Good Reads: Dissecting Iran assassination plot, a broken America, and Qatar's rise (video)

Newspapers are picking holes in an alleged Iranian assassination plot against a Saudi diplomat, while George Packer offers up a sharp analysis of a US that can upgrade its iPhones but can't fix its bridges. And what's up with Qatar?

Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) gestures as he attends an official meeting with Qatar's Foreign Minister Adviser Khalid Mohammad al-Atiyeh (L) in Tehran October 13.

Good Reads highlights the best reporting and analysis available on the top international stories of the day – and other key topics you shouldn't miss.

Hiring a used-car salesman to organize a hit against a Saudi ambassador on US soil? What was Iran thinking?

Allegations were filed against Mansour Arbabsiar, a Corpus Christi, Texas-based used car salesman with both US and Iranian passports, early this week by US Justice Department Secretary Eric Holder. But Skepticism on them is growing in US newspapers.

One of the best at pointing out inconsistencies in the case is the Monitor’s own Scott Peterson.

Just what would Iran gain in killing the Saudi ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir? To all appearances, nothing but trouble.

One, it would have elicited a strong response from the US and possibly military retaliation from the Saudis.

Two, if Iran is trying to create a nuclear program and to build up relations with non-Western partners, then launching a splashy assassination in Washington that almost guarantees international condemnation and economic sanctions is probably not going to further that goal.

"When you look at Iranian use of terrorism, it has some very specific objectives, whether it's countering the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan, or retaliating against perceived Israeli actions," says Mr. Nader.

"This [plot] doesn't seem to serve Iran's interests in any conceivable way," says Nader. "Assassinating the Saudi ambassador would increase international pressure against Iran, could be considered an act of war ... by Saudi Arabia, it could really destabilize the government in Iran; and this is a political system that is interested in its own survival."

[ Video is no longer available. ]

Yet, if consistency and logic were the only criteria for making foreign policy statements, then there wouldn’t be all that much for journalists to write about, would there?

America in decline?

And in the annals of self-destructive decisions, the past three decades of US finance and tax policy could be considered a case in point: Americans voted for more and more benefits, and for more and more tax cuts, resulting in the current $14.3 trillion in US debt.

Arguably the best piece you’ll read on how Americans got to where they are, and what it will mean for America’s future, is “The Broken Contract,” by New Yorker staff writer George Packer, in the October/November issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. Mr. Parker argues that Americans and their institutions have become so intellectually lazy and ideologically rigid that they may be no longer able to solve the problems they have created for themselves.

(Caution: This is the kind of piece you’ll want to read to the end. But it’s long. Cancel that 9 a.m. meeting. )

We can upgrade our iPhones, but we can't fix our roads and bridges. We invented broadband, but we can't extend it to 35 percent of the public. We can get 300 television channels on the iPad, but in the past decade 20 newspapers closed down all their foreign bureaus. We have touch-screen voting machines, but last year just 40 percent of registered voters turned out, and our political system is more polarized, more choked with its own bile, than at any time since the Civil War. There is nothing today like the personal destruction of the McCarthy era or the street fights of the 1960s. But in those periods, institutional forces still existed in politics, business, and the media that could hold the center together. It used to be called the establishment, and it no longer exists. Solving fundamental problems with a can-do practicality – the very thing the world used to associate with America, and that redeemed us from our vulgarity and arrogance – now seems beyond our reach.

Qatar the bold, Qatar the enigma

If the US is the new Greece – a proud civilization dipping into decline – then who is the new Rome?

Some suggest China or India, those industrialized giants that buy up natural resources and sell them to the world through Wal-Mart. But there are other nimble nations that have shown a surprising ability to punch above their weight class, and whose ambitions are matched by their bank balances.

This week, Hugh Eakin in the New York Review of Books tracks the rising importance of tiny Qatar, that nondescript peninsula in the Persian Gulf with the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world.

Qatar is the nation that sponsors Al Jazeera, a TV news network that has long covered the developing world better than most of the competition. It is the first Arab nation to cut off diplomatic ties with Syria, earlier this year, and to establish relations with Libyan rebels fighting against Muammar Qaddafi.

It is a thorn in the side of the US, supporting the Islamist militant group Hamas in the Gaza region, but it is also one of the more reliably modern regimes in the Middle East, pushing for education and free expression along Western lines.

As Mr. Eakin writes, Qatar is an enigma even to those who know it best.

All of this has led some observers to wonder just what exactly Qatar is up to. “It’s the emir,” David Roberts, a Qatari policy analyst at the Doha branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank, told me. “But where does he get these ideas?”

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