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The Big Deal on The Road to War

November 24th, 2013 - 3:35 pm

Schumer doesn’t like the “historic” deal with Iran–it doesn’t seem proportional to him–and Menendez insists that new sanctions are on the way.  Two Democrats, not notoriously leading neocons, both warning that the agreement may be a hard sell to Congress.  But then, Obama may not ask them for approval, so then what?  That would give the Iranians multiple coups:

–First and foremost, money, which they badly need.  According to my sources in Iran, Iranian industry overall is currently at twenty percent of capacity, the regime’s blank check for supporting Assad in Syria has drained the treasury, and the country is down to something like two-to-three months’ hard currency supplies.

The “money coup” is even better than that for the regime, because, as numerous smart people have noted–and as my colleague Mark Dubowitz warned well before the deal was agreed on–this step offers Tehran the real possibility of an end to sanctions altogether.  That’s because Iran will now be able to offer foreign countries and companies the chance to make big bucks, and the companies and countries will become de facto lobbyists for ending sanctions.

Rouhani knows this, and has bragged in a tweet to Supreme Leader Khamenei that the process for ending sanctions has now begun.

–Second, a clear, explicit commitment that Tehran is permitted to continue enriching uranium.  Kerry and Obama have said–and will no doubt continue to say–that we have not recognized an Iranian “right to enrichment,” but the text of the agreement says that Iran can keep enriching (to 3.5%) and that the final agreement we say we want will provide for “a mutually defined enrichment program with practical limits and transparency measures to ensure the peaceful nature of the program.”

If that’s not recognition of a right to enrich, I need remedial English.  And for those of you who think “well, what’s the big deal about a measly 3.5%?” it’s quite a big deal.  From there to weapons-grade uranium is a question of a few months.  And under this deal, Iran gets to keep plenty of 5% uranium.

–Third, yet another devastating confirmation to the regime’s internal opposition that the West is not prepared to seriously challenge the regime.  In case they had any doubts, which they shouldn’t, and by and large didn’t.

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So says Ari Shavit, an Israeli columnist for Haaretz, writing in the New York Times.  It’s all because Bush invaded Iraq and Afghanistan instead of mounting a “diplomatic campaign against Iran” (elsewhere described as a “political-economic campaign” of the sort directed against Libya’s nuclear project) after the attacks of 9/11.  So far as I can tell, he’s talking about a campaign to force Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program (there’s no mention of regime change).  An ambitious international campaign, in which Bush should have enlisted the European Union, Russia, Sunni Arabs and Israel.

If we had done that, Mr. Shavit says, Iran would have been forced to abandon their nuclear project, the United States would have been spared the loss of life and wealth in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we wouldn’t be where we are today:  exhausted, traumatized, with “a limited attention span for problems in the Middle East.”

This has to go down as one of those ideas that only an intellectual could embrace.  The United States has just been attacked.  What was the president supposed to do?  According to Mr. Shavit, Bush should have said “we’ve got three thousand dead, there are smoldering buildings in New York and Washington, but not to worry, I’m going to talk to the Arabs, the Russians and the Europeans in order to force the Iranians to stop working on nukes.  I’ll get back to you with progress reports when and if I have news.”

Don’t attack al Qaeda.  Don’t invade Afghanistan or Iraq.  Just force Iran to stop developing nukes.

W would have been a laughing stock, an object of derisive contempt, a caricature of Jimmy Carter, who, after the Iranian attack on our Tehran Embassy in 1979, carried out Mr. Shavit’s policy recommendations to near-perfection.  Carter slapped sanctions on Iran, organized international support, and started negotiating.

It didn’t work out very well for him or for the United States.  In 1979, there was no doubt we’d been attacked by Iranians.  In 2001, nobody thought the Iranians were involved in the assaults in New York and Washington.  So why in the world would anyone think that a political/diplomatic/economic campaign against Iran was a proper response?

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In the centuries leading up to Galileo, the Aristotelians thrashed around desperately trying to save the astronomical doctrine–named after Ptolemy–that had the Earth at the center of the universe.  But the more we learned about the actual universe, the harder it became to sustain the theory, according to which the heavenly bodies moved in circular orbits, and the only fixed, immovable point in the universe was…us.  Even Copernicus, whose name is permanently attached to heliocentrism (planets revolve around the sun, not the earth), tried to salvage the theory of circular planetary orbits;  it took Kepler to sort out that orbits are elliptical.  Copernicus kept on diddling with the orbits by inventing endless “epicycles” to account for the annoying fact that the planets didn’t show up where they were supposed to be.

In other words, annoying facts had subverted a beautiful theory, and the beautiful theory had to go, even though many of those who called attention to the annoying facts would be burned at the stake, thrown in jail, censored and ruined along the way.  For many happy years, Barbara and I and baby Simone lived just off Campo dei Fiori in Rome, where Giordano Bruno was burned alive for daring to suggest that the beautiful theory didn’t account for the real world.  There’s a grim statue of Bruno in the Campo, a durable reminder of the dangers truth tellers encounter for speaking their minds.

Sometimes these “paradigm shifts” happen very quickly.  Other times are maddeningly slow.  And we’re invariably surprised when the beautiful theory bites the historical dust, even though we had long known the theory was claptrap.  Gorbachev probably knows that subject better than most…his whole world collapsed along with the myth of communism.

However, the myth lingered, and has had a brief reincarnation in the person of President Obama.  Now its hollowness is being exposed once again, as the failures of the state overwhelm us from many sides.  The Obamacare fiasco attracts the most current attention, because it causes so much direct pain to so many people, and promises even more for more in short order.  The various “fixes” are replays of the epicycles, and will have the same effect (footnotes in the history texts of the future).

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Killers on the Loose in Iran

November 11th, 2013 - 6:00 pm

Al-Reuters reports that Iran’s deputy minister of industry, Mr. Safdar Rahmat Abadi, was killed on Sunday evening as he got into his car in Tehran.  He was shot in the head and the chest, and two shell casings were found in his vehicle.

If those are true facts, Minister Abadi was likely killed by someone he knew and did not fear.  There don’t seem to be any suspects at the moment (no surprise there;  all the usual suspects have by now been rounded up by the Rouhani government, and aren’t let out of jail to kill high-ranking government officials).  Reuters ponders the significance of the event, noting that the assassination of a top official in the central government is rare, although plenty of local officials, Revolutionary Guards, and other security officers have been killed.

Like the attack on security personnel in Baluchistan, for example.  Late in October, 14 border guards were killed.  By somebody.  The killers were not identified, but the Rouhani regime took the opportunity to kill 16 Baluchis who were, a local judge said, “linked to terrorism.”  Such events are now so common as to verge on the routine.  Ergo, there are plenty of Iranians eager for revenge.

Still, it’s not obvious that the deputy minister of industry has been involved in the murder of his fellow citizens.  If I had to guess at a motive, it would be rage over some seizure of property or failure to pay wages or refusal to cater to the wishes of some powerful faction.  It’s almost impossible for Americans to imagine the extent of corruption within the regime.  Reuters is trying to educate us, to their credit, publishing an investigation of the wealth of the supreme leader.  So far, only the first of three articles has appeared, but it’s pretty eye-opening.  Reuters credits Khamenei for a personal — not institutional, but personal — fortune of about $95 billion.  A lot of that came from taking away the property of his fellow Iranians.  Indeed, the article begins with just such a case, an 82-year-old woman who lost her home, and those of her kids, because the leader wanted them.

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What Happened in Geneva? What Does It Mean?

November 10th, 2013 - 7:54 pm

It’s not easy to make a deal with Iran (and even when you think you’ve made one, you might be wrong).  The failure of the Geneva talks is just another in a long series of such failures.  Even the public events are part of the well-established pattern:  the secretary of state jumps on a plane and flies to meet with the Iranians.  But when he gets there, he finds it’s not quite a done deal.  And in the wee hours of the morning two days later, there’s no deal at all.

Remember that something very similar happened in September 2006, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice jumped on a plane in Washington and flew to New York, expecting to sign a deal at the United Nations with Iran’s Ali Larijani.  The deal had been negotiated in secret over several months, and both sides had agreed to the final language.  But Larijani never showed up.  This time the deal had again been negotiated in secret over several months, and, unlike 2006, the Iranians actually showed up, smiling broadly and brandishing their signing pens.  But it turned out that there was no deal.  What went wrong?

The headlines suggested that the French were to blame, that Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius rejected some of the conditions, and his demands were unacceptable, at a minimum to the Iranians and perhaps to some of the Western countries as well.  The French insist that this latter claim is false.  They say that Kerry and Fabius met head-to-head on Saturday evening around six o’clock, and agreed on the Western final proposal.  They go on to say that, on the basis of the Franco-American agreement, Catherine Ashton of the EU wrote a 3-page text that all members of the Western group agreed to and that was given to the Iranians.  After some delay, the Iranians said that the text would have to be approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and they were unable to sign anything on the spot in Geneva.

No doubt we’re going to get more detail in the next few days, but if the French account–which was given to the Socialist magazine Le Nouvel Observateur–is anywhere near correct, then there’s an obvious series of questions:

–First, when the Obama administration whispered to the press that the deal was done, and that Kerry was showing up for the signing party in Geneva, what, if any, were the differences between that deal and the one the Iranians couldn’t sign then and there?

–Second, was the Obama administration totally unaware of the French position?  How could Fabius’s proposal have come as a surprise?  It’s not as if we are isolated from French diplomats, after all;

–Third, were the Iranians unaware of the French position?  Or did they think that the Obama administration was going to force an agreement that did not satisfy Paris?

Here and there, I’ve read claims that the Americans backtracked during the negotiations in Geneva.  If true, it would help explain the snafu.  And if the French account is correct, it would mean that the United States backtracked twice, first to the Iranian demands, and then to French conditions.  When the Iranians saw that their own proposed deal was not accepted, they had to say that Khamenei would have to decide the matter.

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It sounds like something from Alfred Hitchcock.  An Air Canada flight is getting ready to push back from the gate at Caracas airport, to fly to Toronto.  The pilot reads the manifest, and finds there are five more passengers than he’d expected.  He finds that four are Iranian, one is Afghan.  Upon investigation, it turns out that none of them had a visa, and their tickets were phony.  The passengers are taken off the plane, and after a bit some people at the airport–two security people and someone working for Air Canada–are arrested.

Like it?

Needless to say, there’s been no end of speculation.  Suicide terrorists?  Advance team for Hezbollah?  And so forth.

Since we don’t yet know who they are, it’s easy to imagine various scenarios, but as the oldest Iran hand in town, I’d like to focus your mind on one of the basic facts about Iranian-sponsored terrorism.  Despite all their yelling and screaming about martyrdom, it’s very rare for Iranians to blow themselves up.  Almost always, they get others–typically Arabs (often of the Sunni variety)–to blow THEMselves up.  The Iranian terrorists, from Hezbollah to Islamic Jihad, do plenty of killing, but they slaughter others, not themselves.  That way they get a double frisson:  their enemies die, and the dirty work is done by (as the Iranians would say) a stupid Arab.

They don’t have great esteem for the Arabs, you see.  Look at how the Iranians operated in Iraq, for example.  They trained and manipulated plenty of Arab jihadis (Saudis were the biggest national group) to carry out suicide attacks.  Their own attacks,  despite the lousy reporting and the pitiful Bush administration accounts of the war there, were decidedly non-suicidal, which is why, at the end, there were more than three hundred Iranians in U.S. military custody.  For those who wonder what happened to them, sad to say they were turned over to the Iraqi government, and then repatriated.

Which is why I don’t think the four-Iranians-plus-one-Afghan were terrorists.  More likely, they were disgruntled people hoping to defect or otherwise find asylum in Canada.

Or do you think that the Iranian regime, which appears to have the Obama administration in its hip pocket regarding a deal over our sanctions and their nukes, would choose this moment to bring down a Canadian passenger plane?  Not that they wouldn’t be pleased to do such a thing–Hezbollah has been trying to destroy an American or American-friendly airliner for years.  It’s just that they don’t normally do their own dirty work.

Remember that when they organized the assassination of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, the would-be hit men were going to be Mexicans, not Iranians.

So color me dubious on the terrorism theories.  But it’s still a great opening scene for a Hitchcock film.

“Gentlemen don’t read each others’ mail,” said U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson back in 1929.  False then, false now.  What?  Spies are actually spying?  asks the blogger known as the DiploMad, who has done a bit of spying himself.  Ridiculous!

Virgins are losing their virginity?  Surely no serious person can be surprised, least of all any American who — even occasionally — follows the news.  “Privacy” has been abolished, long since.  We live in the age of Wikileaks and Anonymous, as readers here have known for some time.  Snooping is omnipresent, although the White House has said it will do less in the future.

Don’t forget that eight years ago the Wall Street Journal told us:

In a recent survey of 840 U.S. companies by the American Management Association, 60% said they now use some type of software to monitor their employees’ incoming and outgoing e-mail, up from 47% in 2001,” wrote staff reporters for The Wall Street Journal on March 9, 2005. “Other workplace privacy experts place the current percentage even higher.

And that’s just the private sector.  The government’s bigger, by orders of magnitude.

What are we to make of all this?  For guidance, I turned to the spirit of the late James Jesus Angleton, once upon a time the head of CIA counterintelligence, himself a consummate snooper.  I wasn’t sure my untrusty ouija board would work, having been occupied with writing obligations of late, but it was fine.  There he was, gravelly voice and all, seemingly happy to chat.

JJA:  Wow!  Talk about action…so many circular firing squads, it’s amazing anyone is still standing in the intel world, huh?

ML:  I’ll say.  And everyone’s an expert.

JJA:  Of course.  As a general matter, knowledge is power and status.  Not always, of course.  Ignorance is blissful at scandal time.   But the general rule is that admitting ignorance is tantamount to confessing weakness and lack of importance.  So they feign knowledge.  But not the president, who wants to blame his assistants in this case.

ML:  Well, there ARE others who purport to be ignorant.  The Feinstein woman, for example…

JJA:  Good point.  She’s calling for an investigation, as if that wasn’t her job all along.  I mean, she’s the chairwoman of the Senate Intel Committee, isn’t she?  So she’s supposed to be on top of such activities.  What does she need an investigation for?  She should just tell us what she thinks about it all.

ML:  I agree.  Her call for an investigation is a bit of misdirection to protect herself, and it also fits well with the president’s strategy.

JJA:  Yup.  They want to develop a picture in which lots of otherwise important people didn’t know.  That’s standard scandal practice.

ML:  It’s unlikely anyone is going to step forward and say “but I briefed the president on such and such a date,” so we’re left to ponder the logic of the ignorance claim, right?

JJA:  It’s certainly unlikely, but it’s well short of impossible.  Remember that NSA is a military organization, and there are many current and former top officers who are very upset with Obama.  You’ve been reading the stories about the so-called purge of the military, right?

ML:  Yes.  This one, for example, by one of the best journalists in Washington.

JJA:  It’s conceivable that someone in the military might actually know that the president gets briefed on the targets of our intercepts, and might be so angry at what he sees as a purge of his friends and colleagues that he comes forward.

ML:  Or someone who straddles the line between the military and intelligence communities…

JJA:  Yes, a Petraeus type.  Or someone close to Panetta.  But this is all what the Italians call fantapolitica, and there’s plenty of reality to deal with here.

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You probably missed the news that four women were recently stoned to death in the country President Obama loves to flatter by calling it the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Their bodies showed up in the Tehran morgue mid-month.  So far as I have read, no one has claimed the cadavers.

You may also have missed the big roundup of homosexuals and devil-worshippers in Kermanshah Province.  Regime media reported with horror that eight of the gays were married.

And then there was the mass arrests of a hundred Kurds in Tehran.  Why Kurds?  The answer:  there’s a real war on in the region, and the Kurds are in the middle.  Kurds in Turkey are fighting for autonomy against the Erdogan crowd.  Kurds in Iraq have carved out a great degree of independence from Baghdad, and are profitably engaged in cross-border commerce with the Iranian Kurds, who are helping the Turkish Kurds…who are helping the Syrian Kurds, who have established control over significant areas of the north, and who just grabbed one of the two principal border crossings into Iraq.  The Tehran regime is fighting Kurds in the area near Turkey, and the arrests are probably part of that campaign.

Don’t think this region is easily sorted out.  You have to pay attention all the time.

Meanwhile, the regime continues its vicious campaign (some would call it a genocidal war) against the country’s Arabs, the Ahwazis.  Not only are they afflicted with intense air and water pollution (although Ahwaz City is rated the most polluted on earth, it’s part of a national pattern;  Iran holds four of the “top” ten positions in the “world’s-most-polluted-cities” competition), but they are under brutal repression.  It seems to have increased after Rouhani’s election in June.  Indeed, repression is worse all over the country;  150 have been (officially) executed since the Great Moderate won office.

If you only read the MSM headlines, you’d likely believe that the Rouhani administration had greatly eased up on political repression.  There were early reports that eighty political prisoners had been released, but there are no names, and no sightings.  One student activist was temporarily let out on bail, to the great and justified delight of those in the West who campaigned for him, but he can be arrested at any time, and sure doesn’t look like he wants to take on Rouhani.

For those who continue to maintain the fiction of a kinder, gentler Iran, consider that the judicial authorities have declared an end to any “further” releases.

There was also a lot of talk about the possible release of the country’s most famous political prisoners:  Mir Hossein Mousavi, who won the presidential elections four years ago and, along with his firebrand wife and political sidekick Mehdi Karroubi, has been illegally held under house arrest since early 2010, never charged with a crime, and in steadily worsening health.

The judiciary made it clear that the ban on the release of political prisoners includes the Mousavis and Karroubi:

In a press conference yesterday, the Iranian judiciary’s spokesperson, Mohsen Ejei, announced that more political prisoners would not be released on the upcoming religious holidays and said that former President Mohammad Khatami’s travel ban is still in place.

Based on statements by the intelligence and justice ministers, Iranian media had expected the release of some high profile political prisoners, particularly those arrested after the 2009 election protests, especially 2009 presidential candidates Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hussein Moussavi and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, who have been under house arrest without charge since February 2011. Ejei, however, denied these claims.

Mousavi’s two daughters visited recently, and you can judge from the first-hand account of one of the women whether the new leadership is improving human rights in Iran.  They were held for hours in a guard house, and searched.  At a certain point, they were ordered by one of the female guards to remove all their clothes, underwear and all.

To try and describe her treatment of us defies basic human decency. After refusing to take off our underclothes, she attacked us and smacked both my sister Zahra and myself in the ear with a great deal of force.  As I was trying to grab her hand to keep her from attacking us any further, she stopped acting like a human being and bit my entire wrist like a wild animal.

The post includes a photograph of the bite marks.

In short, it’s ugly business as usual, and if there is any change in the regime’s treatment of its own citizens, it’s worse than before.  Indeed, in some areas, any pretense of judicial propriety has been summarily dismissed.  A couple of days ago, there was an attack against Iranian soldiers in Balochistan–14 killed–and 16 suspects were simply rounded up and hanged.

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Oh Dear, We’re Arguing

October 21st, 2013 - 8:25 am

And it’s a good thing.  All those who want us to shut up and get on with it are missing the gravity of the crisis–domestic and world-wide–the lack of reliable guidelines, and the prospects, both glorious and truly alarming.  Thank goodness for the dissenters, both the ones I agree with and the ones I think are nuts.

Yes, we’re confused.  It is altogether right that we should be baffled. We don’t have clear guidelines, and history–which in any case is rarely a reliable guide to the future–is no longer studied by most Americans, so even potentially useful models from the past aren’t part of our discussion.

Take national security, for example.  The whole world is in turmoil, as it has been for some time.  Nobody can remember what the Cold War was like, and if you want an historical model for the current small-wars-headed-for-bigger-wars-and-then-maybe-a-world-war, try to sort out the pre-World War I map of Europe.  Then notice how much today’s Middle East resembles the old Balkans.

The one “lesson” that should be clear is that when people declare enmity, and are actively moving against us, we should take them seriously, assume they mean it, and act accordingly.  When jihadists, whether sweet-talking Iranians or mean-talking Sunni or Shi’ite fanatics, chant “Death to America” (as the Iranian Parliament did over the weekend), and send vicious killers into Iraq (where  the slaughter is greater than in Syria), Syria, and various African countries, we must act against them.

If we don’t, things will only get worse, more Americans will be murdered, and the chances of a really big war will increase.

Inaction–masked by “negotiations” which provide cover for our enemies to get even stronger–is now our official policy.

Maybe we’ll yet get a useful debate that will lead to better policy.  There’s a lot going for us, from our enemies’ internal ruptures (intense fights inside Iran, race riots in Moscow and China, wild slaughter in Syria and Iraq) to surprising initiatives from Saudi Arabia, which threw an unprecedented hissy fit at the UN.

The world yearns for American leadership.  A genuine debate would make that obvious.

Bring it on.  We need it, big time.

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Evil Lives: The Erich Priebke Story

October 12th, 2013 - 7:21 pm

It infuriates me that Erich Priebke, the SS officer who supervised the infamous Ardeatine caves massacre in Rome in 1944 (335 Italians executed in response to an attack by partisans), lived more than a hundred years.  He finally died a few days ago.  Of natural causes.  But then, these monsters often live a very long time, as I discovered when I went to Italy in the mid-sixties to begin research on  Italian fascism, the subject of my doctoral dissertation.  I was amazed at the longevity of many of the men I was studying, as I was amazed at the ease with which they recycled themselves into “mainstream” life.  Fascist propagandists found good university positions in sociology and political science departments, and if they were willing to join the Communist Party, their fascist careers were airbrushed from the official histories (only very recently has this ugly story begun to be documented).

Priebke didn’t recycle at all;  he escaped to Argentina, where he worked as a butcher (how’s that for consistency?) until ABC reporter Sam Donaldson found him in 1994.  So Priebke escaped to freedom for half a century, and was then extradited to Italy, where you might have expected the full weight of justice to be brought to bear on him.  But no.  It took three trials, two in military courts (the first ordered him released, the second gave him five years, and the third, in criminal court, sentenced him to life — and not in prison but under house arrest).  He came and went at will (albeit under surveillance), was said to step aside for women in line at the markets, and slowly slipped into dementia, watching children’s cartoons on Italian television.

I attended a day’s worth of the third trial, because i thought it obligatory.  The case was clear cut, the story of the massacre was well documented, and Priebke didn’t deny the facts.  Years later he confessed to one mistake:  he had miscounted the victims, and an extra five had been executed, kneeling with their hands tied behind their backs, with a bullet to the back of the neck.  Those 335 were guilty of being Italian. Eighteen of them were Jews.  He invoked the Nurenberg defense:  just carrying out orders.  It worked in military court, to the shame of the judges.

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