Here’s your “opposition to the Iran deal” update

LobeLog has really been blanketing the coverage of the opposition to the Iran deal this week, so if you’re interested you should check out a few of their recent pieces. Ali Gharib, for example, had a lot of fun picking apart Leon “why is this man still getting paid writing gigs” Wieseltier’s anti-deal argument (assuming you consider “the deal is bad because I saw a picture of Zarif smiling in Vienna” to be an “argument”). Eli Clifton, who knows more about the shady money funding the anti-deal campaign than just about anybody, tied Mike “ovens” Huckabee’s insanity to the Sheldon Adelson-backed Zionist Organization of America. Jim Lobe dug deep to find some Republicans who are using bad historical analogies to argue against the deal that are not related to the Nazis. LobeLog’s Tehran Correspondent, who is anonymous for obvious reasons, reported on how critics of the deal inside Iran are struggling to find ways to oppose the deal without crossing Ayatollah Khamenei, whose refusal to criticize the deal means that he probably approves of it, even if he’s not saying that quite so explicitly.

Last but not least, yours truly watched Tom Cotton spew words from his mouth-hole (twice, because I can’t take notes fast enough) so that you didn’t have to. You’re welcome:

Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) told a receptive audience at the neoconservative Hudson Institute on Tuesday that Congress should take action to defeat the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal that was concluded in Vienna earlier this month between Iran and the countries of the P5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Russia, and China). The upcoming congressional vote to reject the deal “is a weighty decision,” Cotton said, “but it’s also not a hard one: the United States should reject this deal.”

The senator, a protégé of Iraq War architect and neoconservative éminence grise Bill Kristol, described “the Ayatollahs” as “grinning” as a result of the deal, though the questions of which Ayatollahs are grinning, and how Cotton knows they’re grinning right now, were left tantalizingly unanswered. In Cotton’s view, “this agreement abandons” the goal of depriving Iran of nuclear weapons capability, and “in its place, this deal gives Iran nuclear weapons capability, laying out an R&D roadmap for it to become a nuclear threshold state in barely a decade.” This is a unique interpretation of a deal that has won the backing of dozens of arms control experts, diplomats, and former national security officials.

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Good news on the Ebola front

Potentially huge progress has been made in terms of developing an Ebola vaccine:

When Ebola flared up in a village, researchers vaccinated all the contacts of the sick person who were willing – the family, friends and neighbours – and their immediate contacts. Children, adolescents and pregnant women were excluded because of an absence of safety data for them. In practice about 50% of people in these clusters were vaccinated.

To test how well the vaccine protected people, the cluster outbreaks were randomly assigned either to receive the vaccine immediately or three weeks after Ebola was confirmed. Among the 2,014 people vaccinated immediately, there were no cases of Ebola from 10 days after vaccination – allowing time for immunity to develop – according to the results published online in the Lancet medical journal (pdf). In the clusters with delayed vaccination, there were 16 cases out of 2,380.

The vaccine is now being offered to all the contacts of any infected individuals in Guinea and Gabon. It’s unlikely that everyone who receives the vaccine will avoid contracting the disease, because nothing in life is 100%, but researchers estimate it will wind up having at least 75% efficacy, and that means both lot of lives saved and a real chance to finally put an end to the West African outbreak. I don’t know nearly enough about this sort of thing to say whether this vaccine will work against other strains of Ebola.

The West African Ebola outbreak has declined both in severity and public attention (I’m guilty of that too, I know), but it hasn’t gone away. Liberia was declared Ebola-free for a couple of months earlier this year, but has seen a few new cases in recent weeks. At the same time, the number of new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea seems to have declined rapidly over the past couple of weeks. This new vaccine, a couple of others that are being tested, may be the final step in ending the outbreak, though (ah, the irony) the development of those other vaccines is now being impeded by the fact that there are too few new cases for proper testing.

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Bernie Sanders needs some better answers

Let me say upfront that of all the announced 2016 candidates, I identify most closely with Bernie Sanders at this point. I know this because I am a reasonably thoughtful adult human being who is pretty well-informed about politics and about my own political preferences, and also because every time I take one of those dumb internet “which candidate should I vote for?” quizzes, I get Sanders. So before any Sanders supporters start yelling at me for insufficient whatever to the cause, please bear this in mind.

The Sanders campaign, it’s safe to say, has surpassed anybody’s expectations, even though we’re just a couple of months into the approximately (according to mathematicians I’ve spoken with) 742 year long 2016 campaign cycle. That a guy who describes himself as a “Democratic Socialist” is polling in double digits in a Democratic primary and is winning or tying hypothetical general election matchups in 21st century America is frankly stunning to me. He’s obviously still polling well behind Hillary Clinton, but RCP’s average has him only 15 points behind her in New Hampshire, which is just close enough to matter. To be fair he’s got kind of a home field advantage in New Hampshire, and the polls that have him closest to Clinton there include an undeclared candidate (Joe Biden) in the mix, but did anybody think Bernie Sanders would ever be within 20 points of Clinton in any poll average, at all? His left wing (far more left wing than is usually permissible in national US politics) message appears to be resonating with people, and it doesn’t hurt that the campaign team working for his party’s front-runner is more interested in complaining about how one newspaper is covering her than they are in actually running for office.

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Arizona (photo by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons)

(Yes, I understand that The New York Times screwed that story up monumentally, I realize that the NYT has a pattern of pulling this kind of crap with the Clintons, I understand that it’s important to work the refs this early in the process, and believe me, I get that the NYT can outright suck a lot of the time, particularly on certain beats where it seems to have an institutional bias that colors its reporting. I really get it. But the Times story, its corrections, and the Clinton campaign’s response are pretty much the only things for which Hillary Clinton has been in the news over the past week or so, and that’s not good for your campaign no matter who you are or what the circumstances might be. Time to move on to something else.)

As Sanders’ national profile rises, it’s natural that he’s going to start receiving more scrutiny. Over the past couple of weeks it’s become clear that he and his team need to work on developing better answers to questions that go beyond the economic/inequality issues that are at the core of his message. Continue reading

By all means, let’s keep giving these guys more settlements


A one-and-a-half year-old Palestinian infant was burned to death and three of his family members were seriously wounded late Thursday night after a house was set on fire in the village of Douma, near Nablus.

According to reports, settlers were those who set the house on fire after targeting it with firebombs and graffiti. The Israeli military called the attack “Jewish terror,” while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials echoed the claim, vehemently condemning the attack.

At roughly 4 am Friday morning, two masked men arrived at two homes in the village of Douma, not far from the settlement of Migdalim. They spray painted graffiti reading “revenge” and “long live the Messiah” in Hebrew, breaking the windows of the homes and throwing two firebombs inside. One of the two homes was empty at the time, but there was a family in the second: the child that died, Ali Saad Daobasa, his father Sa’ad, mother Reham, and 4-year-old Ahmed.

If it was, in fact, settlers who did this, then somebody ought to ask Netanyahu about the incongruity of “condemning” an attack like this while repeatedly giving the settler/squatter community what it wants, which is more illegal settlements. Both sides may have blood on their hands in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but only one of those two sides keeps getting rewarded for its terrorism.

This attack took place on the same day that an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed 6 people in Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride parade. That man, Yishai Schlissel, had apparently just gotten out of prison after doing a 10 year stint for committing exactly the same crime in 2005 (he only stabbed three people in that one). It remains to be seen what the Israeli government will do about its (apparently burgeoning) homegrown terrorism problem.

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If you’re worried about Iranians chanting “Death to America,” I found something for you to read

Robin Wright, one of the best Western journalists out there when it comes to reporting from inside Iran, has a new piece in The New Yorker today on the common Iranian chant, “Death to America.” If you are unfamiliar with Iran and perhaps troubled by their use of this chant, or perhaps you’re a Republican politician and Sheldon Adelson is paying you to be troubled by their use of this chant, Wright demystifies its meaning for you by, and I know this is a shocking idea but stick with me here, actually asking actual Iranians about it. It’s really a great piece.

Wright gets a lot of explanations as to why Iranians still chant this phrase — it’s a demand for America to stay out of Iran’s affairs, it’s a ritual performance that has no real meaning, the people who still chant it are a small minority of Iranians — but the common thread is that it’s an expression of Iranian frustration at the way US policy has affected their country over the past 60 years:

Amir Zamaninia, who did graduate work at Chico State, in California, is now Iran’s deputy Oil Minister for International and Commercial Affairs. His son, he told me, is studying philosophy at Rutgers. A former diplomat, Zamaninia is now planning projects totalling two hundred billion dollars to develop Iran’s oil and gas industries over the next six years. He’s hoping for foreign investment if sanctions are limited. “What Iranians want next is to persuade the public in the United States not to think that we have nothing to do but be on the streets shouting ‘Death to America!’ every day,” he said. “We have our business, our own entertainment, and our own life to live. Saying ‘Death to America!’ has been a permanent fixture of the revolution that we don’t listen to anymore. It comes out as a matter of routine.”

Nasser Hadian got his doctorate at the University of Tennessee and taught at Columbia. He is now a Tehran University political scientist and influential voice in policy circles. His daughter is in graduate school at Tulane. “Saying ‘Death to America’ is meaningless,” he told me. “It’s actually not acceptable in our culture, because they’re saying death to a whole people. It’s said by only twenty per cent of the population. And only a teeny per cent of that twenty per cent believes in it. They think America crystallizes and stands for all bad things in the world—the same way some Americans think about Iran. America has killed more Iranians than Iranians have killed Americans. The U.S. supported Saddam Hussein during his war with Iran, when hundreds of thousands died.”

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Meet the new Taliban boss (?), Akhtar Mansur

So the Taliban officially acknowledged that Mullah Omar is, in fact, no longer among the living, though one wonders how long they’ve been trying to Weekend at Bernies this whole thing, if the reports that he died two years ago are accurate. He’s reportedly been replaced (though again, when he was actually replaced is an open question), by Mullah Akhtar Mansur, who seems to have been at least de facto running the group for some time now. That doesn’t seem to have been a unanimous decision by any means, though, and the Taliban have postponed the next round of peace talks with the Afghan government, probably because they need to get their own house in order at the moment. This means you should take anything you read about Mullah Akhtar, including this here blog post, with a bag of salt, because we really don’t know if his appointment has actually been accepted by all or even most of the organization. Even if it has, he could still be at high risk of being ousted in what is sure to be a chaotic next few weeks at Taliban HQ.

Not much is known about Mullah Akhtar, at least not to the media/general public. He was formerly the Taliban’s governor of Kandahar and a key figure in its intelligence apparatus. He’s thought to be pretty strongly in favor of talks with the Afghan government, which is part of the reason why his appointment has been disputed. He will not be given Omar’s most regal title, “Commander of the Faithful” (amir al-muʾminin), which is actually a caliphal title and was bestowed on Omar specifically by his followers. Perhaps in an effort to hold the group together, the head of the more violent Haqqani Network, Siraj al-Din Haqqani, was reportedly appointed as Mansur’s deputy (again, bag of salt).

So Mansur apparently favors talks with the Afghan government, but keep in mind that he’s got to navigate not only the more militant factions within the Taliban, but also ISIS’s encroachment into Afghanistan. If he appears too soft, even if he manages to keep control of most of the Taliban organization, there’s a very real chance that he could lose followers and/or recruits to ISIS. If he pushes too hard, too fast toward Kabul, it could actually make Afghanistan’s insurgent problems even worse.

UPDATE: Via Vox, a blogger named Shashank Joshi has done a commendable job of compiling a lot of what’s been written so far about Mullah Omar’s untimely timely time-neutral demise. Continue reading

Today in Middle East history: Happy birthday Baghdad (762)

This whole “today in Middle East history” thing that I do is a little bit of a cheat, since most events in the Middle East at least from the founding of Islam have been happening, officially, on the Islamic (Hijri) calendar, which is a lunar calender and thus never quite lines up with the Western solar calendar. Identifying specific solar dates for specific events is a little bit of a shot in the dark, especially as you go back further in time, because for one thing surviving older sources may not be totally reliable, and for another thing there’s some inherent error built into the process of converting a date from the Hijri calendar to our Gregorian one. At any rate, these posts recognize a lot of anniversaries that would not actually be recognized in the Middle East, since formally those events happened on a specific date on the lunar calender, and that day, like any other day on a lunar calender, moves around every year according to our solar calendar.

This is all very esoteric, but we can look at a concrete example in today’s anniversary, the founding of Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur in 762 CE. July 30, 762 corresponds (give or take) to the Hijri date 4 Jumada al-Ula (the fifth month of the Hijri year) in the year 145. This year, which is 1436 on the Hijri calendar, July 30 falls on 14 Shawwal (the tenth month of the year). But for people using the Hijri calendar, the anniversary of Baghdad’s founding is 4 Jumada al-Ula, which this year fell on February 23. Now I don’t know if anybody marks the Hijri anniversary of Baghdad, or the Gregorian one, to be honest. One of the ways I reconcile this whole dating thing in my head is that I try to remember not to use Gregorian calendar dates commemorate the birthdays of individuals who presumably wouldn’t have celebrated their own birthdays according to a solar calender while they were alive (though I know I’ve done this a couple of times in the past, despite myself). But cities aren’t people, so I feel like we can acknowledge that Al-Mansur broke ground on the city on this date in 762. Continue reading