Monday, February 27, 2006

To Whom is Bush Selling Our Ports?

As a follow-up to the post highlighting Bush’s threat to use his veto against any congressional legislation aimed at stopping the sale of shipping operations of six major U.S. seaports, here is some information about the buyer: Dubai.

As U.S. News and World Report puts it, Dubai “serves as the region's criminal crossroads, a hub for smuggling, money laundering, and underground banking” Here are some excerpts:

“There are Russian and Indian mobsters, Iranian arms traffickers, and Arab jihadists. Funds for the 9/11 hijackers and African embassy bombers were transferred through the city. It was the heart of Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan's black market in nuclear technology and other proliferation cases. Half of all applications to buy U.S. military equipment from Dubai are from bogus front companies, officials say. 'Iran,' adds one U.S. official, 'is building a bomb through Dubai.' Last year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents thwarted the shipment of 3,000 U.S. military night-vision goggles by an Iranian pair based in Dubai. Moving goods undetected is not hard…

U.A.E. rulers have taken terrorism seriously since 9/11, but Washington has a half-dozen extradition requests that they refuse to honor. The list includes people accused of rape, murder, and arms trafficking,…

'All roads lead to Dubai,' says former treasury agent John Cassara, author of Hide and Seek, a forthcoming book on terrorism finance. Cassara tried explaining U.S. concerns about Dubai to a local businessman but got only a puzzled look: 'Mr. John, money laundering? But that's what we do.'"

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Weak Link: Oil Facilities in the Middle East

Saudi Arabian forces just thwarted a suicide car bombing at Abqaiq, an oil processing facility, which handles two- thirds of Saudi Arabia’s oil supply.

Not too surprising. In 2003, Institute for the Analysis of Global Security experts warned us:
“About two-thirds of Saudi Arabia's crude oil is processed in a single enormous facility called Abqaiq, 25 miles inland from the Gulf of Bahrain. On the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia has just two primary oil export terminals: Ras Tanura - the world's largest offshore oil loading facility, through which a tenth of global oil supply flows daily - and Ras al-Ju'aymah. On the Red Sea, a terminal called Yanbu is connected to Abqaiq via the 750-mile East–West pipeline. A terrorist attack on each one of these hubs of the Saudi oil complex or a simultaneous attack on few of them is not a fictional scenario. A single terrorist cell hijacking an airplane in Kuwait or Dubai and crashing it into Abqaiq or Ras Tanura, could turn the complex into an inferno. This could take up to 50% of Saudi oil off the market for at least six months and with it most of the world’s spare capacity, sending oil prices through the ceiling.”

"Such an attack would be more economically damaging than a dirty nuclear bomb set off in midtown Manhattan or across from the White House in Lafayette Square," wrote former CIA Middle East field officer Robert Baer. This "would be enough to bring the world's oil-addicted economies to their knees, America's along with them."

Read the very insightful article written on this topic in 2003: Terror's next target

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Democracy or Bushocracy?

Faced with strong opposition on the proposed deal to sell shipping operations of six major U.S. seaports to a company owned by the United Arab Emirates, Bush threatened to use his veto against any congressional legislation aimed at stopping the deal. In doing so, Bush made three tactical mistakes that may hurt him and the Republican Party:

- Undermining the US democracy and downplaying its citizens' worries: By refusing to open a debate on the port issue and not offering any kind of solutions aimed at understanding and solving the issues that have been raised, Bush is telling the American people that his decision, even if not publicly explained, is more important that their concerns. In a situation where preeminent leaders from both the Democratic and Republican parties disagree with this decision, a veto would be an autocratic act.

- Giving strong ammunition to his adversaries: Bush has often been criticized by his opponents of not being knowledgeable on some core issues and pushing his own agenda at the expenses of national interests. The fact that the White House announced that Bush was not aware of this critical deal until it was approved by his administration and that Bush is putting all his weight behind this unpopular and misunderstood decision is obviously going to play in favor of his detractors.

- Weakening the Republican Party: By making a decision that is perceived as a threat to National Security, Bush is taking away one of the key strengths of the Republicans. When faced with criticism related to their perceived weaknesses (e.g. the Iraq war), the Republican Party has always been using the fact that they represent the safest choice for America as the party that can guarantee that National Security will be at the top of the agenda. They may have a more difficult time making such an argument moving forward.

Why did the Danish newspaper publish the Muhammad cartoons?

In an oped published in the Washington Post, Flemming Rose, editor of the newspaper that first published the controversial Muhammad cartoons, explained his decision. Here are some excerpts:

"I commissioned the cartoons in response to several incidents of self-censorship in Europe caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam. And I still believe that this is a topic that we Europeans must confront, challenging moderate Muslims to speak out…

We have a tradition of satire when dealing with the royal family and other public figures, and that was reflected in the cartoons. The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions. And by treating Muslims in Denmark as equals they made a point: We are integrating you into the Danish tradition of satire because you are part of our society, not strangers. The cartoons are including, rather than excluding, Muslims…

Has Jyllands-Posten insulted and disrespected Islam? It certainly didn't intend to. But what does respect mean? When I visit a mosque, I show my respect by taking off my shoes. I follow the customs, just as I do in a church, synagogue or other holy place. But if a believer demands that I, as a nonbeliever, observe his taboos in the public domain, he is not asking for my respect, but for my submission. And that is incompatible with a secular democracy….

Nowhere do so many religions coexist peacefully as in a democracy where freedom of expression is a fundamental right. In Saudi Arabia, you can get arrested for wearing a cross or having a Bible in your suitcase, while Muslims in secular Denmark can have their own mosques, cemeteries, schools, TV and radio stations….

The lesson from the Cold War is: If you give in to totalitarian impulses once, new demands follow. The West prevailed in the Cold War because we stood by our fundamental values and did not appease totalitarian tyrants."

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Can Russia be trusted in its negotiations with Iran?

As Iran is being referred to the UN Security Council, a number of countries, including the US and Europe, have expressed hope that a Russian-led negotiation with Iran would break the current deadlock and provide a viable solution.

In order to defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, Russia has offered to enrich uranium in Russian territory and ship it to Iran for nuclear energy usage. While this proposal sounds good on paper, and may be the best alternative for Iran in order to avoid sanctions, letting Russia be both the broker and the main counterpart in this deal may prove to be a very dangerous choice.

It’s clear that the world is not ready to confront Iran and would rather find a peaceful resolution to the current crisis. For that reason, the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) had been unsuccessfully trying for the past few years to negotiate with Iran. While a peaceful resolution would be welcome, we should not place our hopes in a Russian-backed deal, as Russia may not be the honest and fair broker that we need.

As a matter of fact, Russia has unfortunately provided tremendous (and very lucrative) help to Iran in its nuclear and missile projects. Let’s not forget that Russia:
- Built the nuclear power plant at Bushehr, one of the most worrisome components of Iran’s nuclear program.
- Recently sold $1 billion worth of highly sophisticated arms and military equipment to Iran, including surface-to-air missile systems, and has provided missile know-how and expertise.

In addition, many in Moscow's political and military circles have been advocating strong ties with Iran in order to protect the ailing and cash-strapped Russian defense industry, to provide a counter-balance to a perceived anti-Russian US foreign policy and to re-establish Russia's strategic importance in world affairs.

With that in mind, how can we trust Russia to be a fair and honest partner that would strike and implement a deal to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful? And as we deal with a country such as Iran, that has openly expressed its destructive goals, persecuted its own minorities, sponsored multiple acts of terrorism that have claimed the lives of thousand of people, shall we not be careful in choosing the partner that would safeguard our interests? Given Iran’s lack of real need for nuclear energy, and its long history of deception regarding its nuclear program, this is not a choice that we should lightly take.

The Holiday of Ashura

A few days ago, hundreds of thousands of Shi’a Muslims, mainly in Iraq and in Iran, observed the holiday of Ashura to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of Muhammad.

Ashura rituals are public expressions of mourning and grief. In some instances (see AFP picture), Shi’a Muslims expressed mourning by flagellating themselves on the back with chains and beating their heads with swords.