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Hostages and Defectors

October 29th, 2009 - 8:43 pm

So hypnotized is the political class by the nuclear question, that they totally lose sight of the suffering of the Iranian people, the terror network emanating from Tehran, and even the destiny of Americans in the hands of the mullahs.  When was the last time you heard anything about the three American hikers thrown into prison in Iran?  Lest we forget, they are Shane Bauer, 27, Sarah Shourd, 30, and Joshua Fattal, 27, and they were arrested in July when, according to the Iranians, they strayed across the border from Iraq.  However, back in August, the London Telegraph had a very different version:

“This was not a case of the Americans straying into Iran,” [a local tribal leader] said. “They were targeted and captured by a group that came over from Iran, ignoring Iraq’s sovereignty. We know this and it means that Iran must have wanted to take Americans hostage at this sensitive time.”

As we know, the Islamic Republic delights in taking hostages and then “stockpiling” them for future use.  The hikers are not the only American hostages seized by the Iranians in the recent past.  There is the case of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent who disappeared on Kish Island in March, 2007.  The Iranians deny any knowledge of Levinson’s whereabouts.  And then there is the unfortunate Kian Tajbakhsh, formerly employed by one of George Soros’s groups, who has been sentenced to fifteen years in prison for alleged participation in recent protests against the phony June elections.

Meanwhile, three Iranians–two of whom are clearly important people–have defected.  One, Shahram Amiri, is a nuclear physicist who worked on the secret “Ferdo” site near Qom that has attracted so much attention in the past two months.  He disappeared from Saudi Arabia in May.  The second, General Ali Reza Asgari, is a former deputy defense minister and high-ranking officer of the Revolutionary Guards who helped create Hezbollah.  He vanished without a trace from a hotel in Istanbul in February, 2007.  The third, a Mr. Ardebili,  appears to be an arms dealer who disappeared from Georgia this summer.

I have been told that the Iranians have informed the American Government that the hikers will only be released if the United States sends the three Iranians back home.  Could Washington do this, even on the virtually impossible assumption that it wished to?  I don’t think so.  I believe that Amiri defected to France, not to the United States.  I don’t know where Asgari is, but I have been told by CIA officials in no uncertain terms that he is not under American control, although he is in “a friendly country,” is available to American debriefers, and has provided invaluable information.  As for Ardebili, I have no information about his whereabouts.

There is one amusing sidebar to the Amiri story.  While the Iranians fume about his defection, he is helping Iran’s enemies, bigtime.  According to Le Figaro, via the terrific new web site “Planet Iran”:

French Daily Newspaper Le Figaro reports: Prior to traveling to Iran, the IAEA inspectors who were to inspect the Ferdo Iranian nuclear facility outside of Qom, met with Shahram Amiri, the Iranian nuclear scientist who recently fled Iran. According to Le Figaro, this meeting took place in Frankfurt.

This is our world.  Iranian soldiers  cross the Iraqi border and snatch three American tourists.  Meanwhile, important Iranians find a way to escape the regime’s clutches, and join the West.  The Iranians propose a swap that amounts to this:  citizens of a free country can only regain their freedom if former citizens of an evil tyranny are sent back to the tyrannical country to face a terrible fate.

That’s the sort of deal you get from the Islamic Republic.  If you don’t like it, convince the feckless leaders of the West to join with the Iranian people and bring it down.  The next potential watershed is next Wednesday, November 4th, the anniversary of the assault on the American Embassy in Tehran and the seizure of American hostages.

It’s the perfect date for the fall of the regime, don’t you think?

Turkish prime minister Erdogan flew back home Wednesday evening after a 2-day visit to Tehran.  It was a big deal in all senses of the term.  He went to Iran with a large delegation, including three ministers, many businessmen, leaders of Parliament, scads of reporters, and television crews.  He met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mottaki, “President” Ahmadinejad, and other ministers.  According to Iranians who were involved in the meetings, the two countries reached agreement on many issues, the upshot of which is a considerable tightening of the working alliance between them:

–The creation of a joint airline;

–The creation of a free trade zone along the border;

–Turkish investment (to the tune of some $4 billion) in the Pars field in southern Iran;

–Agreement that each would permit the other’s currency to circulate (a real winner for Iran, whose currency was previously not acceptable in Turkey);

–Favorable prices to the Turks for Iranian oil and natural gas (I am told that the Iranians promised a 50% reduction of market rates! Seems preposterous to me, but we shall see).  The Iranians are not known for strictly honoring such deals, but the Turks are entitled to be pleased at any significant reduction;

–A joint power plant of some six thousand kilowatts, to be constructed as soon as possible, powered by (Iranian) natural gas;

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Erdogan visit was the dog that did not bark, namely the failure of any early meeting with Supreme Leader Khamenei.  It was widely reported that such a meeting would take place; see here , here , here , and here, for example.  But as of early afternoon Wednesday, there was not even a quasi-official claim that Erdogan saw Khamenei, not even the sort of “virtual evidence” of Khamenei’s ability to rule that had been put out in recent weeks (a couple of days ago, the web site of the press service ISNA came up with an alleged speech to Hajj pilgrims, but when it turned out to be nearly a year old, it was quickly taken down, as was a reference to “archive photos” of meetings with Senegalese President Wade).  I therefore earlier concluded that Khamenei was not well enough for a meeting with Erdogan.

But Khamenei did indeed meet with Erdogan, at the very last minute.  The Turkish convoy diverted to the Supreme Leader’s residence en route to the airport, and there was a meeting there, down the hall from the doctors, involving the top members of the Turkish delegation, and both Foreign Minister Mottaki and Ali Larijani from the National Security Council of Iran, in addition to the two principals.  The meeting lasted 47 minutes, and Khamenei took the occasion to denounce America as the cause of all the region’s problems.  Interestingly, he also talked about the future of Iraq, calling on the Turks to join with Iran and Syria to drive Iraq toward an Islamic Republic.  There are photographs and films of the meeting, all genuine so far as I can tell.

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Bias Then and Now

October 27th, 2009 - 12:52 pm

Thirty-forty years ago, when living in Rome, I used to buy seven newspapers every morning.  There was no pretense at “objectivity” by any of the papers.  Each represented an interest.  Il Corriere della Sera was the Milan industrial/financial establishment, La Stampa was Fiat, l’Unita’ was the Communist Party, and so forth.  Each had a very clear point of view, and each pushed the “news” that was most congenial, and spiked anything that didn’t fit the paper’s “line”.  I figured that if I read it all, somehow “the truth” would emerge from the conflicts between the various accounts, and I believed that my judgment was good enough to sort it all out.

Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t.  Some of the really big events remain obscure to me, like the bombing of the Bologna railroad station and the “anarchist” bombs in Milan.  Every now and then somebody gets convicted for them, and actually goes to jail, but then the case gets reopened and somebody else gets convicted, and on it goes.  This is particularly frustrating when it comes to the scandals that brought down the political class in the eighties;  it’s clear that many innocent people were convicted.  There are many important cases in which I still don’t know who was guilty, and who was framed.

But I digress, the point here is the press.  In those years, Watergate was happening over here, and I was very proud that American journalists were, as I then thought, simply reporting the facts about the Nixon Administration, and eventually Nixon had to resign.  I thought that showed a dramatic difference between our press and theirs.  One night at dinner, some Italian journalists said to me “that’s nothing;  we could bring down the entire system here if we wrote what we know.”  So I asked them why they didn’t.  They said “because we don’t see anyone or anything better.  So it makes no sense to bring this down.”

I didn’t like that at all.  I didn’t think it was their job to out think the destiny of the country, and I said, “but your job is to report the news, not to make political decisions.  Just tell the people the truth, and they will figure out what they want to do.”

I was wrong about the American press.  Watergate was highly political.   But even so, there was plenty of room in our leading newspapers for real reporters, and a single newspaper could carry stories that were variously good and bad for the two parties and for politicians of different political stripes.  You didn’t have to buy seven newspapers to try to figure out what was true.  And it was generally considered bad form for newspapers to carry stories that were blatantly political.

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October 24th, 2009 - 11:28 am

Today I delivered a commentary (Dvar Torah) at my synagogue in Washington on the weekly portion, about Noah.  Some members of the congregation asked me to post it, and here it is:

“…the earth was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence…it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth.”

That’s clear enough: evil was everywhere, and Hashem wiped it out.  Things get more complicated later, after the deed was done:

And Hashem said in His heart: “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

And in fact, the evil nature of man emerges over and over again.  It’s one of the central themes of the Torah, isn’t it?

I have recently published a book, “Accomplice to Evil,” which recounts many cases in my generation of good people’s refusal to see evil when it was right in front of their noses.  Not just individual cases of evil people, but evil on a mass scale, evil that threatened the survival of civilized societies.  From Hitler to Mao, from Italy to Darfur and Rwanda, over and over again we have blinded ourselves to evil and looked away, until terrible events compelled us to finally confront it.

When Hashem says “the imagination of man’s heart is evil,” he warns us: do not listen to the misguided optimists who tell you that all men are the same, and all men are good.  Better to listen to Machiavelli, whose rules for leaders, and above all for statesmen, rest on the dictum: “man is more inclined to do evil than to do good.”

Hashem orders us to fight evil: “Surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it” (which is to say two things: no suicide, and there must be punishment for spilling blood, whether done by man or beast).  “Whoso sheddeth blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made He man.”

So we must enforce justice.  We must combat evil.  It’s largely up to us, and it’s part of the deal with Noah:

“And I will establish My covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.”

Any lawyer reading this–and there are many of those with us today–will see that it’s a promise of no more floods, not a promise of no more Divine intervention in the collective affairs of men.  But the linkage between our pursuit of justice and Hashem’s covenant is clear enough. Punish evildoers, and things will be well.

But we are all inclined to do evil, so what happens?  Noah and his sons multiply.  We can read the genealogy.  And, just as Hashem has foreseen, corruption sets in all over again.  We are lured to it, as always.

Which brings us to the question of the Tower of Babel.

Chapter X ends with “These are the families of the sons of Noah; after their generations, in their nations; and of these were the nations divided in the earth after the flood.”

However, the very next sentence, the first words of Chapter XI are quite the opposite: “And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.”

What’s that all about?  Well, time has passed, and from the various nations of the sons of Noah, we now have something quite different: all mankind is gathered in one place–on the plains of Babylon–united in a single mission: “Come let us make brick and burn them throughly.”  A vast industrial project.  Avraham, (who makes his first appearance at the end of this Parashat) will later be thrown into an enormous furnace of the sort that provided the bricks for the tower of Babel.

The project of building a tower to heaven is often taken as a pure metaphor, but the Babylonians actually built such towers, called ziggurats by the archeologists.  And those ziggurats had religious significance.  There were shrines or temples at the very top.  So it’s fair to say that the very idea of building such a tower was pagan, and thus abhorrent to Hashem.

But why were the people scattered?  Contrary to some commentators’ view that Hashem promised Noah that he would never again punish mankind collectively, the scattering of the peoples from Babel is just that.  It sure looks like a punishment.  What was their sin?

The most colorful explanation is that building the Tower was an assault on heaven.  In this view, men had become so arrogant that they thought they were entitled to Divine rewards.  In the words of the Parashat, they wanted to make a name for themselves.  For all themselves.

Other commentators look at it very differently.  Some say that the scattering was necessary to carry out Hashem’s enterprise, repeated several times in the Parashat, that man must be fruitful and multiply, and that if everyone were in one place it would be more difficult.  I don’t think the historical record bears that out; some of the most fecund populations are in very dense areas.  Can you spell Calcutta?  Naples?

According to Rav Blick,  Rav Soloveitchik gave a political reading:  he  explained the difference between the generation of the flood and that of the dispersion by saying that the first was modern America (moral corruption, pursuit of money and pleasure), while the second was communist Russia, which justified its evil practices by imposing solidarity on the masses.

That is to say, at the time of the flood, mankind was corrupt one by one, each person pursuing evil according to his own desires.  But the project of the Tower was a collective enterprise; everyone was required to subjugate himself to a grand vision, and everything was determined according to that single vision.  Hashem detests that, for His chosen people must pursue freedom, and freely choose to fulfill his commandments.

Rav Blick has an ambitious, and, sad to say, a rather lengthy explanation along similar lines:

“This explains why this story is here, in this location in the Torah,” he says.   “We are perched on the verge of the creation of the Jewish people. Avraham will be asked shortly to separate himself from his father’s house, his country, his birthplace, and create an individual unit of spiritual perfection.

Why is the truth of the Torah not offered to all of humanity? Is not Judaism and its message a universal one? Why is Judaism a national religion? Why is the Torah given in a way that makes it incomprehensible to most of mankind?”

Rav Blick goes on:

“The Torah explains to us that even though the universal mass society of Babel included pious individuals (Shem, Ever, even Noah are still alive), the service of God cannot arise out of such a society. It is too repressive, too dedicated to maintaining its own existence. Man must be dispersed in order to develop individually…In this context, one nation can arise slowly, over a long period of education, trial, and redemption, which will carry on God’s message for humanity. Within…Babel, Judaism is impossible. Within any world order, world empire, Judaism cannot arise. Mankind is dispersed to develop individual character, cultural diversity. In one corner, without having to worry about the destiny of all mankind, a small family will build the kingdom of God.”

So says Rav Blick.  I like that, and it means, I think, that it’s not enough just to do Good as it’s commonly understood: living a pious and virtuous life.  For part of doing Good involves fighting evil, whether performed by an evil man or an evil nation.  That, too, is part of the meaning of the dispersal, the scattering, as it is a central element of the story of Noah.  As, indeed, it is a central element of the story of our own times.  Of all times.

Don’t Sing in Caracas

October 23rd, 2009 - 5:28 pm

According to the London Telegraph, Leader Chavez has proclaimed that it’s un-socialist to sing in the shower in Venezuela.  Yes, I know it reads like satire, but so much of modern life does…

“Some people sing in the shower, in the shower half an hour. No kids, three minutes is more than enough. I’ve counted, three minutes, and I don’t stink,” he said during a televised Cabinet meeting.

Getting into his stride, he went on to label baths and jacuzzis anti-communist.

“If you are going to lie back, in the bath, with the soap and you turn on the what’s it called, the Jacuzzi… imagine that, what kind of communism is that? We’re not in times of Jacuzzi,” he said, to laughter from his ministers.

Obviously I can’t vouch for this;  I didn’t see the television broadcast.  Read it all and judge for yourself.

The Obama “thesis” hoax

October 23rd, 2009 - 12:16 pm

It’s a hoax, or a satire, depending on your point of view.  Joe Klein has said that he never read any part of an Obama “thesis” from his Columbia days, and that’s conclusive, as far as I’m concerned.

The hoax/satire was written in August, so it’s not connected to any current event.  I cam across it on Twitter, read the blog, found it interesting, and posted on it.  I failed to notice that one of the tags was “satire.”

So he got me, and lots of others. It worked because it’s plausible.  I’ve done satirical pieces myself, and I know how they can take off.  I once wrote one that said that Bill Casey did not die, and was hiding in a bunker under the St Andrews golf course from which he was running Mikhail Gorbachev.  I thought it was obviously satirical, but it went like wildfire all over the world.  And that was in the days before the Internet.

So I should have picked up some hint, but I didn’t.  Shame on me.

I’m posting this as quickly as possible.  Apologies to the president and to Joe Klein, and to Rush Limbaugh, who had many very wise things to say about the Constitution and the views of the Founders today, and to everyone else who got involved.

Obama and the Constitution; He Has His Doubts

October 21st, 2009 - 6:46 pm

(Update: Please read The Obama “thesis” hoax.)

I missed this first time around.  Brian Lancaster at Jumping in Pools reported on Obama’s college thesis, written when he was at Columbia.  The paper was called “Aristocracy Reborn,” and in the first ten pages (which were all that reporter Joe Klein–who wrote about it for Time–was permitted to see), the young Obama wrote:

“… the Constitution allows for many things, but what it does not allow is the most revealing. The so-called Founders did not allow for economic freedom. While political freedom is supposedly a cornerstone of the document, the distribution of wealth is not even mentioned. While many believed that the new Constitution gave them liberty, it instead fitted them with the shackles of hypocrisy.”

That’s quite an indictment, even for an Ivy League undergraduate.  I wonder if the prof–and I’d like to know who the prof was–made an appropriate marginal comment, something about historical context, about the Constitution’s revolutionary status in the history of freedom, and about the separation of powers in order to make the creation of any “shackles” as difficult as possible.

Maybe instead of fuming about words that Rush Limbaugh never uttered, the paladins of the free press might ask the president about words that he did write.  Maybe he’d like to parse “the so-called Founders,” for example.  I’d like to know what he thinks of those words today.  And what about the rest of the thesis?

Felice is Dead

October 21st, 2009 - 6:38 pm

So says the headline in the Rome daily, Il Messaggero, and it’s a major event for those of us who knew him and his trattoria in what used to be a working-class neighborhood known as Testaccio.  Nowadays Testaccio is chic, but somehow the clientele at the trattoria–which we all called “Felice’s” (it didn’t have any sign on or over the door, and the windows were frosted, so you couldn’t see in, so either you knew it was there or you didn’t)–stayed the same.  Its seven or eight tables were always full, the place was bursting with noise, he ran every aspect of it, and the food was unbelievably wonderful.  Simple Roman food.  Lots of it.  And still you couldn’t get enough of it.

Felice bought the food, cooked it, served it, washed the plates and cleaned up the place.  It was one of the most famous places in a city full of legends, and one constantly heard stories about Felice telling rich and powerful people that they couldn’t eat there, because all the tables were reserved for the rest of the year.  If he knew you, and liked you, it was easy.  If he didn’t, or he didn’t, it was impossible.  He was a Communist, and kept his prices low, so there were plenty of workers in there, along with poor kids made good, like the actor Roberto Benigni.

The two plates for which he will long be remembered were the tonnarelli (fresh pasta) con caccio e’ pepe (with a salty grated cheese and fresh grated black pepper), and the marinated artichokes, carciofi alla romana.  To die for.

Felice was a quiet man, but if you ordered something he didn’t approve, he’d let you know.  And heaven help anyone who left anything on the plate.  He wouldn’t have you back.

He lived almost 89 years, which is a lot for his generation, and Benigni once wrote a poem about him, according to which he’d be greeted by Jesus at the gates of heaven, and begged to cook a plate of caccio e’ pepe.  One more time.  Because it really was divine.  Always.

Latest on Khamenei Watch

October 18th, 2009 - 3:12 pm

Perhaps it will help put things in context by looking at the supreme leader’s recent movements.  On October 5th he went from Tehran to Now Shar, where he visited a naval base and academy.  Later that day he went to the city of Chaloos, preached a sermon, delivered a speech and returned to Now Shar.  On the 6th he traveled by automobile to Ramsar,  a very beautiful resort city, and which is graced by a palace of the late shah.  Khamenei was supposed to spend three days there, but he wasn’t feeling well, and complained of difficulty in breathing.  He was therefore flown from Ramsar airport to Tehran.

He was treated at home by various specialists for several days.  He received oxygen to help him breathe.  The collapse came on Monday the 12th, and he was taken to a special clinic–originally built for Imam Khomeini–in Tehran.  Foreign specialists began to arrive on Wednesday the 14th, when he was examined by foreign doctors.  They included two famous Russian professors who had been in Iran previously, by three men described as “orientals” (could be Chinese or North Koreans; I don’t know), and two other doctors who identified themselves as swiss.  Throughout, the Iranian doctors kept saying “give him more oxygen.”  Medicine was delivered from abroad, coming straight from the airport to the clinic.

I am told  he was still in a coma late Friday afternoon, Tehran time. And he is still very sick.

He has had only one important visitor outside his immediate family and advisers: Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanese Hezbollah.  Nasrallah flew in, I believe on Thursday night, went to the clinic, saw Khamenei for two-three minutes, and came out of the room “in tears.”

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The Balouchistan Bomb and Other Explosions

October 18th, 2009 - 2:32 pm

The bombing was a very big deal.  It was indeed a suicide bombing, the man’s name was Abdul Rahed Mohammadi Sarabani, who was associated with the military wing of Jundullah, headed by Abdulmalik Khan Rigi.  The IRGC had killed two of his brothers, and this was an act of vengeance, carried out to inflict maximum damage on the RGs.  The target was a large theater, which holds up to two thousand people.  It is part of a large military complex, one of the most important in the country.

The people there were attending an urgent strategy session.  Due to the recent attacks by the Pakistani armed forces in Waziristan, many al Qaeda and Taliban leaders and fighters had fled to the Iranian side of the Baluchistan border (Sarbaz is less than an hour’s drive from the Pakistani side).  Here is a map from Google.

The purpose of the strategy session was to assist the terrorists, to help them reorganize, to rearm them, to arrange to get them back into Pakistan and, for at least some of them, thence to Afghanistan.   For that reason, attendance counted many very important people.

The gathering in Sarbaz included not only top RG officials (including the commander in chief, General Mohammed Ali Jaafari, whose fate is unknown as of now), but also top civilian intelligence officers from the State of Sistan and Balouchistan (the second largest state in Iran), and members of an elite RG brigade named after the Imam Ali, along with the military governor of the city of Sarbaz, and the terrorists who had run away from Pakistan.  The bomber, Sarabani, was dressed in an officer’s uniform, and he knew exactly where to go.  The blast brought down the roof of the structure.

The real casualty figures are impossible to obtain, but they are considerably higher than the ones officially announced.  At a minimum, 108 were killed, including 57 members of the Revolutionary Guards.  Some of the names have already been announced, but so far Jaafari’s name has not been mentioned.

I cannot evaluate the impact on the AfPak theater, but it may be significant.  It has already had a major impact on the border area.  All flights in and out of Sarbaz and nearby cities were canceled Sunday and Monday, and the roads are blocked.  Many local hospitals are counting the dead and treating the wounded.  One hospital, in Iranshahr, reported more than fifty fatalities.

Meanwhile, there are other explosions.  The most famous tea factory in the country, the Golestan Tea Factory, has been burned to the ground.  There were reports of an explosion near the Oil Ministry in downtown Tehran on Sunday night (blamed on a faulty air tank), and there have been three major fires in the Tehran Bazaar since mid-June.  Airplane incidents are so common they are rarely noted.  A train from Tehran to Kerman derailed on Sunday evening, and it’s a train that typically carries many military personnel.  And, as several reports have noted, in addition to the bombing in Blouchistan, there was also an ambush of a Revolutionary Guard convoy.

An explosive situation.  And a big opposition demonstration is scheduled for November 4th.

UPDATE:  Apparently Jaafari survived.  He is quoted by an Iranian news agency, as per the New York Times.  He blames US and Britain for the bombing.  If he is indeed alive, this would be the second assassination attempt he has survived in recent months.