Friday, July 31, 2009

The End of the MEK

A story that has received little coverage this week has been the Iraqi government’s assault on the MEK headquarters at Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad. The MEK or Mujahideen-e-Khalq is an Iranian terrorist organization that opposes the Islamic Republic – you may remember that early on in the current Iranian uprising the regime blamed a bomb blast at the Imam Khomeini shrine on the MEK. The MEK has been engaged in an often violent struggle against the Islamic Republic almost since its founding.

The MEK found sanctuary in Iraq under Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War. Saddam viewed the MEK, a collection of Iranians opposed to the Islamic Republic, as a useful ally in the struggle against Iran – not unlike the way the Iranians provided a haven and training for Dawa and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (which you may now know as Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq).

This is where the story gets interesting. Dawa is of course the party of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose party received sanctuary and arms training in Iran. And while the United States lists the MEK as a terrorist organization and viewed it as an ally of Saddam Hussein, the US reached a separate peace with the MEK following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, American-led forces have protected the MEK’s headquarters at Camp Ashraf – that is, until this week.

In January, the United States transferred control (protection) of the MEK’s headquarters to the Iraqi government. At that time, both Prime Minister al-Maliki and National Security Advisor al-Rubaie warned the MEK that, after more than 20 years, they could no longer find safe haven in Iraq. Then, in a two day operation this week, Iraqi government forces assaulted and took control of Camp Ashraf. After initially denying any MEK had been killed in the assault, the Iraqi government now acknowledges that 7 Iranians were killed.

That the Iraqi government would move against the MEK so soon after regaining sovereignty is a troubling indicator both of the waning of American influence in Iraq and the amount of influence the Iranians exert over the Iraqi government. The MEK, while a terrorist organization, was not a threat to the Iraqi regime – as part of the 2003 agreement with the United States it had been mostly disarmed . Nor was it a serious threat to the Iranian regime. While the MEK was blamed for the recent bombing of the Imam Khomeini shrine, it is a highly improbable culprit – the bombing was more likely an attempt to distract the Iranian public from the post-election dissonance. The MEK was, however, like the Baluchs and the Kurds, a long-standing annoyance for the Islamic Republic. It is hard to view the Iraqi governments move against Camp Ashraf as anything more than a government filled with beneficiaries of Iranian protection doing the Iranian government’s bidding.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Marking Neda's 40 Days

The NYTimes and NIAC both report that Karroubi attended the mouning ceremony, while Mousavi attempted to. The AP says that around 1,000 mourners appeared and the police arrested many of them, breaking up the mourning demonstration. So much for the regime's respect of traditional Islamic norms. The Lede is also providing regular updates again.

UPDATE at 10:45 AM EDT: On the other hand, the LA Times is reporting:

Thousands and possibly tens of thousands of mourners, many of them black-clad
young women carrying roses, overwhelmed security forces today at Tehran's
largest cemetery to gather around the grave of Neda Agha-Soltan

As has been the case during most of the previous demonstrations, early reports were inaccurate or even pessimistic and the real picture of the day's demonstrations did not emerge until well after dark in Tehran.

UPDATE at 3:45 PM EDT: Tehran Bureau rounds up eye witness reports of today's demonstrations.

Two interesting new slogans I heard today were: – Independence, Freedom, Iranian
Republic! (A spin-off of the 1979 “Independence, Freedom, Islamic
Republic!”)(Esteqlal, Azadi, Jomhuri Irani!) – “Khamenei is a murderer, his
leadership is null and void!”(Khamenei ghatel-e, velayatesh batel-e!)

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Neda’s 40 Days

Tomorrow marks the 40th day following the murder of Neda Agha Soltan on June 20. As has been discussed previously, the 40th day following a person’s death is of particular significance in Shiite Islam. During the 1979 Revolution, 40th day demonstrations provided an excuse and an umbrella under which all the disparate components of that opposition could appear in the streets together. As Robin Wright pointed out earlier this week, during the 1979 Revolution, 40th day demonstrations frequently led to the death of demonstrators, begetting further demonstrations. The 40th day demonstrations gave that revolution a rhythm; they also provided a means for building and sustaining the revolution’s momentum. The traditional, religious and cultural significance of 40th day mourning insulates it to a great degree from interference by the regime.

The 40th day following Neda’s murder will provide an excellent marker for measuring the durability of the current uprising in Iran. While articles declaring the end of the uprising or describing its entrance into a new phase have proliferated since the massive street gatherings have ebbed – despite the periodic, large demonstrations – I believe the current Iranian uprising is simply operating on a time-frame that does not comport to the news cycle we’ve become accustomed to.

Mousavi has endeavored to secure permission to hold a mourning demonstration. NIAC reports that both Mousavi and Karroubi will attend a memorial service at Neda’s grave in Tehran, tomorrow. It is likely that tomorrow will beget further 40 day demonstrations.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pride Made Plain

This morning The New York Times published an op-ed from Aluf Benn of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, where Mr. Benn decries that President Obama has not delivered a major policy address to the Israeli people. While he raises one or two legitimate points, I found most of the column some sort of cry for attention. In perhaps the most succinct example the ridiculousness of Middle East diplomacy, Benn cries foul declaring:

“The Arabs got the Cairo speech; we got silence”

Never mind the fact that Obama is just entering the eighth month of a forty eight month term. Never mind the fact that for the past seven years the only message coming from the White House to the “Arab” people is that the U.S. sees every single last one of them as a threat. Never mind the fact, as Benn even points out, Israel has enjoyed more then sixteen years of steadfast, dare I say, blind support from the United States. No, what strikes me most is the tone of the statement. Benn’s remark smacks of a petulant child, bemoaning the inequity that Jimmy got a chocolate, while little Tommy didn’t. If that sounds overly harsh, so be it. This column for me gets at the heart of the great underlying threat to meaningful and lasting peace in the Middle East: pride.

Benn’s single comment suggests some great disrespect has been done because Obama hasn’t gone to Tel Aviv and spoken directly to the Israeli people. This seems wildly over blown for the reasons I mentioned above. It was a speech aimed at the second largest religious group in the world. Perhaps just by their sheer numbers, they deserve a speech sooner then the 7.4 million Israelis.

I have latched on to this particular comment, but by no means are Israel’s Palestinian counterparts free from the same charge. This underlying pride, buttressed by opposing views of what God wants, creates an unworkable situation. This perceived slight could be mentioned in a conference room as a reason to not negotiate. We need serious men and women at the table and quite honestly I don’t see any serious men or women in Israel and Palestine right now.

I see a whole bunch of people so focused on their own pride that they cannot and will not work to find common ground. The best possible solution for peace in the Middle East has become increasingly evident in the past decade, but like healthcare reform it requires the right combination of timing and men and women of selfless, humble character to subvert their ruinous pride to find pragmatic, lasting solutions.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Canadian Healthcare

A number of ads have appeared on television recently, warning of the horrors of a Canadian-like healthcare system in the US. These ads play on the conventional wisdom that the Canadian healthcare system is so bad that gravely ill people are forced to wait in line; that these people frequently must choose between death and paying out-of-pocket for a trip to the United States and treatment there. Meet Shona Holmes, who testified a few weeks ago before the House Energy and Commerce Committee:

I confess, I generally ignore the conventional wisdom that the Canadian Healthcare system is so bad that people die while waiting in line. It seems to me that, like the babysitter that microwaves the dog, everyone knows someone who knows a Canadian who nearly died. But, because I tend to ignore this meme, it never occurred to me to investigate it. Fortunately, On the Media did just that.

On this weekend’s show, On the Media interviewed Maureen Taylor, the National Health and Medical reporter for CBC Television. Taylor expressed surprise at the negative portrayal of the Canadian Healthcare system in American media, claiming that a majority of Canadians have a favorable disposition to their healthcare. Taylor then debunked Shona Holmes’ ballyhooed claim that, had she not escaped the catastrophe of Canadian care, she would have died. According to Taylor, Holmes’ brain tumor was in fact a cyst on her pituitary gland. It was not cancerous and, according to Taylor, not life threatening. In fact, as Taylor pointed out in her interview, all the relevant information about Ms. Holmes’ condition is available at the Mayo Clinic’s website. The Mayo Clinic describes Holmes’ ailment thus:

Dr. Naresh Patel, neurosurgeon, diagnosed Holmes as having a Rathke's cleft cyst (RCC). The rare, fluid-filled sac grows near the pituitary gland at the base of the brain and eventually can cause hormone and vision problems.
Rather than life threatening, Dr. Patel “was concerned that the pressure on Shona’s nervers [sic] was causing her to become blind . . . we needed to remove the cyst to save her vision.” While, Ms. Holmes was doubtlessly uncomfortable, contrary to her claim, the five or six month wait would not have killed her. Ms. Holmes illustrates the manifold problems of relying on anecdotal evidence.

Never mind, the conversation in the States is not about grafting a Canadian-like healthcare system onto Columbia.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

19th-Century Notions

Vice President Joe Biden derided Russia’s “19th-century notion of spheres of influence,” at the end of his trip to Georgia. But Biden’s careful deflection of Georgia’s various security proposals, including deploying US monitors to its border with Russia and supplying Georgia with additional weapons systems, suggests that such 19th-century notions aren’t yet outmoded.

Mr. Biden, through his National Security Advisor, Antony Blinken, deflected the suggestion of American border monitors, stating that the EU had not invited the US to join the mission. As for the Georgian National Security Advisor’s suggestion that the US provide more armaments, Mr. Blinken replied that the Georgians had yet to request weapons and training.

Mr. Biden was careful to urge the rest of the world to not recognize Georgia’s breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, as independent states.

While Vice President Biden decried spheres of influence, his presence in Georgia was all realism, all the time. The United States may not be able to extend a serious defense umbrella over Georgia – especially given the recklessness exhibited by both its president and its National Security Advisor – but Biden’s blistering criticism of Russia was a short diatribe on the efficacy of soft-power:
“When all the people of Abkhazia and South Ossetia see prosperity and opportunity in the rest of Georgia, and when they look north into Russia — unless it radically changes — and don’t see the same opportunity, they’re going to say to one another, ‘Regardless of ethnic background, I want to be in Georgia,’ ” he said. “That’s ultimately why the Berlin Wall came down. That’s ultimately why the Soviet Union broke up peacefully.”
Georgia sits astride a strategically important portion of the globe that, like it or not, fits within Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Georgia’s recklessness last summer, leading to the August War, thrust US strategic limitations into stark relief and aggravated its already cool relationship with Russia. Even without the August War, it was likely that the US and Russia would spar repeatedly in the coming decades over the role of the US, NATO and the EU in the Caucasus.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You Know It's a Slow Newsday When

CNN turns these comments by Secretary Clinton:
"I don't know, but I doubt very much that anything like [running for President] will ever be part of my life," Clinton, who would be 68 in 2016, told the television station, according to the Associated Press.
"I tried to be the president and was not successful," she added.

Into this headline: "Ticker: Clinton to run for president again?"

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bijan Khajehpour Revisited

Joe Klein joins the call to free Bijan Khajehpour linking to this post on NIAC. I ask again, "Where is Bijan Khajehpour?"

Americans on Georgia's Border

The New York Times reports:
Georgian leaders hope the United States will join the European Union’s monitoring effort along the boundary with two breakaway Georgian enclaves, a step they believe could deter aggression from Russian or separatist forces, a senior Georgian official said Monday.
The Georgian evidently believe that the inclusion of Americans on their border with Russia would deter any further aggression from the Russians. That is probably an accurate description, though the unarmed EU-monitors already there likely provide a similar deterrent, as is. The most likely outcome of the Georgian proposal is the continued frosting of Russian-American relations to say nothing of stoking Russia’s already acute fears of American encroachment in its near-abroad. Georgia’s proposal would represent needless provocation and would be a strategic mistake. Russia has communicated its red-lines clearly.

Clearly, managing an assertive Russia requires assertiveness on the part of the United States – but it must be intelligent assertiveness, and not indefensible line-in-the-sand drawing. Georgia's proposal fails this test. It is also not very likely to come to fruition.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Friedman and Afghanistan

Tom Friedman’s latest column in the New York Times begins:
I confess, I find it hard to come to Afghanistan and not ask: Why are we here? Who cares about the Taliban? Al Qaeda is gone. And if its leaders come back, well, that’s why God created cruise missiles.
And then Friedman writes, “But every time I start writing that column, something stills my hand.”

What stills Friedman’s hand? Does he recognize the folly of ignoring the Taliban? Does he realize that on-going instability in Afghanistan stokes instability in Pakistan? Does he describe the peril inherent in proliferating failed states? Does he recall America’s experience with the limitations of cruise missiles?

No. What stills Friedman’s hand is the opening of a new girls’ school in a remote Afghan village. Doubtlessly, such schools are valuable – both from a humanitarian perspective and from a strategic perspective, which Friedman identifies. But, that Friedman could begin today’s column as he does, requires either a willful disregard of history or a rather complete failing of critical thought.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

After the Sermon

Though the size of the crowds could not be confirmed and the rapid, early proliferation of videos on YouTube purporting to be of yesterday’s clashes deviates from the post-June 12 norm, “even supporters of the hard-line camp who attended the prayer session to show support for Khamenei acknowledged that the crowds were huge.”

Unprecedentedly, the prayer-attendees responded to exhortations of “Death to America,” not in kind, but with “Death to Russia” or “Death to China.” Like last Thursday’s protests, the clashes following Rafsanjani’s sermon remind us that the Opposition is alive, vibrant, and defies easily recognizable categories.

The LA Times reports:

After the sermon, downtown erupted in violence. Security forces attacked
demonstrators, older and grayer than at recent gatherings, who were chanting
"Death to the dictator!" and "God is great."

Tear gas filled streets as protesters sought to enter the gates of the university, which riot police had locked. The crowds swarmed through downtown, chanting slogans, lighting cigarettes and holding them in front of their faces to counter the effects of
the tear gas.

Masked demonstrators also set fire to trash in the middle of roadways to burn off the tear gas, video posted on YouTube showed. One group shut down two highways, while a second handed flowers to smiling policemen and kissed them on the cheeks, witnesses said.

Another large group gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior, which is under the control of Sadegh Mahsouli, a wealthy ally of Ahmadinejad."Mahsouli! Mahsouli! Give my vote back," they chanted, according to a video posted to YouTube.

Rafsanjani’s sermon will be culled for phrases shedding light on just what his position is. While he called for both unity and respect for the rule of law, he also said “We should let our media even criticize us.” And then

People became hopeful about the elections, we should have been proud of this election, because people went to vote, in large numbers, we should thank them for voting, for taking part in the election is such huge numbers, alas, if only that environment continued to this day. What happened after the election was not what we expected it to be. Let us ask ourselves what we want, what does the revolution want? You are listening to someone who has been with the revolution every minute of the revolution we know what Imam Khomeini wanted, what his ideas were, Imam Khomeini always said that you should always listen to the people, see what the people want, if the people are with us, then we have everything. The Islamic Revolution was the way of Mohammed. People should be brought into the system first, this is why Imam Khomeini was successful.
Taken together, these two statements strike me as a vague call for an Iranian glasnost and a popular sovereignty. Some might view a call for popular sovereignty as a radical break from the past for such an establishment figure, as Rafsanjani, but it is not. Rather, it is a call for a return to the Revolution, before the June 12 fiasco.

Friday, July 17, 2009

House Intelligence Committee Announces CIA Probe

Following on Kennedy’s post below, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, announced today that that committee will investigate whether the CIA broke the law by not informing Congress of the recent revealed CIA program.

The first thing that springs to my mind is the Church Committee.

We Need to Know What Happened

Revelations about a potential paramilitary assassination force researched and nearly put into operation by the CIA have brought back to the forefront the issue of looking back at the transgressions of the Bush administration. Did they break the law? Should someone be prosecuted? What exactly happened?

I find myself most interested in the last question. If you’ve followed my posts over the years you know that I have a nearly paranoid fear of government and its ever increasing efficiency in limiting our rights by harnessing fear or misdirection. We need to know what happened and how it happened. We need to publically disclose the transgressions of the Bush administration. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there were transgressions of established norms of government during the Bush administration. I personally believe much of what was done was done illegally. At the very least it was done with intellectual dishonesty. Yet, I am reluctant to join the more liberal side in this debate calling for the heads of those responsible.

I think President Obama’s statements on wanting to look forward, not back accurately reflect the will of most of America. I believe the American public does not want to rehash and relive the Bush administration through constant coverage of court cases and periodic revelations of this or that. I don’t mean to trivialize any illegal activity, but the current rancor has the scent of a lynch mob looking for retribution more then closure and understanding. That said, I don’t think he can do nothing. Thankfully people like me, with an internet connection and an opinion, are here to help.

President Obama needs to establish something between a Truth Commission and the 9/11 Commission. He needs to recruit two elder statesmen from both parties that want to find truth, not retribution. He needs to give this commission some teeth to make sure the more insolent members of the Bush administration (hello Mr. Cheney) are compelled to sit down and tell honestly what happened. Of course the counter-point to this is that like many Truth and Reconciliation commissions, there needs to be legal leniency shown to the majority of those who testify. If it becomes clear one individual was willfully responsible for numerous illegal acts then that person can be brought up on charges (hello Mr. Cheney). From the sounds of it John Yoo could very well be disbarred for his memos and the twisting of the law he facilitated.

Above all us, this commission should get to the truth. Does that mean many illegal acts could go unprosecuted? Yes. Will many liberals be bent out of shape that so many of the perpetrators get off scott free? Yes. Will many conservatives protest the notion that anything done could be wrong or illegal in the face of terrorism (despite the obvious fact that Al Qaeda has never and likely will never pose an existential threat to the U.S.)? You bet your NASCAR tickets they will. People on all sides will be angry. No one will be fully satisfied. Isn’t democracy grand?

We need to know what happened. We as citizens of this country are complicit in the wholesale auction, if not theft, of our constitutional protections. We need to shed light into the dark corners of our government, lest we find ourselves banished there later on without recourse. It isn’t about looking back, it’s about knowing the past to inform our future. We need to know, and as the G.I. Joe cartoons taught me as a child, knowing is half the battle.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another Tense Night Waiting for Iran

I’ve made this point, Colin has made this point, and now Laura Secor writes:
[Iran’s uprising] is a confrontation to be measured not in days but in months, or even years. Among analysts of Iran, debates rage over the relative demographic, political, and economic strength of the opposition coalition. We’ll know it by its failure or its success, and not in the immediate short term.
She reminds us that
[t]he less we hear from Iran, the easier it is to presume that the regime’s strong-arm tactics have succeeded in putting down the protest movement. But the silence we hear is only our own. The protest movement that exploded into Iran’s streets in June was not a momentary flash of anger.
Tomorrow, like last Thursday, has the potential to be both a turning point in the uprising and a reminder to the rest of the world that the Opposition lives. It is clear that Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami intend to use Rafsanjani’s prayer service as a rallying point. It appears the Regime is preparing to punish any Opposition demonstrators that answer the call.

Keep your eyes on NIAC and Nico Pitney tomorrow. And remember to ask, “Where is Bijan Khajehpour?” -- Amnesty International highlights his disappearance yesterday.

Oh, Economics.

If you don’t know, Economics is referred to as the Dismal Science. That epitaph has long amused me. The leader in the latest Economist begins:
OF ALL the economic bubbles that have been pricked, few have burst more spectacularly than the reputation of economics itself.
The leader begins, as is often the case with the Economist, humorously and transitions into a serious, strong defense both of the utility of Economics and of the Free Market:
And if economics as a broad discipline deserves a robust defence, so does the free-market paradigm. Too many people, especially in Europe, equate mistakes made by economists with a failure of economic liberalism. Their logic seems to be that if economists got things wrong, then politicians will do better. That is a false—and dangerous—conclusion.
But simultaneously takes on financial and macro economics. It is an excellent piece, well worth a read, defending the value of the market, while being honest about its very real limitations and imperfections. It is a strange thing; normally rational, skeptical individuals so frequently place blind faith in the infallibility of the free market. It is not infallible.

Now, go read the Economist.

“CIA Assassin Program was Nearing New Phase” – Washington Post

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), attempting to downplay the import of the undisclosed CIA program and pivot on the issue, said, “We have lost valuable opportunities to improve oversight of the intelligence community because they got caught playing silly games.”

No, Mr. Rogers, Congress relinquished oversight – not just the opportunity for oversight – for eight years under the Bush administration because none of you had the courage to do your jobs. Rep. Rogers attempts to deflect the real issue here – whether Vice President Cheney instructed the CIA to break the law – indicate not only that he would prefer to play “silly games” over dealing with the matter at hand, but that he is willing to do so to protect former Bush administration officials.

The WaPo effectively rounds-up the varying descriptions of how far the program had progressed, from “concepts and feasibility studies” to “active in fits and starts.”

UPDATE: Saddly, Ignatius buys into the conservative meme that Congressional Democrats are attacking the CIA - this is nonsense. Nonsense that Congressional Democrats are playing into, but nonsense nonetheless. The issue here, again, is (or should be) whether VP Cheney instructed the CIA to break the law.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Friday's Prayers

Underscoring the fissures in Iran's leadership, Ahmadinejad will be absent from Friday's prayers, which are to be delivered by Ayatollah Rafsanjani. It had earlier been reported that Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami will be attending those prayers. NIAC reported, via Ghalam, that Mousavi issued a statement saying he is obligated to protect people's rights and will be among them during Friday's prayer session.

Instead of attending Friday prayers, Ahmadinejad has elected to take his entire cabinent to the holy city of Mashhad. Mashhad itself has not been free of protests in the wake of the June 12 election.

Rumors abound that the Opposition intends to use Friday's prayer session as a pretext for gathering en masse and pressuring the regime from the streets once again. The use of religious devotion and milestones as an umbrella and pretext for gathering is not unexpected. The Opposition made use of this tactic last week and is likely to continue using it as the uprising persists - just as was done in the 1979 Revolution.

UPDATE: Joe Klein's take on Rafsanjani delivering Friday prayers: here.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Undisclosed CIA Program, Continued

The NYTimes reports, in contrast to what Bobby Ghosh's sources had told him, that the CIA's undisclosed and recently terminated program was, in fact, an assassination program:

Since 2001, the Central Intelligence Agency has developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists, according to current and former government officials.
The Times describes the program as "vague," noting that no operations were conducted and demuring with the list of obstacles that inhibit any covert action:

How could the role of the United States be masked? Should allies be informed and
might they block the access of the C.I.A. teams to their targets? What if American officers or their foreign surrogates were caught in the midst of an operation? Would such activities violate international law or American restrictions on assassinations overseas?
It is unclear why the Bush administration was unable to overcome these obstacles when, according to Steve Coll's excellent book Ghost Wars, the Clinton administration was able to put into place a similar assassination program, targetting Osama bin Laden, during the 1990s.

Not only might this program implicate the National Security Act of 1947, it may implicate the ban, by Executive Order, on political assassinations stretching back to Pres. Ford's administration. The Times defuses this possibility:

That ban [on political assassinations] does not apply to the killing of enemies in a war, government officials say. The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that has attacked the United States and stated that its goal is to attack again, is no different than shooting enemy soldiers on the battlefield.
(emphasis added). I'm not sure if that justification is sufficient, particularly given the Bush administration's refusal to apply the "enemies in a war" standard to other facets of the War on Terrorism, like Geneva Conventions to Prisoners of War.

Much Happening on a Quiet Day in Tehran

The streets of Tehran appear to have been pretty quiet today (see here and here). It was an eventful day nonetheless.

After weeks of remaining in the shadows, Ayatollah Rafsanjani will reportedly deliver Friday Prayers. Mousavi and Khatami will be in attendance.

Mohsen Rezai, former Revolutionary Guard commander and the presidential candidate who apparently bowed to pressure and fell inline with the Khamenei regime, seemed to shift positions once again. Persian language BBC reports that Rezai called that for the Opposition’s election concerns to be resolved. Rezai seemingly criticized both the Regime and the Opposition and warned that continued dissonance could lead to the downfall of the Islamic Republic.

While pro-Ahmadinejad deputies in the Majlis railed that “Representatives who do not believe in the legitimacy of [the Ahmadinejad] government are not qualified to be in the Majlis,” the hard-line Kayhan newspaper declared that Mousavi is legally prohibited from forming a new political party.

After issuing a fatwa decrying Khamenei yesterday, Ayatollah Montazeri was targeted by Raja News. That paper intimated that Montazeri is suffering from memory loss and mental imbalance. Montazeri's son denied the allegations. While Montazeri was once seen as Khomeini's heir apparent, his influence has waned considerably.

Re: The Most Recent Undisclosed CIA Program

You can find the original NYTimes piece here. The WSJ downplays the story here. You can find the governing law, the National Security Act of 1947 as Amended, here.

From the innuendo that abounds, it appears the CIA’s program (or, series of ideas over 8 years, if you like) involved targeted assassinations. Dick Cheney’s reported involvement in this program – or at least instructing the CIA not to tell Congress – may lend credence to Sey Hersh’s accusations back in 2003 of assassination squads, which he famously repeated this spring.

Cheney’s direction that the CIA not tell Congress is likely illegal – although the outlines of the spin are already clear: 1) the program wasn’t significant and therefore there was no legal requirement to tell Congress; 2) Congress is leaky.

Rep. Pete Hoekstra’s take on the first deflection is most interesting – he’s linking “significant” to amount spent. The National Security Act’s use of significant is clearly not meant to be read as cost but to be taken as important, this is probably best measurable in terms of “blowback potential.” There have also been deflections that the program was not yet operational, so there was no need to inform Congress, but the National Security Act’s requirement to inform covers “anticipated” intelligence activities, as well.

Finally, the Congress is leaky argument is just nonsense. First, it is not Congress that is informed but the Congressional Intelligence Committees. Second, the National Security Act provides explicitly for “extraordinary circumstances,” when “the President determines that it is essential to limit access,” by providing that the President may inform “the chairmen and ranking minority members of the congressional intelligence committees, the Speaker and minority leader of the House of Representatives, the majority and minority leaders of the Senate, and such other member or members of the congressional leadership as may be included by the President.” That exception, it should be noted, is meant to apply to a finding in explicit opposition to “intelligence activities,” including covert action. And, fortunately, the way the United States is set-up, the President (and certainly not the Vice President) is not empowered with ability to disregard the law, that is re-write the law, to suit his purposes – to say nothing of the utter disregard for a co-equal branch of government by refusing to abide by the law in deriding that other branch as “leaky.”

UPDATE: Bobby Ghosh at TIME says that sources have told him:
The program could have required the Agency to spy on Americans. Domestic
surveillance is outside the CIA's purview -– it's usually the FBI's job – and
it's easy to see why Cheney would have wanted to keep it from Congress.
It's a bit of an understatement to describe "domestic surveillance" as "outside the CIA's purview." If we're talking about truly domestic surveillance, as in spying on Americans in America, it may be illegal. The National Security Act of 1947 provides: "the [Central Intelligence] Agency shall have no police, subpoena, or law enforcement powers or internal security functions."

Friday, July 10, 2009

Oh, the Myth-making You’ll Do!

Webster’s defines renegade as:
1. a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another
2. an individual who rejects lawful or conventional behavior

Unfortunately, in America, the renegade – much like the cowboy or the maverick – is a political motif. The renegade is an estimable figure, one not beholden to any party or interest group. The renegade will speak truth to power and damn the consequences.

While Sarah Palin may be a Webster’s renegade (“a deserter from one faith, cause, or allegiance to another”), she is not one to speak truth to power – nor, if you take the fruits of Andrew Sullivan’s obsession, one to speak truth period. She is rather, simply, a prima donna. I doubt anything could do so much to resuscitate her reputation as slapping an image of her on Time Magazine and labeling her renegade.

But that’s ok, there’s no chance that this label will stick and drive the narrative of every news story about her forever. No, that’d be like letting a failure from Connecticut buy a ranch in Texas and transfigure himself into a cowboy, or like describing a party functionary as a maverick, despite his near slavish party-line-toeing.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Where is Bijan Khajehpour?

Tehranis took to the street once again today for demonstrations ostensibly marking the tenth anniversary of the 18 Tir massacre. We don’t yet know how many Iranians were beaten, arrested, or even killed in open defiance of the Khamenei regime. As the uprising continues and the beatings, arrests, and repression become common place, it is difficult – but imperative – to not become desensitized to their plight. It is also imperative that we remember those Iranians who have just simply disappeared. Bijan Khajehpour is one such Iranian.

Bijan Khajehpour, a prominent political economist and CEO of Atieh Bahar Consulting, arrived in Tehran on June 27. When his flight from Britain arrived at Imam Khomeini airport, Dr. Khajehpour was snatched. Dr. Khajehpour’s whereabouts remain unknown, though some assume that he, like many Iranians, has been detained in the notorious Evin Prison.

While Dr. Khajehpour is just one of maybe thousands of Iranians who have disappeared since the June 12 election, his disappearance is particularly disturbing because he was neither a street protestor nor a leader in Mousavi or Karroubi’s campaign. Instead, Dr. Khajehpour was a public intellectual and businessman. His arrest represents a regime striking out at civil society. It is indicative, as if we needed any more indicators, of a regime in distress, acting out of fear for its very survival. Such a regime is very dangerous; it will likely continue to consolidate power not just into institutions but individuals it deems reliable (like Mojtaba Khamenei) and its brutality towards its own people will increase in proportion to the regime’s relative isolation.

Somalia: A Hash for Nearly Twenty Years

Last week’s Economist provides what amounts to the requisite periodic update on the never-improving state of Somalia. The article’s second paragraph contains about all you need to know, to understand the utter failure of U.S. and Western policy in the Horn of Africa.

The Economist notes without irony that the current leader of the Transitional Federal Government (UN-backed, powerless), Sharif Ahmed, is a moderate Islamist who three years ago headed the Islamic Courts Union. This is ironic, of course, because it was Ethiopian and American firepower that drove out Ahmed’s ICU, and it is Ethiopian and American firepower that protects Ahmed’s TFG. Ironic also because the ICU, which brought a measure of stability to Somalia, was ousted in large measure because of America’s overriding fear of the word Islamista; now the US-backed TFG (and Mr. Ahmed) faces, in the Shabab, a truly barbaric group of Islamists with actual ties to Al Qaeda.

At bottom, though, are the Somali people who have been without governance or peace for nearly twenty years. It is awful to consider that the best hope for stability the Somalis have had in twenty years was snuffed out by the most typically American poor policy choice: short-term solutions, based on superficial understanding, with no regard for consequences or blowback.

The Economist’s periodic update ends on a similarly sour note:

[Muhammad Hassey] finally left Mogadishu when his two brothers and two sisters
were killed by a mortar shell. Kadijo Hassan, an elderly lady, interrupts.
“Mogadishu is unbelievable,” she says. “It is war. Everyone is crying there.”

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Lines Harden

The New York Times reports today on the quiet conflict amongst Iran’s clergy over the uprising. This dynamic – of the clergy taking sides between Mousavi and Khamenei, the Opposition and the Regime – has been present since the immediate aftermath of the June 12 election. Recall, Ayatollah Khamenei described the election as divine, while Ayatollah Montazeri denigrated it. In the three and a half weeks since the stolen election, the line dividing Qom has become stark and more and more of the Mullahs have picked sides.

Amid the clergy dividing itself between the Regime and the Opposition, other players have likewise hardened their positions. On June 24, Mohsen Rezai, formerly a Major General in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp and candidate in the June 12 election, dropped his complaints of election irregularities and returned to the Regime’s fold. In the last week, there have been reports that the IRGC has assumed responsibility for Iran’s security which may suggest the Regime is attempting to consolidate its position. Over the weekend the Researchers and Teachers of Qom, an organization of clergy, decried the results of the election. Mousavi, Karroubi and former president Khatami have reportedly met to form a political front through which to coordinate further protest action – action which is to begin tomorrow with mass unrest and demonstrates commemorating the 10 year anniversary of the 18 Tir Massacre.

Now, the Guardian reports that Ayatollah Khamenei’s son, Mojtaba Khamenei, has taken control of the Basiji, the paramilitary thugs nominally under the control of the IRGC and responsible for much of the violence during the crackdown. That Khamenei’s son is taking personal control over the Basiji should be viewed definitively as not just the regime, but the Khameneis as a dynastic force, consolidating its position. Nothing indicates fear for position as relying on your family members for control of the state’s levers of force; nor is anything so indicative of a willingness to use force.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Ending Speculation?

As the price of oil continued to fall (both Brent and NYMEX Crude dipped below $63/bbl), the New York Times reported this afternoon that Glen Gensler, chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, would consider limits on the volume of energy futures that purely financial investors would be permitted to hold:

My firm belief is that we must aggressively use all existing authorities to ensure market integrity
The Times cited volatility in the oil market over the last year and concerns that such volatility was linked to speculators as Mr. Gensler's motivation. While I generally agree that over the last 18 months to 2 years, crude valuation has been significantly impacted, if not outright driven, by speculation, I am left wondering why not bar “purely financial investors” from investing in oil futures all together?

No really, why don’t we? I know market regulation is a favorite bogeyman of the Right, but purely financial investors, or speculators, have absolutely nothing to do with the market for oil -- that is, they do not actually seek to purchase or sell oil. Rather than reflecting the dynamics of supply and demand, these sorts of investors effectively place bets on crude's price and inject a wholly artificial pressure into the market. Never mind the folly of allowing the price of a commodity so vital to our economy and our national security be tortured by the whims of these sorts of investors, limiting the volumes of futures they might hold seems at best artifice and a half-measure.

An Iranian Calendar

The following are dates likely to be important in Iran in the coming weeks:

July 9 – 10 year anniversary of the so-called 18 Tir Massacre, when Basiji ransacked dorms and threw students out windows following days of student protests in 1999.

July 22 – 40 days since the June 12 election.

July 23 – 40 days since the first protests took place.

July 30 – 40 days since Neda Agha Soltan’s death; marks the end of the traditional mourning period.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Iran's Turmoil Continues

The Los Angeles Times reports today that
The top leaders of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard publicly acknowledged they had taken over the nation's security and warned late Sunday that there was no middle ground in the ongoing dispute over the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a threat against a reformist wave led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi.
This represents a significant, public change in Iranian political order. The Revolutionary Guard is mentioned so frequently that it can be tempting to forget that it is a slightly smaller, separate force from that of the Iranian Armed Forces. The IRGC, formed in the wake of the Imposed War, is generally thought to be more ideologically driven than Iran’s Armed Forces. That said, while it appears that the IRGC is a relatively autonomous actor within Iran, it is far from clear that the IRGC is monolithic.

General Jafari’s comments, as reported in the LA Times, make clear that the dispute between the Khamenei regime and the Opposition continues to be a battle over legitimacy and rightful claim to the mantle of the Revolution:
Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the elite military branch, said the Guard's takeover of the country had led to "a revival of the revolution and clarification of the value positions of the establishment at home and abroad.”
The IRGC’s public claim of responsibility for the security of the Islamic Republic may indicate the evolution of the Khamenei-Ahmadinejad coup to the stage of power consolidation. This development, along with the restoration of SMS service in Tehran last week, would seem to indicate that the regime believes that its crackdown has taken a toll on the opposition and that it has established a modicum of control over the situation. That said, Mousavi’s call for a national strike and the statement from the Researchers and Teachers of Qom on Saturday, suggest that the Opposition lives.

While the relative quiet in Tehran might mean that Khamenei-Ahmadinejad are correct in their assessment, their clear failure to properly read the balance of forces before launching their June 12 coup councils against using their actions as indicators of the facts on the ground in Iran.

UPDATE: NIAC reports, SMS service has been disabled in Tehran again.

UPDATE II: Reza Aslan says the strike is on.

Crude Speculation

Last week, as crude prices began to fall, the value of Brent dropped beneath both WTI Cushing and New York Mercantile Exchange Crude Futures. Brent normally leads NYMEX Light Crude by about a dollar. Its drop beneath the valuation of NYMEX Light Crude likely indicates – as it indicated last year – a continuing, downward trend for the price of oil. Such a trend is unlikely to bottom out until NYMEX Light Crude is again valued beneath Brent.

That the price of Crude is falling is not particularly surprising. Crude’s upward price trend since the beginning of the year has occurred generally without substantiation in market fundamentals. Demand remains weak and supply remains sufficient. While long-term economic fears at the beginning of the year likely depressed crude below its natural price, it has become over-valued in recent weeks. The most probable explanation for the overvaluation of crude is that it has once again become an investment vehicle, as it did in 2006-2008, its price inflated by speculation.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

John Bolton Strikes Again

It is stunning – stunning! – that the Washington Post publishes the screeds of a man so thoroughly discredited as John Bolton. Bolton’s Op-Ed in today’s WaPo, advocating for the immediate bombing of Iran (“Israel's decision of whether to use military force against Tehran's nuclear weapons program is more urgent than ever”), is a terrifying, deceitful and invective-filled piece. In sum, it is what we’ve come to expect from Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The point of Bolton’s Op-Ed is that time is out, or is nearly out, and we must, or the Israelis must, bomb now and force regime change. This is also the point of his June 26, 2009 Op-Ed in the L.A. Times. It is the point of he made a year ago in a July 15, 2008 Op-Ed in the Wall Street Journal. It is a point he has made frequently – and for quite some time. And every time he makes it, the “time is now” to bomb Iran.

In today’s twist, the time to bomb Iran is now because the uprising in Iran is over and, that the uprising occurred at all, simultaneously demonstrates: that the regime cannot be dealt with; that if we could deal with them, doing so would be an abomination; and in the uprising’s wake, no policy or regime change is forthcoming.

It would be a convincing argument, were it not nonsense. First, given that Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami have just gone out on a limb in open defiance of Khamenei, I think they would be surprised to discover that the uprising is over. Moreover, as Colin pointed out in comments to Kennedy’s post a few days ago, the 1979 Revolution took place over more than a year and experienced periods of relative quiet; I am not yet willing to declare this uprising over.

Leaving aside the relatively difficult question of whether the Iranian uprising continues, we are left with this notion that the regime can’t be dealt with, that dealing with it would be an abomination, and that no regime or policy change is forthcoming. As I argued here, it may well be an abomination to negotiate with the Iranian regime in the wake of its crackdown but the crackdown itself changes nothing of the essential calculus governing Iran’s relationships with the United States, Israel and the rest of the world. Iran is and remains a rational actor, self-interested state. Khamenei remains a leader that seeks, at bottom, the preservation of his position and his system of government. Such regimes can be dealt with, have been dealt with, and indeed are the basis for traditional realism.

Finally, Bolton seems to still be gripped with the delusions that pervaded neoconservative circles before the invasion of Iraq. He seems to suggest that a newly installed regime will give up Iran’s nuclear program simply by virtue of it being a new regime. He also explicitly suggests that a public diplomacy campaign will convince the Iranians not to hate us for bombing them. Like the idea that the Iraqi people would greet the US invasion with cheers and roses, this argument ignores Iranian nationalism. It also ignores history. Iran did not begin its nuclear program under the current regime. No, Iran first started its nuclear program under the Shah. Khomeini initially gave up the quest for the bomb, believing it to be anti-Islamic. The current regime began the program in the wake of the devastating Imposed War. Never mind that every nation is entitled to the pursuit of nuclear power – as opposed to nuclear weapons – under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Fearing a Counter-Coup?

Does Ahmadinejad fear he'll be deposed if he leaves Iran?

Unpopular leaders whose positions are tenuous will sometimes refuse to the leave their country for fears of a coup. Such fears are not unfounded. In cases like Libya in 1969, Uganda in 1971, and, more recently, Thailand in 2006, the then-leaders left their respective countries for such things as a vacation at a Greek resort or for the Commonwealth Heads of State Conference only to find that the military had removed them from power during their absence.

In that light, does it tell us something about Ahmadinejad’s confidence in his position that he has abruptly cancelled his trip to Libya to attend the African Union summit? Perhaps we should take it as an indication that despite the Guardian Council endorsing his re-election, the pressure from the Street, from Mousavi-who has just, finally called for a national strike-and from clerics of all stripes is taking a toll on Mr. Ahmadinejad.

Or maybe Qaddafi just reminded Ahmadinejad how he came to power.