Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Talking to Syria won't kill us.

So, I'm reading the NYT today and there are two articles that kind of make me think of Alice's looking glass. Bare with me here, this isn't some deep exploration of the nature of the universe or anything like that, it's just me wasting some space on a blog no one reads.

Now, Michael Slackman writes some interesting analysis today on what makes the Iranian government tick. There are a number of power centers within the regime, as we all know, and what I found really interesting was what he says about Ahmadinejad and his power base, which is the Revolutionary Guards (or the "cuds" as W. calls them). Ahmadinejad came to power without the support of the reformers, naturally, and he didn't exactly hit it off with the "hard-liners" in parliament, either. At the beginning, his selections for government ministers got him into a lot of trouble. His pick for the oil minister, in particular, as I recall, was rejected several times. There were rumblings back then that he might not even survive his entire term and since then his economic policies have left something to be desired, which has undermined his standing among the Iranian man on the street, even more than his ridiculous rhetoric.

Since Ahmadinejad hasn't been able to count on the man in the street, the reformers or the hard-liners -- the "mainstream" of Iranian society -- he's turned to the real hard-liners; the Revolutionary Guards.

Slacker writes: "When he took office, Mr. Ahmadinejad moved to create a new political class, relying mostly on former members of the Revolutionary Guards. . . Men who hewed very closely to the ideological views of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomanei and were determined to roll back the modest political reforms of President Khatami, which they saw as a dilution of the revolution." [Remember, we could have made a deal with Khatami in 2003 that would have prevented Ahmadinejad from ever coming to power, but Condi says she didn't get the memo.]

Medhi Chehade, a professor of political science at the Lebanese University in Beirut says: "They have a political and security role, huge financial resources and assets that are not listed in the country's budget, and manage the country's nuclear program. These elements combined helped these ultra-conservatives emerge as today's main power in Iran."

These are the folks Ahmadinejad courts to stay in power. True believers like himself, who, by the way, is not so concerned about the future because he's sure the Mahdi is on his way soon to separate the chosen from the infidel. Sound familiar? In any case, regardless of the timing of the Mahdi's return, no-bid contracts are a good way to keep your base happy. Slacker writes:

"The President has traveled around the country ordering up local construction jobs, then giving the work to the engineering branch of the Guards. Experts in Iran say the Guards could not handle all the work and would then subcontract the projects out, taking a percentage for simply passing the job off."

[Hmmm. . . what does that remind me of . . .]

In the current situation with the captured Brits, the pragmatists seem to have gotten the upper hand with the appearance of the adults in the form of Ari Larijani, the head of the Supreme National Security Council, showing up to put his foot down. Yesterday, he said talks with the British could "change the ongoing conditions and put an end to this dispute," and so they did. Ahmadinejad had said on Monday he would hold a press conference on Tuesday, and then out of the blue he delayed it one day, until today. Obviously, he's only one voice on the Council and this time around he lost out.

Slackman writes that although the pragmatists are not quite as loony as the Ahmadinejad types, "The difference between the two sides may be a matter of style than substance, since both support Iran's drive for nuclear technology and harbor a deep distrust of Britain. The seesaw generally tips toward the side bringing the system its greatest benefits."

Presently, it appears, the benefits of pissing the world off aren't paying big dividends. Of course, one might also add that; although, the Iranian leadership is of one mind about distrusting Britain -- they sort of did have a hand in the overthrow of a democratically elected government -- and the nuclear power issue, that's not to say we couldn't do a deal with the elements of the government who aren't bent on bringing on the apocalypse. Even the current administration in Washington hasn't ruled out Iran having a peaceful nuclear program. The issue is them pulling an India or an Israel and surreptitiously building a bomb. Iran is headed toward an energy crisis and a case could be made for them needing nuclear power to off-set their impending oil shortage.

The main stumbling block to a peaceful and mutually beneficial solution to our stand off with Iran is that both sides have leaders who live in the Middle Ages. Ideology is trumping common sense. This is the point I've been trying to get around to with the Alice in the looking glass thing:

In the US these days we have a viable opposition for the first time, in a long time, and these diplomatic overtures the Democrats have been making to Syria -- along with the lame-duck status and low poll numbers of you-know-who -- are changing the dynamics of the stalemate in the Middle East. W. can say until he's blue in the face that Nancy Pelosi's visit to Damascus is "counter-productive" and is lending legitimacy to a state sponsor of terror, but you can be sure Iran is getting mighty nervous about all this to-ing and fro-ing. If drinking a couple hundred cups of tea with Bashar Assad could pry Syria away from Iran's sphere of influence -- say by pressuring Israel to hand over the Golan Heights, which they don't need anymore thanks to the invention of satellites -- then Iran would really be out in the cold.

Hassan Fattah in the NYT quotes Ziad Haider of Al Safir, a Lebanese daily, in an article about Pelosi's trip:

"There is a feeling now that change is going on in America politics -- even if it' being led by the opposition." Fattah writes: "Syrian officials are increasingly betting on improved relations with American Democrats, whom they expect lead the United States in coming years, Mr. Haider said: 'Pelosi's approach represents a more practical policy; the administration's policies over the last few years has been based on demands and ideology.'" [Boy, that's a real astute observation]

No one is arguing that Syria doesn't have to come clean on the Hariri assassination or that they should get Lebanon back. Sure, they probably could do more about the border and the influx of foreign fighters, but by the same token, so could the Saudis. A large portion of those fighters and the money that buys their weapons is coming straight from Saudi Arabia. [Come to mention it, what are the Iraqis doing about their own borders?]

Probably the influx across the Iraqi border the Syrians are most concerned about right now is the million or so Iraqi refugees they're putting up without any help from the rest of the world -- particularly the US, who is most responsible for the situation. A destabilized Syria isn't in anybody's interest, so let’s keep our eye on the ball here.

The main problem is Iran, not the Syrian regime. Sure they're autocratic -- so are the Egyptians, that's not such a problem for Condi anymore -- but they're not religious nuts like the Saudis and the Iranians. With them we can deal, and if we can make a deal resolving the Iranian issue, the Palestinian problem will be a lot closer to resolution, too. Four years of telling the Syrians they-know-what-to-do hasn't worked, so let's try a cup of tea instead. And let's lose our religious fanatics.

Case in point? AP reports:

"Syria played a key role in resolving the standoff over the 15 British sailors and marines held by
Iran two government officials said Wednesday. 'Syrian efforts and the Iranian willingness culminated with the release of the British sailors,' said Information Minister Mohsen Bilal."]

The Gift of Ahmadinejad, it just keeps on giving.

While I was lying in bed this morning thinking it was too cold, too rainy and too nasty to get out of bed, I heard Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the BBC say that the 15 kidnapped UK sailors and marines would be released after he got done with his press conference. This news got me out of bed because I figured W. wouldn't be able to turn this incident -- at least -- into an excuse to start World War III. It was also heartening to realize that skillful diplomacy and sanity had finally prevailed, despite the scarcity of these two elements in the Middle East most days. The release of an Iranian diplomat held by a shadowy Iraqi intelligence outfit with links to the CIA might have had some connection to the good news, though I'm sure that was purely coincidental. [And if you believe that, I've got some property for sale in Florida.]

I have to say, I couldn't help laughing when I heard crazy Mahmoud say the impending release would be his gift to the English people. Classic!

Can't you just see the potential for an ad campaign?

"As we celebrate the birth of the Prophet, give your loved ones the gift they'll always remember: The Gift of Ahmadinejad. Yes, the Gift of Ahmadinejad, brought to you by the people and government of the Islamic Republic who ask you not to punish those who admit that they transgressed into Iranian waters. Your children will love you for it and you'll thank yourself for having accepted the righteousness of Iran's pursuit of peaceful nuclear technology ."

I don't mean to make light of this -- not too much anyway, Ahmadinejad is such an easy target -- I'm sure the families of those being held have been going through hell. I'm happy for them that they'll finally be able to rest easy. Hopefully, their young sailors and marines will be allowed to go home for a while and not be returned straight back to their duties.

The question now is: what just happened? What were they thinking in Tehran? Over the past week or so there's been a lot of analysis in the media about Iran's power structure and who's really pulling the stings, yet up until a few days ago it appeared that everyone in charge -- pragmatists and fire breathers -- were out of town for the holidays. It was really starting to look like the adults had left the kids home alone. The kids in this case being the Revolutionary Guards; they pulled off this caper and they had control of the hostages. Bizarrely, though, they didn't go out of their way to stoke up the populace. From what I've read and heard, the domestic media hardly covered the story and those ridiculous video "confessions" were shown mainly on Iran's Arabic language propaganda stations.

What the hell was the point of this whole thing then; to show the "Arab street" that Iran had their back? Were they sensing that the fuzzy glow in the Sunni world left over by Hezbollah's "victory" over Israel in the Summer War was beginning to fade? Was the thought process going on here that capturing and humiliating the US' top ally would somehow translate into swaying Sunni Arab opinion back to their side?

Not very freakin' likely! If you think about it, things really haven't really been looking up for Iran in its efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Sunni man on the street lately. They may have hit a highpoint back in the summer, but since then they've played their cards poorly and have badly overreached. The sectarian blood-letting in Iraq hasn't helped either. (This realization probably has more to do with the reduction of dead bodies on the streets of Baghdad than the Surge does.)

And internationally, Tehran's needs a total imagine make over. The Russians have lost patience with their antics and, amazingly, despite all the bumbling and warmongering, the US has scored some significant successes at the UN and in the region at Tehran's expense. What's most astounding is that the Saudis are now actively working with the Jordanians and Egyptians to counter the threat of the so-called "Shiite Crescent" [Particularly in Lebanon.]

Getting the Arabs to agree on what day it is difficult enough, getting them to form a coherent policy in their common interest is a miracle. Condi Rice and her faction within the administration get some of the credit for this; since they've had some success in convincing W. to give diplomacy a chance. Of course, it's a task that's been made much easier thanks to the mess they've created in the Middle East in the first place. Keep in mind, W. & Co. did Iran a real favor by eliminating two existential threats on their borders -- the Taliban and Saddam -- Iran's subsequent emergence as a regional power, however, because of that fact is the alarm bell focusing everyone's minds.

So, you see, Condi & Co. don't get that much credit. I think what's happening is that all sides are panicking about how bad things are going and they know that light at the end of the tunnel is a train with Pandora piling on the coal. If they don't so something, quick, their regime's days are numbered. Right now, the idea is to stem the bleeding and try to hang on until W. and Ahmadinejad are out of office. Surely, their successors couldn't do a worse job, right?

But, just when you think you've got hold of the tiger’s tail -- here comes Kirkuk and the Turks. More on that later.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Condi is a liar, pants on fire.

Remember back in July of 2006 when I srael was bombing Lebanon into the stone age and hundreds of thousands of Lebonese civilans either dying horrible deahts under the rubble of their houses or were being turned into refugees trying to dodge Israeli figher planes bent on killing anything that moved? Well, as I recall, Condi Rice said all that death and destruction was only the "birthpangs of a new Middle East." Naturally, she did want a ceasefire, but only one which was "sustainable." She explained after the failed Rome conference on July 26 that "too many broken cease- fires, too many spasms of violence followed then by other spasms of violence."

Yes, we wouldn't want that; better to play piano in Kuala Lumpur and take your time to rejiggering the map of the Middle East. A "sustainable" ceasefire that will endure for a thousand years will only work if Israel is given just a little more time to get the job done. Naturally, Condi said she was "committed to dedicated and urgent action to try and bring about an end to this violence," but not really. As we all suspected, she was cynically giving lip service to a ceasefire but in actuality was fully prepared to stand by and watch the bodies of women and children be blown to pieces at Qana and call it good.

Now, thanks to John Bolton, we all know that holding up a ceasfire was Condi's plan all along. In fact, John Bolton tells the BBC he's "'damned proud of what we did' to prevent an early ceasefire." On March 22, Bolton said the thinking at State was that any ceasefire before Hezbollah (and apparently Lebanon) was completly destroyed would have been "dangerous and misguided."

Keep in mind that delay in stopping the Israeli bombardment led to the death of over 1,000 Lebonese citizens -- but the good news is that only 43 Israeli were killed. See, not only did they have bombshelters to hide in but they didn't have one of the most powerful air forces in the world hunting them down from the skies both day and night.

Something tells me that if the Israelis were suffering thousands of civilian casualties Condi would have been on the first plane to Jerusalem to put an end to those pesky "birth pangs."
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