Friday, June 30, 2006

Ahmadinejad to Visit Iraq?

The Fars News Agency reported that Ahmadinejad is planning to visit Iraq, the first Iranian President to visit the country since the 1979 Islamic Revolution: "Ahmadinejad Due to Visit Iraq" (26 June 2006). Is it true? Dangerous, but daring. It would be a coup if he could broker an agreement among Iraqi nationalist factions of Sunnis, Shiites, and others, insurgents and parliamentarians, clerics and lay leaders, and help organize a national liberation front that uses mass actions, not just force of arms, to demand the end to the US occupation of Iraq, thus outmaneuvering Washington. But that's probably hoping too much. Besides, such an initiative would have to come from Iraqis themselves, not from Tehran. Nevertheless, one hopes that he will at least meet with Moktada al-Sadr, many of whose following probably come from Iraqi counterparts of Ahmadinejad's working-class supporters in Iran.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ahmadinejad in the Arab Streets

Naturally, my Persian Prince is getting all the support he could want from the Arab streets. Here are voices quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle: "'He has the courage to stand up to America and Israel. What other leader in the world is doing that?' said Ahmed Yassin, a 46-year-old bank employee, as he watched friends play backgammon in a Cairo coffee house"; and "'It is Iran's right to have nuclear energy and nuclear weapons,' said Tarek Badri, 48, a Cairo construction foreman. 'Why is Israel allowed to have these weapons and Muslim countries are not allowed?'" (Dan Morrison, "Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: Voice of Iran Echoes through Arab World," 25 June 2006).

The support shows up in polls, too:
In a 2005 survey by Telhami and Zogby International, a majority of respondents in six Arab countries said they didn't believe Iran's claims that it isn't building a bomb. But 60 percent -- even in the Gulf, where anti-Shiite prejudice is strongest -- said Iran should be free of international pressure.

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In a survey conducted in May by Saad's center, 79 percent of Lebanese said a nuclear-armed Iran would be good for "the Palestinian struggle against Israel." (Morrison, 25 June 2006)
The rulers of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia had better take a hint and quit siding with the West so shamelessly.

Maurice Motamed

Maurice Motamed, the lone Jewish MP in Iran's parliament, has the world's most thankless job, but he, bless him, is doing what he can as an Iranian patriot, with his integrity intact:
"When our president spoke about the Holocaust, I considered it my duty as a Jew to speak about this issue," Mr Motamed said in his office in central Tehran. "The biggest disaster in human history is based on tens of thousands of films and documents. I said these remarks are a big insult to the whole Jewish society in Iran and the whole world."

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Although he took on Mr Ahmadinejad over the Holocaust, Mr Motamed supports the president on other issues, including the stand-off with the US, Europe and Israel over the country's nuclear programme. "I am an Iranian first and a Jew second," he said.

He acknowledged there were problems with being a Jew in Iran, as there were for the country's other minorities. But he said that Iran was relatively tolerant. "There is no pressure on the synagogues, no problems of desecration. I think the problem in Europe is worse than here. There is a lot of anti-semitism in other countries." (Ewen MacAskill, Simon Tisdall, and Robert Tait, "Iran's Jews Learn to Live with Ahmadinejad," The Guardian, 27 June 2006)
According to Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a friend of the President's, Ahmadinejad promised to "do something to show he is not anti-Jewish. . . . He will make a gesture to the Jews in Iran and that has implications for Jews elsewhere" (MacAskill, Tisdall, and Tait, 27 June 2006). Whatever he has in mind, it had better be good. What about ending the exclusion of Jews and other minorities from "'sensitive' senior posts in the military and judiciary" (MacAskill, Tisdall, and Tait, 27 June 2006)?

Monday, June 26, 2006

Iran, WTO, and Gasoline

A "looming battle" over what to do with Iran's dependence on gasoline imports (a strategic liability and a development problem that must be solved) and subsidies for gasoline consumption (necessary for the Iranian working class in the short term, but undoubtedly wasteful economically and environmentally in the long term) is a tough one for the President of Iran to handle. Iran's oil minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, who wasn't Ahmadinejad's choice, is a leftover from the Khatami era (a deputy oil minister at that time), and he, as well as his parliamentary allies, isn't really down with the President's economic agenda and may also be using this problem in a faction fight against the President and his allies.
  • "A looming battle over those subsidies typifies Mr. Ahmadinejad's coming dilemma. In the fall, as part of its WTO obligations, the government plans to limit the amount of subsidized gasoline consumers can buy. Above that level, consumers will have to pay higher prices. That will raise the cost of living for Mr. Ahmadinejad's constituents by pushing up prices of nearly everything else in Iran's gas-guzzling economy. The government is already talking about dipping into the oil fund to continue financing the subsidies" (Bill Spindle, "Burning Oil -- Behind Rise of Iran's President: A Populist Economic Agenda; Ahmadinejad Wins Power Promising Lavish Outlays; Inflation Is a Major Worry; Crunch Time at Biscuit Factory," Wall Street Journal, Eastern ed., 22 June 2006, A.1).

  • Iran could ration motorists to less than five liters of gasoline per day from September but will keep prices heavily subsidized to ward off inflation, Iran's Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said.

    Vaziri-Hamaneh said earlier Iran would have to ration gasoline from September 23 after parliament slashed the budget for importing the fuel. He said gas-guzzling Iran would end petrol imports but traders said they doubted Tehran could do so.

    Despite holding the world's second biggest oil reserves, Iran lacks refinery capacity and imports more than 40 per cent of the 70 million litres of gasoline it burns each day.

    Most gasoline imports come from western Europe, with trading house Vitol the leading supplier, market sources said. India has also featured as a key exporter, at times supplying up to 25,000 bpd.

    International traders watch major gasoline importer Iran closely for any sign of fluctuations in demand, but doubt the Islamic Republic will have the political courage to aggravate motorists by halting its 15 monthly tanker shipments.

    'Each car will receive a ration of less than five liters if rationing happens,' state television quoted Vaziri-Hamaneh as saying. 'Only taxis and public transport will receive more than the ration.'

    The government, in which Vaziri-Hamaneh is the most powerful minister, is due to issue its final verdict on gasoline rationing this week.

    Some economists had called for Iran to raise the price of gasoline to market levels or introduce a dual-pricing system under which motorists could pay unsubsidized rates for anything they bought beyond the ration. The minister dismissed this.

    'Announcing a sudden rise in the gasoline price will cause an inflation shock which society cannot take now,' he said, adding the real price of gasoline was 55 cents per liter, not the nine cents it fetches at pumps.

    Conservative Iranian politicians have dismissed fears that rationing could spark social unrest, stressing how Iranians accepted a coupon system during the 1980-1988 war against Iraq.

    But political analysts have expressed doubts that Iranians will be so stoical today. Most traded goods move by road and hikes in fuel prices and transportation have traditionally sparked sharp spikes in the cost of basic good.

    Iran's cheap gasoline culture chokes big cities with heavy pollution. Economists identify Iran's ubiquitous subsidies as one of the principal reasons for uncompetitive industry.

    Many officials have also argued that Tehran's dependence on imported gasoline threatens national security. It is a sensitive target for any sanctions imposed over atomic work.

    Iran has ambitious plans to upgrade refineries over the next five years and lift daily gasoline output to 120 million liters. But investment has been sluggish. (Reuters, "Iran Daily Petrol Ration under 5 Liters," 25 June 2006)

Ahmadinejad in Rural Iran

From Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst, one gains another glimpse of Ahmadinejad as Persian Chavez:
Through his constant trips to the provinces (13 so far), Mr. Ahmadinejad has made non-Tehranis feel as if they also belong to Iran.

More important, Mr. Ahmadinejad is putting his money where his mouth is. In his budget approved in December, expenditures in rural areas increased by as much as 180 percent in his first year as president.

The rural population in Iran likes and appreciates him for his generosity because in the years before Mr. Ahmadinejad, those outside Tehran were treated as if they were distant relatives when it came to government investment and expenditure. This appreciation of the president exists even though far more of the rural population made sacrifices for the sake of the 1979 Islamic revolution than were made by residents of Tehran.

So these days, when "their" man is in town, rural Iranians turn up in the hundreds of thousands to greet him. Many of the people want to share their problems with him. This became apparent recently when, during a trip to Golestan Province in the northeast, 135,000 letters addressed to Mr. Ahmadinejad were handed to his delegation and to him personally by people in the crowd. (Meir Javedanfar, "At Home, Iranian Leader Admired," Baltimore Sun, 25 June 2006)

Friday, June 23, 2006

WSJ: "Mr. Ahmadinejad Is Emerging as an Iranian Version of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez"

The Wall Street Journal agrees with me on one thing: "Mr. Ahmadinejad is emerging as an Iranian version of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez" (Bill Spindle, "Burning Oil -- Behind Rise of Iran's President: A Populist Economic Agenda; Ahmadinejad Wins Power Promising Lavish Outlays; Inflation Is a Major Worry; Crunch Time at Biscuit Factory," Wall Street Journal, Eastern ed., 22 June 2006, A.1) . . . except, of course, the WSJ, as well as Iranian neoliberals, doesn't like the fiscal and monetary policies of the Ahmadinejad administration:
In recent weeks, he has proposed a $4 billion national school-renovation program and has raised not only salaries for workers in Iran's vast, government-controlled industrial sector but also the minimum wage for everyone else. He doubled government grants for newlyweds and forced banks to lower interest rates by several percentage points.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is emerging as an Iranian version of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez: a pugnacious politician, buoyed by oil money, whose anti-elite message and defiance of the West is causing his popularity to soar. Mr. Ahmadinejad isn't nearly as powerful as Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But his policies, which interrupt Iran's tentative stabs at economic liberalization, have helped him wield more influence than many thought possible for an Iranian president.

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In the late 1990s, under a series of reform-minded governments, Iran tried to emerge from the economic and political isolation that followed the Islamic revolution and eight years of war with Iraq. In 2001, the government adopted a 20-year plan to boost imports and exports by lowering trade barriers. The ultimate goal was to join the World Trade Organization.

One key to that plan was diversifying an economy heavily dependent on oil revenues. That means implementing a long list of free-market recommendations, including freeing up labor markets and phasing out subsidies.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's policies are rapidly reversing that tentative economic liberalization. In addition to his spending plans, his government has spurned foreign investment and recently raised tariffs on mobile-phone handsets by 60%. Another plan: doling out shares -- he calls them "Justice Shares" -- of government-controlled companies to the poor.

In Ghavart, a conservative, working-class town of 9,000 near the Jey industrial center, Mr. Ahmadinejad's pay raises and subsidies have provided relief -- for some. Hamid Kachoui, a grocer, says he's noticed customers buying extra chicken or meat recently.

"It's much better. People don't have to scrape by," said Mr. Kachoui, 18 years old, standing by a storefront stall packed with rice, bread and other staples. Many food basics are heavily subsidized by Iran's government, using oil money to bridge the gap with international market prices.

Mr. Kachoui credits the improvement to Mr. Ahmadinejad, whom he says nearly everyone in the village supported in last year's election. "With President Ahmadinejad, things will get much better," he says.

Down the road in Jey's industrial center, private biscuit maker Esfahan Farkhondeh Co. has been thrown into a crisis. Last year, the 14-year-old company produced 6,500 tons of biscuits, the kind served with tea and coffee at almost every social gathering in Iran. A few months ago, new laws pushed up the minimum salary for most of the industrial bakery's workers by nearly 50%. The others got 22% raises, according to Mohammed Reza Vaez Shoushtari, an owner and manager.

Meanwhile, the government lowered subsidies on sugar and flour bought by industrial bakers, a nod to Iran's designs on joining the WTO. "Biscuits are not a necessity for people," says Mr. Shoushtari, suggesting a reason why his industry was singled out. The government left subsidies for retail consumers unchanged.

The decision pushed up the price of the two main ingredients in the company's biscuits. The company's bank tightened loan requirements after government-mandated interest-rate cuts and now won't extend additional money to keep the company operating.

Pinched, the biscuit concern informed buyers it would raise prices by 15%. They immediately cancelled about 80% of their orders, Mr. Shoushtari says. He figured most were delaying purchases to see if the government will reverse its decision on the subsidies. Without the ability to fire workers, he plans to wait, hoping the business climate stabilizes.

"When the president changes, the country always becomes a bit chaotic," he says.

For the year that ended March, 2006, Iran is projected to have earned about $49 billion selling oil and natural gas, more than double its take of four years ago, primarily because of rising prices. Much of the president's spending is coming from Iran's Oil Stabilization Fund, which is supposed to pay for long-term infrastructure projects or to buoy the country if oil revenues falter. Iran has dipped into the fund almost every year to fill holes in the government budget. Last year, it spent $7.7 billion from the fund, much of it for government subsidies on basic products, from wheat to gasoline.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Few things appealed more to Iranian voters, especially the working poor, than Mr. Ahmadinejad's promise to "put the oil revenue on the dinner table of every Iranian." Since being elected, he's made frequent trips to Iranian provinces -- political barnstorming previously unheard of in Iran's aloof theocracy. He encourages supporters to write with their requests and has promised funds for thousands of local projects.
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Indeed, Mr. Ahmadinejad's standing among the poor and working class has allowed him to challenge domestic foes, including many in the clerical establishment, throwing Iran's political establishment off balance in ways few expected. With 17-hour workdays and a reputation for rectitude, Mr. Ahmadinejad has refashioned a post with few formal powers. The parliament, more representative of Iran's conservative establishment, has tried to parry Mr. Ahmadinejad's activism, rejecting three of his candidates for oil minister as well as nominees for other important economic portfolios.

But he's stunned Tehran's political elite by winning many battles. He has replaced several senior clergymen in the Ministry of Culture with non-clerical allies, apparently with the blessing of the Ayatollah Khamenei, a senior cleric himself. While less important than the Supreme Leader, Iran's president holds considerable influence over economic and social policies through his ability to nominate the heads of government ministries. He also appoints the head of the central bank.

To outsiders trying to penetrate Iran's opaque political system, it's still unclear whether the president remains under the control of the clerical establishment or whether this is a genuine bid for power.

"Everybody's too busy just trying to catch up with him," says Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University and childhood schoolmate of Mr. Ahmadinejad. Although he disagrees with many of the president's policies, he grudgingly admires the way he has shaken up Iran's political culture. "He's challenging the entire spectrum of society, from the super-secular to the super-religious." (Spindle, 22 June 2006)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Persian Chavez

How's my Persian Chavez doing lately? The Guardian says he's popular like our man in Venezuela:
The popularity of Iran's controversial leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is surging almost a year after he unexpectedly won closely contested presidential elections, Iranian officials and western diplomats said on Tuesday.

Attributing his success to his populist style and fortnightly meet-the-people tours of the country, the sources said, as matters stand, Mr Ahmadinejad was the clear favourite to win a second term in 2009. The perception that the president was standing up to the US over the nuclear issue was also boosting his standing.

"He's more popular now than a year ago. He's on the rise," said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a professor of political science at Tehran University. "I guess he has a 70% approval rating right now. He portrays himself as a simple man doing an honest job. He's comfortable communicating with ordinary people." (Ewen MacAskill and Simon Tisdall, "Ahmadinejad 'Has 70% Approval Rating,'" The Guardian, 20 June 2006)
Naturally, I'm very pleased to hear this. Now, like Chavez, Ahmadinejad has to think about what to do with the term limits thingy.

The neoliberal "reformists" are correct, however, that the President of Iran has yet to get control of the oil industry (headed by a leftover from the Khatami years) and the Central Bank (staffed by US-trained economists) in Iran -- even the Parliament, let alone the Guardian and Expediency councils, is not quite on his side on structural economic changes beyond fiscal policy:
Mohammad Atrianfar, founder of the leading reformist newspaper Shargh and an ally of Hashemi Rafsanjani, the president's rival, said Mr Ahmadinejad would not have it all his own way. "The reform movement is alive, despite last year's defeat," he said, although he added it would take some time to regroup. Meanwhile, the government was mishandling economic policy, and that could be its undoing.

"The present economy, due to the rate of oil prices, is in a good situation. But the management of the state sector is very bad. I can compare him to a wicked child who has inherited a large amount of money and goes on a spending spree. He has taken horrid and rushed decisions."

Mr Atrianfar said that windfall oil revenue was being squandered through state handouts to impoverished provinces and commodity subsidies. But there was insufficient investment in long-term projects and infrastructure, foreign investment was falling, and the country was suffering capital flight and a brain drain. (MacAskill and Tisdall, 20 June 2006)
I added this bit from IRNA to Rostam Pourzal's latest that I published in MRZine:
"President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad . . . criticized the ongoing privatization scheme, which has turned into a means for the 'looting of national wealth.'

'I've heard that a factory, worth rls 300 billion (USD 32.715 million), is offered at rls 1.050 billion (USD 114,504) . . . . Had the law allowed, we would have given the production unit to laborers free of charge so that it would both remain active and earn profit for the government,' said Ahmadinejad in a speech to the locals.

He said his government does support private investment and business, while believing that the policy should not encourage bankruptcy of workshops, low production, lay-offs and plunder of national wealth.

He insisted, 'The Iranian nation does not accept the sort of privatization at all'" ("Ahmadinejad Protests Plundering National Wealth," IRNA, 9 June 2006).
I hope that, soon, he will be so popular that the Majlis, the Guardian Council, etc. will be compelled to go along and he will be able to pass a law that would allow laborers to get factories free of charge and run them.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Iran at the World Cup

I watched the World Cup match of Iran and Mexico -- two peoples with whom Washington is at odds! -- with my Iranian friends (mainly men).

Not knowing anything about Iranian football, before the match began, I told my friends to point out to me cute guys on the Iranian squad, so I would know where to focus. My friends said that Mehdi Mahdavi-Kia is good-looking, though I thought that Vahid Hashemian and Ebrahim Mirzapour (who turned out to be one of the players responsible for Iran's defeat!) are more appealing. But none of the Iranians is as pretty as Rafael Marquez. Naturally, my sympathies were torn. After the President of Iran issued a decree allowing women to attend sports events at stadiums, Iran's ruling clerics immediately vetoed it: "[W]hen Ahmedinejad made his announcement it forced the clerics to take a position and they said women couldn't look at the naked legs and arms of the male players" (Jafar Panahi, qtd. in Frances Harrison, "Iran's Female Fans Yet to Win Equality," BBC News, 6 June 2006). Yes, indeed, only MEN can appreciate the naked legs and arms of other MEN! What the clerics truly fear, however, might be that female fans might find guys on the other team cuter than guys on their team.

Iran held its ground in the first half; but, in the second half, the Iranian team was on the defensive from the beginning, and the team's morale seemed to collapse after Mexico scored its second goal, and then the team allowed Mexico to score an easy third goal. According to my Iranian friends, that's typical of Iranian football: losing confidence altogether after losing a little. Today, Iran is playing against Portugal. Iran, once again, held its own in the first half: 0-0. But now at 86 minutes it's Portugal 2 - Iran 0. Is there a pattern here? I hope that's not a bad political omen!

The way the Iranians are playing, I suppose the high point of Iranian footballers will remain its 1998 World Cup victory over the American team in the near future, though it must be mentioned that Iran has not recovered from Ali Karimi's injury.

We watched the Iran-Mexico match on ABC, at a viewing party (big screens under a tent outside the Columbus Crew Stadium) provided by the Columbus Crew. It should be noted that, whenever Mexico scored, the camera showed ordinary Mexican men and women jumping up and down and cheering for their team in Mexico City, but it refused to show comparable scenes from Tehran or even the Iranian diaspora when the Iranian team did score its one and only goal that day. That sort of prejudice motivated by American geopolitics, however, did not manifest itself at all among local football fans. Mainly Iranians showed up at the viewing party, but there were also some Mexicans and Somalis (two of the largest immigrant communities in Columbus, Ohio) and Anglos, aside from me and a guy from Bangladesh. During the halftime break, some of them were playing football together, having a good time. "Divide and conquer" doesn't always work!

Whither Team Melli? Abbas Kiarostami, a renowned Iranian film maker, said: "I hope that we'll beat Angola at least". I wished, though, that Iran had been able to get to the Round of 16 -- as Kiarostami noted, the Iranians "need something to cheer about".

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Fanaa and Kashmir; Aamir Khan, Narmada, and the BJP

Watch Fanaa if it comes to a theater near you, out of solidarity with Aamir Khan if nothing else.


Apparently, the BJP is angered by Khan, the handsome star of Fanaa (who plays Rehan Qadri, a Kashmiri boy who is serving in the Indian military but secretly working for the Kashmiri independence movement -- Rehan gets betrayed and killed by his love Zooni, a Kashmiri girl who is "a patriotic Indian," choosing "her country" over her man), because he supported the anti-Narmada Dam campaign; and the party wants to ban it in Gujarat.
  • Anti-Narmada dam agitators, sitting on Dharna and hunger strike at the Jantar Mantar Road in New Delhi for past 20 days demanding that the height of the dam not be raised, got a shot in the arm when leading film actor Aamir Khan paid them a visit on Friday.

    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Aamir listened to the grievances of the agitators with patience but did not utter a word. Clad in black T-shirt and jeans, the film actor also visited the 1984 Bhopal gas victims who have been demonstrating for release of relief fund.

    "Last week when I was in Delhi, I passed by Jantar Mantar and was told about the two campaigns. I decided to come back and learn more about their problems," he later told reporters.

    Khan said he was pained upon learning of the sufferings of the dam displacees. "I do not know about the technicalities involved in raising the height of the dam. What I do know is that farmers have been displaced from their land and they have lost their livelihood. Till the people who have already been displaced by the dam are not rehabilitated, the height of the dam should not be raised." (Onkar Singh, "Aamir Lends Support to Narmada Campaign," Rediff, 14 April 2006)

  • Aamir Khan addressed a press conference outside his home in Khar, north Mumbai, saying he will not apologise about his comments on the Narmada issue.

    "I am saying exactly what the Supreme Court has said. I only asked for rehabilitation of poor farmers. I never spoke against the construction of the dam. I will not apologise for my comments on the issue," he says. (Rediff Entertainment Bureau, "Aamir on Narmada: I Won't Apologise," Rediff 25 May 2006)

  • Describing the virtual ban on screening Fanaa in Gujarat as an indication of "extreme intolerance" displayed by the ruling party and its organisations in Gujarat to any dissent, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) demanded that the Modi Government uphold the law of the land.

    In a statement, the party Polit Bureau said the reported assurance by Chief Minister Narendra Modi of police protection to cinemas showing the film was an eye-wash as it was under his leadership that front organisations of the Sangh combine were threatening cinema owners against showing the film.

    The ire of the protesters was against the solidarity expressed by actor Aamir Khan with the demand for rehabilitation of thousands of tribals and peasant families displaced by the Narmada project. ("CPI(M) Flays Ban on Fanaa in Gujarat," The Hindu, 26 May 2006)

  • The controversial Aamir Khan film Fanaa was released in Gujarat on Tuesday in the presence of a strong police contingent in a single cinema owned by a high-profile Congress family. (Manas Dasgupta, "Fanaa Released in Gujarat amid Security," The Hindu, 7 June 2006)

Friday, June 09, 2006

Tehran Splits the Israel Lobby

It now looks possible that my Persian Prince can come out ahead on the conflict over Iran's right to nuclear research.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Thursday that Iran was ready to discuss "mutual concerns" over his country's nuclear program, but he refused to first suspend uranium enrichment.

His comments came a day after world powers backed off a demand that Iran commit to a prolonged moratorium on uranium enrichment, asking only for a suspension during talks on its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad did not say whether he accepted the proposal, part of a package of incentives in exchange for Iran suspending enrichment. (Ali Akbar Areini, "Ahmadinejad: Iran to Talk, U.S. Gave In," Associated Press, 8 June 2006)
That Washington couldn't even win in Somalia is a good omen.

But it is significant that Ahmadinejad's guarded response came a day later than other Iranian officials' more conciliatory responses, suggesting a division within Tehran's power elite. It is no easy matter for Ahmadinejad to win not only vis-a-vis Washington and Tel Aviv but also vis-a-vis his domestic rivals.

Nevertheless, today, Ahmadinejad delivered an even clearer response:
Iran will not negotiate its inalienable rights, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said here [Qazvin] Thursday night.

President Ahmadinejad, who arrived in the northwestern province of Qazvin Thursday morning along with members of his cabinet, made the remark while addressing families of martyrs and war veterans of the province.

"We intend to hold talks (with states) on international issues. (Certain countries) spread propaganda that if they officially recognize Iran's right to have access to nuclear fuel cycle, it will be tantamount to giving a major concession to our nation.

"They should not think that if they hold talks with Iran, it means they have given a concession to the country.

"They should know that it is the Iranian nation which accepts to negotiate with them on international issues. This is the Iranian nation who is giving procession to them," he said.

He added, "They make decisions against Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. We intend to hold talks with them on roots of corruption, discrimination and cruelties.

"In that case, peace will be established in the world and nations throughout the world will enjoy welfare.

"The Iranian nation insists on its inalienable rights and will never give them up."

The president stated, "Our nation raises flag of invitation to justice and humanity. My letter to (the US President George W. Bush) has been written about increasing problems in the world." Head of Supreme National Security Council further added the Iranian nation is powerful and a real superpower. ("Iran Will Not Negotiate Its Inalienable Right: President," 9 June 2006, IRNA)
A sign that he's winning the domestic debate on how to respond to Washington's overture?

However things turn out for Ahmadinejad, it is an extraordinarily interesting time to watch the Washington-Tel Aviv relation:
The Bush administration's offer to open direct talks with Iran and reward Tehran if it stops enriching uranium is exposing a policy rift between neoconservatives on one hand, and the Israeli government and Jewish organizations on the other.

Neoconservative analysts are blasting the administration, saying that holding talks with the Islamic regime would serve only to embolden it and undermine the anti-fundamentalist opposition in Iran. They argue that America's ultimate goal should be to change Tehran's theocratic regime.

"The administration can't have it both ways. They can't embrace the regime and still talk about liberty for the Iranian people," said Iran analyst Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank widely associated with the push for regime change in Iraq. A former Pentagon official, Rubin added that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "can spout whatever platitudes she wants to spout, but at this point, when it comes to liberty and freedom, she has no credibility."

Israeli officials and several influential Jewish groups, meanwhile, have refrained from criticizing the new American approach — which some experts are depicting as the most dramatic foreign policy shift of the Bush presidency — saying that they support more pragmatic ways to block Iran's apparent dash toward a nuclear weapon. For Israel and Jewish groups — despite Iranian calls for Israel's destruction — the fundamental goal is not regime change, but to block Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The split appears to fly in the face of recent high-profile efforts to paint the pro-Israel lobby as a seamless network dominated by Jewish organizations and neoconservatives coordinating their activities with the Israeli government. Most notably, such a view was advanced by two highly respected academics — John Mearsheimer, a top international relations theorist based at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Walt, former academic dean of Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government — in a research paper released in March. The Walt-Mearsheimer paper has triggered an escalating debate on the influence of Israel and Jewish organizations that has spilled over onto the opinion pages of major publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Recently, with such scrutiny mounting, Israeli leaders asked American Jewish organizations to lower their profile on the Iran issue, the Forward has learned.

In one notable example, a delegation of leaders from the American Jewish Congress met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shortly before returning to the United States. When asked how he thinks Jewish groups should pursue the Iran issue, Olmert reportedly implied that he would prefer a low profile, according to one source familiar with the proceedings.

"We don't want it to be about Israel," Olmert is said to have replied, explaining that although Iran's president focuses his belligerent rhetoric on Israel, both Jerusalem and Washington have an interest in convincing the international community that a nuclear armed Iran would be a menace to the region and to the entire world.

President Bush updated Olmert shortly before Rice announced the new American policy at a May 31 press conference, Israeli and American sources said. Rice announced that Washington would be willing to join its European allies in direct talks with Iran if Tehran "fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities." Rice made clear that America would not attempt to hinder an Iranian civilian nuclear program.

Immediately following Rice's comments, her Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, issued a statement, saying, "Israel appreciates the steps and measures by the United States in continuing to lead the international coalition and in taking all necessary steps to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear capability."

One Israeli official told the Forward that Jerusalem is satisfied with the apparent international recognition that "this is the critical time to clarify whether Iran is really pursuing a peaceful nuclear program or a belligerent one." The official dismissed the argument made by some opponents of Rice's move that all the overture by the United States would do is allow Iran to buy time while pursuing nuclear weapons and fending off international sanctions. America's move, the Israeli official said, only would hasten and embolden the international community as it approaches a likely showdown with Iran in the United Nations.

Israel's support for Rice and Olmert's request for Jewish groups to take a lower profile are being well received by many Jewish groups. Already, some Jewish groups had been asking the White House to stop suggesting that American efforts to block Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons are motivated primarily by a desire to protect Israel.

Jewish organizations have no interest in becoming "the lobby for war with Iran," one communal official said.

In the past, when the administration chose to pursue diplomatic options instead of an immediate push for international sanctions, it drew public criticism from some Jewish organizations. This time around, while some Jewish groups are uncomfortable with the administration's shift on direct talks with Iran, only the right-of-center Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs openly criticized the move.

Last year, when the Bush administration agreed to give Russia a chance to negotiate a plan that would allow Iran to enrich uranium under international supervision, the main pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, issued a rare public rebuke of the White House. But this week, in response to the recent American announcement, Aipac issued a measured statement to the Forward, saying that if the administration blocks Iran's production of enriched uranium by offering talks, that would be a "positive development." The statement, however, cautioned against losing sight of Iran's habit of deceiving America and its allies.

Aipac sources said this week that they don't expect the administration's policy shift to hinder their efforts to pass the Iran Freedom Support Act, a bill aimed at tightening U.S. sanctions on Iran, which has overwhelmingly passed the House of Representatives but must still be voted on in the Senate. This week Aipac sent a fund-raising letter to thousands of its supporters saying "we need your help to stop Iran." A spokesman for Aipac said that the letter is part of the organization's routine fund-raising efforts and not connected to the administration's new strategy.

Some officials with Jewish groups share the concern expressed by many neoconservative critics of the new American approach, that any negotiations simply would buy Iran time to advance its nuclear weapons program.

"For the Iranians, diplomacy is a form of delay, so it is dangerous," said David Twersky, director of international affairs for the American Jewish Congress. However, he added, "it will also be dangerous to act precipitously, prematurely. The United States cannot go by itself and say, we are imposing sanctions."

Most Jewish groups accept the administration's argument that the overture would make it easier for Washington to put together the international coalition necessary for effective sanctions against Iran.

"Looking down the abyss at the choices, which, in their starkest terms, are either accepting Iran as a nuclear power or attacking militarily, I think people are looking to see whether or not a third way can be found to achieve the same purpose," said Jess Hordes, the Anti-Defamation League's Washington affairs director.

This sentiment was being echoed among some friends of Israel on Capitol Hill. "In the abstract, who wants to talk to the Iranian regime and who wants to give it legitimacy and to prolong the game they are playing?" said Rep. Eliot Engel, a Democratic member of the House International Relations Committee. "But that's the price we might have to pay in order to get the world community to take a tougher stand on Iran down the line." (Ori Nir, "Bush Overture To Iran Splits Israel, Neocons: Olmert Asks Groups To Keep Low Profile," Forward, 9 June 2006)
A division appears to be developing in the Israel Lobby. How fascinating.

I wish the Palestinian people had the sort of visionary leadership who could exploit a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like this.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Will Washington Make Peace with Tehran, Stiffing Tel Aviv?

Have the multinational ruling classes who fear energy costs going out of control finally spoken? Washington's offer to Tehran has significantly improved.
The confidential diplomatic package backed by Washington and formally presented to Iran on Tuesday leaves open the possibility that Tehran will be able to enrich uranium on its own soil, U.S. and European officials said.

That concession, along with a promise of U.S. assistance for an Iranian civilian nuclear energy program, is conditioned on Tehran suspending its current nuclear work until the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency determines with confidence that the program is peaceful. U.S. officials said Iran would also need to satisfy the U.N. Security Council that it is not seeking a nuclear weapon, a benchmark that White House officials believe could take years, if not decades, to achieve.

But the Bush administration and its European allies have withdrawn their demand that Iran abandon any hope of enriching uranium for nuclear power, according to several European and U.S. officials with knowledge of the offer. The new position, which has not been acknowledged publicly by the White House, differs significantly from the Bush administration's stated determination to prevent Iran from mastering technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons. (Karl Vick and Dafna Linzer, "Proposal Would Let Iran Enrich Uranium: Tehran Must Meet U.N. Guidelines," Washington Post, 7 June 2006, A01)
Tehran may be able to extract even more concessions, if Washington continues to fail to manufacture multinational ruling-class consensus. That will be a significant challenge to Tel Aviv, as Trita Parsi explained earlier this year:
Instead, the real danger a nuclear-capable Iran brings with it for Israel is twofold. First, an Iran that does not have nuclear weapons--but that can build them--will significantly damage Israel's ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. It will damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility. Gone would be the days when Israel's military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans. "We cannot afford a nuclear bomb in the hands of our enemies, period. They don't have to use it; the fact that they have it is enough," Member of Knesset Ephraim Sneh explained to me.

This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to deprive Iran of points of hostility that it could use against the Jewish state. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time. "I don't want the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to be held under the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb," Sneh continued.

Second, the deterrence and power Iran would gain by mastering the fuel cycle could compel Washington to cut a deal with Tehran in which Iran would be recognized as a regional power and gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel. This has been a major Israeli fear since the end of the Cold War, when Israel's strategic utility to Washington lost considerable justification due to the absence of a Soviet threat. Under these circumstances, US-Iran negotiations could damage Israel's strategic standing, since common interests shared by Iran and the US would overshadow Israel's concerns with Tehran and leave Israel alone in facing its Iranian rival. The Great Satan will eventually make up with the ayatollahs and forget about the Jewish state, Israeli officials fear.

A US-Iran breakthrough would alter the order of the Middle East in favor of Israel's strategic rival, Iran. Over the past 15 years, Israeli-Iranian tensions have peaked at every opportunity to reconfigure the Middle East's geopolitical map. The end of the Cold War and the launch of the peace process made Iran a front-line state against Israel, a position it had actively avoided during the first decade of the revolution. The tremors that shook the Middle East system after the 9/11 attacks, in turn, put Israel again in a position in which it risked becoming a burden rather than an asset to the US, while Iran's help in Afghanistan was sorely needed.

The recent plethora of leaks and hints of Israel's readiness to take out the Iranian nuclear facilities should be seen in light of Israel's fear of a US-Iran deal. The Israeli leaks have not coincided with major advances in Iran's nuclear program, but rather with hints of an American preparedness to strike a compromise with Tehran that would grant it the dreaded know-how and limit Israel's strategic maneuverability.

Since Israel itself is incapable of neutralizing Iran's program through air strikes, the veiled threats coming out of Tel Aviv are aimed at pressuring Washington not to moderate its stance, by warning it about the real consequences of an Israeli assault on Iran: a major escalation of the violence in the region that ultimately would fall into America's lap. Whether it liked it or not, Washington would get sucked into the ensuing mess. And whether Washington gave a green light to the assault or not, it would escape neither the blame nor the responsibility to restore order.

Using this as leverage against the US, Israel is playing hardball to prevent Washington from cutting a deal with Tehran that could benefit America, but deprive Israel of its military and strategic supremacy. (Trita Parsi, "A Challenge to Israel's Strategic Primacy,", Edition 1 Volume 4, 5 January 2006)
Will Washington make peace with Tehran, stiffing Tel Aviv? That's an interesting test case that allows us to evaluate if Washington still regards Tel Aviv as a strategic asset that must be protected at all costs or if influential members of the US power elite have come to believe it necessary to subordinate Tel Aviv's -- and its US supporters' (Carol Giacomo, "Pro-Israel Group Pushes Tough U.S. Policy on Iran," Reuters, 7 June 2006) -- interests to the multinational ruling classes'.