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Iran's Threat to Blockade the Strait of Hormuz (Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty)
Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, the world's most important oil-shipping lane, as punishment against countries that have sanctioned Tehran over its suspect nuclear program. Some 17% of the world's oil is shipped through the strait every day.
But in a 2008 report by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Eisenstadt says that if Iran does succeed in blocking the strait, it could only do so for about a week.
"The bottom line is, although the Iranians have been talking a long time about closing the Strait of Hormuz, they probably only have the ability to do so for several days."
"And once the U.S. Navy gets involved in ensuring freedom of navigation, I think it's very clear that the outcome will be, eventually, the destruction of the Iranian Navy and the reopening of the strait."
See also Close the Strait of Hormuz?
Iran Has More to Lose than America - Editorial (Washington Times)
Iran is threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. Go ahead, make our day. Iran would suffer more than the U.S. from closing the strait.
Iran's economy is highly dependent on oil exports; closing the strait would cut off most of that trade. Iran wouldn't be able to import gasoline and other necessary commodities, which some analysts think would be fatal to the regime.
In the grand balance, a temporary increase in oil prices in the West would be far less injurious than the near total loss of oil revenue and gasoline in Iran.
The U.S. military has been training for this eventuality since the 1980s. Contingency plans have been war-gamed repeatedly and are ready to be implemented immediately.
The mullahs' ships and submarines would be sunk, their on-shore anti-ship missile batteries would be bombed, their aircraft would be downed, and any small craft in the area would face destruction.
Special-operations forces would seize their offshore oil derricks, and Marine landing forces would temporarily secure the Iranian side of the strait.
Hundreds of North Korean Nuclear and Missile Experts Working in Iran (Korea Times)
"Hundreds of North Korean nuclear and missile engineers and scientists have been working at more than 10 sites (in Iran), including Natanz and Qom," a diplomatic source said Sunday, lending credence to long-held suspicions that North Korea was helping Iran with a secret nuclear and missile program.
AP reported late last year that Mohammad Reza Heydari, a former Iranian diplomat in charge of airports who defected to the West earlier in 2010, said he saw many North Korean technicians repeatedly and discreetly travel to Iran between 2002 and 2007 to work on the country's nuclear program.
Israel Approves New "Depth Corps" Command - Barbara Opall-Rome (Defense News)
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday approved the formation of a joint special operations force oriented to multidisciplinary missions far from Israel's borders.
The force will integrate elite commando units into a single special operations command for counterterror, anti-smuggling, anti-proliferation and other operations beyond its immediate and intermediate circles of enemy states.
"The primary task of the Corps will be to extend joint IDF operations into the strategic depth," an IDF statement said.
See also Israel to Merge Units for Far-Flung Missions - Barbara Opall-Rome (Defense News)
According to one member of the General Staff, the idea is to merge Sayeret Matkal, Israel's premier General Staff reconnaissance unit; Navy SEALs (Flotilla 13); the Air Force's Shaldag target designation unit and 669 airborne search and rescue force into a single command structure subordinate to the IDF chief of General Staff.
Paris Court Sentences Carlos the Jackal to Life in Prison for 4 Deadly Attacks in 1980s (AP-Washington Post)
Carlos the Jackal, a Venezuelan terrorist whose real name is Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, is already serving a life sentence in a French prison for a triple murder in 1975.
He was found guilty in Paris on Thursday of four bombings in France in 1982 and 1983 that killed 11 people and injured more than 140.
Israel Reaching for the Moon - Gur Salomon (Xinhua-China)
Kfir Damari, a communication systems engineer, has a dream: to land a miniature spacecraft on the moon sometime in 2013.
Damari is one of the founders of Team SpaceIL, a non-profit organization representing Israel in the Google Lunar X Competition.
The prize: $20 million to the first of the 26 international teams currently registered that lands an unmanned craft on the moon, moves it a minimum of 500 meters across the lunar surface and transmits live high-resolution images back to earth.
Damari and his partners have enlisted the support of 120 local volunteers, many of them engineers holding top positions in the technological and scientific community as well as the country's leading defense industries.
Archaeological Excavations in Israel 2012 (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
This is a list of archaeological expeditions in Israel which accept volunteers who are highly motivated and wish to learn and gain experience.
The work includes digging, shoveling, hauling baskets of earth and shards, cleaning pottery shards and more.
Most expeditions offer informal lectures covering the history and archaeology of the site.
Volunteers are responsible for their own travel arrangements to and from Israel.
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- Iran to Transfer Nuclear Production to Secret Facilities - Damien McElroy
Western intelligence officials have said that the Iranian regime was moving its nuclear and ballistic assets to new locations to defend against foreign saboteurs and the threat of direct military action. Now Brig.-Gen. Gholam Reza Jalali, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has said new locations would be established to house the nuclear program. Separately, Western diplomats revealed that Iran was poised to launch production of enriched uranium, which can be refined to build a nuclear bomb, at an underground facility at Fordow near Qom.
Shannon Kile, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said that secret facilities posed a far graver potential threat than Iran's existing plants. By producing enriched uranium underground, the regime could race to complete a nuclear warhead - a process known as breakout.
"Obviously, for people who are concerned about Iran's ability to break out and to enrich to weapons-grade, this is a pretty good step along that route," he said.
See also Iran Says It May Move Uranium Enrichment to "Safer Places" - Rick Gladstone (New York Times)
- U.S. Sues Businesses It Says Helped Hizbullah - Jo Becker
The federal government on Thursday escalated its campaign to stanch the flow of what it says is dirty money to the Shiite militant group Hizbullah. Prosecutors filed a civil suit aimed at financially punishing American and Lebanese businesses that the government charges were behind a Hizbullah-controlled global network that laundered huge sums in South American cocaine proceeds. The court action, filed in Manhattan federal court, seeks nearly half a billion dollars in penalties from three Lebanese financial organizations - the now-defunct Lebanese Canadian Bank and two Beirut-based money exchange houses - and 30 auto dealers in the U.S.
(New York Times)
See also Ties between Hizbullah and Mexican Drug Cartels Revealed - Rebecca Anna Stoil
A U.S. indictment of Lebanese drug lord Ayman Joumaa, 47, revealed on Tuesday the close ties between Hizbullah and the drug cartels that have reduced parts of Mexico to near battle zones in recent years. According to a lengthy expose published by the New York Times, Joumaa is also "known to Israeli intelligence," having been in contact with a member of Hizbullah's elite 1,800 Unit that coordinates attacks against Israeli targets, and who, in turn, "worked for a senior operative who the Israelis believed handled Hizbullah's drug operations."
- U.S.: Treatment of Israel at UN is "Relentless, Obsessive, Ugly, and Bad for Peace" - UN Ambassador Susan E. Rice
UN Ambassador Susan E. Rice told the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday:
At the UN, "all countries come in for knocks every now and again, including, if not especially, our own. But what Israel faces daily at the UN is something entirely different. As Ambassador Prosor can attest, it's relentless. It's obsessive. It's ugly. It's bad for the UN. It's bad for peace. And it must stop."
"There is no substitute for direct, face-to-face negotiations. The goal remains a lasting peace: two states for two peoples, Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace. That is the only path to Israel's decades-long quest for security and the only path to fulfilling the Palestinian people's legitimate aspirations.
And that is why we have stood firm on principle as the Palestinians sought UN membership prematurely."
- Congress to Continue Palestinian Aid, with Strings - Paul Richter
Despite Congress' unhappiness with the Palestinian leadership, top appropriators have agreed to continue funding the Palestinian Authority provided that it does not press any further with its campaign to win more diplomatic recognition at the UN or join any more UN organizations.
(Los Angeles Times)
Global Commentary and Think-Tank Analysis (Best of U.S., UK, and Israel):
- IDF: In the Arab World Shake-Up, Syria Is Next - Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff
The IDF Military Intelligence appraisal for 2012, recently presented to political decision-makers, predicts the shake-up in the Arab world will continue and that Syria is next.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who reads all the intelligence assessments, has been saying all month that Assad will fall "within weeks." Before that, he said it would be a matter of months. "Assad will not survive," a senior MI officer says bluntly. "There is no conceivable way he can extricate himself." The demonstrators in Syria appear to have overcome their fear and are continuing to take to the streets despite the clear risk of being shot. Thousands of soldiers are believed to have defected, most of them along the border with Jordan. (Ha'aretz)
- Netanyahu "Respectfully Declines" to Pen Op-ed for New York Times - Herb Keinon
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refusing to pen an op-ed piece for the New York Times, signaling the degree to which he is fed up with the influential newspaper's editorial policy on Israel.
Netanyahu's senior adviser Ron Dermer made clear that this had much to do with the fact that 19 of the paper's 20 op-ed pieces on Israel since September were negative. Dermer's letter to the Times, saying that the prime minister would "respectfully decline," came a day after Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote that the resounding ovation Netanyahu received in Congress when he spoke there in May had been "bought and paid for by the Israel lobby."
Dermer wrote that "the opinions of some of your regular columnists regarding Israel are well known. They constantly distort the positions of our government and ignore the steps it has taken to advance peace. They cavalierly defame our country by suggesting that marginal phenomena condemned by Prime Minister Netanyahu, and virtually every Israeli official, somehow reflect government policy or Israeli society as a whole." (Jerusalem Post)
See also Friedman Is Wrong - Editorial
For the past several years, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has shown that he doesn't really understand Israel or the region.
His underlying assumption that appears in his columns repeatedly is that were Israel to just leave the settlements, peace would flow like a river.
Well, Israel uprooted all 21 settlements from Gaza in 2005, but instead of peace, received an unending barrage of missiles in return. The settlements are a consequence of the conflict, not its cause. The PLO, if anyone has forgotten, was established in 1964, three years before the Six-Day War and any thought of a West Bank settlement.
As for Friedman's failure to understand the region, readers need look no further than his breathless "Postcard from Cairo" columns at the outset of the Arab Spring last February. To have read Friedman then was to believe this was 1989 all over again, and that Hosni Mubarak would be deposed and replaced by the Egyptian version of Vaclav Havel.
- Too Early to Call It a Day on Iran - Emily B. Landau
Yes, Iran is moving toward a military capability in the nuclear realm; and no, we don't know if it has decided to actually produce nuclear weapons. But the fact that Iran may not have made a decision whether to go all the way to weapons, or rather to remain at some threshold close to that point, is no cause for comfort. While the international community has so far proven powerless to stop Iran and it is indeed very late in the game, it is also too early to concede that "Iran will no doubt become a nuclear state." Massive pressure on Iran - including credible threats of military action - is the only way to impress upon it that serious negotiation is preferable to moving unilaterally toward its goal.
Whether as a first stage to a more serious negotiation, or for purposes of general deterrence, Iran must be convinced that there are states in the international community that are willing to act on their convictions; states that understand that Iran is not just "another state going nuclear," but rather a dangerous revisionist regime that seeks to alter the face of the Middle East.
The most dangerous scenario is not that of escalation, due to Iran's reaction to a more determined international stance. The most dangerous scenario is of Iran becoming a nuclear state. This menacing regime will then become virtually invulnerable to any kind of coercive pressure - not to mention military attack - in response to the large-scale trouble it will invariably stir up in the Middle East and beyond.
It's not time to give up. Communicating a message to Iran that it can no longer be stopped, and moreover, that the international community is loath to upset it, is a huge mistake. The writer is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
- Spring, But Not European-Style - Shlomo Avineri
The processes under way in the Arab world were perhaps done an injustice when the media rushed to dub them the "Arab Spring" - along the lines of the Prague Spring of 1968 or Eastern Europe in 1989 - for this raised hopes that these dramatic changes would lead to democracy and freedom. It's enough to hear the despair voiced by liberal and secular groups in Egypt, not to mention the Coptic minority's resounding silence, to realize that Egypt is not on a smooth path to democracy and liberalism. Given a choice between an Islamist government and a military junta, Egypt's odds of having a democratic future are slim. The harsh truth is that the Tahrir revolution was a revolution of the educated middle class, which does not represent most of Egyptian society.
Over the past century, the Muslim world experienced quite a few attempts at modernization and secularization imposed from above, by an elite educated on Western ideas that sought to recreate secular, Western societies at home. However, because the majority of the population was religious and conservative, these processes were carried out by force. But ultimately, you cannot impose modernization and secularism when most people feel these are alien concepts. The writer, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is a former director-general of Israel's Foreign Ministry.
- Syria's Civil War Is Bigger than Syria Itself - Jim Hoagland
Assad's government "has become a killing machine," says Turki bin Faisal of Saudi Arabia, one of the kingdom's most senior princes and a former chief of intelligence. "The killing has to stop....This kind of leadership is unacceptable. Change in Syria is now inevitable." Unlike the upheaval that ousted entrenched leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and (it seems) Yemen, the outcome in Syria will shift the balance of power in a larger civil war within Islam that has raged for three decades between the Sunni-dominated countries in and near the Arabian Peninsula and the revolutionary Shiite regime in Iran, Syria's most important foreign ally. (Washington Post)
- Bashar Assad in the Balance - David Schenker
Based on the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad's longtime friends, the collapse of the regime is not far off. With the notable exception of Iran, Syria's closest allies - terrorist organizations and states alike - are jumping ship, or at least readying the lifeboats. In recent months, Hamas, which had been based in Damascus since 1999, has started divesting its assets and withdrawing its personnel from Syria.
Hizbullah in Lebanon is also taking steps to mitigate the damage of regime change next door. Since this summer Hizbullah reportedly has been moving its heavy weapons positioned in Syria into Lebanon, including its long-range Iranian Zilzal, and Fajr 3, 4 and 5 missiles. "There's so much stuff coming across the border Hizbullah doesn't know where to put it," one well-informed observer in Beirut told me in June.
Before the uprising, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Assad were friends who once vacationed together with their respective spouses. In November, Turkey started to provide safe haven to military defectors known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a policy that exponentially increased desertions. It's difficult to imagine Turkey providing sanctuary to Assad opponents across the frontier without being confident that the regime would fall. The writer is director of the Program on Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 2002 to '06 he served as Syria advisor to then-Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.
(Los Angeles Times)
- The End of Fayyadism - Jonathan Schanzer
PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad, perhaps the only Palestinian leader who earnestly sought to usher in an era of good governance, is now under siege from political rivals. President Mahmoud Abbas has orchestrated a series of trials against the prime minister's top officials to discredit Fayyad. These cases are not designed to rid Palestine of corruption. Rather, by ousting ministers and hobbling Fayyad, Abbas creates an opportunity to replace them with figures more to his liking.
According to officials who work with them, the two figureheads of the Palestinians are barely on speaking terms. Fayyad has become a glorified accountant, leveraging his strong relationship with international donors to collect checks that ensure his government can continue to pay salaries - while Abbas pursues a provocative foreign policy that endangers those sources of funding. Fayyad opposed angling for international recognition of Palestinian statehood at the UN - a finger in Washington's eye.
Washington still pays lip service to the potential of Fayyad's reform agenda, but the White House knows the prime minister's days are numbered. The end of Fayyadism means the end of an era that offered hope for political reform for the Palestinians. The writer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is a former terrorism analyst at the U.S. Treasury.
- Egypt Faces a Hardline Islamic Future - Daniel Steinvorth
In Egypt, the Salafists' strong showing hasn't just shocked many Egyptians, but especially the country's revolutionary youth, liberals and leftists, Coptic Christians and moderate Muslims. It was, after all, the Salafists who had agitated against the Copts and boycotted the revolution, on the grounds that it was infiltrated with "whores and Zionists." And it was also the Salafists who, until now, had rejected free elections as "un-Islamic." And now they are coming into power as democrats?
The members of the Al-Nour Party were not exactly known for their democratic ambitions, but rather for their close ties to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Since the establishment of the "Party of Light," more than $100 million in campaign funds have allegedly made their way from the oil-rich, Wahhabite kingdom to the banks of the Nile.
- Why Islamists Are Winning Elections - Bobby Ghosh
The Arab Fall has brought a rich harvest for political Islam. In election after election, parties that embrace various shades of Islamist ideology have spanked liberal rivals. In Cairo, disheartened liberals explained they only had eight months to prepare for elections, whereas the Brotherhood has 80 years' experience in political organization.
The Islamists, thanks to powerful financial backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, outspent the liberals. But the Salafis had no political organization until 10 months ago, and they still managed to do well. Furthermore, a leading member of the liberal Egyptian Bloc was free-spending telecom billionaire Naguib Sawiris.
Like smart politicians everywhere, the Islamists played to their strengths, capitalizing on goodwill generated by years of providing social services - free hospitals and clinics, soup kitchens - in poor neighborhoods. And they used their piety to assure voters that they would provide clean government, no small consideration for a population fed up with decades of corrupt rule.
- Israel Is a Vibrant Democracy - Alan Dershowitz
The Israel you personally see and hear is so completely different from the Israel you read and hear about in the media.
The Israel that I saw over the past several weeks was a vibrant democracy.
The Israeli character - contentious, confrontational, opinionated, argumentative, direct and uncompromising - is what makes Israel quintessentially democratic.
Recently, a "human rights" group gave Israel the lowest ranking - along with Afghanistan and other repressive theocracies - on its religious freedom index. This is because the complaints by secular Jews about the excessive influence of Orthodox rabbis on Israeli politics have been so loud. In reality of course there is almost total freedom of religion in Israel, in the sense that no one is forced to be religious. Israel can do better but it isn't comparable to Afghanistan - or for that matter Iran. In some respects, it is freer than the U.S.: In Israel an atheist can be elected to high office; not in the U.S.
Now even Iceland has put in its two cents. It has decided to become the first European country to recognize Palestine as a state on the 1967 "borders." Thus according to the wise men and women of Iceland, every Jew who prays at the Western Wall is trespassing on Palestinian territory. Every Israeli student who makes his or her way to the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus is an unlawful occupier. And every Israeli who lives in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem must be moved out of his home, despite the reality that Jews have lived in the Jewish Quarter for more than 2,000 years. The writer is a Harvard law professor.
- Small Egyptian Victories - David Keyes
From Dec. 5 to 7, I attended the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's conference on civil society held in Lithuania. When I finished speaking, an Egyptian delegate ripped a piece of paper from her notebook, scribbled something on it, and passed it to the Egyptian blogger sitting to my right, Kareem Amer, who spent four years in prison under Hosni Mubarak. Amer showed me the note: "Be careful. He's from Israel." Amir told me, "If you want to talk about this publicly, go ahead. We cannot accept racists among us."
I approached the Egyptian delegate after the session and introduced myself. She refused to look at me, speak with me or acknowledge my presence, all because I hold a particular citizenship. During the closing ceremony the next night, the Egyptian woman suddenly approached me and said, "David, I'm so sorry for the way I treated you yesterday. Things in Egypt are very tense and it was not OK for me to do what I did." The transformation of my Egyptian colleague was unexpected and welcome. How many more Egyptians might undergo a similar reversal if challenged and engaged? The writer is the executive director of Advancing Human Rights and co-founder of CyberDissidents.org.
Why Netanyahu Can't "Get to the Damn Table" - Jackson Diehl (Washington Post)
The president appears to blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the failure to begin negotiations, describing him - especially in private meetings - as intransigent.
But his former senior Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, had this to say this week about Netanyahu's counterpart, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen:
"Abu Mazen is convinced that, with this Israeli government, he can't reach agreement. And so, because he's convinced that there's no agreement with this Israeli government, he imposes conditions on negotiations, since he's convinced negotiations will only produce failure."
- Of Netanyahu, Ross said: "He sees in Abu Mazen someone who looks like he runs away from negotiations, imposes conditions for negotiations that he didn't impose on Bibi's predecessors, and he puts Israel in the corner."
- This is a point that I, among other observers, have been trying to make since 2009: Abbas is simply unwilling to deal with Netanyahu, and his demands for Israeli concessions prior to talks - such as a settlement freeze in the West Bank and Jerusalem - are pretexts that have nothing to do with his real motives, or the real obstacles to peace. It follows that, almost regardless of concessions Netanyahu might make - such as his settlement-construction moratorium last year - Abbas will refuse to talk.
- So why do Obama and other senior administration officials continue to blame Netanyahu for the failure to begin negotiations? The latest shot across the Israeli bow came this month from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who bluntly advised Israel to "just get to the damn table" with Abbas.
- If Ross is right, why does the administration fault Netanyahu for failure to "get to the damn table?" How can he get to a table if his partner has already ruled out talking to him? According to the White House's own expert on the subject, it is Abbas who is intransigent.
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