About Me

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Armchair theorist, poet, and occasional IT manager, Sascha B. is equipped with a Master's Degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Texas, and is not afraid to use it. His work has been published by the University Press of America, Edwin Mellen Press, University of Texas Press, and a variety of small journals nationwide. He is also the proprietor and baker for 3141 Pie, of which you should eat many.

The Deal

I stopped blogging in 2013, when life overtook me. My father became ill and died shortly thereafter, and my mother was left with increasing dementia. I became the primary caregiver, and now orchestrate my mother's care and our family estate.

Now, I am coming up for air again.

Looking for the next book to read. All suggestions welcome.

My reading list is over here.







Thursday, June 18, 2009

Old Food


BBC announces the availability of the online version of The Forme of Cury, a 15th century cookbook for folks looking for medieval authenticity, and a meal of roasted porpoise.

Here's some delicious 15th c. recipes for less controversial meals of goose, pork, and chicken.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

But it's definitely being twittered for now. As for real news though, FP Passport has aggregated the most critical updates of the day so far. We now pretty much have the overwhelming evidence of fraud --- apparently they were, as we say in SF, "getting out the vote in Colma"* or something quite similar --- since a number of precincts registered significantly more votes than they have population. And we now see that the divided powers in the Guardian Council are asking for discussions with the opposition. At the same time it appears that we have had quite a few more arrests, including the children of Rafsanjani, and all the while the protests grow larger.

Unfortunately, we are also reaching the limits of the Western World attention span. I wonder if we will notice after the weekend if a new revolution occurs, or whether we will become obsessed with something as important as, say, this.


* (For any of you who don't know, Colma is the location of the majority of cemeteries in the San Francisco area; the dead far outnumber the living, and thus it has always been a fertile breeding ground for additional votes during corrupt times.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Denied!


No surprise. But very Nelson-worthy:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House on Tuesday dashed hopes that the federal government would help California overcome a mammoth budget crisis that has brought the state dangerously close to an economic meltdown, saying the state will have to solve the problem on its own.

Internal Strife

If anyone was unsure about this being a fractionalized battle within the Iranian regime, rather than one which is about the people against the ruling government, this AFP piece points us back to root causes:
AFP could not reach the site of the demonstrations as Iran has banned foreign media organisations from covering such events.

"Hereby we inform all foreign media representatives to avoid any news coverage which has not been coordinated or authorised by this bureau," a culture ministry official said.

In effect, foreign journalists were being confined to their bureaus and barred from reporting on the streets, in what a government source said was a measure designed for their own protection.

...A founding member of Iran's Nobel peace laureate Shirin Ebadi's human rights group was also arrested on Tuesday, a colleague told AFP.

...In an apparent move to ease the crisis, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has ordered the election supervisory body the Guardians Council to probe the vote-rigging claims, said there should be a partial recount if required.

"I am asking the Guardians council and the interior ministry to examine the said issues so there is no doubt left," he said, state television reported.

"If the examination of the problems require recounting of some ballot boxes, it should be definitely done in the presence of the representatives of candidates so that everybody is assured."

...Top dissident cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, a one-time heir to revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini who was later sidelined, called on the youth of the "oppressed nation" to pursue peaceful rallies.

And in a rare internal criticism, parliament speaker Ali Larijani, a conservative rival to Ahmadinejad, blamed the interior minister for attacks on civilians and university students.
You can find more on the blogs, and in the reporting from BBC, and al-Jazeerah, and elsewhere. The point is that we shouldn't be blind for a moment to the internal power plays going on right now, regardless of the uprisings.

The Heavy Hand Of Persuasion

According to the NYT Lede, Reuters says it was the White House that may have had a major persuasive hand in getting twitter to reschedule the planned service outage last night:
Update | 1:47 p.m.

On Monday we reported that there had been uproar online about a plan by the social-networking site Twitter to take the whole service offline for 90 minutes, to allow for maintenance work. The original plan would have taken the service down last night, at 9:45 p.m. Pacific Time. But after a flood of protests from Twitter users who have been following the events in Tehran, and Iranian users, who have used the service to mobilize support for their protests, Twitter announced a new plan that will take the service offline at 2 p.m. today, which will be 1:30 a.m. in Tehran.

According to a note posted by the company on its blog the rescheduling was done in recognition of “the role Twitter is currently playing as an important communication tool in Iran.”

Reuters reports from Washington that their decision may have been influenced by a few words from the Obama administration:

The U.S. State Department contacted the social networking service Twitter over the weekend to urge it to delay a planned upgrade that could have cut daytime service to Iranians, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

“We highlighted to them that this was an important form of communication,” said the official of the conversation the department had with Twitter at the time of the disputed Iranian election. He declined further details.
Heh. I don't often like it when the government gets in the face of the internet. Not often, but this was definitely an interesting call.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Stimulus Has Failed?

Aside from the fact that I start laughing each time I hear this thread of discussion --- and even here in SF, the Land That Conservatism Forgot, The Left Coast, whatever you want to call us, I hear it as part of the common discourse from people who should know better --- I'm relieved to see Krugman doing some simple commonsensical 'splainin' for us all. In nice easy bite-size words and ideas.
Well then, what about all that government borrowing? All it’s doing is offsetting a plunge in private borrowing — total borrowing is down, not up. Indeed, if the government weren’t running a big deficit right now, the economy would probably be well on its way to a full-fledged depression....

To sum up: A few months ago the U.S. economy was in danger of falling into depression. Aggressive monetary policy and deficit spending have, for the time being, averted that danger. And suddenly critics are demanding that we call the whole thing off, and revert to business as usual.
Stimulus on its own doesn't solve problems: it buys us time to solve them. Call off the spending, and the time is lost, along with the opportunity.

Is it simple? Of course not. And it will continue to hurt. But just because the cast on your broken leg makes it itch doesn't mean you crack it off with a hammer after three days.

Contra

In this post from the NYT Lede, we have the thoughts of Laura Secor and Juan Cole countering those of George Friedman, below. The first quote is from Secor:
It is from this reporting that I have written, in this magazine and elsewhere, that the urban poor had ceased to be a reliable constituency for Ahmadinejad. They were in 2005. But by 2006, it was hard to find a South Tehrani who was pleased with the outcome of that vote or prepared to vote for him again. Why? Because under Ahmadinejad, the country’s economic crisis deepened in ways that hit urban populations—both the poor and the middle class—harder than anyone.

Ahmadinejad’s 2005 mandate was an economic one. Those who wish to argue that Western reporters, in their narcissism, have simply overlooked the widespread enthusiasm for the incumbent, need to explain the outcome of the 2008 parliamentary elections, which were carried by conservatives who were fiercely critical of Ahmadinejad’s economic policies and worked hard to distance themselves from him. These were elections that did not even include any reformist candidates, let alone lure a large North Tehrani vote.
Mr. Cole pointed out that immediately before Mr. Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005, in an election reformist voters largely sat out, Mohammad Khatami managed to be elected to this post twice, without seeming to have some special bond with the poor.
Khatami received 70 percent of the vote in 1997. He then got 78% of the vote in 2001, despite a crowded field. In 2000, his reform movement captured 65% of the seats in parliament. He is a nice man, but you couldn’t exactly categorize him as a union man or a special hit with farmers.
While I'm not sure it's valid to equate the 1997, 2001, or even 2005 elections with those of 2009, this is a serious point, and one of the critical ones. 90% of an elections actual validity is the public sense of its legitimacy --- regardless of the actuality. And this election is rife with lack of it.

Revolution Redux

I want to share a piece by George Friedman of Stratfor, who looks deep into the eyes of Iran, and sees....not a lot of shakin' goin' on. In great part, it is the same sentiment I had yesterday morning. But now I am less sure; I think that the level of rebellion being seen among the students is reaching a place where it may take on a life of its own, regardless of the validity of the election. Nevertheless, here in full is that realpolitik analysis:


WESTERN MISCONCEPTIONS MEET IRANIAN REALITY

By George Friedman

In 1979, when we were still young and starry-eyed, a revolution took place in Iran. When I asked experts what would happen, they divided into two camps.

The first group of Iran experts argued that the Shah of Iran would certainly survive, that the unrest was simply a cyclical event readily manageable by his security, and that the Iranian people were united behind the Iranian monarch's modernization program. These experts developed this view by talking to the same Iranian officials and businessmen they had been talking to for years -- Iranians who had grown wealthy and powerful under the shah and who spoke English, since Iran experts frequently didn't speak Farsi all that well.

The second group of Iran experts regarded the shah as a repressive brute, and saw the revolution as aimed at liberalizing the country. Their sources were the professionals and academics who supported the uprising -- Iranians who knew what former Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini believed, but didn't think he had much popular support. They thought the revolution would result in an increase in human rights and liberty. The experts in this group spoke even less Farsi than the those in the first group.

Misreading Sentiment in Iran

Limited to information on Iran from English-speaking opponents of the regime, both groups of Iran experts got a very misleading vision of where the revolution was heading -- because the Iranian revolution was not brought about by the people who spoke English. It was made by merchants in city bazaars, by rural peasants, by the clergy -- people Americans didn't speak to because they couldn't. This demographic was unsure of the virtues of modernization and not at all clear on the virtues of liberalism. From the time they were born, its members knew the virtue of Islam, and that the Iranian state must be an Islamic state.

Americans and Europeans have been misreading Iran for 30 years. Even after the shah fell, the myth has survived that a mass movement of people exists demanding liberalization -- a movement that if encouraged by the West eventually would form a majority and rule the country. We call this outlook "iPod liberalism," the idea that anyone who listens to rock 'n' roll on an iPod, writes blogs and knows what it means to Twitter must be an enthusiastic supporter of Western liberalism. Even more significantly, this outlook fails to recognize that iPod owners represent a small minority in Iran -- a country that is poor, pious and content on the whole with the revolution forged 30 years ago.

There are undoubtedly people who want to liberalize the Iranian regime. They are to be found among the professional classes in Tehran, as well as among students. Many speak English, making them accessible to the touring journalists, diplomats and intelligence people who pass through. They are the ones who can speak to Westerners, and they are the ones willing to speak to Westerners. And these people give Westerners a wildly distorted view of Iran. They can create the impression that a fantastic liberalization is at hand -- but not when you realize that iPod-owning Anglophones are not exactly the majority in Iran.

Last Friday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was re-elected with about two-thirds of the vote. Supporters of his opponent, both inside and outside Iran, were stunned. A poll revealed that former Iranian Prime Minister Mir Hossein Mousavi was beating Ahmadinejad. It is, of course, interesting to meditate on how you could conduct a poll in a country where phones are not universal, and making a call once you have found a phone can be a trial. A poll therefore would probably reach people who had phones and lived in Tehran and other urban areas. Among those, Mousavi probably did win. But outside Tehran, and beyond persons easy to poll, the numbers turned out quite different.

Some still charge that Ahmadinejad cheated. That is certainly a possibility, but it is difficult to see how he could have stolen the election by such a large margin. Doing so would have required the involvement of an incredible number of people, and would have risked creating numbers that quite plainly did not jibe with sentiment in each precinct. Widespread fraud would mean that Ahmadinejad manufactured numbers in Tehran without any regard for the vote. But he has many powerful enemies who would quickly have spotted this and would have called him on it. Mousavi still insists he was robbed, and we must remain open to the possibility that he was, although it is hard to see the mechanics of this.

Ahmadinejad's Popularity

It also misses a crucial point: Ahmadinejad enjoys widespread popularity. He doesn't speak to the issues that matter to the urban professionals, namely, the economy and liberalization. But Ahmadinejad speaks to three fundamental issues that accord with the rest of the country.

First, Ahmadinejad speaks of piety. Among vast swathes of Iranian society, the willingness to speak unaffectedly about religion is crucial. Though it may be difficult for Americans and Europeans to believe, there are people in the world to whom economic progress is not of the essence; people who want to maintain their communities as they are and live the way their grandparents lived. These are people who see modernization -- whether from the shah or Mousavi -- as unattractive. They forgive Ahmadinejad his economic failures.

Second, Ahmadinejad speaks of corruption. There is a sense in the countryside that the ayatollahs -- who enjoy enormous wealth and power, and often have lifestyles that reflect this -- have corrupted the Islamic Revolution. Ahmadinejad is disliked by many of the religious elite precisely because he has systematically raised the corruption issue, which resonates in the countryside.

Third, Ahmadinejad is a spokesman for Iranian national security, a tremendously popular stance. It must always be remembered that Iran fought a war with Iraq in the 1980s that lasted eight years, cost untold lives and suffering, and effectively ended in its defeat. Iranians, particularly the poor, experienced this war on an intimate level. They fought in the war, and lost husbands and sons in it. As in other countries, memories of a lost war don't necessarily delegitimize the regime. Rather, they can generate hopes for a resurgent Iran, thus validating the sacrifices made in that war -- something Ahmadinejad taps into. By arguing that Iran should not back down but become a major power, he speaks to the veterans and their families, who want something positive to emerge from all their sacrifices in the war.

Perhaps the greatest factor in Ahmadinejad's favor is that Mousavi spoke for the better districts of Tehran -- something akin to running a U.S. presidential election as a spokesman for Georgetown and the Lower East Side. Such a base will get you hammered, and Mousavi got hammered. Fraud or not, Ahmadinejad won and he won significantly. That he won is not the mystery; the mystery is why others thought he wouldn't win.

For a time on Friday, it seemed that Mousavi might be able to call for an uprising in Tehran. But the moment passed when Ahmadinejad's security forces on motorcycles intervened. And that leaves the West with its worst-case scenario: a democratically elected anti-liberal.

Western democracies assume that publics will elect liberals who will protect their rights. In reality, it's a more complicated world. Hitler is the classic example of someone who came to power constitutionally, and then preceded to gut the constitution. Similarly, Ahmadinejad's victory is a triumph of both democracy and repression.

The Road Ahead: More of the Same

The question now is what will happen next. Internally, we can expect Ahmadinejad to consolidate his position under the cover of anti-corruption. He wants to clean up the ayatollahs, many of whom are his enemies. He will need the support of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This election has made Ahmadinejad a powerful president, perhaps the most powerful in Iran since the revolution. Ahmadinejad does not want to challenge Khamenei, and we suspect that Khamenei will not want to challenge Ahmadinejad. A forced marriage is emerging, one which may place many other religious leaders in a difficult position.

Certainly, hopes that a new political leadership would cut back on Iran's nuclear program have been dashed. The champion of that program has won, in part because he championed the program. We still see Iran as far from developing a deliverable nuclear weapon, but certainly the Obama administration's hopes that Ahmadinejad would either be replaced -- or at least weakened and forced to be more conciliatory -- have been crushed. Interestingly, Ahmadinejad sent congratulations to U.S. President Barack Obama on his inauguration. We would expect Obama to reciprocate under his opening policy, which U.S. Vice President Joe Biden appears to have affirmed, assuming he was speaking for Obama. Once the vote fraud issue settles, we will have a better idea of whether Obama's policies will continue. (We expect they will.)

What we have now are two presidents in a politically secure position, something that normally forms a basis for negotiations. The problem is that it is not clear what the Iranians are prepared to negotiate on, nor is it clear what the Americans are prepared to give the Iranians to induce them to negotiate. Iran wants greater influence in Iraq and its role as a regional leader acknowledged, something the United States doesn't want to give them. The United States wants an end to the Iranian nuclear program, which Iran doesn't want to give.

On the surface, this would seem to open the door for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Former U.S. President George W. Bush did not -- and Obama does not -- have any appetite for such an attack. Both presidents blocked the Israelis from attacking, assuming the Israelis ever actually wanted to attack.

For the moment, the election appears to have frozen the status quo in place. Neither the United States nor Iran seem prepared to move significantly, and there are no third parties that want to get involved in the issue beyond the occasional European diplomatic mission or Russian threat to sell something to Iran. In the end, this shows what we have long known: This game is locked in place, and goes on.

www.stratfor.com

© 2009 Stratfor.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

More Bibi

Per usual, Josh Marshall says it better than I do:
Regardless of all these details, what Israel needs and has a right to ask for is a final settlement that, once all the compromises are made, recognizes the State of Israel and declares all the unclosed issues of borders and refugees closed forever. Facts and commitments are what treaties and negotiations and peaceful coexistence are made of. Getting the other side to ascribe to your national dreams and mythologies is too much to ask.

I hope I'm making the distinction clear. Perhaps it's a subtle one. But it's a critical one. Of course, any peace settlement will require the Palestinians to recognize Israel as what it is, a Jewish state, and put in the past any questions of whether a Jewish state, Israel, is legitimate in Palestine. But the upshot of Netanyahu's speech has him almost demanding the Palestinians themselves become Zionists.

Netanyahu Hoo Hoo

Bibi announces today that he will accept a Palestinian state --- as long as it has no military, accepts Israel as a democratic Jewish theocracy, takes it up the bum while saying "thank you sir may I have another," and allows Israel free rein to cross or nullify their borders, encroach on their territory, determine what brand coffee they will drink, and require their first-born children to attend summer camp in Kansas.

(OK, I made the last couple up.)
"In order to achieve peace, we must ensure that Palestinians will not be able to import missiles into their territory, to field an army, to close their airspace to us, or to make pacts with the likes of Hezbollah and Iran. On this point as well, there is wide consensus within Israel....

"Therefore, today we ask our friends in the international community, led by the United States, for what is critical to the security of Israel: Clear commitments that in a future peace agreement, the territory controlled by the Palestinians will be demilitarized: namely, without an army, without control of its airspace, and with effective security measures to prevent weapons smuggling into the territory - real monitoring, and not what occurs in Gaza today. And obviously, the Palestinians will not be able to forge military pacts."
Unfortunately, this, along with the the issue of not just recognition of Israel, but recognition of Israel as an explicitly Jewish entity (thereby preempting any discussion of Palestinian Right of Return), is about as far as you can get from true sovereignty and still say the word "state" in the same breath.

I wish I could be more positive about this speech, in that Netanyahu crossed a personal Rubicon of sorts, by admitting the possibility of a Palestinian state. But his caveats, and his clear refusal to take a stand against the fringe of his own coalition, and his inability to find a reasonable stance on the continued growth of the settlements, leads me to reluctantly agree with Hamas and the naysayers: that this speech provides less than nothing in movement forward in any real sense.

Full text of his speech here.

Iran, Continued

Andrew Sullivan has been following the twittering from Tehran -- apparently the only interactive broadcast medium still available to people -- and while his information is unconfirmable, it is arresting. At the same time, it is becoming clear that no matter what just happened with the election, whether a coup d'état, fraud, or even legitimate, the government has responded with a totalitarian brutality and force that has not been seen in at least a decade, and perhaps since the revolution. Over at Slate, Christopher Hitchens throws his hyperbole around with some righteous indignation, refusing to identify the action which just occurred as an "election" at all.

Even so, I suspect we won't know what has actually happened (or is happening) for another few days --- if we ever do.