Focal Points Blog

Can LOL Cats Help Avert World War III?

Israel catThe cat pictures are the newest permutations of a social media campaign started over the weekend by two Israeli graphics designers that is called “We Love Iranians,” aimed at raising public awareness against the steady march to war the Likud government has been taking Israel on towards Iran.

The meme has “gone viral” in Israel, and while it’s spawned a number of sensible parodies (such as noting that the same tone was on display for Iraqis to hear — if they could hear over the ack-ack — by George W. Bush in 2003) and is inevitably going to lead to a “slacktivism” discussion, at least it’s demonstrating that public opinion against war with Iran in Israel is growing. Israel is ostensibly a democracy, so the best-case outcome is that all those national security specialists and “cultural icons” who have been keeping quiet realize there is a base of domestic support for them to tell Bibi to can the Holocaust references

More comforting, though, has been news that 1) Mossad once again concludes with the U.S. intelligence services that Iran has neither the capability nor political will to pursue nuclear weaponization now, 2) some Iranian leaders are saying they’re willing to make concessions at the new P5+1 roundtable, and 3) Netanyahu has failed to convince his kitchen cabinet that he knows what he is talking about on Iran, and considering some of the people in that “Octet,” that is saying something — not least because one of the skeptics is in fact the Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister, a post Netanyahu’s Likud party established in 2009 to have a kind of go-to-guy looking over Shin Bet and Mossad, a la Dick Cheney.

Still, no one is out of the woods yet, Mossad assessment and grinning Israeli couples’ pinterest tags aside. Netanyahu has deliberately set the bar for Iranian concessions so high it’s difficult to believe progress can be made in talks — i.e., asking the Iranians to do things no other NPT signatory is expected to do when Israel itself isn’t even an NPT signatory — and the U.S. has made it pretty clear it will take military action if it feels “compelled” to do so in the region by either an Israeli or Iranian “action.”

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

Qadhafi Family’s Money Confiscated, Accounts Frozen

Gaddafi sharksStraight-up Bond villain extravagances via Hannibal Qadhafi, reports the Financial Times. The dictator’s son was building himself a cruise ship with a shark tank:

“Replete with marble columns, gold-framed mirrors and huge statues, the Phoenicia was to have included a 120-tonne tank of seawater for two sand tiger sharks, two white sharks and two blacktip reef sharks. Four resident biologists would have tended to the animals. The sharks’ nutritional needs mandated a dedicated food store.”

No word on how much the liner cost Libyans – Hannibal skimmed off the top of the country’s port incomes – but the Phoenicia is being refitted by Swiss maritime conglomerate MSC for regular passenger duty at a cost of over US$720 million. Apparently Hannibal had extremely tacky taste and interior renovations have been rather involved. Sadly for passengers and Roger Moore enthusiasts, the shark tank will go – though that’s at least good news for the sharks.

The National Transitional Council, the new Libyan government, is having better luck confiscating money and properties from other Qadhafi family members, though the UAE is freezing the accounts of the late Colonel’s wife, Safia Farkash Al Barassi, and gaining ownership of Saadi Qadhafi’s £10 million London estate that was improperly purchased using Libyan Investment Authority funds. The NTC is also looking to bring Saadi himself, living in exile in Niger, back to Libya to face trial, a proposition that, like most NTC governance efforts, is proving to be an extremely challenging task to enforce.

For their part, some African Union leaders now miss Qadhafi’s largesse in terms of foreign investments as countries are unfreezing and returning Libyan Investment Authority assets to the NTC. They’re in “good” company in the EU and the U.S.

(It’s a parable for the Qadhafi era, really, that despite the presence of sharks onboard, there was a willingness to do much business with the sharks’ wealthy owners.)

UPDATE: Nicholas Sarkozy, who was perhaps the most gung-ho EU leader on intervening in Libya last year, seems determined not to let reports of his campaign taking US$66 million from Colonel Qadhafi turn into a new “Bokassa’s Diamonds” episode in French politics. First Berlusconi’s Libyan investment gymnastics, and now Sarko’s alleged blood money. At least for Sarko’s peace of mind he hasn’t been accused of corruption and abetting mass killings like Francois Mitterrand was.

Swift Boat to Bahrain

If it looks like an arms deal, walks like an arms deal and quacks like an arms deals, is it an arms deal? The State Department says no:

Today, officials from the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs and State’s Legislative Affairs office briefed select congressional offices about their decision to transfer seven rigid-hull inflatable boats and 12 32-foot Boston Whaler boats from the U.S. Navy in Bahrain to the Bahrain government. Offices briefed ahead of the Friday formal notification included aides to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the offices of Sen. Ron Wyden (D-WY) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), two lawmakers who have been leading the congressional opposition to continued U.S. arms sales to Bahrain.

…”This isn’t a new package or policy decision. This is part of what was briefed to Congress in January. We are still maintaining a pause on most security cooperation for Bahrain pending further progress on reform,” a State Department official told The Cable today. “The transfer of these boats are necessary to protect U.S. naval personnel and assets based in Bahrain. None of these items can be used against protestors. The transfer does not include any arms and the boats are intended for patrol missions, which is critical for ensuring a robust and layered defense of Bahrain’s coast and for enhancing Bahrain’s ability to counter maritime threats to U.S. and coalition vessels.”

The real story out of Bahrain these days, though, is not the gift of some old PT boats, but with the vagaries of the dialogue going on between the pro-government camp and the predominantly Shia opposition groups, increasingly splitting between the leading pro-dialogue al-Wifaq group and younger demonstrators opposed to al-Wifaq’s stance. According to Justin Gengler, the pro-government camp is starting to list some “reformist” demands of its own:

Once again, then, we hear two separate arguments from members of Bahrain’s Sunni political movements: (1) the state should not negotiate with terrorists; and (2) the state needs to take better care of those who are loyal to it, specifically by clamping down on corruption and other wastes of state resources. As I’ve written previously, whereas the first argument is sure to further complicate the search for a solution to Bahrain’s present political impasse, the second is much more worrisome to the country’s rulers. It implies that Sunnis are beginning to connect the state’s percieved leniency with the opposition with its larger (perceived) neglect of the pro-government faction generally.

In other words, they’re asking the Al Khalifas where are their welfare checks?

Gengler continues:

It is one thing, in other words, for Sunnis to disagree with the government’s approach in dealing with the opposition; it is another if they begin to suspect that this approach is not simply short-sighted but actually belies a coherent government strategy of checking Sunni ambitions through its dealings with the opposition. Put more bluntly, some Sunnis are beginning to feel duped.

Notably, one increasingly-prominent feature of this Sunni movement toward greater political participation and influence is the notion that behind the Bahraini government’s manipulation of citizens is a second, even more sinister puppet-master: the United States.

Given the prominence of the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the tepid response of the State Department to the Bahraini protests, this suspicion is already well-founded among the demonstrators, but apparently, it is taking a very nasty turn among Sunni critics of the government thanks to the arrival of some very questionable, anti-American firebrands from Kuwait in their forums.

So there is, according to anonymous Congressional staff, another rationale for this PT boat deal: “‘state is trying to show appreciation for them changing but every time there is a step forward there is also one step backward,’ said a senior Senate aide close to the issue.”

And considering that this aide then snarked that the State Department was essentially saying “Have a nice day, thank you for your interest in Bahrain. It’s just boats so it’s no big deal,” I think it’s likely that said aide hails from an office in the Congressional bloc led by Wyden and McGovern that is holding up a much larger US$53 million arms deal. As for the one step forward, one step backward situation, the aide could be referring to the announcement that the controversial U.S. and UK ex-police chiefs the royal family has brought in are setting up an accountability office for Bahrain police force as questionable trials and protestor-police clashes continue.

P.S. Gulf watchers Sultan al-Qassemi and Justin Gengler have both reported on rumors about the KSA and Bahrain forming some sort of political union (the United Arab Autocracy?). Outlandish, yes, but it’s not like there wouldn’t be a precedent: after a popular uprising in Poland in 1848, the “Year of Revolutions,” was put down by the Prussian Army, Berlin formally annexed the region where the revolt took place. Perhaps the deployment of the Peninsula Shield Force has given Riyadh similar ideas. As professor Toby Jones told the AP, “Bahrain can be looked at as something of a Saudi colony now in the sense that policies are merged.” Might as well make it official.

U.S. Government Finally Catching up With MEK Boosters Like Ed Rendell

Cross-posted from IPS Special Project Right Web’s the Militarist Monitor.

In a controversial 6-3 ruling on Holder vs. Humanitarian Law Project in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the executive’s right under the USA PATRIOT Act to prosecute individuals or groups deemed to have provided “material support” to any organization classified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorist organization—including for nonviolent advocacy that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment, if the accused can be shown to have worked in concert with or at the behest of a proscribed organization.

In practice, notes Glenn Greenwald, this has amounted to a wave of prosecutions against young Muslim men for making Internet postings critical of U.S. foreign policy or in praise of alleged anti-American terrorists. It has also frustrated activists working to help terrorist-designated organizations in Turkey and Sri Lanka lodge international human rights complaints as a means of redressing their grievances nonviolently.

But the feds may be ready to add a higher-profile name to the list in former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, an avid (and highly compensated) advocate for the Muhajedin-e Khalq (MEK). Rendell recently disclosed that the U.S. Treasury Department was investigating his speaking agency for payments he received on behalf of the group. Rendell insists that he spoke his own views and received no money or input from MEK’s leaders, although he does not deny receiving large payments from supportive organizations.

U.S.-based apologists for MEK, an exiled Iranian group that fiercely opposes the country’s clerical regime and has for many years been on the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, had previously received a pass on prosecutions since Holder, even as far more marginal figures were prosecuted for much lower-profile advocacy of other causes.

Many hawkish U.S. pundits and pressure groups have embraced the group as Iran’s “legitimate opposition” and urged the State Department to remove MEK from its list of terrorist organizations. Groups like Raymond Tanter’s Iran Policy Committee exist solely for this purpose, but they are hardly alone. MEK and an apparently well-heeled community of supporters have shelled out considerable sums to enlist the support of scores of prominent Washington figures, including Rendell, former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, former CIA Directors Porter Goss and James Woolsey, former U.S. ambassador to the UN John Bolton, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and a host of others.

A Christian Science Monitor report from 2010 quoted a State Department official describing how MEK representatives would approach recently retired Washington politicos to solicit their backing: “Your speech agent calls, and says you get $20,000 to speak for 20 minutes. They will send a private jet, you get $25,000 more when you are done, and they will send a team to brief you on what to say.” All this high-profile support for an apparently active Iranian terrorist group inevitably raised questions about why human rights activists and lonesome Internet pontificators should suffer the wrath of the U.S. government while well-heeled politicos were appearing with MEK officials and accepting large sums to advocate for the group with apparent impunity.

MEK has aroused considerable antipathy in Iran for its often violent opposition to the country’s regime, including serving on the Iraqi side of the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed, much to the chagrin of its U.S. backers, MEK has been disavowed by Iran’s opposition Green Movement. In Iraq, where the cultish group maintains an embattled encampment outside Baghdad, the organization is widely despised for its complicity in Saddam Hussein’s massacres of Iraq’s Shiites and Kurds.

Prior to Iran’s Islamic revolution, MEK was an active participant in a violent campaign against the shah’s rule, during which time the group killed several Americans considered close to the regime. More recently, although MEK claims to have disavowed terrorism, U.S. officials have linked the group to Israeli efforts to sabotage and attack Iranian nuclear facilities, killing several Iranian scientists in the process.

Shilling for the MEK is apparently seen by Washington insiders as a low-risk and lucrative way to push for regime change in Iran, particularly when linked to the separate but often conflated issue of the human rights situation at the group’s Ashraf encampment in Iraq. Whatever the result of Rendell’s investigation (which is admittedly curious for its isolation), and whatever the merits of the Holder ruling or MEK’s status itself, future political retirees might think twice before doubling down on a terrorist group with few friends in either Iran or Iraq. Surely there are less legally troublesome opportunities in less bloody enterprises.

Irish Try to Wriggle Free of Mother Merkel’s Hair Shirt of Debt

St. Lawrence O'TooleSomeone has pinched the heart of St. Lawrence O’Toole, and thereby hangs a typical Irish tale filled with metaphors, parallels, and some pretty serious weirdness.

Who done it? The suspects are many and varied.

Could the heist from Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral have been engineered by the infamous “troika” of the European Commission, the European Bank, and the International Monetary Fund? Seems like a stretch, but consider the following: O’Toole—patron saint of Dublin—was, according to the Catholic Church, famous for practicing “the greatest austerity.” Lawrence liked to wear a hair shirt underneath his Episcopal gowns and spent 40 days in a cave each year.

That is a point of view the troika can respect. They have overseen a massive austerity program in Ireland that has strangled the economy, cut wages 22 percent, slashed education, health care, and public transport, raised taxes and fees, and driven the jobless rate up to 15percent—30% if you are young. At this rate many Irish will soon be living in caves, and while hair shirts may be uncomfortable, they are warm.

There are other suspects as well. For instance, St. O’Toole was friendly with the Norman/English King Henry II, who conquered the island in 1171. The Irish are not enamored of Henry II, indeed most of them did their level best to drive the bastard into the sea. Not Lawrence. He welcomed Henry to Dublin and, according to the Church, “Paid him due deference.”

So “deference” establishes yet another suspect: the current Fine Gael/Labor ruling coalition. Fine Gael leader and Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Edna Kenny has already signed the new European Treaty, but was forced to put it up for a public referendum at home (no other EU county is being allowed to vote “yea” or “nay”). Kenny is pressing for a “yes” vote, and Labor’s Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore argues that a “yes” vote would be a “vote for economic stability and a vote for economic recovery.”

The Treaty will not only continue the austerity program, it will move decision-making to EU headquarters in Brussels. This will mean that governments will be powerless when it comes to the economy. Think “Model United Nations” and lots of earnest high school students.

Who will make these decisions? Good question. Well, it turns out that a committee of the German Bundestag debated the Irish austerity proposals before the Dublin government even got a chance to look at them. How did that happen? Again, good question, but no answer yet.

Maybe German Chancellor Andrea Merkel lifted O’Toole’s heart. She certainly has a motive: Merkel is leading the “austerity is good for you” charge, a stance that has battered economies from Spain to Greece. In any case, the Irish are already suspicious of the German chancellor. An anti-austerity demonstration outside the Dail, Ireland’s parliament, featured a poster calling government ministers “Angela’s Asses.”

Much of the economic crisis in Europe—and virtually all of it in Ireland— is due to the out-of-control speculation by German banks, along with the Dutch, Austrian, and French financial institutions. “Yet it is the working people of Ireland and Europe who are being asked to pay the price,” argues Des Dalton of Sinn Fein. It appears that the Germans have discovered that one does not need Panzer divisions to conquer Europe, just bankers and compliant governments.

“Compliant” however, has run into some difficulties in Ireland, a place where “difficulty” is a very common noun. On Mar. 2, Sinn Fein President Jerry Adams trekked out to Castlebar in the west of Ireland to resurrect the ghost of Michael Davitt, founder of the Land League and leader of the 1878 Land War (there was an earlier one from 1761 to 1784, but more on that later). Adams told the Mayo County crowd “The Irish people cannot afford this treaty.”

The Castlebar symbolism was about as heavy as you can get. Davitt, along with the great Irish Parliamentarian Charles Stewart Parnell, launched the land war from that city, calling up the words of the great revolutionary, James Fintan Lalor: “I hold and maintain that the entire soil of a country belongs by right to the entire people of that country.”

These days that is not a popular sentiment in most European capitals, where governments are shedding public ownership in everything from airlines to energy production. The Irish government is trying to sell off several lucrative holdings, including Aer Lingus, Ireland’s natural gas company, and parts of its Electricity Supply Board. The state’s forestry will be sold as well. “It is the depth of treachery to sell billions of Euros worth of State assets to pay bad gambling debts,” Socialist Party member Joe Higgins said in the Dail.

The land wars were a reaction to efforts by the English to apply to Ireland the Enclosure Acts, a policy that sold “common land” to private landowners and forced the rural population of England, Scotland and Wales into the hellishness of industrial Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Liverpool.

As Laura Nader and Ugo Mattei maintain in their book “Plunder: When the rule of law is illegal,” what is currently happening in Ireland (and all over Europe) is a 21st century version of the Enclosure Acts. The last vestiges of public ownership are being systematically auctioned to the highest bidder, and the concept of “the common good” is fading like the ghost of providence.

But not without a fight.

While Adams was resurrecting the spirit of Michael Davitt, demonstrators were besieging Parliaments in Greece, Spain and Romania.

Ireland rejected two previous European treaties, only to pass them in a second round of voting. However, under the new rules, it no longer has veto power. If 12 out of the 17 Euro Zone countries endorse—pretty much considered a slam-dunk—then the new treaty goes into effect.

A number of commentators are saying that the 12-country threshold makes the Irish referendum irrelevant, but a “no” vote will be a blow to the Euro currency, and it might eventually encourage similar “no” votes in other countries. In that sense, the Irish tail could end up wagging the European dog.

Since Irish stories always include parallels, there is certainly one to be made between the first land war and the current debt crisis. The 1761 effort by English landlords to apply the Enclosure Acts to Ireland ignited resistance, first in Limerick, then spreading to Munster, Connacht and Leinster. Crowds of Irish tenants dressed in linen masks and coats—hence their generic name, the” Whiteboys”— burned hayricks, knocked down enclosure walls, and hamstrung cattle. On occasion they pitched land agents into the local bog.

The Irish resistance to the Enclosure Acts was not unique, but a very odd thing happened in Ireland: they won. A combination of population growth and war had driven up the price of food, so even the small-scale agriculture practiced by the Irish was profitable. Plus the rent capital skimmed off the Irish peasantry was playing an important role in helping to capitalize the English industrial revolution. Add to this the resistance, and the English decided that it was in their best interests to back off.

The average Irish tenant knew nothing about international finance or capital accumulation, but they got the idea that if you dug in your heels and went toe-to-toe with the buggers, you could beat them. It was a momentous experience, and a collective memory that would help fuel more than 150 years of rebellion.

Can the current Irish resistance movement turn the tide against the austerity madness that has gripped the European continent? Well, the Left is on the rise (in some places, so is the Right). Sinn Fein’s support in the most recent opinion polls shows a 25 percent approval rating, up 4 percent. In comparison, Fianna Fail—the party that ushered in the current crisis—has dropped from 20 percent to 16 percent. Labor has fallen to 10 percent, and Fine Gael is at 32 percent. Other Left parties are also doing well.

Indeed, the Left seems to be resurging in other countries as well. A center-left party in Slovakia ousted a right-wing government, and France seems posted to vote socialist. The Greek Left is fractious, but its various stripes now make up a majority.

Weirdness. Remember weirdness? For starters, an 832-year-old heart is pretty strange. And it wasn’t just the heart that was snatched. Someone also stole a splinter of the “true cross” (if one added up all the splinters in all the Cathedrals of Europe you end up with a fair size forest). And then there is the matter of the cheekbone of St. Brigid that just missed getting lifted from a church in North Dublin.

In the end, saints will not preserve Ireland from an invasion of the austerity snakes. The Irish people will have to do that. But they sport an impressive track record of overturning imperial designs, and they have long memories: put enough people into the streets of Castlebar (Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Galway, Limerick, etc.) and the bastards will back off.

As Adams said in Castlebar, “Stand together, stand united, and there is nothing we cannot achieve.”

For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays visit Dispatches From the Edge. Meanwhile, his novels about the ancient Romans can be found at The Middle Empire Series.

Iran Errata: Parchin and the Common Ground of Afghanistan

At Foreign Policy, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies writes about the dispute between Tehran and the International Atomic Energy Agency. If you’ll recall, the IAEA is trying to determine if Iran once conducted high-explosives tests as part of nuclear weapons R&D at its Parchin military complex. Back in November 2011, Gareth Porter, as well as anybody, showed how futile it was to follow that lead in a piece that began:

A former inspector for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has repudiated its major new claim that Iran built an explosives chamber to test components of a nuclear weapon and carry out a simulated nuclear explosion.

Fitzpatrick writes (emphasis added):

But an IAEA visit now may not uncover much — and not just because Iran has had plenty of time to hide any incriminating evidence in the eight-plus years since the alleged activity took place. The testing experiments that were reportedly conducted there used surrogate material to simulate nuclear components. Unless nuclear material was present for some other reason, IAEA environmental sampling would not detect any telltale signs, giving Iran an excuse to trumpet its vindication.

Which, presumably is why Fitzpatrick entitled his article “The Parchin Trap.”

Meanwhile GQ is not only running Matthieu Aikins’s account of the September 11, 2011 Taliban attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul, it also published another piece by him. In State of the Taliban 2012: The Secret Report, he excerpts and analyzes the classified NATO report leaked to certain media outlets in February. What’s that got to do with Iran? Funny you should ask.

Iran has long been alleged to be playing both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan, which the report makes clear:

“The Iranians have provided moderate support to what coalition forces refer to as the Herat Insurgent Faction, or “Mujahedin of Martyr Akbari”, which is a smaller insurgent group operating primarily in Herat and Badghis Provinces. However, Iran has offered far more support to Farsi-speaking groups, many of which currently support [the government of Afghanistan], rather than pro-Taliban elements.”

In a 2010 article about the “bags of cash” Iran regularly bestows on Iran, Christian Science Monitor, Ben Arnoldy wrote that

… Iran and the US ultimately share an ally in Karzai, since both nations are opposed to a Taliban resurgence.

When in power, the Taliban killed Iranian diplomats and oppressed the Shia minority in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s new Constitution, written after the NATO invasion, officially recognized the rights of the Shiites for the first time in Afghanistan’s history. Karzai’s government also includes members of the Northern Alliance whom Iran supported in previous decades.

Also, if you’ll recall, after 9/11, as the Asia Society reported:

… a remarkable period of U.S.-Iran cooperation began as Iran joined the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Iran then participated in the U.S.-sponsored Bonn Conference and helped to establish a new Afghan government that took office in December 2001. In Bonn, Iranian officials even approached their U.S. counterparts about engaging in dialogue on broader issues.

Afghanistan is pivotal to that shared regional security that states (such as North Korean, as well) that are viewed as hostile often seek with the United States — an opportunity of which, in recent years, the United States inevitably fails to take advantage.

Sanctifying the Killing of Muslims

First CrusadeMany of us in the West wonder how Islamist extremists can find virtue in killing. In the East and West, killing an enemy has long been glorified. But when Islamist extremists kill Muslims because, say, they’re Shi’ite not Sunni, or they justify the deaths of innocent bystanders on the principle that, if they’re righteous, their ascent into heaven is expedited, they stretch the definition of the noble warrior beyond the breaking point.

Of course, neither do elements of fundamentalist Christianity have a problem with killing Muslims, who are viewed as heathens standing in the way of history (holding up the apocalypse by failing to cede full ownership of Jerusalem to the Jews). What’s less known is that while Christianity certainly had no monopoly on slaughter — when you consider how much smaller the world’s population was in his day, Genghis Khan was like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong combined — it once attached no virtue to killing in war.

In 2011, Basic Books published Armies of Heaven: The First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse, which I’m currently reading, to much acclaim. The author, American medieveal historian Jay Rubenstein, is a natural storyteller who is also wholly credible to other historians. Early in the book, he explains that “a crucial aspect” of the crusade and of the message of Pope Urban II, the driving force behind the crusade, was, ironically (emphasis added)…

… the need for peace. It was, by 1095, a long-standing plea and aspiration among churchmen. For a century they had been trying to impose on warriors a code of conduct, known variously as “the Peace” or “the Truce of God,” to compel them to limit their aggressive impulses. The unarmed — monks, clerics, and women — were to be kept safe from bloodshed at all times, and for four days out of the week, Thursday through Sunday, no one was to strike a blow against anyone at all.

… The creation of peace did not come easily. Simply stated, knights wanted to fight — with one another, with peasants, with all and sundry. … Urban II realized as much. That’s why the call to peace in 1095 came with a proviso: Knights could continue to fright and loot and plunder as long as they did so against a foreign, unbelieving enemy. … In previous wars, to kill an adversary was, at best, a morally neutral act, an unfortunate necessity created by political circumstance. To kill a Muslim, by contrast, increased a warrior’s store of virtue, giving him some security as he contemplated the fearsome stakes of Judgment Day.

In a sense, killing in war — heretofore a necessary evil that bordered on sin for Christians — was transformed into an act of nobility or even piety when the victims became Muslims.

Do Albright and ISIS Buy Parchin Clean-up Story or Don’t They?

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) refers to itself as a “non-partisan institution that focuses on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons.” But it’s sometimes demonstrated a tendency to lean toward, if not the right, the alarmist about nuclear proliferation. As late as 2002, its “ubiquitous” president David Albright, oft quoted in print and on television, issued nuclear warnings about Iraq. In January of this year, Albright and the ISIS staff published a report titled Reality Check: Shorter and Shorter Timeframe if Iran Decides to Make Nuclear Weapons.

ISIS also endorsed the unconvincing story that Iran built an explosives chamber to test components of a nuclear weapon and carry out a simulated nuclear explosion (the Danilenko affair, if you will). Albright told Toby Warrick of the Washington Post in November of last year:

“It remains for Danilenko to explain his assistance to Iran. … At the very least, Danilenko should have known exactly why the Iranians were interested in his research and expertise. The IAEA information suggests he has provided more than he has admitted.”

Investigative journalist Gareth Porter, among others, debunked that story. One can’t help but wonder if the direction ISIS takes has, at times, been determined by its funding, which runs the gamut from the Ploughshares Fund to the Rockefeller Foundation to the extremely conservative Smith Richardson Foundation. Still, ISIS is quick to admit mistakes, if not always learn from them.

In his latest piece for Inter Press Service Alleged Photos of “Clean-up” at Iran’s Parchin Site Lack Credibility, Gareth Porter provides an example of how a stance ISIS takes plays into hawks’ hands (er, talons).

ISIS Executive Director David Albright told interviewer Scott Horton of Antiwar Radio in July 2009 that he had “gotten a tip” in September 2004 that high explosives testing at Parchin “could be used for nuclear weapons”.

ISIS then published a series of satellite photographs that the organisation said were “consistent” with facilities for such nuclear testing.

The satellite images were then cited by Undersecretary of State John Bolton as alarming evidence of covert Iranian nuclear weapons work. … But Bolton and the IAEA had only vague suspicions rather than hard intelligence to go on.

Nevertheless:

The United States and its Western allies put strong pressure on the IAEA to get Iran to agree to a visit to Parchin.

More recently, writes Porter

News stories about satellite photographs suggesting efforts by Iran to “sanitise” [Parchin] … have added yet another layer to widely held suspicion that Iran must indeed be hiding a covert nuclear weapons programme.

But the story is suspect, in part because it is based on evidence that could only be ambiguous, at best. The claim does not reflect U.S. intelligence, and a prominent think tank that has published satellite photography related to past controversies surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme has not found any photographs supporting it.

That prominent think tank, this time demonstrating caution about drawing damning conclusions about Iran, is none other than ISIS. Porter again:

Paul Brannan, a specialist on interpretation of satellite photography for ISIS, told the New York Times that. … he could not find any photographs of sites at Parchin that suggested clean-up. He told the Times. … “There is no way to know whether or not the activity you see in a particular satellite image is cleansing or just regular work.” Brannan added, “There’s a lot of activity there – always.”

Perhaps ISIS is responding to increasing reluctance on the part of the Obama administration, and even many in Israel, to refrain from attacking Iran. If only we had confidence that ISIS — and the International Atomic Agency, as well — speak without first licking their fingers and testing the political winds.

Hold the presses — this just in (as they say), from Haaretz:

A U.S. non-proliferation expert said on Tuesday he has identified a building at the Parchin military site in Iran suspected of containing, currently or previously, a high-explosive test chamber the UN nuclear watchdog wants to visit.

David Albright, founder of the Institute for Science and International Security, said he studied commercial satellite imagery and found a building located on a relatively small and isolated compound at Parchin that fit a description in the November 2011 International Atomic Energy Agency report.

“Please Do Not Pet the Islamists”

Shurat HaDinCross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Part of me very much wishes to believe this is all a viral marketing effort leading to a forthcoming episode of Portlandia where they go to Israel. It is almost that surreal, but in a somewhat entertaining manner.

Shurat HaDin — an Israeli “lawfare” group that set up legal roadblock after roadblock against “Gaza Freedom Flotilla II” last year — has for several years offered tours of Israel that take in the sort of sights a military fanboy would love, from Hezbollah watching on the Lebanese border to visiting the IAF units that carry out targeted killings and viewing military trials of alleged Hamas operatives (that was part of the 2011 trip). Also, there is a BBQ. The one-week trip costs around US$3,000 and is billed as “Taking it to a Whole New Level,” “The Ultimate Mission to Israel”.

No argument here.

As a sometimes-national security blogger, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was curious about this sort of combat voyeurism and how it might speak volumes about the further militarization of Israeli society, though a friend’s perhaps uncharitable assessment is that most of the people who do go on these trips are not Israelis, but IDF fanboys from the U.S. (the works of Tom Clancy were mentioned in passing in the discussion). In that case, these trips say more about the way the IDF is perceived in both countries than anything else.

Here’s this year’s agenda. As you can see from the screenshot, I mentioned the Gaza flotilla to start with not just because it’s Shurat HaDin’s claim to fame in the U.S. media (its charity work in Israel and lawsuits against terrorist financiers not being well-known outside of the country) but because, apparently, one of this year’s highlights is a trip to the undisclosed naval base where the Israeli navy is holding flotilla ships it’s impounded. It’s not clear which ships they’re referring to, but since only a single ship from the 2011 effort reached Gazan waters, I imagine they are also referring to ships from the 2010 effort.

I guess it’s really only fair that the lawfare group be allowed to tour these prizes — the navy might have actually boarded and impounded the ships in both cases, but Shurat HaDin made their job so much easier the second time through its pressure campaign against the organizers and the Greek government. With one exception, a French boat, none of the second flotilla’s ships made it further than Greek territorial waters.

I imagine anyone who might be linked to the IAEA is not allowed to go any further than the gift shop when the group makes a stop at the Research Center for Atomic Energy (do you think one can buy plausible-deniability Jericho missile keychains there?). I’d have to say that this year’s most questionable whistlestop for Shurat HaDin is the opportunity for ticket holders to visit a Druze village that has apparently become home to a number of refugees fleeing Syria’s nascent civil war. With several Syria events planned for the trip, apparently, I guess there is not much concern over that conflict escalating in the Golan Heights area.

You all probably think I’m appalled with many aspects of this itinerary — no, not the BBQ, obviously, the gawking at refugees, yes — yet I must look for the silver lining, and to me that silver lining is the timing of the summer’s venue, July 9-16.

Why is this cause for cautious optimism? Because some informed comment has determined that if Israel is going to attack Iran this year, it will almost certainly be before the end of this summer. Surely this indicates that war with Iran is unlikely in the tour organizers’ minds who, based on where they’re getting to go, must have their fingers on the pulse of the security forces (who are generally not as sanguine about the prospect of war with Iran as Ehud Barak appears to be).

And while Netanyahu might be an overly rude guest — just ask Obama — he does not seem to be an overly rude host (he hasn’t expelled Gideon Levy or the Arab minority yet). Surely, he would not risk waging war with Iran and inconveniencing Israel’s most gung-ho tourists?

Israel Has Its Own Doomsday Clock

“An attack on Iran could take place within a matter of months, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a series of television interviews on Thursday,” reported Haaretz on Friday (March 9).

“We’re not standing with a stopwatch in hand,” he said. “It’s not a matter of days or weeks, but also not of years. The result must be removal of the threat of nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands.”

It’s not unlike the famous Doomsday Clock, which the publication Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists maintains — now at five minutes to midnight. For its part, Iran can be forgiven if the difference between an ultimatum and a dire threat is lost on it.

Speaking of speaking frankly, no one is doing a better job of it better than T.J. Hammes of the National Defense University, who recently wrote (emphasis added):

The current debate on whether or not to bomb Iran is being framed as a false choice. Proponents state we must bomb Iran to keep it from developing a nuclear weapon. Yet in the same statement they often admit that even an effective bombing campaign will delay the program only a few years. Thus, the real choice being offered is not to bomb Iran or face an Iran with nuclear weapons. The real choice is facing an Iran with nuclear weapons or facing an Iran with nuclear weapons after you have bombed it.

Futility — thy name is bombing Iran.

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