Iran’s conflicting signals to the West

Last week, various Iranian officials made positive comments about a new diplomatic outreach by the United States and its allies, suggesting negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program might be possible. This week, Iran test-fired medium-range and long-range missiles, bluntly warning that thousands more were ready to be launched.

The conflicting signals are typical of the opaque Islamic republic, with its many competing power centers and complex system of government. But demonstrating strength before negotiations also is a long-tested diplomatic formula, suggesting the missile launches and harsh rhetoric could be a sign that Iran is suddenly open to bargaining.

“The Iranian calculation is they need a show of strength,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of Middle East studies at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School. “They are ready for diplomacy and willing to talk, but they are also saying you can’t treat us like a weak, third-tier state.”

Why Cheney won’t take down Iran

Yes, there is a powerful faction in this administration, headed by the Vice President, which has, it seems, saved its last rounds of ammunition for a strike against Iran. The question, of course, is: Are they still capable of creating “their own reality” and imposing it, however briefly, on the planet? Every tick upwards in the price of oil says no. Every day that passes makes an attack on Iran harder to pull off.

On this subject, panic may be everywhere in the world of the political Internet, and even in the mainstream, but it’s important not to make the mistake of overestimating these political actors or underestimating the forces arrayed against them. It’s a reasonable proposition today — as it wasn’t perhaps a year ago — that, whatever their desires, they will not, in the end, be able to launch an attack on Iran; that, even where there’s a will, there may not be a way.

Tehran’s definite ‘maybe’

When I pressed Mottaki on how Iran would respond if the next president proposed a broad diplomatic dialogue, he was cautious. He said that as a former Iranian ambassador to Japan, he had come to respect the Japanese approach of navigating unknown waters carefully. There is enormous mistrust between Iran and America, he said, so it is important to be realistic about what diplomacy can accomplish.

Some Iranian moderates have told me they would like to see a broad strategic dialogue between the two countries, similar to Henry Kissinger’s breakthrough conversations with the Chinese in 1971. But Mottaki cautioned that, while it was easy to say “let’s sit down and talk about everything,” this approach might produce a diplomatic version of “tarouf” — an Iranian expression for the ritual politeness in which people say things just to be nice. He seemed to prefer a process in which the two sides would initially discuss one or two pressing issues and, if they made progress, move on to a broader dialogue.

Beware Bush’s preemptive strike on torture

New revelations of the U.S. government’s systematic use of torture in the “global war on terror,” including communist Chinese “brainwashing” methods from the 1950s, have brought renewed calls from lawmakers and human rights advocates for the prosecution of senior Bush administration officials. While the legal and political obstacles to such prosecutions are steep, those implicated will not want to leave the enjoyment of their retirement years to the mercy of the federal judiciary.

So don’t be surprised if some time before Inauguration Day 2009, President George W. Bush issues a blanket presidential pardon to ensure that those who organized and implemented brutal interrogation techniques such as “waterboarding” (a terrifying simulated drowning) are never hauled before the courts. A pardon would prevent future administrations from ever prosecuting those responsible for torture and other mistreatment at Guantánamo Bay and secret CIA detention facilities elsewhere overseas.

The FBI’s plan to “profile” Muslims

The U.S. Justice Department is considering a change in the grounds on which the FBI can investigate citizens and legal residents of the United States. Till now, DOJ guidelines have required the FBI to have some evidence of wrongdoing before it opens an investigation. The impending new rules, which would be implemented later this summer, allow bureau agents to establish a terrorist profile or pattern of behavior and attributes and, on the basis of that profile, start investigating an individual or group. Agents would be permitted to ask “open-ended questions” concerning the activities of Muslim Americans and Arab-Americans. A person’s travel and occupation, as well as race or ethnicity, could be grounds for opening a national security investigation.

The rumored changes have provoked protests from Muslim American and Arab-American groups. The Council on American Islamic Relations, among the more effective lobbies for Muslim Americans’ civil liberties, immediately denounced the plan, as did James Zogby, the president of the Arab-American Institute. Said Zogby, “There are millions of Americans who, under the reported new parameters, could become subject to arbitrary and subjective ethnic and religious profiling.” Zogby, who noted that the Bush administration’s history with profiling is not reassuring, warned that all Americans would suffer from a weakening of civil liberties.

Domestic spying quietly goes on

With Congress on the verge of outlining new parameters for National Security Agency eavesdropping between suspicious foreigners and Americans, lawmakers are leaving largely untouched a host of government programs that critics say involves far more domestic surveillance than the wiretaps they sought to remedy.

These programs – most of them highly classified – are run by an alphabet soup of federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies. They sift, store and analyze the communications, spending habits and travel patterns of U.S. citizens, searching for suspicious activity.

The surveillance includes data-mining programs that allow the NSA and the FBI to sift through large databanks of e-mails, phone calls and other communications, not for selective information, but in search of suspicious patterns.

A more confident Iraq becomes a tougher negotiating partner for the U.S.

The Bush administration’s quest for a deal with Iraq that would formally authorize an unlimited American troop presence there well beyond President Bush’s tenure appears to be unraveling. The irony is that it may be a victim of the administration’s successes in the war.

Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of Iraq and his senior aides are now openly demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of American troops, at least on paper. That is partly a nod to Iraqi political realities, since Iraqi politicians must call for the end of American occupation. No one in Iraq realistically expects to throw out the Americans anytime soon — and few in Iraq believe that it would be safe to do so immediately.

But Mr. Maliki’s once enfeebled government, emboldened by several recent military successes, is eager to assert its sovereignty.

Global warming talks leave few concrete goals

Nearly everyone had something to cheer about on Wednesday after the major industrial powers and a big group of emerging nations pledged to pursue “deep cuts” in emissions of heat-trapping gases in coming decades.

President Bush, who had insisted that any commitment to combat global warming must involve growing economies as well as the rich nations, recruited China and India to the table and received rare accolades from some environmentalists for doing so.

The developing countries received a promise that the rich countries would take the lead in curbing emissions. And environmentalists said the agreements renewed chances of reviving two ailing climate pacts, the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.

Militant gains in Pakistan said to draw fighters

American military and intelligence officials say there has been an increase in recent months in the number of foreign fighters who have traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas to join with militants there.

The flow may reflect a change that is making Pakistan, not Iraq, the preferred destination for some Sunni extremists from the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia who are seeking to take up arms against the West, these officials say.

The American officials say the influx, which could be in the dozens but could also be higher, shows a further strengthening of the position of the forces of Al Qaeda in the tribal areas, increasingly seen as an important base of support for the Taliban, whose forces in Afghanistan have become more aggressive in their campaign against American-led troops.

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