Your Spring Break Iran Update

So as the title says, it’s Spring Break this week. Not for me, but for my daughter, which effectively means it’s Spring Break for me, too, but not in the fun way. I’m kidding; we’re actually planning on doing a little family traveling this week, which will be fun. The upshot as far as you’re concerned is that this is probably all you’ll be getting from me this week, regardless of how things wind up going in Switzerland.

I feel a little bad for all the folks in Switzerland, actually. I’m sure Switzerland is lovely this time of year, or any time of year really, but the Iranian and P5+1 negotiators are presumably a little too busy to enjoy it. I’m sure US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would rather be doing keg stands on some beach in Cancun, you know?

That's what I'm talking about.

That’s what I’m talking about.

But he’s stuck in meetings to try to beat Tuesday’s firm deadline for hashing out a framework agree–

Oh goddammit.

The optimism that’s seemed to mark the talks over the past week has been, according to Reuters, replaced by as sense of “gloom” among the negotiators, as key issues were still up in the air with the deadline imminent. This is why I’m kind of happy to be leaving town this week; it’s probably going to be kind of a roller coaster. Anyway, the two major outstanding issues that everybody seems to be talking about are the limits that will be placed on Iran’s nuclear research and development in years 11-15 of the deal (15 years seems to be the overall length they’re discussing, with years 11-15 being a “phase” period where Iran will be allowed to slowly ramp its nuclear activity up so long as it’s keeping up its end of the deal) and the procedures by which UN Security Council sanctions on Iran will be lifted.

The second point of contention may be more problematic, as it’s actually a potential source of discord among the P5+1. Continue reading

Saturday Night Tunes: Mingus Ah Um

I kind of skipped last week because of a nasty cold, and I’ll be skipping again next week due to travel, so to make it up this week we’ll have a listen to one of my very favorite jazz albums, 1959’s Mingus Ah Um by bassist and composer Charles Mingus. This is one of the very best appreciated albums of Mingus’s lengthy discography, so well-liked that it’s part of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, which seems like a big deal to me. If it helps, you can think of Mingus Ah Um as a tribute album of sorts, to many of the people and musical styles that influenced Mingus in his formative years, but in the end the final product is uniquely Mingus. AllMusic.com calls it “a stunning summation of the bassist’s talents and probably the best reference point for beginners,” so with that high praise in mind let’s get to it.

Mingus put together an 8 piece ensemble for this one (though never more than 7 of them play on any given track, and sometimes fewer than that), with John Handy on alto and a tenor sax plus one track on clarinet, Shafi Hadi on alto and tenor, Booker Ervin on tenor, Willie Dennis and Jimmy Knepper alternating on trombone, Horace Parlan on piano, and Dannie Richmond on drums.

“Better Git It in Your Soul” is Mingus’s tribute to the gospel church music of his youth, and in that sense it has some things in common with his “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” from Blues and Roots. It’s one of Mingus’s best-known tunes, and for good reason:

“Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is my favorite track from the album. It’s a tribute to tenor saxophone legend Lester Young, who was fond of wearing said style of hat:

for example

for example

and who died two months before Mingus Ah Um‘s recording session. It’s a heartfelt blues ballad:

“Boogie Stop Shuffle” is another tribute, this time to the boogie-woogie blues that is among the many musical styles that influenced the early development of jazz:

“Open Letter to Duke” is, that’s right, a tribute to Duke Ellington. It starts off sounding like it has more in common with the hard bop of the late-50s than the big band swing of Ellington’s heyday, but then slows down into a smoky melodic section that really evokes the Ellington sound:

“Bird Calls” is not a tribute apparently, despite the obvious invocation of Charlie Parker. Apparently Mingus wanted to write a track that sounded like literal birds, and if you listen to the opening melody, he actually kind of does it. Any Charlie Parker influences can be chalked up to the fact that pretty much all jazz that came along after Charlie Parker was influenced by him in one way or another:

“Fables of Faubus” is a “tribute” of sorts, I guess, in the sense that it’s a protest song written about Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus and his 1957 decision to call out the National Guard to try to block the integration of Little Rock Central High School. This version is an instrumental:

but Mingus later recorded another version, titled “Original Faubus Fables,” that featured a smaller ensemble (including Eric Dolphy) and, more importantly, included lyrics ridiculing Governor Faubus:

There’s some question as to whether the lyrics were a later addition to the tune, or whether Mingus had them ready for Mingus Ah Um but was prevented from recording them by Colombia Records executives.

Finally, here’s “Jelly Roll,” which is Mingus’s tribute to ragtime pianist Jelly Roll Morton, who famously claimed to have personally “invented” jazz and who, hyperbole aside, was one of the style’s first true performers and arrangers. If he didn’t invent jazz, he at least helped to make some sense of its chaotic, group improvisation beginnings. “Jelly Roll” captures that ragtime feel before moving into a more strictly jazz feel:

We’ve skipped “Self-Portrait in Three Colors” and “Pussy Cat Dues,” but hey, 9 tracks is a lot and my dinner is getting cold. Enjoy!

What a lucky break!

Tomorrow is Election Day in Nigeria, the end of a long campaign that has already been delayed once, ostensibly due to Boko Haram-caused violence but, well, who knows, and in which President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election is by no means a sure thing. Earlier today, in the happiest of total coincidences, the Nigerian army apparently destroyed Boko Haram’s headquarters:

Nigeria’s military said on Friday that it has destroyed the headquarters of Boko Haram in the northeast town of Gwoza — a claim that comes one day ahead of Nigeria’s presidential elections.
“Troops this morning captured Gwoza destroying the Headquarters of the Terrorists self-styled Caliphate,” Nigeria’s defense department said on Twitter.
It was not immediately possible to verify the claim.

You don’t say.

Now, I would never suggest that President Jonathan is inventing this story about destroying Boko Haram’s HQ to boost his chances in tomorrow’s vote. Neither would I want to suggest that he strung out the campaign against Boko Haram deliberately in order to maximize the political impact of this operation. So let’s just say…um, way to go, guys?

Hopefully Jonathan and his opponent, former dictator Muhammadu Buhari, can get through tomorrow and the next few weeks without their supporters killing anybody. Their history with one another suggests that this is unlikely, but there’s always a chance.

Iran talks: over-abundance of deadlines causing problems, and France holding out?

Laura Rozen is quoting a “senior State Department official” in Switzerland for the current round of Iran nuclear talks, who says “we can see a path forward here to get to an agreement” on Iran’s nuclear program by March 31. That sounds great, but maybe a little vague seeing as how that March 31 deadline is coming up fast and, really, the talks are still hanging on the same key issues that have dominated the talks for months now: the size of Iran’s uranium enrichment program, its ability to research more advanced centrifuge technology under the terms of the agreement, the level of Iran’s cooperation with IAEA inspectors, the duration of the agreement’s constraints, and the timetable for sanctions relief. We’ve been supposedly close to an agreement plenty of times over the past year, only to have the talks ultimately break down.

It’s possible, though, that this round of talks might be a little different. Past rounds of negotiations have operated under a series of self-imposed deadlines, and all they really managed to achieve was to demonstrate that self-imposed deadlines aren’t really deadlines at all, since they can always be extended without real cost. The last time the talks failed to meet their deadline was in November, when negotiators agreed to once again extend the deadline, but the ambiguous nature of that extension, combined with the inevitable Congressional attempt to break the talks up, seems to be causing its own drama right now. The November extension actually created two new deadlines, not one: a March something (initial reports said March 1, which later became March 24, and now seems to be March 31) deadline to reach a “political agreement” on the basic framework for a deal, and a July 1 deadline to fill in the technical details and produce a final document. But then it became clear that Congress was planning to act on some kind of legislation (either new sanctions against Iran or something that would put conditions on the Obama administration’s ability to accept and uphold a deal) that would seriously risk an Iranian walkout, and that it would most likely be able to muster a veto-proof majority for that legislation. Republican overreach alienated Democrats for a while, but there’s an April 14 vote scheduled on Bob Corker’s Nuclear Agreement Review Act, which includes constraints on the administration that could cause the Iranians to throw up their hands and walk away, and that veto-proof majority seems likely to materialize absent some major new development.

Where this is now impacting the talks is in terms of the two sides’ understanding of this nebulous March “framework” deadline. Continue reading

So, does that make John Boehner “pro-war”?

John Boehner rolls out a bizarre new talking point:

“The world is starving for American leadership. But America has an anti-war president,” the Ohio Republican told reporters. “We have no strategy, overarching strategy, to deal with the growing terrorist threat. And it’s not just ISIS or Al-Qaeda or all of their affiliates. We’ve got a serious problem facing the world and America, by and large, is sitting on the sidelines.”

First of all, as that TPM piece says, Obama has done an awful lot of warring for a guy who’s anti-war. But second, and more importantly, isn’t it good to be “anti-war”? Don’t most people, except maybe psychopaths or something, generally agree that war should be avoided if at all possible? Shouldn’t we want our president to prefer not to do war all over the place, if it can be avoided?

To put it another way, what does it say about John Boehner that he thinks the description “anti-war” is some kind of insult?

"I just *sniff*, sometimes I get emotional when I think about all the wars that we could be fighting if it weren't for this president"

“I just *sniff*, sometimes I get emotional when I think about all the wars that we could be fighting if it weren’t for this president” *begins weeping*

Saudi airstrikes push Yemen from “civil war” to “whatever’s worse than civil war”

Yesterday in Politico, Adam Baron, who knows a thing or two about Yemen, wrote this:

The truth is far more complex, and the solution right now should be more along the lines of: Just stay out of it. While the chief combatants in the civil war are certainly playing the sectarian card to some degree, there is reason to think that Yemen will not necessarily become part of some regional sectarian conflict. Regardless of their foreign ties, both the Shiite Houthis and their Sunni opponents are deeply rooted in Yemen, and they are motivated primarily by local issues.

The main danger now is that the Western powers, Saudi Arabia or Egypt will overreact and seek to intervene, ostensibly to counter Iranian influence or to quash the efforts of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to gain territory. Yet foreign intervention could very well be the worst approach now—further regionalizing what is still a local fight, injecting a stronger sectarian tone into the conflict while threatening to push Yemen closer to implosion.

Luckily for the rest of the Middle East and the world, yesterday a bit before 7 PM east coast time the Saudis (plus the rest of the GCC) and Egyptians, with US support, um, overreacted and intervened. The Saudi Ambassador to the US, Adel al-Jubeir, announced the start of airstrikes against targets around Sanaa affiliated with the Houthis andwith forces loyal to former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh has been collaborating with his fellow Zaydi (though far more religiously-driven) Houthis, either to engineer his own political comeback or, more likely (given his age), to set his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, up as the Houthis’ partner in government.

Leaving aside all the added human suffering this intervention is sure to cause, you have to be impressed at the chutzpah on display among the intervening parties. Continue reading

Today in “things that happened faster than expected”

Regular readers will recall that I’m skeptical that the current Iraqi campaign to drive ISIS back is sustainable, but I’ll confess that I didn’t expect things to bog down so quickly. The offensive to retake Tikrit has “stalled”:

The Iraqi offensive on the city, supported by the Shia-majority Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), had initial success, with a number of towns on the city’s outskirts captured quickly and PMU spokesman, Karim al-Nuri, declaring the city would be liberated in “no more than 72 hours” earlier this month.

Yet, the assault on the hometown of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein has taken longer than expected, now entering its fourth week. Iraq’s defence minister today claimed that the army has slowed down its operation to prevent potential casualties which could occur if they rushed the assault on the explosive-laden city centre.

Now, I don’t want to say that Iraq’s defense minister is playing fast and loose with the truth here, but it’s unlikely that the US would have started providing aerial surveillance of Tikrit if the problem were simply that ISIS had left a bunch of booby-traps all over the place. It’s even less likely that, if explosives were the real problem, Baghdad would now be talking to the US about adding airstrikes to that surveillance. No, I’d imagine the real problem is as it appears in this McClatchey report: heavy resistance from ISIS and disagreements between the Iraqi army and the Shiʿa militias who have been supporting it over how to proceed. The militias would like a bloody frontal assault that may involve lots of potential war crimes against Sunni civilians, while the army and the government back in Baghdad would prefer something a little less bloody and a whole lot less war crimey.

The Americans would likely be happy to oblige the Iraqi Army (EDIT: and as it turns out, actually began obliging them today), so long as it forces those Iranian-supported Shiʿa militias to stand down and stops accepting direct aid from the IRGC’s Quds Force. That possibility has caused the leader of one of the largest Shiʿa militias to publicly criticize “‘weaklings’ in the Iraqi army” for even considering the idea of dumping Iranian support in exchange for American support. This all really bodes well for the eventual campaign to retake Mosul, which ISIS is bound to defend even more strenuously than it’s been defending Tikrit.