civil war, fueled by the confrontation between the two movements at the national level. Perhaps spurred by the antipathy of Western and Arab regimes to Hamas, President Abbas appears to have decided to go for broke in a direct political challenge to its authority: He has called a referendum over a political platform that commits the Palestinians to a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders and a return of refugees to Israel. Hamas pragmatists have been moving in the direction set out in the document (which, after all, was drawn up in part by Hamas prisoners), but challenge the agenda behind making it a matter of urgency for Hamas to adopt it -- after all, they point out, Israel has made clear that it flatly rejects the document over which Abbas has called a referendum, which they see as a power play. Hamas has called for a boycott of the referendum, scheduled for next month, dramatically increasing the likelihood of widespread factional violence.

More alarming, however, is the absence of the traditional mechanisms for preventing such tensions from spiraling out of control: On the Israeli-Palestinian front, the U.S. and Europe have simply vacated their mediation roles since the election of Hamas, dedicating themselves instead to a series of diplomatic and financial sanctions aimed at forcing Hamas to symbolically reverse its positions on Israel. And then, when those sanctions produced the makings of a humanitarian crisis, their attentions became focused largely on ways to alleviate the pressure they had created. But having painted themselves into a corner by insisting on a symbolic capitulation by Hamas before engagement became possible, they abandoned a hands-on role in preventing the crisis spinning out of control. The Western powers consoled themselves, instead, with the fiction that a political agreement could nonetheless be pursued between Israel and President Abbas, as if the fact that more than half of the Palestinian electorate had voted for Hamas could simply be wished away -- or that putting the humanitarian squeeze on them might force them to change their vote. Nor do the likes of Bush and Blair appear to have noticed that while both Olmert and Abbas believe in a negotiated settlement, their versions of such a settlement are poles apart.

Among the Palestinians, civil war has thus far been avoided by a consensus at the leadership level of both organizations on the need for national unity. But the political confrontation at the top suggests there may be no holding back the gunmen. The sum total of the positions adopted by Israel, the Palestinian factions and the West combines, unfortunately, into an equation likely to turn Gaza and the West Bank into something approaching Mogadishu. All stakeholders are in urgent need of a rethink, and the greatest danger may be the absence of credible mediation. (International Crisis Group, June 13, 2006)

  • Ghassan Khatib suggests that although Hamas is responding to popular pressure in its decision to end its truce, an escalation of violent confrontation may suit both Hamas and the Israeli government right now, because it changes the topic away from the issue of a negotiated solution -- which is uncomfortable for both parties. "It is possible that Hamas, which is facing serious difficulties in running the Palestinian Authority, might see the escalation as a way to escape internal and external political embarrassment," he writes. "In this case, this would be an area of common interest between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Any de-escalation accompanied by a revival of the political process on the basis of the roadmap, which includes the relevant resolutions of the Security Council, could be equally embarrassing for the two sides. Israel seems to be under pressure to give a chance to political negotiations. Hamas is under similar pressure through the referendum initiative, which, if successful, will force Hamas also to give a chance to a political process. This makes the two governments similarly interested in escalation as a way out of this potential political embarrassment." (Bitterlemons.org, June 13, 2006)
  • Christian Berger takes a sobering look at where the collapse of the PA would leave relations between Israel and the Palestinians. He writes: "If the PA collapses, what will replace it? Will we see the return of the Israeli Civil Administration? Given Israel's current policy of disengagement, this is not likely. Will the international community move in? There are attempts under way to maintain key services, but this is only a temporary and limited approach to alleviate hardship for the Palestinian people. Will Arab neighbors take over? Again, not likely. If the PA disappears, perhaps we can start all over again, and do it the right way by addressing the causes of the conflict and by helping build democratic, well-functioning institutions rather than supporting individuals. Yes, we can go back to the drawing board, try to reinvent the PA or something similar that will exercise governmental functions for Palestinians and serve as an interlocutor with Israel and the international community. We may find, however, that the political environment has changed, that the proverbial window of opportunity is closed. And we will have to admit that 12 years of efforts to build Palestinian institutions were wasted and, far worse, that too many people died in a political experiment gone awry." (Daily Star, June 13, 2006)
  • Shlomo Ben-Ami argues that Mahmoud Abbas's decision to stake his political future on a position already rejected by Israel will actually sabotage the prospects for achieving a deal: "Abbas has committed a tactical blunder, for he has practically eliminated the already desperately narrow space for compromise in future peace negotiations with Israel," Ben-Ami writes. "Referenda are supposed to approve peace deals; they are not made in advance of peace negotiations to tie the hands of the negotiators." Even if Abbas wins, the international community will continue to pressure the Palestinians in the hope of getting Hamas to change its positions, while Israel will continue to insist that the position of Hamas -- and, indeed, that of Abbas -- means it has no partner with whom it can reach a deal. (International Herald Tribune, June 12, 2006)
  • Haaretz reports that the top adviser to Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh believes attacks on Israel don't advance Palestinian interests. Ahmed Yusef says Hamas is willing to offer Israel a 50-60 year truce, leaving the question of a comprehensive peace agreement to future generations. "Renewing the suicide bombings does not serve the interests of the Palestinian government," Yusef told the paper. "The government is against harming civilians on both sides, and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has acted decisively to stop civilians from being harmed, and even to stop rocket fire." Haaretz continued: "It was not clear whether Yusef was preparing an alibi of sorts for the government, in the event that Hamas does carry out another terror attack in Israel, or whether he was criticizing the decision to renew the terror attacks. Hamas sources said that decision was made by the Hamas leadership in Damascus, but Yusef denied that the Damascus leadership was solely responsible. He said the decision was made by Hamas' military wing in the territories, with no connection to the political leadership." (Haaretz, June 14, 2006)
  • Previously on Israel and Palestine:
    --A Palestinian Civil War?
    --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?
  • 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?

  • Oil Turns the Geopolitical Tide Against the U.S.
  • NATO Braces for a Long, Hot Afghan Summer
  • China's Interests Restore Africa to the Strategic Spotlight

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

    Bin Laden is probably among the billions watching broadcasts of soccer's World Cup

    Soccer's World Cup: War and Politics by Other Means
    "I have a pretty good idea where Osama bin Laden will be on June 14 — and June 19, and again on June 23," writes Tony Karon. "Not his exact location, but it’s a safe bet he’ll be in front of a TV tuned in to Saudi Arabia’s World Cup soccer matches with, respectively, Tunisia, Ukraine, and Spain. Legend has it that soccer is one of bin Laden’s guilty pleasures. He’s unlikely to miss the spectacle of the men from the land of the Prophet taking on the infidels of al-Andalus. He probably has a soft spot for Tunisia too, that country being the only one on record thus far to see one of its professional soccer players attempt to join al Qaeda’s martyrs.

    "Nor will bin Laden be alone among America’s enemies in spending June engrossed in the quadrennial spectacle of the World Cup, staged this time in Germany. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad has even threatened to show up if Iran progresses beyond the first round. Seeking to burnish his populist credentials at home, Ahmedinajad recently allowed himself to be photographed in sweats kicking a ball around with the Iranian team during a training session. You can bet Kim Jong-il will watch, too, even though it is South Korea that represents his nation’s hopes this year.

    "President Bush may give the event a miss — one can only wonder what he would make of a game in which the U.S. has a negligible chance of being world champion; for Americans with qualms about their country’s imperial role, by contrast, supporting the plucky and rather well-liked outsiders of Team USA is an opportunity for guilt-free patriotic fervor. But you can be sure that Bush allies like Tony Blair, Angela Merkel, Jacques Chirac, Junichiro Koizumi, and Silvio Berlusconi (who actually owns AC Milan, one of Italy’s top teams) will watch their countries’ every game.

    "No global event commands anything close to the attention paid the World Cup on all five continents. As many as 3 billion people are expected to watch some of it on TV, while 250 million more will cluster around radios to follow every play.... The billions who tune into the World Cup are watching a game that, at the highest level, largely negates all advantages of social class or even physical stature -- the combination of speed, skill, imagination and organization required to prevail is a great leveler. But at the World Cup, soccer is far more than a game.

    " 'What do they of cricket know who only cricket know,' wrote the legendary Trinidadian historian and socialist CLR James, insisting that the spectacle of men in white flannels on a grassy oval engaged in a five-day contest of bat and ball, with strictly observed breaks for lunch and afternoon tea, could only be properly understood in the context of the political and cultural conflicts of the British Empire. If James had lived long enough to see the national team of his beloved Trinidad qualify for the elite 32 teams that will contest the 2006 World Cup, he'd surely have made the same point about soccer (even if, like most of humanity, he'd have called it football').

    "James recognized sport as a ritualized combat, matching only war in its ability to channel national passions. Those passions are tied, for better or worse, to an almost mythic connection fans make between their team and their national narrative -- when facing Germany, English fans routinely chant lines like: 'Two World Wars and one World Cup' (linking their defeats of Germany on the battlefield and the soccer field). Click here to read the full article, while the author's World Cup weblog can be found here.

      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)

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