A long, tense public session in the UN Security Council yesterday on a resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down and allow a transitional government to be formed can be summed up with one word: "Nyet."
That appeared to be the position of veto-wielding UNSC member Russia. The NATO intervention in Libya, which tipped the scales of that country's rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi, infuriated Russia, which says it's taking a hard line now to prevent a repeat.
Following Syria's war from abroad can lead to a day filled with horrors. Social media networks are filled with daily footage of the carnage uploaded by amateur cameramen and pictures of the dead and dying – men, women, and children all. But the excitement of 2011 about the Arab uprisings internationally has started to wane. At the start of last year, it seemed the whole region could be transformed with nary a shot being fired. Now that optimism has been replaced with an almost numbing wash of pictures and videos that, due to their very ubiquity, are losing their power to mobilize international action.
Years ago, when I went to work for the Far Eastern Economic Review, my boss John McBeth summed up successful magazine writing in two words. "Think pictures," he told me then. And he was right. If a story could be built around arresting images, it always had much more impact.
In the late 1990s, I covered the end of Indonesia's long occupation in East Timor. Many of the Timorese activists and rebel fighters who had opposed Indonesia's invasion of East Timor in 1975 and annexation of the former Portuguese colony were convinced that a single piece of footage had tipped the international scales in their favor. In 1991, a British journalist going by the name Max Stahl (his real name is Christopher Wenner) had sneaked into the territory and was filming a protest march at Santa Cruz cemetery in Dili when a confrontation with Indonesian soldiers devolved into a massacre.
Dozens were killed, and when the footage was slipped out of the country and ended up being run on broadcasts around the world, it inspired an international solidarity campaign for East Timor that put pressure on Indonesian allies likes Australia and the US. In 1996, East Timor's main international advocate José Ramos-Horta (currently the tiny country's president) and Dili-based Bishop Carlos Belo were awarded the Nobel Prize, upping their own profiles and the ante against Indonesia.
When Indonesia's dictator Suharto fell in 1998, a large segment of Indonesia's establishment had tired of constant international opprobrium over Timor. The country's longstanding foreign minister Ali Alatas called Timor "the pebble in our shoe" and an exhausted Indonesia allowed Timor to go via a UN-sponsored independence referendum, albeit with a punishing scorched earth coda as Indonesian troops withdrew.
When the rare becomes commonplace
That was the power of images then, not so very long ago. But what had been a rare journalistic feat is now commonplace. Anyone with an Internet connection can fill their days looking at footage of protests, shootings, and their aftermath. But their ubiquity has drained images of some of their power.
To be sure, it isn't entirely clear what comes next. The Syrian regime isn't giving up, and its opponents don't appear to be willing to give in. Monday was filled with fighting across Syria, and every sign is that battles raged again today. In addition to rebel strongholds like Homs and Hama, opposition has spread to the outskirts of Damascus, with the Saqba and Maleiha areas apparently in rebel control, and Assad's troops pushing to regain full control of the capital.
The draft resolution against Syria at the UN appears to be a dead letter, but its language is stronger than an earlier version that Russia and China opposed, reflecting the frustration of countries like the US with the ongoing carnage in Syria. On Monday, for instance, fierce fighting in Homs left the dead scattered across a public street.
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On Sunday, a group of Egyptian officers landed in the US to lobby for their annual $1.3 billion stipend form Congress to keep flowing. Not coincidentally, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, to ask a little favor at about the same time. Would he please lift the travel ban on a group of Americans working on democracy promotion in Egypt?
The answer, apparently, was no. Tonight the Americans, a group of employees for the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), are holed up in the US Embassy in Cairo, avoiding possible arrest.
One of them is Sam LaHood, IRI's Egypt director and the son of US President Barack Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The US-funded groups' offices were raided in December, cash and equipment confiscated by armed Egyptian security officers. A number of their local executives have been banned from leaving Egypt pending a criminal investigation, and the US Embassy has taken the group in on concerns that further measures will be taken against them.
How badly are Egypt's military rulers handling the relationship with the US? This badly: The lobbyists representing Egypt's interests in DC, led by former Representatives Robert Livingston (R) of Louisiana and Toby Moffet (D) of Connecticut, dropped their $90,000 a month contract a few days ago. The two former Congressmen had stuck with Egypt as Mubarak refused to step down last January, as the military killed and jailed protesters throughout the course of last year, and even defended the December NGO raids. But the direct targeting of the Americans, most with ties to the DC establishment, was a bridge too far.
Egypt's aggressive moves against IRI, NDI and others reflects the longstanding desire of Egypt's rulers, whether the junta running the show now or Hosni Mubarak before them, to control money flowing to domestic groups. Egypt has refused to grant operating licenses to either IRI or NDI despite multiple requests -- yet has allowed them to operate mostly unmolested (except for shutting them down for a time in 2006) for years.
Egypt describes its investigation into the groups for illegally funding Egyptian NGO's as a matter of national sovereignty. But spearheading the movement against the NGOs has been Minister of International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga, who has for years pushed for America's economic aid to Egypt to be put into an endowment fully under Egypt's control, without preconditions.
Ms. Abul Naga demanded the criminal investigations that led to the raids. When she served Mubarak, her concern was the prevent the flow of foreign money to pro-democracy groups and regime opponents, something she was largely successful at. And if Egypt had simply been interested in restricting the activities of the NGOs, there would have been much less provocative means of going about it.
Egypt's funding is now on the line. While the $1.3 billion per year has generally been treated like an annuity, the Egyptian officers currently in the States are going to get an earful when they make their case for cash in Washington (and without their long time lobbyists to help out). Expect a climbdown by Abul Naga and her bosses in SCAF.
Reports that as many as 10 members of the 15-member UN Security Council support a proposal to ask Syria's Bashar al-Assad to step down to end the war in his homeland sparked a flurry of optimistic speculation in the press this morning.
The speculation missed two things:
B. Russia has repeatedly vowed to veto any Security Council action, no matter how toothless. Mr. Assad has repeatedly insisted he isn't going anywhere and his bloody, extended crackdown against his opponents across the country is evidence of his determination.
What the UN drama really boils down to is an awareness by France, the US, and other concerned countries that they're not going to act unilaterally and that there's little likelihood of collective action. The NATO intervention in Libya, backed by the UN and the Arab League, amounted to a perfect case for a limited intervention.
In addition to Muammar Qaddafi having practically no friends left in the world except for some members of the African Union, the country's topography lent itself well to a use of air power and its war was unlikely to have major ramifications for neighbors. It didn't hurt that Qaddafi had lost control of a large swath of his country to the rebellion before NATO decided to act.
Syria's rebellion is nowhere near as advanced. It lives in a much less stable neighborhood, and any bombing campaign would require a lot of strikes in towns and cities, with the likelihood of large numbers of civilian casualties. And, of course, countries like Russia who went along unwillingly with the intervention in Libya have vowed not to tolerate any such action again.
So don't look to the UN for progress in Syria. And certainly don't look to the Arab League, whose observer mission to Syria was pretty clearly a waste of time form the moment it began. For now, the solution to Syria's war will be internal and probably not negotiated. The self-styled Free Syrian Army, composed mostly of Sunni Muslim defectors from Assad's army, has grown bolder in its attacks on government forces. The Monitor's Nick Blanford wrote a good piece today on its growing influence – and its requests for Western help.
Its members are well aware of the tens of thousands of Syrians whom Assad's father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, had killed in Hama in 1982 to put down an uprising and that they probably won't be well treated if they surrender. And after so much blood being spilled, including stories of children being tortured to death in government custody, Assad's opponents kissing and making up with the government would seem a big stretch.
On the government side, Assad's minority Alawite sect is likely to fight fiercely to keep what's theirs, and fear the erosion of their privileged position in Syrian society if political change. As things are pitched now, it looks like more war, with Assad continuing to hold the upper hand.
The UN is largely talking to itself when it considers a draft resolution about Assad stepping down, handing power to a Sunni deputy, and then forming a "national unity government." Similar proposals were made during the Libyan war. But Libya's rebels had no trust in Qaddafi, much as Syria's don't have trust in Assad. It's possible the UN is going to find a breakthrough here, but that's not the way to bet.
The international focus may be on Iran's nuclear program and all the war talk that's surrounded it. But less noticed is that Iran is gearing up for parliamentary elections in March. Every early sign is that it will be as closely controlled an affair as the 2009 presidential contest that kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in power for a second term.
Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei may have called Mr. Ahmadinejad's landslide victory a "divine assessment." But forces other than God probably had a hand in Ahmadinejad's victory; there was strong evidence of widespread fraud, which sparked protests on a scale not seen since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
While those protests have since been quashed, the grievances behind them remain. If anything, they have gathered in strength, with an economy suffering blows from US-led international sanctions and ongoing crackdowns against citizens. The smart money is on a parliamentary election whose results are massaged, much as the presidential elections were. But even fixed results will still show shifts in Iran's complex political landscape.
All of this matters because Iran isn't the religious dictatorship that the West imagines. A democracy? Hardly. But there are factions within the elite, and powerful forces in broader society that have influence. Supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's power may be vast, and in theory stems from him being an emissary of God on earth, but in practice he has to bow to more prosaic concerns. There has been persistent speculation throughout the year that Ayatollah Khamenei is fed up with Mr. Ahmadinejad's obsession with end-times millenarian beliefs, representing just one of the fissures on the right in Iran.
Though the country is putting on a brave face internationally, there is evidence that the contradiction of having nominally democratic institutions under a theocratic umbrella is growing ever tougher to sustain. The country is desperately trying to tamp down on the free flow of information.
Journalists, computer programmers targeted
Human Rights Watch reports that 10 journalists and bloggers have been arrested since the start of the year and the arrests "appear to be part of the government’s most recent campaign to disrupt the free flow of information ahead of parliamentary elections."
Most of those were arrested by armed government agents storming their homes. Human Rights Watch says all of the detainees "have been associated with reformist papers or websites critical of government policies."
The Committee to Protect Journalists says that Iran had 42 reporters locked up last year, the highest number in the world.
Earlier this month Vahid Ashgari, a computer programmer who has been in detention since 2008, was sentenced to death for spreading "corruption." He says that under torture he confessed to being involved in pornography, a capital crime in the Islamist Republic. Until his detention, he'd been involving in helping to set up websites critical of the government.
Last week the government also sentenced Saeed Malekpour, detained since 2008, to death. Mr. Malekpour is a computer programmer resident in Canada who was detained on a trip home to visit relatives. His pornography conviction stems from his development of an Internet photo-sharing tool that has been used by others to share pornography.
Amir Hekmati, an American-Iranian and former Marine translator, was also seized on a home visit and sentenced to death earlier this month, in his case on charges of spying, notwithstanding that he'd informed the Iranian government of his past in the US military and his travel plans before his visit.
Strict monitoring of online activity
And beyond Iran's arrests of reporters and death sentences, there are other attempts to intimidate would-be cyber dissidents.
This month, new rules require Iran's Internet cafes to install monitoring cameras and maintain logs of all browsing history, as well as requiring photo IDs from customers. Iranians complain that browsing speeds have been throttled down, access to many websites are blocked, and the security services have stepped up their monitoring of social networks. With the use of the Internet to organize protests in Iran in the past, and more successfully in Egypt and other Arab states in 2011, Tehran is determined to deny that outlet to unhappy citizens.
The big international news story will remain the fear and posturing around Iran's nuclear program, including its repeated recent threats to shut the Strait of Hormuz and drive up international oil prices (Scott Peterson looks at Iran's ability to do this in a piece yesterday). Ahmadinejad may insist that international economic sanctions can't hurt his country. But the rial has tumbled to record lows against the dollar recently and the Iranian Central Bank this week increased the interest for some deposits to 21 percent in an attempt to shore up its beleaguered currency.
That's the atmosphere ahead of the March elections. While the Green Movement doesn't appear from the outside to be anywhere close to what it was, the men running the show in Iran appear to be taking no chances.
The junta that runs Egypt has banned a group of Americans and Europeans working on democracy promotion from leaving the country, among them the son of Ray LaHood, President Obama's Transportation secretary.
Sam LaHood, the director of the International Republican Institute's (IRI) Cairo office, told the Associated Press that he was turned away at the airport last Saturday as he sought to fly out of the country. It has since emerged that a number of other employees of foreign NGOs have been barred from departing, stemming from the December raids by Egypt's ruling military on their offices, among them those of the National Democratic Institute (NDI).
The raids on groups that had been operating openly in Egypt for years, albeit without official licenses and occasionally subject to state harassment, appeared to be a warning from Egypt's military rulers, known as the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF), against pushing for too much change too fast.
It's hard to imagine the US, which has given Egypt roughly $2 billion per year in aid since the country signed its peace accord with Israel in 1979, turning its back on Egypt. But if Egypt's ruling generals were looking for a way to push the Obama administration in that direction, targeting the son of a cabinet secretary and others would be a very good way to go about it.
Real fear of foreign conspiracies?
What is going on here? Though the xenophobia of Egypt's rulers is often treated as a pose, going after these US government-funded groups makes it almost seem as if they believe their own propaganda. Perhaps they have in fact convinced themselves that all opposition to military trials for civilians, or demands that their frequently unchecked power be removed, stem from foreign agitation, and that all "real" Egyptians are behind them.
On the other hand, the targeted NGOs are groups with reasonably long track records in Egypt, and well known to the state bureaucracy. The military could have forced them to close up shop without an investigation and the threat of criminal charges, and Washington would have grumbled. But the travel bans have pushed the issue front and center and will require stern US diplomatic engagement. It's hard to imagine that the head of SCAF, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and his fellow officers wouldn't have anticipated this – or what they think they gain.
Why Egypt raided NGO offices
Egypt alleged that the groups were illegally funding local political groups, and seized computers, documents, and cash in the armed raid. But preventing their executives from traveling – presumably because criminal charges may be brought against them – is a major escalation.
Both IRI and NDI have run into trouble with Egypt's rulers in the past, but problems were eventually smoothed over. The work of both organizations is hardly radical, with a focus on teaching NGOs how to craft messages and manage budgets, and political parties the importance of polling and using focus groups. After Egypt briefly shut down both groups a few years ago, they found new ways to operate by working with the state. NDI, for instance, kept state security informed of all their programs in advance.
Now, SCAF is escalating tensions at a time when Egypt needs international funds more than ever.
Official statistics showed tourism dropped by 30 percent last year, and some officials privately say the decline was greater. Wealthy Egyptians have moved cash offshore, in a climate where criminal proceedings are ongoing against many close to the old regime, and many more are afraid that they will eventually be targeted.
Foreign investment, with plenty of domestic upheaval, has likewise dried up. Egypt's foreign reserves halved last year, and are now down to about $18 billion, a perilously small number for a country with 80 million people, the majority of whom rely on government fuel and bread subsidies.
A state too big to fail
As a practical matter, assuming the charges are eventually dropped, it's unlikely the US will turn its back on the military, or Egypt more generally. The country is in many ways too big to fail in the eyes of the US, with its peace deal with Israel and the emerging political power of the Muslim Brotherhood. After years of the State Department giving Egypt's most popular opposition movement the cold shoulder, US Ambassador Anne Patterson has been reaching out to them in recent weeks. Perhaps that's what the military is banking on.
Egypt's finances practically dictate that the country will be going cap in hand abroad for cash in the near future. The US would usually be a first port of call, as would the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where Washington has considerable sway. All of this would argue that cooler heads will prevail. But the message from SCAF to Washington today feels like, "You need us more than we care about you."
Perhaps it's a posture to remind America not to oppose the military's interests as Egypt turns towards presidential elections and rewriting a constitution in a way that many activists hope will clips the military's wings.
But in an election year, with Obama's rivals looking for ways to show the president is easily pushed around abroad, this could become a bigger issue. This week, at least, SCAF is playing a dangerous game.
The war drums on Iran continue to beat onward. Hawkish editorials and opinion pieces adopt the style and content of articles from a decade ago, in which a Middle Eastern country run by a "madman" was on the brink of obtaining weapons of mass destruction – weapons that would almost certainly be used to threaten the security of the world.
The older articles were about Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein almost certainly had (except he didn't). The current crop are about Iran. Front and center is an op-ed by Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal yesterday titled "The mortal threat from Iran." He writes that the "primitive religious fanatics" who rule Iran don't think rationally about their own nation's interests, and that, absent a US attack soon, "Iran will get nuclear weapons, which in its eyes are an existential necessity."
Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute in California, even echoes Condoleezza Rice's January 2003 warning that the smoking gun of an Iraqi nuclear program could be a "mushroom cloud." He writes: "We cannot dismiss the possibility of Iranian nuclear charges of 500 pounds or less ending up in Manhattan or on Pennsylvania Avenue."
RELATED: Iran nuclear program: 5 key sites
To be sure, Iraq and Iran are not the same; Iran is indeed enriching uranium, a key component of a nuclear weapon. But the fear-mongering sounds the same. What today's arguments about Iran ignore, however – much as the arguments in favor of the Iraq war ignored – was the position of the US intelligence community that Iran is not currently building a nuclear weapon. The US position appears to be that Iran is seeking the ability to build a weapon, without actually taking that final step.
Two weekends ago, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said: "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability and that's what concerns us and our red line to Iran is: Do not develop a nuclear weapon."
And it's not just the US assessment. Israel's liberal newspaper Haaretz reported yesterday that "Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb, according to the intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to [visiting] Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff." Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak poured cold water on speculation that his country is planning a unilateral attack against Iran. "This entire thing is very far off. I don’t want to provide estimates [but] it’s certainly not urgent," he said.
To be sure, there are concerns. US, European, and Israeli officials suspect that Iran is concealing much of its nuclear work, which it insists is for peaceful purposes only, and that weapons-related work that they don't know about could be taking place. The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, told the Financial Times' German edition yesterday: "What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons," according to a Reuters translation.
But the flow of recent statements has been mostly in the opposite direction. Concern? Yes. Redoubled efforts to use sanctions to force more light onto Iran's nuclear activities? Yes, absolutely. Hair-on-fire panic? No.
The tone from private-sector analysts is something else, however. One of the latest examples is from Jamie M. Fly and Gary Schmitt, writing in Foreign Affairs. They even quote former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's line about "known unknowns," (that is, things that Saddam Hussein might be hiding) being a cause to consider going to war with Iraq in February 2002.
They write that in the case of Iran, the "known unknowns" are "troubling," and go on to outline a case for a broad US war to bring down the Islamic Republic. Having asserted that US airstrikes targeting Iran's nuclear sites would probably fail in ending the program, they write: "Given the likely fallout from even a limited military strike, the question the United States should ask itself is, Why not take the next step? After all, Iran's nuclear program is a symptom of a larger illness – the revolutionary fundamentalist regime in Tehran."
They then suggest that a broad US air campaign against Iran would be popular with Iranians. "It is sometimes said that a strike would lead the population to rally around the regime. In fact, given the unpopularity of the government, it seems more likely that the population would see the regime's inability to forestall the attacks as evidence that the emperor has no clothes and is leading the country into needlessly desperate straits. If anything, Iranian nationalism and pride would stoke even more anger at the current regime."
That flies in the face of Iranian history and what most Iranians – including members of the Green Movement – say about how the population would respond to war. While there is clearly great discontent with the regime, and many millions of Iranians would like to throw off clerical rule, the history of Iran suggests that war would probably result in an uptick in support for the regime, confronted as it would be by a hostile foreign power. When Saddam Hussein gambled that Iran was weak in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution and went to war, the result was a rallying of support for the fledgling Iranian regime and a ruinous war that helped the country's new theocrats consolidate their power.
For now, the war talk looks set to go on. But with Iranian parliamentary elections scheduled for March – a chance for the opposition to perhaps show its political strength, or another occasion for Iran's rulers to fix the results, as happened in the 2009 presidential reelection – the chances of action soon are vanishingly slim. Diplomats and leaders, from President Obama to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will sit back awhile and watch to see if sanctions are working, if the regime will start to unravel from within, well aware that wars are much easier to start than to get out of.
"Deplorable," says Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"The culprits and those who trained them in such a way that these simpletons thought this was acceptable should be punished to set an example," says Pat Lang, a former special forces officer who fought in Vietnam.
The video that emerged online this week was filmed by the participants, yucking it up as they urinate on the dead bodies of presumed insurgents – whose bare feet and tattered clothes are a sharp contrast to the well-equipped Americans. Next to them lies a small, overturned wheelbarrow.
While callous and shocking to the vast majority of Americans who have never been anywhere near combat, I felt no surprise watching the video. Only sadness. It's a point well made by Mr. Exum in his post on the matter (which includes some links to WWII propaganda posters showing how much worse the dehumanizing of the enemy was back in the day).
One big difference today is the diffusion of camera phones and other media allow the ugly dehumanizing effect of war to go viral. In a way, I am glad. Since so few Americans actually fight in our wars, it's good that Americans see the effect war can have on other people's sons and daughters.
War is an awful human experience. It is sometimes necessary, but it is never sanitary.
RELATED: Iraq war, by the numbers
This is not to say that such incidents are common among US soldiers these days. Far from it. Most noncommissioned officers and officers maintain unit discipline. And given the proliferation of cheap digital cameras among soldiers and marines who, after are all are often prone to highly inappropriate jokes (nearly 40 percent of the Marine Corps, for instance, is under 22 years old), it surprises me that there there haven't been more videos like this. That speaks well of the honor and discipline of the vast majority of those who have served.
But the gallows humor and contempt for the enemy on display in this video isn't far from what you would experience embedded with any combat group. In 2004 in Iraq, I saw a US tank rolling through central Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood with a slogan stenciled on its gun: "Allah my ass!"
I'm sure the young soldier who put it there thought he was being funny. But someone higher up the chain of command didn't stop it before the tank left base and became a rolling symbol of contempt for the faith of Iraq's people.
In groups that have lost men or been under extreme fire, hatred, and anger flow freely.
Every war will have bodies desecrated, massacres of the unarmed (as occurred in Haditha, Iraq, after a young marine was killed by an IED and his buddies went on a rampage, killing more than 20 local residents), and abuse of prisoners (Abu Ghraib is but one example; our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan have viciously tortured prisoners, as have our enemies). In WWII, mutilation of the enemy dead was far from uncommon.
In the past decade, there have been many more incidents when US troops have stepped in to stop abuses. In Anbar province in 2005, I was with a Marine unit who had to stop Iraqi government forces, a mostly Shiite unit, from burning and looting the cars of Sunni civilians at a traffic stop. The US army helped uncover and stop secret Iraqi government torture centers in Baghdad in 2006 (though, sadly, they were quickly reopened elsewhere).
The military is investigating, and appears to have identified the four marines. Their military careers, it's safe to say, are close to over and a court martial is almost certain. A deeper look into the Marine unit involved and its command environment is coming down the pike. That's as it should be.
But remember that if you put enough men in combat, for enough time, this sort of thing is likely to happen.
Evidence of a covert war against Iran's nuclear program is mounting. Yesterday's assassination of an Iranian scientist tied to the program is just the most recent data point in the last year that indicates an accelerating effort to spread fear and slow the country's nuclear work.
Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, a chemist who the Iranian state press says was the marketing director for Iran's Natanz nuclear facility, was the latest victim. He was killed by a small bomb affixed to the underside of his car, the same method used to murder nuclear physicist Massoud Ali Mohammadi in Tehran exactly a year ago. In all, four scientists connected to nuclear work in Iran have been killed since the start of 2010.
In September 2010, the Stuxnet computer virus, the most sophisticated cyberweapon deployed in history, was uncovered. The virus – which computer security efforts said was too complex to have been built without a large team and extensive resources – targeted Iranian nuclear enrichment centrifuges designed to produce highly enriched uranium, slowing Iran's enrichment for months.
Though Iran says its nuclear program is simply meant to produce power, highly enriched uranium could also be used in the production of a nuclear bomb – the aspect of the program that US and Israeli officials find most worrying.
Whoever is responsible, the murders appear to be as much about spreading terror as they are about stopping the nuclear program. Iran has legions of capable engineers, and none of the victims appear to have had indispensable knowledge or abilities. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran's main nuclear research complex in Isfahan probably has 3,000 employees alone, and the there are about 10 other major nuclear sites in the country.
But spreading fear among the living can slow them down, spread confusion, or deter young recruits. If scientists became frightened enough, they might be reluctant to travel to work or conferences inside the country. Meanwhile, enhanced security measures at the sites could prove cumbersome.
RELATED: 5 key Iranian nuclear sites
In November 2010, Majid Shahriari, a nuclear engineer at Shahid Beheshti University in Tehran, was killed by a car bomb. In July 2011, engineer Darioush Rezaeinejad, believed to be working within Iran's secretive nuclear program, was gunned down in the street. Last November, Maj. Gen. Hassan Moghaddam, considered the father of Iran's missile program, died with 16 others in a still unexplained explosion at a military base.
If Ian Fleming's super-villain Auric Goldfinger, the antagonist in the Bond book of the same name, was right to say once is coincidence, twice is happenstance, and three times is enemy action, then there should be little doubt that a coordinated assassination campaign has been under way in Iran for some time. Suspicion has turned to Israel, since it's the nation most alarmed by Iran's nuclear program and has carried out assassination efforts abroad in the past. After the 2010 murder of a senior Hamas official in Dubai, strong circumstantial evidence pointed to the Mossad, Israel's secret intelligence service.
After Gen. Moghaddam's death, Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor told Israel's Army Radio that "not every explosion over there should be tied to espionage and stories from the movies," though he went on to imply that Israel was willing to use violence over Iran's nuclear program. "There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways," Mr. Meridor said then.
Israeli officials have been studiously ambiguous in their comments on the murders in Iran. That would make sense if Israel was responsible – and if it wasn't. After all, if the murders are being carried out by someone else (perhaps the US, though the White House says the US was not involved, or perhaps as part of some internal Iranian rivalry), it doesn't hurt to get some of the credit, particularly if it has the consequence of creating more fear and doubt in an enemy state.
"There are other messages in these campaigns: one is to terrorize those who are working in [the nuclear program] already. The second is targeted to young scientists thinking of joining," Haaretz columnist Yossi Melman told the Monitor's Joshua Mitnick for a story we published this morning. "The third message is to the regime and population: The message is, 'We can get you anywhere, any time.' The regime is seen as weak."
Is any of this having the desired effect? Iran has continued to insist that it's nuclear work will stream ahead and that it won't be cowed.
In a letter to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, Iran's UN Ambassador Mohammad Khazaee asked for the international community "to condemn, in the strongest terms, these inhumane terrorist acts" and said Iran will not be deterred. "Any kind of political and economic pressures or terrorist attacks targeting the Iranian nuclear scientists, could not prevent our nation in exercising this right" to nuclear program, he wrote.
But Iran is increasingly isolated, and the odds for international support over the killings are slim. As Reuters pointed out yesterday, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to condemn an alleged Iranian plot to kill Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the US last year, but has not taken action to condemn the murders of Iran's scientists.
Analysts have speculated that centrifuge problems at Natanz were caused by Stuxnet and slowed down production rates for months. As for the killings, there has been no evidence yet of scientists abandoning the nuclear program out of fear, or of the loss of a key member of the Iranian team.
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said over the weekend that sanctions and international pressure against Iran's nuclear program are "working," and indeed, crushing financial sanctions are probably doing more to complicate Iran's nuclear work than any covert efforts from abroad. Asked about Iran's intentions, Mr. Panetta said, "Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they're trying to develop a nuclear capability and that's what concerns us and our red line to Iran is: Do not develop a nuclear weapon."
By "capability" he's referring to Iran developing all the know-how and material needed for a bomb, without taking the final step towards assembly, perhaps keeping that in reserve for a moment when they felt threatened enough – or secure enough – to go the final few yards.
But fear can be a double-edged sword. Were Iran to successfully build a bomb, the nature of the whole game would be changed. Efforts to stop its nuclear work would of necessity shift towards finding ways to live with a new nuclear power – just as the world had to learn to live with first a nuclear China, then later a nuclear Israel, India, and Pakistan.
RELATED: 5 key Iranian nuclear sites
The information warriors at the Pentagon probably can't believe their luck.
Iran has spent much of the past month crowing about how it could shut down the Strait of Hormuz -- a choke-point for vast quantities of seaborne oil for nearly 40 percent of the world -- and said it was "warning" the US to keep its ships out of the Persian Gulf. The US, as a far greater naval power, with a naval base in Bahrain, and an interest in keeping sea lanes open, brushed off the Iranian threat.
Though tensions have continued to rise, with Iran sentencing Iranian-American Amir Mirzaei Hekmati to death yesterday for allegedly spying (his family says he returned to Iran to visit his grandmother) and new US sanctions on Iran's central bank, two peaceful opportunities to underscore the US naval reach in the region literally fell into America's lap.
Last week, the Navy destroyer USS Kidd swept in and rescued 13 Iranian fishermen who'd been held hostage on their small boat by Somali pirates for over a month. The fishermen, who'd been through a "horrific" ordeal according to one of their American rescuers, were given food, medical treatment, and enough fuel to steam home.
Today, the US Coast Guard got into the act. The Coast Guard provides security for the US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain and patrols the Persian Gulf. Patrol boat Monomoy responded to a distress call from the Iranian cargo dhow, Ya-Hussayn, at about 3 am this morning. The boat was taking on water and had a fire in the engine room and the Monomoy took its six person crew aboard.
The US sailors gave the Iranians a halal meal ("Halal meals are in accordance with Islamic law and are stored aboard U.S. Coast Guard ships to provide to Muslim mariners in distress," the US 5th Fleet helpfully explains), blankets, and minor medical assistance before transferring them to the Iranian Coast Guard's Naji 7 an hour and a half later.
Small cargo boats routinely ply the waters of the Gulf from Iran to Dubai, Manama, and other entrepôts on the Arab western coast. Though the word "dhow" was traditionally used to describe single-masted vessels, rigged with triangular sails, it's sometimes used generically for "cargo boat" in the region.
In the past, Iranian forces haven't been as friendly to civilian mariners in the Gulf. In 2009, Iran's navy seized a British yacht in the Strait of Hormuz, which is just 30 miles wide at its narrowest point and the gateway to the Gulf. The Kingdom of Bahrain's five crew members were held for a few days in Iran and at one point threatened with prosecution before their release. In 2007, Iran seized and held 15 British sailors and marines who allegedly entered Iranian waters while they were patrolling the Iraqi coast. It released them after two weeks.
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Thomas Friedman is a prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, who travels the world meeting influential people and sharing his thoughts about global progress. Because Mr. Friedman is enormously influential, with a cabinet full of Pulitzer prizes, it's important to set the record straight when he gets some facts wrong – as he did in a speech Monday at the American University in Cairo (AUC).
Reading Al Ahram's and The Daily News Egypt's accounts of the event, I found three apparent errors of fact made by the columnist.
1. Partially explaining the success of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in recent Egyptian parliamentary elections, Mr. Friedman said: "The Muslim Brotherhood is legitimate, authentic, progressive alternative. Only faced by the four-month old liberals, they had to win." Al Ahram's English edition quoted him as saying Egypt's "liberal parties ... are only four months old."
Four-month-old liberals? Friedman's point was that the Brotherhood has been around for over 80 years, and was therefore better prepared than secular opponents for Egypt's fairest elections in at least a generation. But this doesn't track the actual history.
While many new parties have sprung up since the Tahrir protests last year, a number of Egyptian liberal parties have been around as long or longer than the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party. The Wafd Party, which appears to have come in third in the election, was founded in the early 20th century, and was reformed in the early 70s. The Tagammu Party, another secular group with socialist roots, also ran in the recent elections and was formed in the 70s.
2. Asked about "the future of Egypt’s free-market economy under an Islamist-led government," Friedman answered, in the words of Al Ahram, that "Islamists would eventually be forced to adapt to 'modernity.' He pointed out that the relatively lenient positions adopted by Islamist parties on certain controversial issues – like the regulations governing Egypt’s tourism industry – represented a clear indication of this trend."
His view that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood will moderate their positions as they're finally faced with the task of governing isn't an unusual one. But the way he responded to the specific question suggests that he doesn't know that, on economics, the Muslim Brotherhood are basically free-market capitalists. He appears to think they have some kind of "pre-modern" thinking about economics.
3. According to Al Ahram, "Friedman went on to draw a comparison between the Egyptian and Indonesian models. In the latter case, Islamist parties swept democratically-held elections in the 1990s, but soon lost ground after failing to meet voters' expectations."
Islamist parties did not win an Indonesian election in the 1990s, or since. Under Suharto, the Islamist United Development Party (PPP) was one of three legally allowed parties, but the elections were rigged in favor of his secular Golkar Party. In the first post-Suharto election of 1999, Islamist parties finished well behind secular parties. They have not come close to winning an election since and had their worst showing of the post-Suharto era in the most recent parliamentary election, in 2009.
But Friedman did go on to say that Rick Santorum has no chance of becoming the next US president, something that appears to be correct, given the huge polling lead Mitt Romney has over his Republican rivals. So it wasn't all bad.