Hassan Rohani: Really NOT a Moderate

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 27, 2013

So, much of the media is making a fuss over the possibility that we might actually have an Iranian president who acknowledges the Holocaust and all of its horrors–including the horrors specifically visited on Jews. It’s amazing that we are still debating whether the Holocaust happened, and it is even more amazing still that there are those who are positively rejoicing at the possibility that Hassan Rohani may potentially be not quite as antediluvian as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but given all of the fatuous nonsense that we had to put up with during the Ahmadinejad presidency–including, but not limited to Holocaust denial–I suppose I can understand if people want to celebrate small victories.

Only, here’s the problem: We may not have even a small victory to celebrate. As Michael Moynihanwrites, Rohani is not nearly as enlightened on the Holocaust as some might want to believe he is. Consider the following regarding a recent Rohani interview on CNN:

. . . Christiane Amanpour, an Iranian-Brit who apparently speaks Farsi, asked the inevitable question, the one that would uncover further evidence of moderation and counterbalance the sinister views of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who famously revealed himself to be an amateur scholar of the Second World War: Does the right honorable gentleman from Tehran believe the Holocaust actually happened? The translator, perhaps fearing that rendering every word would weaken the meaning, offered the following English rendering of Rouhani’s response: “I’ve said before that I am not a historian and that when it comes to speaking of the dimensions of the Holocaust, it is the historians that should reflect on it. But in general I can tell you that any crime that happens in history against humanity, including the crime that Nazis committed towards the Jews as well as non-Jews is reprehensible and condemnable. Whatever criminality they committed against the Jews, we condemn…”

A bit slippery, but surely an improvement over Ahmadinejad’s contention that Auschwitz was an elaborate hoax. But according to the Fars News Agency—which is just like a real news agency, except run by Iran’s psychopathic Revolutionary Guards—this wasn’t exactly what Rouhani said:

“I have said before that I am not a historian and historians should specify, state and explain the aspects of historical events, but generally we fully condemn any kind of crime committed against humanity throughout the history, including the crime committed by the Nazis both against the Jews and non-Jews, the same way that if today any crime is committed against any nation or any religion or any people or any belief, we condemn that crime and genocide. Therefore, what the Nazis did is condemned, (but) the aspects that you talk about, clarification of these aspects is a duty of the historians and researchers, I am not a history scholar.”

*The Wall Street Journal verified the broad strokes of the Fars News Agency translation (no one else bothered), and there are indeed subtle but substantial difference between these two versions. So to recap: CNN probably botched a Farsi translation and an official Iranian news agency rushed to its leader’s defense, lest the libel spread that he acknowledged the Holocaust as a real historical event.

But while Revolutionary Guards philologists are rather insistent that Rouhani never said “Holocaust,” condemned “whatever criminality [the Nazis] committed against the Jews,” or said the word “reprehensible,” all agree that he employed the old Holocaust deniers tricks of “questioning” the death toll, averring that many others groups were also victims, and claiming that a well-established historical fact requires further examination by “historians and researchers,” while repeatedly pointing out that he is “not a historian” (Ahmadinejad told NPR in 2010, that he was “not a historian” but that “we should allow researchers to examine all sorts of questions because it’s quite clear that when they do, they will reach different conclusions”). And even in CNN’s translation, Rouhani condemns unspecified “crimes,” while encouraging historians to “clarify” what actually happened.

Moynihan’s entirely justifiable conclusion is that Rohani, just like any other “skilled Holocaust denier,” “parses, dissects, and molests language, quibbling with the word ‘denial’—they typically acknowledge that many Jews died, but were victims of various typhus epidemics—and wondering why shadowy forces are hamstringing dissenting historians.” He tells us that there is little to no difference between Rohani on the one hand, and Holocaust-denying “historian” David Irving, who gets condemned by the New York Times, even though the Times claimed that Rohani was no Holocaust denier. To be sure, there are arguments back and forth over what Rohani really said, and you should read the whole of Moynihan’s piece to get a sense of those arguments, but it would appear that we have yet more evidence that Hassan Rohani may not be the moderate that many think he is.

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Russia Is Indeed Back . . .

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 25, 2013

. . . thanks in large part to diplomatic bungling by the Obama administration over Syria. Ariel Cohen points out that the ramifications of the administration’s errors go far beyond what will happen in Syria:

In what appears as yet another strategic blunder, Obama even elected to forego a binding UN Security Council resolution on Syrian disarmament under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows for enforcement, while Putin may hit the geopolitical jackpot.

If the disarmament initiative succeeds, Obama will “owe” Putin. America will be enticed to forget quickly the damage caused by the NSA and CIA defector Edward Snowden, who received asylum in Russia. America will remain mum as a Russian court has sentenced anticorruption crusader and whistleblower Alexei Navalny. Moscow is rife with rumors about preparations for the third trial of jailed oil tycoon and political opponent Mikhail Khodorkovsky. It is equally unlikely that Russia’s ambitious plans to expand the Eurasian Union to include Armenia and Ukraine into the Customs Union will meet a vigorous U.S. response.

Obama may not realize that Putin, a former KGB recruiting officer, seems to have played him like a violin. Putin has demonstrated that he is capable of stopping the world’s only superpower from using force—making him “the go to” man, to whom many on the U.S. blacklist will run to seek protection.

Putin will also have demonstrated that Russia, despite being seven times smaller than the U.S. economically, and weaker militarily, is capable of gaining impressive geopolitical results even when dealt a poor hand. As the military operation against Assad is postponed, Putin has increased the chances of the pro-Iranian regime’s survival, and possibly ensured the continued presence of a modest Russian naval facility in Tartus.

Moscow also has a growing interest in a Shia strategic belt extending from Lebanon via Syria and Iraq to Iran, as it prevents Sunni radicals from flooding into the North Caucasus and Central Asia—Russia’s soft underbelly.

Moscow also sent a signal that a U.S. military operation against the Iranian nuclear program may not happen—without the UN Security Council—i.e., the Kremlin’s—sanction. And that sanction will not be forthcoming.

Not bad for a week’s work.

Recall (again) that one of the reasons given for re-electing the president in 2012 was that he is supposedly a much better geopolitical chess player than that bumbler, Mitt Romney, who had the effrontery to tell us that Russia’s interests don’t exactly line up with our own. How is that argument looking now?

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Deeds. Not Words. Deeds.

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 23, 2013

Ray Takeyh is right on the money when he reminds us what we should expect from Hassan Rohani before we go around calling him “a reformer”:

Rouhani’s attempt to refashion Iran’s image and temper its rhetoric should be welcomed. After eight years of Ahmadinejad provocations that often unhinged the international community, a degree of self-restraint is admirable. However, judge Tehran by its conduct and not its words.

It is not enough for Rouhani to condemn the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Is he prepared to withdraw the Revolutionary Guard contingents that have done much to buttress Assad’s brutality?

It is not sufficient for Rouhani to speak of transparency; he must curb Iran’s troublesome nuclear activities and comply with the U.N. Security Council resolutions.

And it is not enough for Rouhani to speak of a tolerant society unless he is prepared to free his many former comrades and colleagues who are languishing in prisons under false charges.

Rouhani’s reliability has to be measured by his actions, not by his speeches or tweets.

There are many out there who are willing to believe that Rohani is a reformer based solely on cosmetic gestures and somewhat more mild rhetoric–especially when compared to Ahmadinejad. These people might very well be setting themselves up for a major disappointment.

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Your Quantum Physics Mindbender of the Day

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 23, 2013

Behold:

Physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.

“This is completely new and very much simpler than anything that has been done before,” said Andrew Hodges, a mathematical physicist at Oxford University who has been following the work.

The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

“The degree of efficiency is mind-boggling,” said Jacob Bourjaily, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and one of the researchers who developed the new idea. “You can easily do, on paper, computations that were infeasible even with a computer before.”

The new geometric version of quantum field theory could also facilitate the search for a theory of quantum gravity that would seamlessly connect the large- and small-scale pictures of the universe. Attempts thus far to incorporate gravity into the laws of physics at the quantum scale have run up against nonsensical infinities and deep paradoxes. The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity.

Thus far, Sean Carroll has not told me what I should think of this finding. But perhaps he will sometime soon.

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“Bohemian Gravity.”

by Moe Lane on September 21, 2013

Come, I will conceal nothing from you: I know precisely enough about physics to keep my mouth shut. But this examination of quantum physics (of which I know… precisely enough to keep my mouth shut*) was still extremely well done as an a cappella cover of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

[click to continue…]

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Devastating Criticism for the Obama Administration on Syria

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 19, 2013

From two of the administration’s former defense secretaries, and from its former acting director of Central Intelligence:

President Obama’s first two defense secretaries publicly questioned the administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis on Tuesday night and expressed skepticism about whether Russia can broker a deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons.

In a joint appearance in Dallas, both former Pentagon chiefs, Robert M. Gates and Leon E. Panetta, were critical of Mr. Obama for asking Congress to authorize the use of force against Syria in retaliation over its use of chemical weapons. But they disagreed on whether military action would be an effective response. Mr. Gates said Mr. Obama’s proposed military strike was a mistake, while Mr. Panetta said it was a mistake not to carry out an attack.

“My bottom line is that I believe that to blow a bunch of stuff up over a couple days, to underscore or validate a point or a principle, is not a strategy,” Mr. Gates said during a forum at Southern Methodist University. “If we launch a military attack, in the eyes of a lot of people we become the villain instead of Assad,” he added, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Mr. Gates, the only cabinet member from the administration of George W. Bush whom Mr. Obama asked to stay, said missile strikes on Syria “would be throwing gasoline on a very complex fire in the Middle East.”

[. . .]

Mr. Panetta, also speaking at the forum, said the president should have kept his word after he had pledged action if Syria used chemical weapons.

“When the president of the United States draws a red line, the credibility of this country is dependent on him backing up his word,” Mr. Panetta said.

“Once the president came to that conclusion, then he should have directed limited action, going after Assad, to make very clear to the world that when we draw a line and we give our word,” then “we back it up,” Mr. Panetta said.

[. . .]

Another former high-ranking Obama administration official, Michael J. Morell, who recently retired as the deputy director of the C.I.A., also expressed skepticism about the negotiations brokered by Russia.

“I think this is the Syrians playing for time,” Mr. Morell told Foreign Policy magazine in an interview published Tuesday on its Web site. “I do not believe that they would seriously consider giving up their chemical weapons.”

Mr. Gates said he doubted whether President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was sincere in his efforts to broker a deal, and said he was skeptical that the Syrian government would disarm. He said it was absurd that Syria needed days or weeks to identify the location and size of its chemical weapons arsenal, and he suggested that the timetable should be an ultimatum of 48 hours.

When asked whether the West should trust Mr. Putin, Mr. Gates said, “Are you kidding me?”

Obviously, I am with Gates on whether military action should have been threatened or taken over Syria, but Panetta’s point is not without merit; the Obama administration looks non-credible for having backed down–especially given the entirely appropriate skepticism expressed for the Putin plan. It would have been nice if the administration had reached out to Gates, Panetta and Morell prior to signing on to the Russian plan–and it would have been nice if John Kerry had not given the Russians an opening to begin with by being clumsy enough to answer a hypothetical question. Too bad that no one from the administration saw fit to engage Gates, Panetta or Morell in the discussion.

Speaking of the difference between former and current Obama administration officials, are those who championed the confirmation of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary still glad that he is in the cabinet, given his endorsement of the awful Russian plan and his disagreement with Gates, Panetta and Morell (a disagreement the New York Times story linked above references)?

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Our Remarkably Unfabulous Middle East Policy

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 17, 2013

One of the best–and most depressing–analyses that I have seen regarding the recent Russian-American deal on Syria:

The United States and Russia have now averted U.S. military action against the Syrian regime for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Is the agreement reached by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov on September 9 a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration, or was it, as retired British ambassador Charles Crawford called it, “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began?”

While perhaps not as bad as Ambassador Crawford suggests, we agree that the outcome is one of the worst defeats for U.S. foreign policy in decades. We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realist who opposed military action against Assad, and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalists who supported striking the Syrian regime. We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.

We share, however, a background in the study of Russia, and it is here that we find the outcome of the Syrian crisis to be so disastrous. For nearly seven decades, American efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bipartisan consensus—one of the few to be found in U.S. foreign policy—aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence in that region. This is a core interest of American foreign policy: it reflects the strategic importance of the region to us and to our allies, as well as the historical reality Russia has continually sought clients there who would oppose both Western interests and ideals. In less than a week, an unguarded utterance by a U.S. Secretary of State has undone those efforts. Not only is Moscow now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, but the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

A halfway competent United States Congress, interested in doing its job, would call hearings and call out Secretary Kerry and others in the administration–including the president himself–for undermining a key American foreign policy interest. Oh, and perhaps newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post should come out with editorials demanding the resignations of people like Secretary Kerry, and anyone else who sold President Obama on the idea that accepting increased Russian influence in the Middle East is a good thing.

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“Calvin and Muad’Dib.”

by Moe Lane on September 16, 2013

See, this is why we have the Internet.

I mean. Whoa.

Moe Lane (crosspost)

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Quote of the Day

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 13, 2013

It is now clear that Snowden was not focused on unearthing for public debate only selected matters that raise issues of privacy and that ought to be debated. He instead was, like his contemporary Bradley Manning, engaged in wholesale compromising of any secrets he could get his hands (or his keyboard) on, consequences be damned. He was conducting an unrestricted attack on U.S. government information security. Perhaps he and Manning exhibit a naïve belief that secrecy is not necessary for conducting programs of foreign policy and national security. But traitors are not all sophisticated; some are naïve.

Paul Pillar on Edward Snowden. And here is an alternative quote of the day from the same piece:

It is well past time to discard the notion that Snowden wasn’t doing something terribly wrong because he was not working all along, in classic spy-novel fashion, as an agent of a foreign government. For one thing, foreign governments (and terrorist groups) read U.S. newspapers. For another, when Snowden went to Moscow he put himself at the mercy of the Russian government. When he was given permission to stay in Russia, it could be assumed that anything he had on whatever laptop or thumb drive he had with him came into the possession of the Russian intelligence services. Given his earlier stop in Hong Kong, when he also was looking for help in where to go, probably something similar happened with the Chinese. In short, Snowden’s actions entailed bushels of U.S. secrets being given to Russia and China. There are various terms that can be applied to that, but it certainly isn’t “whistle-blowing.”

I suppose that it is worth noting that the last two paragraphs of Pillar’s piece are really good too.

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Quick Links on Syria

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on September 13, 2013

In no particular order . . .

  • This is what results when a foreign leader struts after thoroughly outwitting and outmaneuvering an American president. Yes, the Putin editorial is hypocritical in the extreme (was United Nations permission requested by the Putin regime before Russian forays into Chechnya or Georgia?). Yes, it is replete with falsehoods–and the fact that the New York Times allowed it to be published anyway says something about the Times’s editorial standards. But for those who wondered whether the Times allows itself to be used as a medium for transnational taunting between world leaders, you now have your answer in the affirmative.
  • I suppose that the good thing about the Syria fracas is that it has helped re-engage the American people on the issue of foreign policy. Who knows? Perhaps we can look forward to a time when foreign policy, international diplomacy and statecraft become major campaign issues during election season.
  • This story informs us that “the CIA has been delivering light machine guns and other small arms to Syrian rebels for several weeks, following President Barack Obama’s decision to arm the rebels.” It also informs us that “in the northeastern province of Hassakeh, clashes pitting Kurdish fighters against members of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in the past two days killed 13 Kurdish gunmen and 35 militants.” So, armed rebel groups are fighting other armed rebel groups, some of which are Islamic fundamentalist militants related to al Qaeda. Query: How do we know that the weapons that we are providing to “Syrian rebels” don’t fall into the hands of the wrong kind of “rebels”?

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