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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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The Myth of Iranian Partnership

October 6th, 2013 - 7:15 pm

Dexter Filkins is a good reporter and an honest man, but he’s been gulled by an American diplomat.  He’s bought into one of the silly myths that unfortunately define the way American policy makers and intellectuals think about Iran.

In his long essay about Quds Force commander General Suleimani in the New Yorker, Mr. Filkins quotes Ryan Crocker, one of our better diplomats, about dealing with Iran.  Crocker had been meeting with Suleimani on the eve of the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, shortly after 9/11.

“Crocker sensed that the Iranians were growing impatient with the Bush Administration, thinking that it was taking too long to attack the Taliban,” Filkins tells us.  Actually, it wasn’t too hard to sense their mood, since “the lead Iranian negotiator stood up and slammed a sheaf of papers on the table. ‘If you guys don’t stop building these fairy-tale governments in the sky, and actually start doing some shooting on the ground, none of this is ever going to happen!’ he shouted. ‘When you’re ready to talk about serious fighting, you know where to find me.’ He stomped out of the room. ‘It was a great moment,’ Crocker said.”

If you say so.  A bit too melodramatic for my tastes, but great moments are in the eyes of the beholder.  Anyway, Filkins-citing-Crocker tells us that we were getting along well with the Iranians (we were swapping “information”) until the cowboy in the White House wrecked everything:

The good will didn’t last. In January, 2002, Crocker, who was by then the deputy chief of the American Embassy in Kabul, was awakened one night by aides, who told him that President George W. Bush, in his State of the Union Address, had named Iran as part of an “Axis of Evil.” Like many senior diplomats, Crocker was caught off guard. He saw the negotiator the next day at the U.N. compound in Kabul, and he was furious. “You completely damaged me,” Crocker recalled him saying. “Suleimani is in a tearing rage. He feels compromised.” The negotiator told Crocker that, at great political risk, Suleimani had been contemplating a complete reëvaluation of the United States, saying, “Maybe it’s time to rethink our relationship with the Americans.” The Axis of Evil speech brought the meetings to an end. Reformers inside the government, who had advocated a rapprochement with the United States, were put on the defensive. Recalling that time, Crocker shook his head. “We were just that close,” he said. “One word in one speech changed history.”

Diplomats, like intellectuals, take words very seriously, and Crocker was furious that Bush had called out the Iranians.  But then, presidents take words seriously too, and Crocker might have understood the moment better if he’d asked himself if perhaps the president knew something that the dips didn’t.  He could have asked me, too, because this was one of the few occasions on which I actually knew something that most of the world, evidently including distinguished men like Crocker, did not:  that the Iranians were busily sending killers into Afghanistan with orders to assassinate American troops there.

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Davy Crockett and The Great Shutdown of ’13

October 1st, 2013 - 7:39 pm

When I was very young — 25, or thereabouts — I had just arrived in Florence to start learning Italian with a proper Tuscan accent, and as I was mastering the subtleties of the menu in the student mensa and urgent phrases like “where’s the bathroom, please?”, the government fell (over Vietnam, no less).  This was a first for me, and I didn’t realize it was actually fairly normal in my soon-to-be second country, and I was plenty worried.  So the next morning I struck up a bit of a conversation with the nice man at the coffee bar down the block.

“There’s no government,” I observed.

“Right,” he said.

“What are we going to do?”  I asked

“God willing it will last, and they won’t raise taxes.”

It was the first time my mind had entertained the thought that a country without a sitting government might not be a total catastrophe.

We’re not in anything like that condition, as everybody knows.  We’ve still got a government, and our elected officials are arguing about how much of our money to spend, and on what.  And along these lines, please take a few minutes to read the best commentary on the so-called “shutdown” from America’s most literate newspaper, the New York Sun.  It’s unsigned, but it reads like Seth Lipsky, America’s greatest living editor, and the author of a fine book on the Constitution.

Whoever wrote it makes a couple of great points that have gone missing in the wild debate over “whose fault is it?”  First, that it’s quite wrong to talk about “defunding Medicare,” since it hasn’t ever been funded.  And second, contrary to the president’s rant about Congress fulfilling its legal responsibilities, the Constitution contains no requirement that Congress vote a budget.  The Sun says it better than I can, so read it, but those are the takeaways.

Meanwhile, there’s the question the newsies keep asking, namely “whose fault is it?” That is actually a tricky way of saying “we’re blaming the Republicans.”  But there’s a prior question, the one prompted by my coffee guy in Florence in 1965:  Is this such a bad thing?  Yes, people are suffering, including two family members who are currently without pay.  Yes, it’s horrible that the Scrooges in the White House and the Democrat Party won’t pony up the money for the sick kids in federally funded hospitals.  Etcetera, etcetera.

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As advertised, Hassan Rouhani was the star of the week at the Great UN Circus.  He knew it, and he treated his American hosts with arrogance and contempt, and was duly hailed as a peace-seeker.  He spent hours and hours with diplomats (just not American ones), journalists, academic apologists such as Gary Sick, and anti-American rabble rousers like Louis Farrakhan, but he didn’t have time for President Obama.

No matter.  When the Iranians told the White House that Rouhani could squeeze in a few words on the phone, Obama eagerly called him up, thereby giving the journalists and apologists the opportunity to use their prepared language about “historic conversation,” etcetera etcetera and so forth.

Rouhani’s basic message was to say “you’d better be nice to me, or you’ll get the hardliners,” and some nasties from central casting duly appeared on cue at the Tehran airport when Rouhani returned from satanic New York City, shouting at the president and even throwing a shoe.  A couple of the demonstrators were arrested, underscoring their presumed menace (anyone who believes the “protest” was spontaneous badly needs a lower-school refresher course in totalitarianism).  It was overkill;  Obama wants a deal.  He doesn’t need further convincing.

And he’s willing to pay for it.  Quite a lot, in fact.  Even before Rouhani deigned to take Obama’s call, we had given the Islamic Republic an ancient treasure, a cup crafted two millenia before Mohammed, said to be worth at least a million dollars.

Remember that Obama gave the Brits a collection of his favorite speeches.

Why such largesse?  It’s a shocking present, way beyond the normal.  Orders of magnitude greater, in fact.  What had the Iranians done to deserve it?

I don’t know, but if I were forced to answer, I’d reply with another question:  what did Obama and Rouhani talk about?  Yes, I know they exchanged pleasantries about wanting a happier world, but there was one subject raised by Obama.  A “senior administration official” told the press on background about it:

The fate of three U.S. citizens who have disappeared or been imprisoned in Iran was discussed during Friday’s historic conversation between the two nations’ presidents, a senior U.S. administration official said.

U.S. President Barack Obama, during his phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, “noted our concern about three American citizens who have been held within Iran — Robert Levinson, Saeed Abedini, and Amir Hekmati — and noted our interest in seeing those Americans reunited with their families,” the official said.

Levinson is a former FBI agent who was disappeared from Kish Island several years ago.  He was said to be investigating cigarette smuggling.  Abedini is an Iranian-American Christian minister arrested and charged with subversion.  Hekmati is an Iranian-American Marine who was said to be visiting relatives in Tehran, and was arrested and charged with espionage.

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The Iranians Are Coming!

September 22nd, 2013 - 7:13 pm

Hasan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, is going to be in New York this week, and the dips and pundits are very excited.  They think there’s a chance for a breakthrough, maybe even two or three breakthroughs:

● A deal on the Iranian nuclear weapons program;

● Progress on the Syrian deal;

● A great leap forward in American-Iranian “relations.”

The last would produce some sort of “normalization,” involving an exchange of diplomatic representations, at a maximum the restoration of full relations for the first time since the seizure of American hostages in Tehran in the early months of the Islamic Revolution.  Even a “chance encounter” between Rouhani and Obama will be treated as a major event, and you can expect to read language like “for the first time in decades, American and Iranian leaders met face to face.”

That language is false.  There have been myriad face-to-face encounters, and other claims about Rouhani are also false. A recent puff piece in the New York Times summed up the conventional wisdom:

Long known as fiercely intelligent, he became renowned after the revolution for his ability to navigate a system dominated by ideologues, building consensus among many opposing forces. Those close to him describe Mr. Rouhani as the golden boy of the Islamic republic’s close-knit group of leaders and a deal maker who has had a direct hand in most of Iran’s major foreign policy decisions over the past three decades.

He was one of three Iranian officials to meet with the former national security adviser Robert McFarlane when he secretly visited Tehran in 1986 to arrange the arms-for-hostages deal that would later erupt into the Iran-contra scandal.

Golden Boy is the man of the week.  But I don’t think he met McFarlane.  At the time, he was an obscure clerical nothingburger.  I believe that the key Iranian at the 1986 meetings was Mohammad Javad Larijani, the eldest of five very powerful brothers.  And M.J. Larijani has continued to function as a back channel to the White House;  I’m quite confident that he has met with high-ranking Obama officials in the Middle East and in Geneva.

I wonder if any of the journalists will ask Mr. Rouhani how he liked the key-shaped cake that McFarlane et. al. brought him…maybe they will, expecting him to come out with a witty line.  They are less likely to quote one of his public statements about the United States:

“We need to express ‘Death to America’ with action. Saying it is easy.”

Nor do I expect to hear a lot about Rouhani’s self-satisfied discussion of how he tricked the West into thinking that Iran had suspended its nuclear enrichment efforts, when it was actually speeded up.

There is more. 

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