Foreign Policy

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Cuba Libre! A Momentous Shift in Relations

Without any question, the news of the day is the direct turnabout in relations between the United States and Cuba announced this morning. There is a rather long list of areas in which many people, including me, have profound disappointment with Barack Obama over. Lack of accountability for torture is but the latest and greatest in the news consciousness of the attuned public. But today is not such a day; today Barack Obama has risen to at least part of his once heralded promise. Today, Mr. Obama has my love and affection. Today is one of the type and kind of foreign policy, whether toward middle east or other global neighbors, moments promised in Cairo and rarely, if ever, fulfilled in tangible deeds instead of words. So, today, sincere thanks and appreciation to President Obama.

Here are the basics from the AP:

The United States and Cuba have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and open economic and travel ties, marking a historic shift in U.S. policy toward the communist island after a half-century of enmity dating back to the Cold War, American officials said Wednesday.

The announcement came amid a series of sudden confidence-building measures between the longtime foes, including the release of American prisoner Alan Gross, as well as a swap for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba and the freeing of three Cubans jailed in the U.S.

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro were to separately address their nations around noon Wednesday. The two leaders spoke by phone for more than 45 minutes Tuesday, the first substantive presidential-level discussion between the U.S. and Cuba since 1961.

Wednesday’s announcements followed more than a year of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Canada and the Vatican. U.S. officials said Pope Francis was personally engaged in the process and sent separate letters to Obama and Castro this summer urging them to restart relations.

This news alone would have constituted something earth shattering, but there is much more than just that. In fact, the AP laid out the merest of backgrounds with that opening. There is much, much, more. I have the official press release, and Continue reading

Israel’s Newest Ballistic Missile Shield System Fails Test

Ambassador Daniel Shapiro proudly displays the disgusting menorah in the shape of an Iron Dome missile battery, complete with tiny flags from the US and Israel.

Ambassador Daniel Shapiro proudly displays the disgusting menorah in the shape of an Iron Dome missile battery, complete with tiny flags from the US and Israel.


Despite having raked in over a billion dollars on the failed Iron Dome system, US and Israeli defense contractors are eagerly promoting their latest addition to Israel’s ballistic defense system, the Arrow 3. That system was tested yesterday, and it failed:

Israel’s upgraded ballistic missile shield failed its first live interception test on Tuesday, security sources said, a fresh setback for the U.S.-supported system billed as a bulwark against Iran.

Operators of the Arrow 3 battery at Palmahim air base on the Mediterranean coast canceled the launch of its interceptor missile after it failed to lock on to a target missile fired over the sea, the sources said.

“There was a countdown to the launch and then nothing happened,” one source told Reuters on condition of anonymity. “A decision was made not to waste the interceptor missile.”

Israel’s Defense Ministry tried to deny the failure, and the Jerusalem Post parroted them:

Defense officials said they decided to abort the firing of the interceptor due to the failure of a series of conditions to materialize, adding that the trial was “neither a success nor a failure.”

During the test, a target missile was fired at Israeli air space from over the Mediterranean Sea. In future trials, the Arrow system will be ordered to intercept incoming mock missiles, something that did not occur this time, the ministry added.

The ministry later clarified that during the trial, the target missile flew along its planned path and was tracked by Arrow, but that “the conditions for firing an interceptor were not ripe, and we therefore decided to class the trial as a target missile exercise only.”

Yair Ramati, of the Defense Ministry’s Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure, said the trial was to have consisted of two parts, Ramati said. “The first part of the launch involved tracking the target missile, which was fired over the Mediterranean Sea toward Israel. In the second phase, the Arrow 3 interceptor was supposed to be fired after a series of conditions we set for the trial are met. At an early phase, we collectively decided that the conditions have not been met. In accordance to our criteria, we decided not to launch the Arrow 3 interceptor.”

But for a defense program where failure is a way of life, one more failure is just another milestone in product development:

He stressed that conditions for a trial are very different than those need for an operational launch. “This is not the first time that not all conditions are met for a trial,” Ramati added.

“This trial represents a milestone in the development of the system,” the Defense Ministry added.

Haaretz informs us that this failure comes quickly on the heels of another:

This is the second Arrow test to fail within a short time: In September a trial involving the Arrow 2 missile did not succeed either. In that incident Defense Ministry officials concealed the results for many hours. Even after Haaretz reported the failure, they made no comment.

Despite all these failures, Boeing happily touts the Arrow system on its website:

Arrow 3, the newest addition to the Arrow Weapon System, is the upper tier in the Arrow family of weapons that incorporates the latest technology to combat a continually advancing threat. Short- and medium-range ballistic missile threats require prompt and effective self-defense capabilities. The threat of more sophisticated missiles, including the threat of weapons of mass destruction, requires a multi-tier approach to achieve a zero leakage rate. As the world’s first operational national missile defense system, the Arrow Weapon System successfully destroys targets using the latest – technology to achieve a higher probability of a successful engagement. The Arrow Weapon System is affordable and has low total ownership costs.

The Arrow Weapon System is Israel’s national missile defense system. The Arrow system uses the two-stage Arrow II interceptor to destroy an incoming target with a fragmentation warhead. Arrow 3, also a two-stage interceptor, will destroy an incoming target with an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle and provide additional defense capability for evolving threats. Other system elements are a launch control center, fire-control radar and battle management center. Arrow provides Israel with flexible and cost-effective protection from ballistic missile threats.

Come on down, folks! With “low total ownership costs”, you too can have your own ballistic defense missile system that doesn’t work!

Meanwhile, is there anything in the world more vile and disgusting than the photos at the top of this post? They were downloaded from the Flickr account of the US Embassy in Tel Aviv, which I reached from the Embassy’s web page. Who could have thought that a menorah in the shape of an Iron Dome missile battery, complete with little flags from the US and Israel, would be a good idea?

Emergency Fundraising Succeeds: World Food Programme Restarts Suspended Aid for Syrian Refugees

A week ago today, I pointed out the moral depravity of a situation in which the US never hesitates to find funding to increase air strikes and the flow of weapons into Syria and other fronts in the battle against ISIS while the UN World Food Programme was forced to suspend emergency food aid to 1.7 million Syrian refugees due to a funding shortfall. There is a rare bit of good news on that front, as the WFP announced today that the emergency appeal for funds has made up for the shortfall and food aid is restarting. In fact, more than $80 million has been raised, so some funding will carry over into January.

It appears that private donations made up only a small part of this influx of funds:

Among individuals contributing online through wfp.org, the third largest number by nationality were Syrians, after Americans (first) and Canadians (second). The online campaign featured Aloe Blacc’s song “I Need A Dollar” as the soundtrack for the #ADollarALifeline video which launched on social media channels. Almost 14,000 individuals and private sector donors in 158 countries contributed US$1.8 million dollars.

It is indeed heartwarming to see so many individuals step up to do what they can. However, considering how many US amoral contractors are making outrageous amounts of money shipping weapons into the region, I find it repulsive they didn’t make up the funding shortfall entirely on their own. Just their lobbying funds alone could have taken that hit without affecting their other funds. We have not yet gotten the list of countries that stepped up for the bulk of the emergency funds nor how much each gave, but we can only hope that the countries doing the most meddling in the region are also providing the most funding for the residents they have displaced.

Sadly, this stopgap funding is merely the beginning. The New York Times reports this morning that the UN’s budget request for 2015 for all humanitarian assistance will go up 27% over the amount needed in 2014:

The appeal, a barometer of the global impact of wars and disasters, calls for 27 percent more funding in 2015 than the amount requested a year ago for 2014 and is intended to aid more than 57 million people in 22 countries.

The number of people affected by conflict “has reached record levels” for the post-World War II era, Valerie Amos, the United Nations emergency aid chief, told a news conference in Geneva. She said that aid agencies had assessed that 78 million people were in need of assistance, but the appeal targeted only the most vulnerable.

Nearly three-quarters of the funds were designated for just four crises: in Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and the protracted but little-reported conflict in Sudan. Other priorities included the Central African Republic, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The number of people displaced by conflict reached the highest level since World War II at the end of 2013 but is still rising “exponentially,” António Guterres, the United Nations refugee chief, told the news conference, climbing to 32,000 a day last year from 14,000 a day in 2011. In 2014, he said, the figure would certainly have increased further.

Given the US role in those countries leading the way in terms of number of refugees, it is fitting that a large portion of the costs of caring for the refugees should fall to us as well. And of course, those first two are problem areas very much because of our meddling. We broke Iraq and have continued to feed its dysfunction ever since. We helped start the unrest in Syria, too. In fact, as the torture report drops today, don’t forget that we relied on Bashar al-Assad as an “ally” for outsourcing of torture early in that program, so getting rid of him is needed to help hide what we did.

However, I still long for the day when the US response to a crisis gets out of the “which group do we fund” approach and instead looks to “how can we help the people” as the approach that will work. As we see from the record numbers of displaced people, our approach now spreads hunger and death. What would happen if instead of sending in weapons, we sent in food, housing construction materials and medical assistance? What if we even actively excluded weapons from these areas?

Of course, that has little chance of happening in our lifetimes. In the meantime, your donations for assistance to Syrian refugees can be made here and the WFP provides updates here.

Reagan? No, Regin — Yet Another [GCHQ] Intelligence Malware

Recently, computer security firm Symantec reported discovery of another intelligence-gathering malware, dubbing  it “Regin.”

What’s particularly interesting about this malware is its targets:

  • It infected computers in Afghanistan, Austria, Belgium, India, Iran, Ireland, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Saudia Arabia;
  • At 48% of total infections, the largest group of targets were private individuals and small businesses.

Please do read Symantec’s blog post and its technical paper on Regin to understand how it works as well as its targets. Many news outlets either do not understand malware and cybersecurity, or they get facts wrong whenever major malware attacks are reported. Symantec’s revelation about Regin is no different in this respect.

Independent.ie offers a particularly exceptional example distorting Symantec’s report, claiming “Ireland is one of the countries worst hit globally by a dangerous new computer virus that spies on governments and companies, according to a leading technology firm.”

If by “worst hit,” they mean among the top four countries targeted by this malware? Sure. But only 9% of the infections affected Irish-based computers, versus 28% of infections aimed at Russian machines, and 24% affecting Saudi machines. The Independent.ie’s piece reads like clickbait hyperbole, or fearmongering, take your pick.

What wasn’t addressed by the Independent.ie and numerous other outlets, including those covering the tech sector are some fundamental questions:

  • What assets or activities might the targeted countries have in common that would make them targets of a single intelligence operation organized by one or more nation-states?
  • What are so many private individuals and small businesses targeted by this malware, in contrast to other malware-based intelligence-collection operations seen to date?

The Guardian came closest to examining these issues, having interviewed researchers at computer security firm F-Secure to ask the origins of the malware. As of 24-NOV-2014, the firm’s Mikko Hypponen speculated that the US, UK, and/or Israel were behind Regin’s development and deployment.

As of the video embedded above, Hypponen firmly says the UK’s intelligence entity GCHQ is behind Regin, in particular the malware’s invasion of a Belgian telecom network (see video at 07:20). Continue reading

Kerry Convenes Meeting to Line Up Global Victims to Die for US Mistakes

Does 2014 John Kerry ever look back on 1971 John Kerry?

The John Kerry of 2014 wears the suit of a diplomat while advocating forever war. Does he ever look back on the John Kerry of 1971, who wore the uniform of a soldier to advocate for peace?

On April 23, 1971, John Kerry, speaking as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and famously posed the question “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”. On December 2, 2014, Kerry, in his capacity as US Secretary of State, convened a meeting of Foreign Ministers of countries allied against ISIS. Sadly, the wisdom of 1971 John Kerry was completely lost on 2014 John Kerry, as the meeting in Brussels was aimed entirely at making war on ISIS without regard for the residents of the region who will bear the brunt of the new violence and who have faced severe hardships for years as a result of US meddling in the region. Kerry’s plan shows no regard for the hard evidence that exists showing that the approach being taken by the US has failed many times over since the failure in Vietnam which he so forcefully described.

Kerry’s description of the shortcomings of the approach in Vietnam resonates with the current failed approach by the US in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and beyond:

We found that not only was it a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever, but also we found that the Vietnamese whom we had enthusiastically molded after our own image were hard put to take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from.

We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart. They wanted everything to do with the war, particularly with this foreign presence of the United States of America, to leave them alone in peace, and they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Viet Cong, North Vietnamese or American.

Kerry pointed out in 1971 that residents of an area under siege by invaders often choose to side with whatever force is there in order to survive. But in 2014, Kerry is pushing the US effort to “vet“, train and equip “moderate” fighters to take on ISIS while the US provides air support. How long will these fighters be on “our” side?

And, of course, a very distorted view of the effort gets presented at home, then as now:

We saw Vietnam ravaged equally by American bombs and search and destroy missions, as well as by Viet Cong terrorism – and yet we listened while this country tried to blame all of the havoc on the Viet Cong.

If we look just at Syria, it is clear that those outside the US see US meddling behind the “uprising” against al-Assad. From a 2012 Christian Science Monitor article:

In an empty coffee house in Antakya, local tradesman Ahmet Sari’s face crumples in anger as he speaks about Syria.

“What’s happening in Syria is all part of America’s great project to reshape the borders of the Middle East. America and its allies don’t care about bringing democracy to the Syrian people. Look at what happened to Iraq!” he fumes. “The imperialist countries are only after oil and mineral resources.”

/snip/

And many say that all of these problems can be traced back to the US, who they are convinced got involved with, and perhaps even fomented, the Syrian unrest to loosen up regional powers’ grip on oil, enlisting Turkey as a pawn in the process. It had little to do with support for democracy, they believe.

People in Turkey, who already were dealing with the influx of refugees two years ago, clearly saw a very similar situation in Syria as Kerry saw in Vietnam in 1971. And now, the problems in Turkey are much worse, as the needs of refugees have completely overwhelmed the capacity of relief organizations to help.

We know for a fact that funding and arming rebels almost never works, as the CIA found when reviewing its own efforts on that front. Rather than taking that clear piece of information and trying a new approach based on directly helping the people of the region rather than destabilizing it, the US chose instead to grasp at the last straw from the CIA study that said those few times arming rebels works it has been with “direct American support on the ground”. So rather than accept that their approach is a failure, the warmongers in Washington now think that US air support for the anti-ISIS efforts is a bare minimum and that “boots on the ground” will be needed for a “win”.

And when it comes to “training”, of course the US has failed miserably on that front every time it has tried. But we will just keep on doing it, because that’s all Washington can come up with.

And even if we should “win”, holding onto ground gained is impossible, as Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis has so devastatingly noted in his piercing of the myth of US superiority in its counterinsurgency program.

The contrast of 2014 John Kerry with 1971 John Kerry is brought into clear view with this part of Kerry’s opening statement to his war council yesterday: Continue reading

Moral Depravity of US Syria Policy: Unlimited Funds for Fighting, UN Suspends Refugee Food Aid

There is no way that the United States and its allies can say that they didn’t see this coming. They had a very clearly stated warning in September. Nevertheless, while the US continues throwing virtually unlimited funds at training “moderatefighters for Syria and even contemplating a modified “no-fly zone” that is virtually certain to lead to deeper direct US involvement in the fighting, the United Nations’ World Food Programme was forced to announce yesterday that financial assistance to feed 1.7 million Syrian refugees is being suspended immediately because the international community has provided insufficient funding for the program. The funding gap could not have come at a worse time for the refugees:

Under this programme, poor Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt have used vouchers to buy food in local shops. Without WFP vouchers, many families will go hungry. For refugees already struggling to survive the harsh winter, the consequences of halting this assistance will be devastating.

“A suspension of WFP food assistance will endanger the health and safety of these refugees and will potentially cause further tensions, instability and insecurity in the neighbouring host countries,” said WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, in an appeal to donors. “The suspension of WFP food assistance will be disastrous for many already suffering families.

Syrian refugees in camps and informal settlements throughout the region are ill prepared for yet another harsh winter, especially in Lebanon and Jordan, where many children are bare foot and without proper clothing. Many tents are drenched in mud and hygiene conditions are growing extremely precarious.

Cousin said that WFP’s Syria emergency operations are now in critical need of funding. Many donor commitments remain unfulfilled. WFP requires a total of US$64 million immediately to support Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries during the month of December.

The funding gap for WFP was over $350 million in the September announcement. That figure was for funding through the end of the year, putting the monthly cost at just over $115 million. The gap for December still stands at $64 million, meaning that the WFP has gotten less than half the funds that it sought in September.

Recall that back in late September, the announcement of the three month need came on the same day the Senate approved $500 million for training “moderate” rebels to send into Syria. Once again, just as word of the cutoff has come out, the US is openly discussing committing more funds to escalating the Syrian civil war:

The Obama administration is weighing the opening of a new front in the air war against the Islamic State in Syria, part of an offensive to push back militants along the western part of Syria’s border with Turkey and create a relatively safe zone for U.S.-backed Syrian rebel forces to move in.

Under the plan, U.S. aircraft flying from Turkey’s Incirlik air base would target positions the militants currently hold along the border north of Aleppo, eastward toward the besieged town of Kobane. Turkish special forces would move into the area to assist the targeting and help Syrian opposition fighters consolidate their hold on the territory.

Of course, this will require lots more money and is likely to drag us much deeper into the conflict:

If implemented, the plan would require significantly more U.S. resources than are now devoted to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, including more planes and more money. Congress is debating both the funding and the new authorization for operations in Syria and Iraq that have already been approved by the president.

Although officials said the proposal is not intended to establish a traditional no-fly zone, requiring constant patrols against other aircraft entering the area — potentially up to 100 miles long and 20 miles deep inside Syria — its proponents recognize the potential for a “slippery slope” into a far more major operation.

Once more, the US cares only about putting more arms and more bombs into the conflict while families starve and go without adequate shelter or cold weather clothing. The Washington Post talked to one family that will be hit hard by the end of the voucher program:

For Syrians such as Mouhanad Mouree, there was shock that he, his wife and their six children may no longer receive their World Food Program vouchers. They fled their home town of Homs seven months ago for Tripoli, a city in northern Lebanon, where they live in a garage for $200 a month. Mouree is especially concerned about his 2-year-old son.

“I can hardly afford diapers and milk for my youngest son, and we freeze in the cold weather because we cannot afford heating with electricity,” he said by telephone. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”

In a war that has cost over 200,000 lives, the US still chooses to put its resources into escalation of the war while ignoring the needs of those who will die of exposure and neglect.

But they hate us for our freedoms.

Seven Month Extension of P5+1 Negotiations? We’d Be Lucky With Seven Weeks

I must confess that I repeatedly put off writing this post. Similarly, the P5+1 countries and Iran now have repeatedly put off finalizing a deal that assures the West that Iran’s nuclear program has no chance to quickly move to a nuclear weapon. I had been operating under the assumption that a final deal would be announced at the November 24 deadline. After all, everything seemed aligned to make a deal seem necessary for both sides. Iran’s economy has been reeling under sanctions for years, but Rouhani’s push for “moderation” had silenced hardliners in his country who see any deal as capitulation. How long Rouhani can hold them back, however, seems to be the biggest mystery. Barack Obama has been waging war seemingly all over the planet, so a deal to avoid another one would be a huge accomplishment for him. And with a new Republican majority set to take over the Senate, meddling by Senate hawks is assured.

But no agreement was reached on Monday’s deadline. Even worse, rumblings that at least a “framework” would be announced also proved to be false. In fact, the framework target is now four months away, with another three months built in to iron out the technical details within that framework.

Jeffrey Lewis sees this long timeframe as delusion:

One wonders what the parties are thinking. Is there any reason to believe that this problem will be easier to solve in four months’ time? Is there any reason to think that, in fact, the parties have four months? Allow me to be the bearer of two items of bad news.

First, the 114th Congress will pass new sanctions legislation. This year, the White House held off the Menendez-Kirk sanctions bill in the Senate by the narrowest of margins. (The House passing sanctions is a formality at this point.) Proponents had the votes — 60 co-sponsors, including 16 Democrats — but then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid refused to let it come to the floor.

Incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell won’t be so accommodating.

/snip/

Second, Iran is continuing research and development on a new generation of centrifuges. A few weeks ago, there was a minor kerfuffle when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was test-feeding a new centrifuge under development called the IR-5. The issue was that Iran had not previously fed uranium hexafluoride into that type of machine. The Iranians denied this was a violation. (The definitive answer depends on “technical understandings” in the implementation agreement that the EU will not make public.)

/snip/

With another extension, though, Iran is free to continue its R&D work on new generations of centrifuges — including resuming testing of the IR-5 and eventually the IR-8.
Oh, yes, the IR-8. The IR-5 is a prelude to this much bigger problem. Iran has declared a new centrifuge model called the IR-8 to the IAEA. (One of these bad boys is sitting at the “pilot” enrichment facility, saying, “Feed me, Seymour.”) The IR-8 is about 16 times more capable than the existing centrifuge types installed at the Natanz fuel enrichment plant.

Even the New York Times editorial page sees the situation as desperate, with extremists starting to salivate over the mayhem they can cause: Continue reading

Did Obama’s Beloved “Moderate” FSA Fighters Flee Aleppo?

The Obama Administration continues to hold onto the fantasy that training and equipping a group of “moderate” rebels in Syria will allow threading the gap between the Bashar al-Assad regime that continues to relentlessly attack its own citizens and the ISIS fighters who behead many of the folks in their path. After all, Obama and his minions seem to want us to to think, the “moderates” only occasionally eat a victim’s heart or behead people after posing for photos with John McCain.

The press in Turkey is reporting that Obama’s centerpiece of the “moderate” rebel movement, the Free Syrian Army, has fled the strategic city of Aleppo where battles have taken place since early in the Syrian civil war. The reports say that within the past two weeks, the new leader of the FSA, Jamal Marouf (previous FSA leader Salem Idris was among those in the famous photo with McCain) fled to Turkey where he is being protected. Iranian news is repeating these reports, with stories in both Fars News and PressTV. Both Iranian stories cite this report from Turkey:

The Free Syrian Army (FSA), the recognized armed opposition group against the Bashar al-Assad in Syria, has ceased its resistance in Aleppo, Syria’s second biggest city, withdrawing its 14,000 militia from the city, a ranking Turkish security source told the Hürriyet Daily News on Nov. 17.

“Its leader Jamal Marouf has fled to Turkey,” confirmed the source, who asked not to be named. “He is currently being hosted and protected by the Turkish state.”

The source did not give an exact date of the escape but said it was within the last two weeks, that is, the first half of November. The source declined to give Marouf’s whereabouts in Turkey.

Wow, so not only did the leader apparently leave, but 14,000 fighters abandoned Aleppo, too? That’s huge. The only Western news story I see so far on this is an AFP story carried by Yahoo News in the UK. The story opens by describing how desperate the refugee problem will be in Turkey if Aleppo has indeed fallen:

Turkey fears another two to three million Syrian refugees could cross its borders if the region of Syria’s second city of Aleppo is overrun either by Islamist extremists or regime forces, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Tuesday.

Turkey is already hosting at least 1.5 million refugees displaced by the Syrian conflict and has repeatedly warned that its capacities are being strained by the numbers.

It takes another sixteen paragraphs or so before getting to the news about Marouf:

Meanwhile the Turkish online newspaper Radikal reported that the chief of the moderate anti-Assad group the Syrian Revolutionary Front, Jamal Maarouf, had fled to Turkey two weeks ago.

There was no confirmation of the report and no further details were immediately available.

But never fear! The article gives us this rosy news as a conclusion:

Media reports said at the weekend that Turkey and the United States have agreed a plan under which some 2,000 FSA fighters would be trained on Turkish soil.

Let’s see, 14,000 troops fled, and now we’re going to train a whopping 2000 to take their place.

Winning!

Afghanistan Misses Deadline for Cabinet Formation

Back in September, I called the final agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah a graft-sharing agreement when it paved the way for Ghani to take office as President while Abdullah would assume the extra-constitutional and John Kerry-created role of Chief Executive Officer. An arbitrary deadline of 45 days had been set for establishing the new cabinet based on the divvying-up of departments under the September agreement. However, as with everything in this painful process, the deadline has passed and there is scant evidence of progress.

ToloNews summarizes the situation:

The 45-day period President Ashraf Ghani hoped it would take to form the new cabinet ended on Thursday without an announcement of appointments. The spokesman for Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah said that while full agreement on the look of the government’s top leadership remains elusive, at least some of the cabinet will be formed prior to the London Conference in early December.

Though the spokesperson for the CEO and those close to the president have indicated the negotiations over the National Unity Government’s cabinet have been time-consuming and arduous, they have disputed rumors that there are major disagreements.

Ghani and Abdullah were said to have had a long meeting Wednesday night, perhaps in hopes of making a last-minute deal before the deadline expired, but concluded it without any suggestion of progression.

After quoting a few more sources providing a rosy picture of “progress” toward developing a cabinet, the article ends with this:

Other sources on condition of anonymity have said that there are still serious differences between Ghani and Abdullah over the new cabinet and so far the two sides have only agreed on general power sharing principles.

That doesn’t sound very promising at all.

At the New York Times, Rod Nordland adds to the pessimism:

Some Western diplomats are worried that continued disagreements between Mr. Ghani and his election rival, Abdullah Abdullah, in forming a unity government could push completion of a cabinet to the end of the year or beyond. That is a troubling state of affairs after a protracted election that had already consumed most of the rest of the year.

One diplomat thought that even seating a cabinet by year’s end was optimistic. “By the end of which year?” he said, “Gregorian or Persian?” The Persian year, which Afghanistan uses, ends on March 20.

Given the history of the electoral battle between Ghani and Abdullah, I wonder if even March is too optimistic. Perhaps in June John Kerry will put a cabinet in place by decree…

Glaring Front Page Error by David Sanger, New York Times as Iran Nuclear Negotiations Near Deadline

See the update below, as of about 2:45 pm, the Times has changed the wording of the erroneous paragraph without adding a note of the correction. Oops. I got off on the wrong paragraph when I checked back. See the comment from Tony Papert below.

For someone who has written on a range of technical issues for many years, the error committed last night by David Sanger could not be worse nor come at a worse time for the important events he is attempting to cover. In an article put up last night on the New York Times website and apparently carried on page A1 of today’s print edition, Sanger and the Times have garbled a key point at the heart of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations as they near the critical November 24 deadline for achieving a full agreement on the heels of last year’s interim agreement.

The article ostensibly was to announce a major breakthrough in the negotiations, although Gareth Porter had worked out the details of the progress last week. Here is what Porter deduced:

The key to the new approach is Iran’s willingness to send both its existing stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) as well as newly enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel for power plants for an agreed period of years.

In the first official indication of the new turn in the negotiations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham acknowledged in a briefing for the Iranian press Oct. 22 that new proposals combining a limit on centrifuges and the transfer of Iran’s LEU stockpile to Russia were under discussion in the nuclear negotiations.

The briefing was translated by BBC’s monitoring service but not reported in the Western press.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who heads the U.S. delegation to the talks, has not referred publicly to the compromise approach, but she appeared to be hinting at it when she said on Oct. 25 that the two sides had “made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable.”

As Porter goes on to explain, such an arrangement would allow Iran to maintain a large number of centrifuges continuing to enrich uranium, but because there would be no stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), the “breakout time” (time required to highly enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon) would remain at about a year. By having Russia convert the LEU to fuel rods for Iran’s nuclear power plant, that LEU would be removed from any easy pathway to a weapon. This would provide Iran the “win” of maintaining its present level of around 10,000 operational centrifuges but give the P5+1 its goal of a longer breakout time. The key here is that unlike a proposal in 2005 where Russia would take over enrichment for Iran, this new proposal would allow Iran to continue its enrichment program while shipping virtually all of of its LEU to Russia for conversion to fuel rods.

Sanger appears to start off on the right track with his article:

Iran has tentatively agreed to ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia if it reaches a broader nuclear deal with the West, according to officials and diplomats involved in the negotiations, potentially a major breakthrough in talks that have until now been deadlocked.

Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon.

But about halfway through the article, Sanger displays a shocking ignorance of the real points of recent negotiations and somehow comes to the conclusion that Russia would be taking over enrichment for Iran rather than converting LEU into fuel rods:

For Russia, the incentives for a deal are both financial and political. It would be paid handsomely for enriching Iran’s uranium, continuing the monopoly it has in providing the Iranians with a commercial reactor, and putting it in a good position to build the new nuclear power reactors that Iran has said it intends to construct in the future. And it also places President Vladimir V. Putin at the center of negotiations that may well determine the future of the Middle East, a position he is eager to occupy.

Somehow, Sanger and his New York Times editors and fact-checkers are stuck in 2005, suggesting that Iran would negotiate away its entire enrichment program. Such a drastic move would never be contemplated by Iran today and we are left to wonder whether this language found its way into the Times article through mere incompetence or more nefarious motives meant to disrupt any possible deal by providing false information to hardliners in Iran.

At the time of this writing (just before 9 am on November 4), the Times still has not added any correction or clarification to the article, despite the error being pointed out on Twitter just after 10:30 pm last night (be sure to read the ensuing Twitter conversation where Laura Rozen and Cheryl Rofer work out the nature of the error).

Update: And now, around 2:45 in the afternoon, I see that the Times has changed the erroneous paragraph. So far, I don’t see a note that a correction has been made. Here is the edited paragraph:

Russia’s calculus is also complex. It stands to gain financially from the deal, but it also has an incentive to see the nuclear standoff between Iran and the rest of the world continue, because an embargo keeps Iranian oil off the market. With oil prices falling, a flood of exports from Iran could further depress prices.

Will they ever get around to adding a note? I’ll keep an eye out. Well dang, this is embarrassing. I went to the wrong paragraph when I looked back. The article is still unchanged. Thanks to Tony Papert in comments for catching my bone-headedness.

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emptywheel Add torture and the Internet dragnet to Bush programs partly justified by a fabricator. http://t.co/b5LvTDojEX
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JimWhiteGNV RT @GreggJLevine: How false witness helped CIA make a case for torture //very excited to welcome @emptywheel to the pages of @AJAM http://t…
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emptywheel RT @GreggJLevine: How false witness helped CIA make a case for torture //very excited to welcome @emptywheel to the pages of @AJAM http://t…
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JimWhiteGNV Werner was basketball Driskel. RT @gatorhoops: @APMarkLong Werner had Charlie Brown syndrome, a.knack.for making losing plays.
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JimWhiteGNV One of four genetic tests #FBI used on #anthrax samples had 43% false negative rate. Still used it! #Amerithrax https://t.co/3yUk5sKX7n
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JimWhiteGNV Re-upping: GAO Analysis Highlights Lab Samples Excluded in Sloppy FBI Anthrax Investigation https://t.co/tayFUfUjol
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bmaz @goodyk Had to go to the airport. Which prevented me from saying you were right. Ugh.
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bmaz @robertcaruso @KatieSimpsonCTV Hey, in Ohio that person would be dead; the border is apparently safer!
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bmaz @goodyk Meh, I think the defense looks different if they were not gambling and pressing because there is no possibility of offense.
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bmaz @goodyk No. But would really like to have seen how this game went with Carson Palmer, or, really, any quarterback, around.
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