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Tag Archives | Israelis

Operation Pillar of Defence: Death via Social Media

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Israel's Merkava Mark-IV main battle tank. Source: Israel Defense Forces

Israel’s Merkava Mark-IV main battle tank. Source: Israel Defense Forces

Social media has become a fixation for those dying the slow lonely life in suburbia to residents of frenetic inner metropolises. It galvanises political movements and enables groups to challenge mummified structures of power. But what is often forgotten is that it can just as well be used by those in power against those out of it.

Nothing has illustrated this better than the Israeli use of social media even as the IDF pummels positions on the Gaza Strip in Operation Pillar of Defence. Peter Kafka of All Things Digital sums up the effect of this strategy. “The idea is familiar to anyone who had a message to push in 2012: Instead of relying on middlemen like the press to convey your story, you can go over their heads, and right to your target audience.”

Soon after the assassination of Hamas’ top military commander in Gaza, Ahmed a-Jabari, the IDF’s media arm announced a “widespread campaign on terror sites & operatives in the (hash) Gaza Strip” on its twitter account. A black-and-white video was posted on its official YouTube page showing the fatal airstrike, prompting Google to remove the video for violating YouTube’s Terms of Service. (Google being the owner of YouTube.) YouTube offers a tip on the subject of community guidelines: “Don’t post videos showing bad stuff like animal abuse, drug abuse, under-age drinking and smoking, or bomb making. Graphic or gratuitous violence is not allowed.”

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Is Israel Prepared to Go Too Far to Prevent Palestinian Non-Member Status at the UN?

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President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as they walk from the Oval Office to the South Lawn Drive of the White House, following their meetings, May 20, 2011. White House/Pete Souza

President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as they walk from the Oval Office to the South Lawn Drive of the White House, following their meetings, May 20, 2011. White House/Pete Souza

The latest news coming out of Israel has revealed that the Israeli Foreign Ministry has proposed “toppling” President Mahmoud Abbas and his Palestinian Authority should Palestine’s bid for UN non-member observer status be approved when it is put to the General Assembly on November 29th. Palestine is seeking non-member status with the United Nations as a step towards creating an independent Palestinian state, adhering to the pre-1967 Six Day War boundaries. This proposed area would include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem—which would also serve as its capital.

Abbas and the Palestinian Authority began to seek recognition as a full member state last fall. However, this failed, due to a lack of support in the Security Council, mainly at the behest of the United States, as it threatened to block any admission of Palestine with their permanent member veto power. This has pushed Abbas to seek a downgraded status as a non-member observer.  Last October, Palestine managed to obtain the necessary votes to join UNESCO—the cultural arm of the United Nations. This move led to an immediate punishment by the Israeli government in the form of accelerated illegal settlement construction and withholding tax revenues. The U.S. also withheld funding from UNESCO as part of a legal requirement regarding recognition of the state of Palestine.

Recently, President Barack Obama phoned President Abbas upon winning reelection and urged him to defer the application to the UN. This request was rebuffed by the PA citing that it had been offered zero incentives or concessions to encourage the move. This is just the next level of drama in the seemingly endless and fruitless negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Since the 1993 Oslo Accord promised a resolution to this matter, next to nothing has been accomplished over the last two decades that showcase the promise of a settlement any time soon.

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U.S. Foreign Policy and the Middle East: The Next Four Years

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Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Over the next four years the U.S. will face a number of foreign policy issues, most of them regional, some of them global. Let’s start with the Middle East.

Syrian fighter during fighting in Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The most immediate problem in the region is the on-going civil war in Syria, a conflict with local and international ramifications. The war—which the oppressive regime of Bashar al-Assad ignited by its crushing of pro-democracy protests— has drawn in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Iran, and the monarchies of the Persian Gulf, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The U.S., France and Great Britain are also heavily involved in the effort to overthrow the Assad government.

The war has killed more than 30,000 people and generated several hundred thousand refugees, who have flooded into Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. It has also badly damaged relations between Turkey and Iran. The former supports the insurrection, the latter supports the Assad regime. Pitting Shite Iran (and to a certain extent, Shite Iraq and the Shite-based Hezbollah in Lebanon) against the largely Sunni Muslim opposition has sharpened sectarian tensions throughout the region.

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What the Middle East will Look Like if Iran is Attacked

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

“The president has made clear that he will prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and we will do what we must to achieve that.” – U.S. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Two weeks ago the US denied that an agreement was made to meet with Iranian officials to discuss the Iranian nuclear program after the American election. It appears that Iranian officials either expect Mr. Obama to be reelected or are trying to get back to the negotiating table before they are forced to negotiate with a Romney administration. Iran seems to be signaling its opening position - that it will settle for a “break-out” nuclear capability (wherein the components of a weapon are available for assembly but not readily available) in exchange for the end of sanctions, or an agreement with Israel not to strike. Last month the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated its flexibility in negotiating to “ease western concerns.” In the face of crippling sanctions and an increasing likelihood that Israel may indeed bomb Iran, has Iran finally blinked?

We think not. There is nothing in Iran’s previous or current behavior to suggest that rumors of pending negotiations are true, nor that they would prove to be successful. More likely, any attempt at negotiation would simply be another stall tactic designed to bide time while Iran races toward full enrichment capability. As such, we must assume that Israel (and possibly the U.S.) believe an attack on Iran may ultimately be necessary. So what would the Middle East look like if Iran is attacked?

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Turkey Haunted by its own Hubris

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A rebel fighter fires a gun toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on Nov. 4.  Narciso Contreras/AP

Two years ago Turkey was on its way to being a player in Central Asia, a major power broker in the Middle East, and a force in international politics. It had stepped in to avoid a major escalation of the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia by blocking U.S. ships from entering the Black Sea, made peace with its regional rivals, and, along with Brazil, made a serious stab at a peaceful resolution of the Iran nuclear crisis.

A rebel fighter fires a gun toward a building where Syrian troops loyal to President Bashar Assad are hiding while they attempt to gain terrain against the rebels during heavy clashes in the Jedida district of Aleppo, Syria on Nov. 4. Narciso Contreras/AP

Today it is exchanging artillery rounds with Syria. Its relations with Iraq have deteriorated to the point that Baghdad has declared Ankara a “hostile state.” It picked a fight with Russia by forcing down a Syrian passenger plane and accusing Moscow of sending arms to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. It angered Iran by agreeing to host a U.S. anti-missile system (a step which won Turkey no friends in Moscow either). Its war with its Kurdish minority has escalated sharply. What happened? The wages of religious solidarity? Ottoman de’je vu?

There is some truth in each of those suggestions, but Turkey’s diplomatic sea change has less to do with the Koran and memories of empire than with illusions and hubris. It is a combination that is hardly rare in the Middle East, and one that now promises to upend years of careful diplomacy, accelerate unrest in the region, and drive Turkey into an alliance with countries whose internal fragility should give the Turks pause. If there is a ghost from the past in all this, it is a growing alliance between Turkey and Egypt.

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U.S. Politics and the Middle East

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President Barack Obama visiting NASA's headquarters in Florida. Photo: Bill Ingalls

US elections are manifestly linked to the Middle East, at least rhetorically.

President Barack Obama visiting NASA’s headquarters in Florida. Photo: Bill Ingalls

In practical terms, however, US foreign policies in the region are compelled by the Middle East’s own dynamics and the US’ own political climate, economic woes, or ambitions. There is little historic evidence that US foreign policy in the Arab world has been guided by moral compulsion. When it comes to the Middle East – and much of the world - it is mostly about style. The country’s two leading political parties have proven equally to be interventionists. In the last two decades Democrats seemed to lean more towards unilateralism in foreign policy as in war, while Republicans, as highlighted by the administration of George W. Bush, are much less worried about the mere definitions of their conducts.

The US administration of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) maintained a draconian siege on Iraq that caused what former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark described as ‘genocide.’ Two years later, W. Bush chose the direct war path, which simply rebranded the ongoing ‘genocide’. In both cases, hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis died. Despite the warrior-like saber-rattling by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney about his intentions to transform the Middle East to suit US interests shall he be elected, few would take that as more than despairing attempts at reaching out to the most zealous members and groups of his party, especially those who wield political influence, media access and, of course, funds. The pro-Israeli gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson is referenced more than others, but there are many others who demand such satisfactory rhetoric before reaching out for their checkbooks.

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Turkey’s Foreign Policy at a Crossroads

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  Ra'ed Qutena/Flickr

It seems that media consensus has been conclusively reached: Turkey has been forced into a Middle Eastern mess not of its own making; the ‘Zero Problems with Neighbors’ notion, once the foreign policy centerpiece of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), is all but a romantic notion of no use in realpolitik.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ra’ed Qutena/Flickr

Turkey’s “policy’s goal – to build strong economic, political, and social ties with the country’s immediate neighbors while decreasing its dependency on the United States – seemed to be within sight,” wrote Sinan Ulgen nearly a year ago. “But the Arab Spring exposed the policy’s vulnerabilities, and Turkey must now seek a new guiding principle for regional engagement.” This reading was not entirely unique and was repeated numerous times henceforth. It suggests an air of naiveness in Turkish foreign policy and overlooks the country’s barely selfless regional ambitions. It also imagines that Turkey was caught in a series of unfortunate events, forcing its hand to act in ways inconsistent with its genuine policies of yesteryears. This, however, is not entirely true.

The recent skirmishes of Oct 4 at the Syrian-Turkish border were reportedly invited by mortar shells fired from the Syrian side. Five people including 3 children were killed and the incident was Turkey’s ‘last straw.’ Turkey’s Anatolia news agency reported of an official Syrian apology through the United Nations soon after the shelling and the Syrian government promised an investigation. However, their seriousness remains doubtful. But the Turkish military was quick to retaliate, as the parliament voted to extend a one-year mandate to the military in order carry out cross-border military action. Irrespective of the violence at the Syrian border, the mandate was originally aimed at Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and it had already been set for a pre-scheduled vote in mid-October.

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Can a Nuclear Armed Iran Be Contained?

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly.  J Carrier/UN

During his address at the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held up a diagram of a bomb to urge international action against Iran’s nuclear program.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the UN General Assembly. J Carrier/UN

He emphasized that soon Iran will have enough enriched uranium to become a threat to the existence of Israel, and said the world has until next summer at the latest to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. The debate on Iran’s nuclear facilities has been going on for several years now, with arguments both for and against letting Iran enrich uranium. Not so long ago Kenneth Waltz wrote an article for Foreign Affairs in which he expressed his view that a nuclear-armed Iran could even be beneficial by providing stability in the Middle East, Netanyahu however argued that one cannot expect rational acts from the Islamic Republic and urged for the threat (or use) of force.

To shed light on the issue, we turned to Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, Sadegh Zibakalam of the University of Tehran, Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Insitute, Gary G. Sick of Columbia University, Ze’ev Maghen of Bar Ilan University, M.J. Rosenberg a foreign policy commentator, David Menashri of the Academic Center of Law and Business in Israel, renowned author Robert Jervis of Columbia University, Gerald M. Steinberg of Bar Ilan University, Austin Long of Columbia University, Ran Rovner of Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Keenan Mahoney of Columbia University to ask: Can a nuclear Iran be contained?

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Amidst Confusion, Canada Severs ties with Iran

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Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Photo: Jason Ransom

Over a week after Canada suspended formal diplomatic relations with Iran, reaction in Canada remains mixed.

Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Photo: Jason Ransom

While supporters of the Harper government and defenders of Israel have declared it bold and principled, a number of foreign policy analysts have raised questions about the timing, and cause of the sudden rupture. On Friday September 7th a senior diplomat from Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade arrived unannounced at the Iranian embassy in Ottawa carrying two letters. The first informed Iran’s diplomats that they were now considered personae non gratae, and had five days to pack up the embassy and leave the country. The second stated that Canada had already removed its diplomats from Tehran and was closing its embassy, effective immediately.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to praise the Conservative government, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper as a world leader of “the highest level.” On the CBC’s The National, Netanyahu declared, “We have to build a wall, not of silence, but of condemnation and resolve. And Canada just put a very big brick in that wall.” Yet, reaction in Canada was measured, with a number of prominent voices raising concern. James George, who served as Canada’s ambassador to Iran between 1972 and 1977 declared it “stupid to close an embassy in these circumstances.” “We need to keep an ear open there—our own ear,” George said.

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On the Poisoning of Yasser Arafat

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Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Saar Yaacov/Flickr

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Saar Yaacov/Flickr

“It sounds to me like Arabian Tales from One Thousand and One Nights.”

– Moshe Yaalon, Israeli Vice Premier, Aug 29, 2012

It is the language of brutal indifference – words that are chewed, gnawed, spat out with derision. But when asked whether the Israeli authorities might have had a hand in the death of Yaser Arafat, the reaction is stubbornly predictable. “Israel did not have any hand in this,” claimed Dov Weisglass, the relevant chief of staff of then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. “We did not physically hurt him when Arafat was in his prime…so all the more so we had no interest in this kind of activity when he was politically sidelined.”

Indeed, at the point when Arafat was in his prime, it could be said that Israel was as well – at least its assassinated leader Yitzhak Rabin, whose reluctant peace feelers eventually found their mark. If painful realities are to be ignored, violence is often the only dumbfounded answer.  Given that Arafat’s PLO was on the terrorist watch lists for years, and only brought out of the cool of diplomatic exclusion during Rabin’s period in office, harm was a permanent prospect. The suggestion that Israel had no intention of hurting him is caricatured nonsense.

What is easily avoided is the state of emergency that the Palestinians were placed under as Arafat lay dying. For one thing, the Ramallah compound was being besieged with unrelenting ferocity by the Israeli Forces. Death was a casual affair.  The second Intifada was in full swing, and assassinating Arafat was always on the books, an option to be put on the meeting agenda when the well of ideas ran dry.

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Post-Assad Syria: A Region in Turmoil

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A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo on August 7, 2012. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Syria is in dire straits. The once regal and prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo have now become the primary battlefields of the Syrian Army against opposition forces.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with the Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo on August 7, 2012. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Since the start of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, the calm and serenity of both Damascus and Aleppo were often touted by the Syrian regime to the world as indicators of Syrian stability. The swift change from peace to turmoil however, has happened almost overnight, with President Assad describing the current battle in Aleppo as decisive of Syria’s fate. The massive explosion which occurred on July 18 in the heart of the Syrian regime’s security organization in Damascus killed a number of people within Assad’s security and military inner circle, shocking the Syrian government and severely shaking the stability of the regime’s pillars.

Despite support from allies such as Iran, Russia and China, Assad’s days and those of his regime seem numbered. The rapid changes occurring at ground level within Syria bear testament to the fact, that the world, together with the Syrians, has started envisioning a post-Assad Syria. That being said, there is a very fine line between the dream of democracy and the nightmare of civil war – both of which may very well happen in a post-Assad Syria. What would the aftermath of a regime collapse in Syria be? Will the country follow in the footsteps of Libya? Or will it fall into civil war the way Lebanon did in the 1970s?

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Israel and the Iran Nuclear Weapons MacGuffin

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President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009.  Pete Souza/White House

I think there is some misunderstanding about Israel’s concern over Iran’s nuclear program.

President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office Monday, May 18, 2009. Pete Souza/White House

To use Alfred Hitchcock’s term, the Iranian bomb is simply “the MacGuffin,” the psychologically potent but practically insignificant pretext for action, reaction, and drama. To my mind, the main object of Israel’s foreign policy as practiced by Benjamin Netanyahu, is to preclude US and European rapprochement with Iran. If peace breaks out in the Middle East, in other words, Iran, its markets, and its oil would quickly become remarkably popular with Western governments and investors.

In that case, the focus of unwelcome attention would shift away from the mad mullahs of Tehran to the bigots in Tel Aviv, with their creepy crypto-apartheid state, their undeclared nuclear arsenal, and their violent and unilateral overt and covert security policies that destabilize the entire Middle East. Exacerbating the polarization between Iran and the US and Europe is, therefore, an important element in the Israeli foreign policy game plan. Iran’s currently non-existent nuclear weapons program offers a suitable opportunity for Israel to declare an existential threat. The objective is not simply to repel and terrify the West with the image of the Iranian nuclear bugbear.

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Iran: Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

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Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speak with Israeli soldiers at an Iron Dome anti-missile site in Ashkelon, Israel, Aug. 1, 2012

I don’t know if you guys have heard, but apparently Israel is about to go to war with Iran. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually matter what is happening in Israel or the rest of the world, because any event or environment can be interpreted to mean that an Israeli strike is just around the corner.

Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak speak with Israeli soldiers at an Iron Dome anti-missile site in Ashkelon, Israel, Aug. 1, 2012

In fact, an imminent Israeli attack can be predicted based on two diametrically opposed sets of facts. For instance, in May it was reported that the decision to attack was imminent because Israeli officials were being uncharacteristically silent, and this speculation meant that an attack was about to come. As one unnamed Israeli official said, “Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.”

So the lesson is that when things are quiet, an attack is on the way. But wait – now there is a slew of reports that Israel has decided to attack because all sorts of officials are openly talking about it, and everyone knows that rampant speculation means that an attack is about to come. So the lesson now is that when there is lots of noise about an attack, an attack is on the way. Isn’t it nifty how that works? No matter what Israeli officials are saying and doing, a strike on Iranian facilities can be easily predicted.

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Self-Immolations Speak of Israel’s Economic Pains

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Israeli housing protest in Tel Aviv. Gerrit De Vynck/Flickr

Israeli housing protest in Tel Aviv. Gerrit De Vynck/Flickr

In the past weeks, the streets of Tel Aviv have been witness to desperate people setting themselves on fire in protest against the growing social and economic inequalities and the rising cost of living in Israel. Almost one year after 400,000 Israelis filled Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in protest at the increasing economic difficulties, a wave of civil unrest and upsurges is again encompassing the country. The latest victim of the protests was 57-year-old Moshe Silman, a disabled war veteran who sustained severe injuries after setting himself ablaze at a bus stop near Tel Aviv on July 14.

The death of Silman ignited widespread anger and frustration among the Israelis who have poured into the streets of Tel Aviv en masse since early July to call on the government to meet their socioeconomic demands in the light of the unprecedented recession and economic crisis in Europe.

The New York Times wrote that many people have compared Silman to the Tunisian fruit vendor Mohamed Bouazizi whose suicide on January 4, 2011 became the preface to the Tunisian revolution and the subsequent Arab Spring which have transformed the Middle East. However, the chained self-immolations in the past weeks in Israel are not exceptional. Although few may remember the tragic event, back in July 2004, when another Israeli, Mordehai Cohen, set himself on fire in protest at the rejection of a work license. Moshe Silman was formerly a businessman, working in a messenger service.

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Iran Sanctions: War by Other Means

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad speaks at the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility

Now that the talks with Iran on its nuclear program appear to be on the ropes, are we on the road to war? The Israelis threaten it almost weekly, and the Obama administration has reportedly drawn up an attack plan. But in a sense, we are already at war with Iran. Carl von Clausewitz, the great theoretician of modern warfare, defined war as the continuation of politics by other means. In the case of Iran, international politics has become a de-facto state of war.

According to reports, the annual inflation rate in Iran is 22.2 percent, although many economists estimate it at double that. In the last week of June, the price of chicken rose 30 percent, grains were up 55.8 percent, fruits up 66.6 percent, and vegetables up 99.5 percent. Iran’s Central Bank estimates unemployment among the young is 22.5 percent, although the Financial Times says “the official figures are vastly underestimated.” The production sector is working at half its capacity. The value of the Iranian rial has fallen 40 percent since last year, and there is a wave of business closings and bankruptcies due to rising energy costs and imports made expensive by the sanctions.

Oil exports, Iran’s major source of income, have fallen 40 percent in 2012, according to the International Energy Agency, costing the country just under $32 billion over the past year. The 27-member European Union (EU) ban on buying Iranian oil will further depress sales, and a EU withdrawal of shipping insurance will make it difficult for Teheran to ship oil and gas to its diminishing number of customers. Loss of insurance coverage could reduce Iran’s oil exports by 1/5 million barrels a day, or $4.5 billion a month. Energy accounts for about 80 percent of Iran’s public revenues.

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