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Iran on Edge

How Will Iran Choose its Next Supreme Leader?

March 13th 2012

Iranian clerics

This is part two of “Supreme Succession: Who Will Lead Post-Khamenei Iran?”; read part one here.

The formal succession process may not matter much. Iran’s constitution lays down a clear procedure for designating a Supreme Leader’s successor. Yet in all likelihood, the officials charged with this responsibility under the law will not be the ones making the key decisions. In fact, the regime may bypass the constitutional procedure altogether.

The previous succession did not follow the constitutional requirements. As mentioned before, Khomeini appointed a council to revise the constitution shortly before his death. Before the council had the opportunity to vote on a final amended version of the charter, however, Khomeini died.

The changes were intended to separate religious authority from political authority, perhaps totally. In particular, they allowed an ordinary ayatollah or mujtahid—not just a marja-e taqlid (grand ayatollah)—to become Supreme Leader. Indeed, immediately after Khomeini’s death, Khamenei was selected as Supreme Leader even though he was not a mujtahid, let alone a marja-e taqlid. Read more ..

Bahrain on Edge

In Bahrain, Effective Diplomacy Must Meld Interests and Principles

March 12th 2012

Protests Mar 2011

Effective American diplomacy toward Bahrain can blend interest and principle. Doing so requires acknowledging that our base is critical; understanding the Island’s communal divisions; and recognizing how support for the monarchy can coincide with reform.

Bahrain’s repeated demonstrations are more complex than just another Arab uprising. Bahraini King Hamad’s democratic reforms of 2001 created a true elected parliament but with the monarchy controlling an appointed upper house. The Shia community that claims 70 percent of the population was certainly underrepresented (how much is uncertain without a census; the Sunni contend that the balance is closer to 60–40). Demands for government accountability and equitable representation eventually overflowed into demonstrations and two radically different narratives of events.

The Shia opposition sees government refusal and brutal suppression of calls for reform.

The government says concessions including release of prisoners and removal of troops from the streets led only to demands that the government yield on most major points before beginning negotiations. Read more ..

The Arab Winter in Palestine

The Palestinian 'Spring' and Prospects for Peace

March 11th 2012

hamas demo

It has been one year since the "Arab Spring" spread like wildfire throughout the Arab Muslim World under the banner of change and supposed reform for a better future.

In Tunisia, after 23 years of power, the corrupt Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime was overturned, the protests against him sparked by a fed-up Tunisian man setting himself on fire. And then in Egypt, the world watched as thousands of people streamed into Tahrir Square, eventually bursting through a human chain of officers to seize the Square under the same slogan of change. The crescendo came about when Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned in February after a mere 18 days of protests. Since then, "Arab Spring" demonstrations spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria, where the Bashar al-Asad regime has murdered thousands of innocent civilians in an effort to keep its hold on power.

The Arab uprisings are affecting the Palestinian people, too, though they staged few protests. Specifically, the uprisings removed international focus from the Palestinian "cause" against Israel and put pressure on the leadership in numerous ways. The result is a changing Palestinian situation only surpassed by the signing of the Oslo Accords nearly two decades ago. Unlike the Oslo Accords, however, the prospect for Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations to occur in light of these changes is slim to none. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

Iranian Succession--Who Will be the Next Leader?

March 10th 2012

Khameni and Khomeini

Over the past two decades, and in the wake of the controversial 2009 presidential election, real power in Iran has been consolidated in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei more than with anyone else, including President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As head of the government and, more significantly, commander-in- chief of the armed forces, Khamenei has either sidelined or suppressed all of his domestic rivals, allowing him to abandon consensual governance by relying on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The succession process that will follow his eventual departure is therefore much more important than the next presidential election, assuming there even is one.

To be sure, there is little reason to believe that Khamenei will soon pass from the scene. Besides the IRGC, Iran has no real power center capable of forcing him to abdicate. And even the IRGC shows no evidence of potentially disobeying his orders or developing a circle of leadership independent from him. Read more ..

Iran's Nukes

Israeli Attack on Iraqi Reactor Offers History Lesson for Obama

March 10th 2012

Israeli Jet Diving

The Obama Administration is blustering that more drastic sanctions will be imposed on Iran if it does not stop enriching uranium, but Russia and China have undermined the threat by saying they will not support such sanctions.

Meanwhile, Israel watches from the sideline and makes its own calculations of its national interest and stirring memories of 1981. On June 7, 1981, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis was delivering a briefing before dinner at the Hilton Hotel in Tel Aviv when he was told Prime Minister Menachem Begin was on the phone. Lewis picked up the phone and Begin told him, "Sam, I would like you to convey urgently a message from me to President Reagan. About one hour ago, our Air Force destroyed the nuclear reactor near Baghdad; all the planes have returned safely." Read more ..

Russia on Edge

After Electoral Victory, Putin Shifts towards Making a Strong Impression

March 7th 2012


With the final votes counted, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's presidential victory was confirmed on March 5. It was not much of a surprise that Putin won a third presidential term. Still, the reaction in Russia -- and in the world -- has been important to watch because it is directly related to how strong of a leader Putin is expected to be.

Coming out of the December 2011 parliamentary elections and leading up to the presidential elections Sunday, the mood in Russia seemed split, with the country experiencing its first mass political protests in decades. Hundreds of thousands protested Putin's running for president as well as what they believed were unfair parliamentary elections, though the anti-Kremlin protest groups never coalesced into an actual movement that could threaten the current Kremlin regime or Putin's re-election. After yesterday's elections there were plans to protest Putin's victory, but the demonstrations seemed to fizzle out, with only a fraction of those previously seen coming out onto the streets. Read more ..

Edge of China

The Three Core Strategic Interests of China

March 6th 2012

The East is Red

Simply put, China has three core strategic interests.
Paramount among them is the maintenance of domestic security. Historically, when China involves itself in global trade, as it did in the 19th and early 20th century, the coastal region prospers, while the interior of China -- which begins about 100 miles from the coast and runs about 1,000 miles to the west -- languishes. Roughly 80 percent of all Chinese citizens currently have household incomes lower than the average household income in Bolivia.

Most of China's poor are located west of the richer coastal region; this disparity of wealth time and again has exposed tensions between the interests of the coast and those of the interior. After a failed rising in Shanghai in 1927, Mao Zedong exploited these tensions by undertaking the Long March into the interior, raising a peasant army and ultimately conquering the coastal region. He shut China off from the international trading system, leaving China more united and equal, but extremely poor. Read more ..

Middle East on Edge

The Middle East’s Biggest Challenges Yields AIPAC’s Biggest Conference

March 4th 2012

Obama and flags

Happening right now in Washington, D.C. is the largest AIPAC (American Israel Political Action Committee) Policy Conference of all time, with more than 13,000 people in attendance.

While the annual AIPAC conference has traditionally brought Jews from all across the United States to the nation’s capital, this particular one draw a bigger, more diverse crowd.  A larger group of Christian evangelical supporters of Israel have come this year, and organized groups of African-Americans and Latinos have made it a point to come out for Israel this year as well.

Over the past 12 months or so, troubles within Arab countries have put more pressure on Israel.  The rise of the Moslem Brotherhood in the wake of the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt has threatened the tentative peace between the two countries, and the amassing unrest in Syria has put Israel’s military on high alert as it watches uncomfortably as its president, Bashar al-Assad continues the slaughter of his own people. Read more ..

Edge of Geopolitics

America's Ad Hoc Foreign Policy May Not be Enough in an Unstable World

February 28th 2012

Stennis B

The fall of the Soviet Union ended the European epoch, the period in which European power dominated the world. It left the United States as the only global power, something for which it was culturally and institutionally unprepared. Since the end of World War II, the United States had defined its foreign policy in terms of its confrontation with the Soviet Union. Virtually everything it did around the world in some fashion related to this confrontation. The fall of the Soviet Union simultaneously freed the United States from a dangerous confrontation and eliminated the focus of its foreign policy.
In the course of a century, the United States had gone from marginal to world power. It had waged war or Cold War from 1917 until 1991, with roughly 20 years of peace between the two wars dominated by the Great Depression and numerous interventions in Latin America. Accordingly, the 20th century was a time of conflict and crisis for the United States. It entered the century without well-developed governmental institutions for managing its foreign policy. It built its foreign policy apparatus to deal with war and the threat of war; the sudden absence of an adversary inevitably left the United States off balance. Read more ..

The Arab Fall

Homs and Khan Yunis

February 28th 2012

arab league observers

Cries erupted from the city residents against the relentless bombardments. There was no place to hide from the constant assaults on the ground or from the bombs raining down from the air. People were said to be starving and denied access to doctors and medicines. Officials at schools, religious sites, and hospitals said their structures could offer no sanctuary from the dangers coming from above or from nearby streets. Journalists were not permitted full access to the battlegrounds so had to rely on the testimony of the people living under the shadow of death and destruction. This narrative of unremitting violence meted out on a largely peaceful population was spun when the first shots were fired by Israel in its three-week attack on Gaza; but it is actually the story of Homs, a city besieged by the Syrian regime because its citizens want freedom and are demanding that the dictatorship end its mighty grip on power. What proved less than accurate in Gaza has become the literal description of events in cities and towns across Syria as ordinary people offer the only resources they possess — their lives — for the right to choose their rulers. Read more ..

The Digital Edge

WikiLeaks Partnership With Anonymous May Indicate Shift In Tactics

February 28th 2012

Anonymous Logo

WikiLeaks is back in the news with the release of millions of e-mails from Stratfor, a global security firm. The latest trawl -- 167 of more than 5.5 million corporate e-mails -- was obtained after the hacktivist collective Anonymous hacked into Stratfor servers in December 2011. It's no surprise that WikiLeaks is partnering with Anonymous. After companies, including Amazon and PayPal, withdrew their support for WikiLeaks after the release of U.S. State Department cables in December 2010, Anonymous launched distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) against PayPal and a Swiss bank. Anonymous activists have been strong supporters of the Free Bradley Manning campaign. Manning is the U.S. Army private who is alleged to have leaked the cables to WikiLeaks.

For Anonymous -- a loose and decentralized collection of activists sometimes united but often divided into various factions -- it makes sense to partner with WikiLeaks. One activist told Wired that: "WikiLeaks has great means to publish and disclose,” the anon told Wired. "Also, they work together with media in a way we don’t." "Basically, WL is the ideal partner for such stuff," the anon continued. "Antisec acquires the shit, WL gets it released in a proper manner." Antisec is the arm of Anonymous that is known for hacking into servers. Read more ..

Edge of the Americas

Organization of American States fights for Relevance as Other Regional Groupings Compete

February 27th 2012

Hugo Chavez somber
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez

With the second anniversary of the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) fast approaching, the formation of additional regional groupings that feature the exclusion of the United States and Canada from their rosters is becoming a permanent part of the hemisphere’s socio-political landscape.

Developing countries around the world are speeding up the tempo of their inter-American diplomatic relationships with these new regional bodies, while the Organization of American States (OAS) – the one institution in which all hemispheric countries hold membership (Cuba has not reactivated its former suspended status) – appears to have restored a role for itself when it comes to dealing with all of the Latin American countries. Read more ..

Edge of Sustainable Water

Commodification of Water and Water Shortages Demand International Action

February 27th 2012

Unsustainable water

From the Texas Oil Boom to the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, petroleum was undoubtedly the most notorious liquid of the last one hundred years.  While some in the international marketplace still fixate on oil, recent political and environmental developments have helped nominate a stunning rival to oil’s supposed predominance: water!  It’s a substance to which Plato gave highest praise: “Only what is rare is valuable, and water, which is the best of all things…is the cheapest.” However, in our time, water has become much rarer, or, in economic terms, more scarce than oil.  In the words of James Bond’s latest nemesis, Dominic Greene, “This [water] is the most valuable resource in the world and we need to control as much of it as we can.” Global water resources have begun to dry up, even as water trading profitability increases.  Although this situation may seem irrelevant for those with adequate water access, it truly could presage a global water catastrophe.
This predicament has not gone unrecognized by international bodies like the United Nations.  In July 2010, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292, which “Recognizes the right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right that is essential for the full enjoyment of life and all human rights…”.  This document is legally binding, and could serve as a key precedent for multilateral water management.  Furthermore, most observers have interpreted the resolution as supporting public water rights.  On the other side of the spectrum, litigation like Sunbelt Water’s Chapter 11 NAFTA claim  and Canada’s parliamentary Bill S-11 have raised concerns that potential water privatization will result in irreversible water commodification, confirming the private sector’s primacy over the public. Read more ..

Inside Spain

92 Percent of Spanish Families With Adopted Children Are Satisfied With Their Decision

February 26th 2012

Premature Baby

Two separate surveys six years apart have been used to analyse the level of satisfaction with adoptions in Andalucía. The study shows that 77.7 percent of families are happier after the process and variables that make it more difficult have been identified, such as the age of the children when arriving, multiple adoption and previous experiences of abuse. There is a significant link between the parents' assessment and that of the children.

"We wanted to know to what extent adoptions in Spain are providing children who need it with a healthy family environment that promotes their development" Yolanda Sánchez-Sandoval, a researcher from the University of Cádiz (UCA) states. In order to assess that, a comprehensive questionnaire was sent to families with adopted children in Andalucía, which was employed, amongst other uses, to assess family's satisfaction with the decision as a measurement of success. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Lure of Lobbying Still Strong for House Staffers

February 24th 2012

US Capital Day

A new study finds that nearly 400 House staffers have moved from Capitol Hill to K Street in recent years, suggesting that recent efforts to curb the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying are having limited effect. At least 378 of the 5,710 staffers working on the House side of the Hill at the end of 2009 have since left to become registered lobbyists, according to a report from the Sunlight Foundation, a government accountability group. Corporate America was the biggest beneficiary of this exodus, Sunlight found. Fully 80 percent of the 378 House staffers-turned-lobbyists are working for corporations, industry groups, or Washington lobbying firms with mostly business clients. On the other hand, nonprofits advocacy groups are only represented by 37 of these recent ex-staffers, the report noted. Only one works directly for a union group, although on K Street some lobbyists have labor clients. Regardless of which special interest is signing their checks, Sunlight thinks this steady migration from public to private pay is a cause for concern. “Congress continues to act as a farm team for future lobbyists,” said Lee Drutman, the senior fellow who authored the report released Wednesday. “Staff build up contacts and policy and political experience. Read more ..

Iran on Edge

An Iranian Knockout Blow—via SWIFT

February 23rd 2012

iran bank notes

One of the most important international banking organizations recently stated that it was preparing to ban blacklisted Iranian banks for their role in facilitating illicit financial transactions. Although existing international sanctions have placed significant pressure on Tehran, the United States and the European Union have the ability to render a knockout blow that would significantly curtail Iran’s access to the international financial sector.

The Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), is a banking cooperative owned by its member financial institutions. It is used by banks around the world to debit and credit money. The vast majority of global interbank transfers are routed through the SWIFT network, and nearly every bank in the world uses SWIFT to move funds globally. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Super PACs Out-Raise Candidates, Thanks to Super Donors

February 22nd 2012

C Pac Convention 2012

Thanks to a small number of wealthy individuals, the outside spending groups known as “super PACs” that are working to put the four leading GOP candidates in the White House collectively raised more than the candidates themselves in January. Candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul raised a combined $21.1 million for the month, according to Federal Election Commission records, while the four primary super PACs backing them raised $22.1 million. Donors to candidates number in the thousands, but they may only give $2,500 per candidate, per election. Super PAC donors, thanks to the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a lower-cour ruling, can give unlimited amounts. The funds can come from billionaires, corporations and labor unions. So far this election, the funds have been spent overwhelmingly on advertising disparaging competing candidates. Super PACs are prohibited from coordinating their activities with the candidates.

The average donation to a super PAC filing in January was $63,000. Two of the super PACs — “Winning Our Future,” supporting Newt Gingrich and “Endorse Liberty,” supporting Ron Paul — are dominated by a single donor. Of the $11 million Winning Our Future raised in January, $10 million — more than three-quarters of the group's total haul — came from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson and his wife. That’s in addition to $1 million given by other Adelson family members to the PAC last year. Of the $2.4 million raised by the pro-Ron Paul super PAC "Endorse Liberty," $1.7 million — more than 70 percent — came from Peter Thiel, hedge fund manager, co-founder of PayPal and early Facebook investor. That’s on top of the $900,000 he gave last year. Read more ..

World on Edge

A Framework for the State of the World and Regaining America's Lustre

February 21st 2012

Obama and G20 flags

The evolution of geopolitics is cyclical. Powers rise, fall and shift. Changes occur in every generation in an unending ballet. However, the period between 1989 and 1991 was unique in that a long cycle of human history spanning hundreds of years ended, and with it a shorter cycle also came to a close. The world is still reverberating from the events of that period.

On Dec. 25, 1991, an epoch ended. On that day the Soviet Union collapsed, and for the first time in almost 500 years no European power was a global power, meaning no European state integrated economic, military and political power on a global scale. What began in 1492 with Europe smashing its way into the world and creating a global imperial system had ended. For five centuries, one European power or another had dominated the world, whether Portugal, Spain, France, England or the Soviet Union. Even the lesser European powers at the time had some degree of global influence. Read more ..

Venezuela on Edge

Chavez Will Hold on Regardless of Democratic Process

February 21st 2012

Hugo Chavez infirm

As Vilma Petrash has noted, some Venezuelans have hope that the upcoming October 7th elections could put an end to Chávez’s pseudo-democratic, authoritarian rule. However, there has been a long history of electoral fraud during the last thirteen years of the Chávez regime.

Through control of most media and almost all institutions of government, Chávez has the upper hand. The question is, will this election be any different in terms of its ultimate outcome?

Petrash speculates at the end of her article that after October 7th, the situation in Venezuela may escalate into civil war and violence. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Payroll Tax Cut Agreement Pushes Nation Closer to Hitting Debt Ceiling

February 20th 2012

One Million Dollars

The payroll tax package that Congress passed on Friday accelerated the timeline for another battle over the debt ceiling. Last summer’s bitter clash over the debt limit took the nation to the brink of default, resulting in the first-ever downgrade of U.S. securities. The debt-ceiling agreement lawmakers approved in August established a cooling-off period, with enough borrowing to see the country through until after the November election. But a sequel to the debt-ceiling drama could be coming to Washington sooner than planned, thanks to the billions of dollars in deficit spending in the payroll tax agreement. “There has been this sort of confidence that the existing debt limit would get us through the election. … It may turn out the timing is trickier than people had anticipated,” said Maya McGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. “Anything that adds to the debt means that it moves the deadline up.”

The latest package extended the payroll tax cut for the rest of 2012, along with unemployment benefits and the current Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that in the short term, the payroll package will add $101 billion to the deficit, which effectively erases a month of wiggle room under the $16.394 trillion debt cap. Read more ..

Russia on Edge

The Paradox Of Russia’s Left

February 20th 2012

Sergei Udaltsov

Marching in protest under a sea of red flags swirling in the frosty air at a recent demonstration, 31-year-old Yevgeny can't help but feel that a new generation of Russian socialists is on the rise. And he could be right -- if it weren’t for all the stumbling blocks. In the 1990s, Yevgeny supported the Communist Party but eventually became disillusioned with its colorless and charisma-challenged leader, Gennady Zyuganov, a fixture in Russian politics for decades. Zyuganov is making his fourth run for the presidency in March. Today, Yevgeny says his affinities lie more with the “Left Front,” a loose coalition of leftist groups that are not permitted to field candidates in Russia's tightly managed political system. But even if they were, he confesses he would be reluctant to vote for the Left Front's macho leader Sergei Udaltsov whose firebrand style of street protesting may have wounded his political credibility. "I just don’t know, I cannot say for sure. He just doesn't seem to be the kind of leader that I could go and vote for,” said Yevgeny, who did not want to give his last name.
Yevgeny’s predicament encapsulates the quandaries of Russia's left-leaning electorate, which sociologists say comprise the lion's share of the country's voters. Analysts say there is a glaring disconnect between the country's socialist-leaning electorate, which favors heavy state intervention in the economy and a strong social safety net, and the dearth of attractive options for them to support at the ballot box. Zyuganov, the Russian left's most visible personality, is largely viewed as a political dinosaur more concerned with maintaining his comfortable position as a permanent opposition figure acceptable to the authorities, than actually winning power. Sergei Mironov's center-left A Just Russia is tainted by the party's reputation as a "pocket opposition" party established to do the Kremlin's bidding. And Udaltsov's Left Front is unregistered and seen as too unwieldy and radical to be viable electorally.

The Battle for Syria

Humanitarian Safe Havens: Bosnia's Lessons for Syria

February 19th 2012


The uprising in Syria has reached a critical stage. As the brutality of the regime has increased, defectors from the military and local groups akin to civilian defense are "liberating," but not permanently securing, parts of the country. This new dynamic offers a potential opportunity for increased international engagement in Syria that can be informed by the experience in Bosnia in the 1990s. In Bosnia, the international community designated areas of the country liberated by Bosnian civilian defense as safe havens, vowing to protect them against the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) and Serb paramilitary forces. The JNA, however, overran some of these areas, including Srebrenica in 1995, killing many civilians. Such actions precipitated deeper international engagement in Bosnia, with NATO eventually intervening against the JNA to bring an end to the Bosnian War. The Bosnian trajectory from internationally designated safe havens to intervention offers lessons for any international engagement in Syria, as well as pitfalls to be avoided. Read more ..

The Toxic Edge

Endless Review for Risky Chemical

February 19th 2012

Rios Building EPA HQ

About 21 months ago, a proposed list of widely used chemicals that may pose health risks landed at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget for review. It’s still there. An attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to create a “chemicals of concern” list—part of the agency’s larger plans to improve what administrator Lisa Jackson has called an outdated and dysfunctional system for regulating toxic substances—remains stuck in the OMB’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). The proposal has sparked heavy resistance among industry groups, some of which have met with White House officials and argued that releasing the list could harm the economy. By executive order, OIRA should finish such reviews within 90 days—or, in some cases, 120. Instead, it’s had the EPA list for 638 days—and counting. “The reason is political pandering,” said Rena Steinzor, a law professor at the University of Maryland and president of the Center for Progressive Reform. “OIRA is a politicized place where rules go to die.” Read more ..

Edge of Terrorism

End of the Monsoon Season Emboldens Somali Piracy

February 18th 2012

Somali Pirates Land

Monsoon season in the Indian Ocean is set to end sometime in late February. Somali pirates will take advantage of the calmer waters to enlarge their presence in the area. But several factors -- including armed contractors on commercial vessels, land-based security clampdowns and a more sophisticated international military response -- may limit the pirates' success.

An article from Somalia Report, a news agency specializing in Somali affairs, has suggested that Somali pirates are readying their boats for the end of monsoon season around Feb. 20, nearly coinciding with an international conference to be held Feb. 23 in the United Kingdom on Somalia and counterpiracy efforts. Indeed, calmer seas present greater opportunity for hijackings and other piratic activities. Of course, Feb. 20 is merely an approximation, and meteorological phenomena like monsoons may continue for weeks after this date. But soon the weather will clear, and Somali pirates will embark on a new season of activity. Read more ..

Inside Latin America

El Salvador Re-Militarizes to Address Rising Crime Rate

February 18th 2012

El Salvador soldier awaiting Obama
Salvadoran soldier guarding President Obama's visit route, 2011

The appointment of retired military officers to public security leadership positions over the past three months is being seen by many as a serious challenge to democracy in El Salvador.  President Mauricio Funes argues that these appointments are legal, that they have not been done under either internal or external pressure, and that they constitute an appropriate response to public insecurity. There is indeed a genuine and intense preoccupation regarding security in El Salvador.

A November 2011 poll by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUOP) found that 76.4% of respondents believe that crime increased in 2011, as compared to 2010. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (4,085 homicides, 66 per 100,000 persons in 2010). Gang violence and transnational organized crime threaten both public security, such as the ability to conduct commerce and provide transportation services, as well as citizen security, such as the ability of individuals to exercise their civil rights. Since the exercise of civil rights is a condition of democratic governance, this level of crime is in itself a threat to democracy in El Salvador. Read more ..

The Euro on Edge

Doubts Grow Over Austerity for Greece

February 16th 2012

Europe Topics - PARTHENON

With the European Union demanding more spending cuts from Greece in return for billions of dollars in bailout funds, doubts are growing over whether more austerity is the right solution for Athens. Some analysts and politicians suggest that a once worst-case scenario, Greece leaving the eurozone, may not be so bad. Even as he promised that Greece would meet European Union requirements for another installment of rescue funds, Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos said Wednesday that his country was on a "knife's edge." He said Some EU members want Greece to leave the eurozone, which he called  "playing with fire." The EU has set tough conditions for Greece to get a $173 billion bailout. It needs the money by March 20, otherwise it risks defaulting on its massive debt.

Despite angry public protests and riots last weekend, the Greek parliament voted in favor of more austerity measures. The move drew praise from EU officials like European Economic and Monetary Commissioner Olli Rehn. "I'm confident that the other conditions, including for instance, the identification of the concrete measures over 325 million euros [more than $424 million in spending cuts] will be completed by the next meeting of the eurogroup," said Reihn. But Greece did not meet the other conditions by Wednesday, when EU finance ministers were expected to decide on the bailout money. Read more ..

The Arab Fall in Egypt

Egyptian Dissident Warns of Brotherhood's Rise

February 16th 2012

Egypt - muslim_brotherhood

The recent arrest of 19 American aid workers has raised fears that the Egyptian revolution has gone horribly wrong. The arrests follow sweeping victories by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups in the country's parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, talk of breaking Egypt's 31-year peace treaty with Israel grows by the day. The prospects for democracy look grim. Bargaining with the Devil? Egyptian native Majed El Shafie, president of the Canadian-based humanitarian organization One Free World International, told CBN News the Obama administration has miscalculated the Muslim Brotherhood's true intentions. "The political vacuum is being used by the Muslim extremists. And that is what we are seeing today. And we warned about it a long time ago. But the Obama administration did not listen. They were excited, they were happy," El Shafie said. "This administration keeps saying, 'We can deal with the Muslim Brotherhood. We can have a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood,'" he continued.

But according to El Shafie, the "Muslim Brotherhood is the terrorist mother ship for Hamas, for al Qaeda, and for many other Islamic terror groups in the Middle East." El Shafie said Brotherhood leaders held a strategy meeting in Cairo just a few days before their recent legislative victories. "They didn't discuss health care, education, economics, finance -- any of the important issues to the people," he told CBN News. "They discussed how they could get rid of Israel. And this is the sad reality." Read more ..

Edge of Terrorism

Hamas Terror is in Transition

February 13th 2012

Terrorism - Hamas and flags

After more than five years of existing in political stalemate, Hamas is now trying to manage a worsening relationship with Iran and Syria and exploit the political rise of its Islamist parent organization, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Without a clear vision on how to proceed, Hamas is likely to undergo serious internal strains that could raise the potential for a splintering of the heretofore most tightly run organization of the Palestinian territories.

Six years ago, Hamas unexpectedly swept parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories and won the right to form a government. But the idea of a self-professed Islamist militant organization running the Palestinian government did not sit well with Israel and much of the West or with Hamas' rival, Fatah. Sanctions on Hamas immediately intensified, and a civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah. Hamas was driven into political isolation after it forcibly took over the Gaza Strip in mid-2007. Read more ..

International Relations

How the Arab Spring Warmed US-Turkish Relations

February 12th 2012

Turkish Topics - Obama and Erdogan

U.S.-Turkish relations entered into a tumultuous period with the beginning of Iraq War in 2003. This difficult phase in bilateral ties appears to have ended with the beginning of the Arab Spring.

Until recently, disagreements on a number of issues—such as how to deal with Iran’s nuclearization—undermined Washington’s historical bond with Ankara.

Today, however, the United States and Turkey are closely cooperating, with President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan having formed what is probably the strongest relationship between a U.S. president and a Turkish prime minister in decades. Read more ..

Mexico's Drug Wars

The Insidious Influence of Mexico's Narco-Terrorists in this Year's Presidential Election

February 9th 2012

Mexican Topics - Mexico votes

Mexico will hold its presidential election July 1 against the backdrop of a protracted war against criminal cartels in the country. Former President Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) launched that struggle; his successor, Felipe Calderon, also of the PAN, greatly expanded it. While many Mexicans apparently support action against the cartels, the Calderon government has come under much criticism for its pursuit of the cartels, contributing to Calderon's low popularity at the moment. The PAN is widely expected to lose in July to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which controlled the Mexican presidency for most of the 20th century until Fox's victory in 2000. According to polls, the PAN has lost credibility among many Mexican voters, many of whom also once again view the PRI as a viable alternative.

In our effort to track Mexico's criminal cartels and to help our readers understand the dynamics that shape the violence in Mexico, Stratfor talks to a variety of people, including Mexican and U.S. government officials, journalists, business owners, taxi drivers and street vendors. At present, many of these contacts are saying that the Calderon administration could attempt to pull off some sort of last-minute political coup (in U.S. political parlance, an "October surprise") to boost the PAN's popularity so it can retain the presidency. Read more ..

South of the Border

Brazil Fills the Gap as U.S. Differences with Latin America Widen

February 9th 2012

Latin American Topics - Dilma Roussef and Raul Castro
Pres. Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Pres. Raul Castro of Cuba

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s recent visit to Havana could easily have been a tense one.  On Thursday, January 19th, jailed Cuban dissident Wilman Villar died in a prison hospital under murky circumstances, while Brazil recently granted a visa to well-known online journalist and longtime Castro critic Yoani Sanchez to leave her native Cuba and attend a documentary film premier in Brasília.  Rousseff avoided publicly criticizing the Castro administration when pressed by reporters on what the Cuban opposition calls human rights abuses, instead referencing the human rights record of the United States in regard to the Guantanamo Bay military prison.  However, she seemed perfectly happy to discuss Cuba and Brazil’s burgeoning economic partnership, which has grown significantly in recent years.

The renovation and expansion of Mariel, a key port near Havana, represents the latest manifestation of the aforementioned partnership between the two countries.  Brazil has provided USD 683 million in loans to the Cuban government for the project, which is spearheaded by Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.  Brazilian officials have also signed a 10-year agreement to help modernize Cuban sugar company Azcuba’s sugar mills in Cienfuegos.  Brazil has given Cuba another USD 400 million in credits to buy Brazilian agricultural projects and USD 200 million more for tractors and other agricultural equipment.  These loans are crucial for Cuban agriculture, which is struggling to expand and modernize, and are essentially stimulus packages for Brazil in the sense that they will pour money back into the Brazilian economy.  Rousseff defined this collaboration as a “historic commitment” to “help the progress of economic development” in Cuba, which continues to endure the U.S. trade embargo. Read more ..

The Bear is Back

Russia and US Relations: Tensions On the Rise

February 6th 2012

Russian Topics - Kremlin
Moscow Kremlin

As Russia and the United States prepare for their respective presidential elections, tensions between the countries are growing, yet it is unclear how far each side will go. The central point of contention is U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans. Russia has several levers, including its ability to cut off supply lines to the NATO-led war effort in Afghanistan, to use in the standoff over BMD, but the United States could retaliate by supporting the current protests in Russia. 

Moscow and Washington have been in a standoff over myriad issues ever since Russia began to roll back Western influence in its periphery and assert its own power. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States got involved in the region with the intentions of creating a cordon around Russia, in order to prevent it from ever becoming a global threat again. 

However, the U.S. focus shifted to the Islamic world following 2001, and a previously crippled Russia began to strengthen. Washington continued some of its policies of Russian containment, such as trying to give the key former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine NATO membership, yet Eurasia was not the United States' key focus. The time granted Russia an opportunity to resurge into its former Soviet states. Moscow's ultimate goal is not to recreate the Soviet Union. Instead, Russia wants to limit the influence of external powers in the former Soviet Union and to be recognized as the dominant player there. Consequently, foreign governments, particularly the United States and Europe, must shape bilateral relations within the framework of this understanding. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Presidential Super PACs Raise $49 Million through December

February 6th 2012

Politics - republican debate

Outside groups that funded numerous attack ads in the GOP primaries collected $49 million in donations in 2011, with huge contributions coming from billionaires, corporations, and labor unions, something that would have been illegal were it not for pivotal court decisions in early 2010.

The top recipient among these so-called “super PACS” was Restore Our Future, which raised $30.2 million to assist the candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—more than what was raised by the official campaign committees of any of Romney’s GOP opponents.

Federal Election Commission documents filed by super PACs that spent money to support or defeat a presidential candidate in one of the primaries were reviewed for this article. When considering all super PACs in 2011, total contributions were almost $100 million. Read more ..

The 2012 Vote

Super PACs Heighten the Election Contribution Bar in 2012

February 4th 2012

Money - Money Money Money

Super PAC American Crossroads and its sister organization raised more than $51 million last year with more than 60 percent of the total flowing into Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit arm that is not required to report its donors. American Crossroads, a Super PAC that reports to the Federal Election Commission, raked in $18.4 million last year, including a $5 million donation from Texas tycoon Harold Simmons, plus another $2 million from Contran, a company that he controls, according to Crossroads sources.

Crossroads GPS, the nonprofit group that shares leadership and offices with American Crossroads, pulled in $31.6 million last year, a ratio similar to what the two groups accounted for in 2010 when they raised a combined $71 million. The two Republican groups were launched in 2010 by GOP super consultants Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. They are now getting fundraising help from former Mississippi Governor and ex-party chairman Haley Barbour. The groups have publicly said that they’re shooting to raise at least $240 million to help the GOP win the White House and control both houses of Congress. Donors and fundraisers who have been solicited by Barbour and other group leaders, say that privately the two Crossroads groups are aiming for $300 million, the most ambitious outside effort underway. Currently plans call for spending about half the funds to help take the White House, and the rest to win the Senate and keep the House, say fundraisers close to the groups. The Crossroads groups appear to be the biggest beneficiaries of court rulings in 2010 that permitted corporations, individuals and unions to give unlimited amounts to groups that expressly advocate for or against candidates. Read more ..

The Battle For Syria

Syria's Fate-Not Entirely Out of the Western World's Hands

February 3rd 2012

Syrian Issues - Syria protest
Syrian Protesters

Conventional wisdom in Washington and in European capitals is that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad is doomed. The protests that have spread across the country since March of 2011 and have claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people appear to be progressing by their own inertia. Secure in the assumption that "it's only a matter of time," Western countries have tagged on sanctions and other punitive measures that target Syria's economy, and yet they have left out any discussion over the possibility of military intervention.

The assumption, however, that the regime's days are numbered is seriously flawed. After all, U.S. and EU sanctions may have driven up food and energy prices, but it has failed to fundamentally alter the regime's behavior. The Arab League even took the unprecedented step of kicking Syria out of the organization and dispatching a 165-member delegation of observers to monitor the situation inside the country. This was done, in the hope that their presence would reduce the level of violence. Yet, that mission has proven to be a failure, with the average daily death toll climbing to 50 since the monitors arrived in late December. Read more ..

Europe on Edge

Germany's Dilemma and Europe's Challenges in a Fiscal and Economic Maelstrom

February 2nd 2012

Europe Topics - Merkel and Sarkozy
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy

The German government has proposed that a European commissioner be appointed to supplant the Greek government. While phrasing the German proposal this way might seem extreme, it is not unreasonable. Under the German proposal, this commissioner would hold power over the Greek national budget and taxation. Since the European Central Bank already controls the Greek currency, the euro, this would effectively transfer control of the Greek government to the European Union, since whoever controls a country's government expenditures, tax rates and monetary policy effectively controls that country. The German proposal therefore would suspend Greek sovereignty and the democratic process as the price of financial aid to Greece.

Though the European Commission rejected the proposal, the concept is far from dead, as it flows directly from the logic of the situation. The Greeks are in the midst of a financial crisis that has made Greece unable to repay money Athens borrowed. Their options are to default on the debt or to negotiate a settlement with their creditors. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union are managing these negotiations. Read more ..

Europe on Edge

Spain's Economic and Fiscal Woes are a Challenge to New Government and National Cohesion

February 1st 2012

Europe Topics - Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy, Basque Patxi Lopez
Spanish President Mariano Rajoy and Basque leader Patxi Lopez

As part of its spending cuts program, the Spanish government presented a law that would give the central government more control over Spain's autonomous regions. The justification for the law stems from the regions' increasing deficit and the central government's need for more resources. Some regions see this law as an attempt to centralize Madrid's authority and as a potential threat to the delicate balance between the regions and the central government -- a defining feature of Spanish politics. The law will pass out of financial necessity, but its implementation will generate tension between Madrid and the regional administrations.

The Spanish Council of Ministers on Jan. 27 approved a preliminary draft of the Stability and Sustainability Law, meant to reduce Spain's public deficit and debt. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's Popular Party (PP) holds enough of a majority in parliament to ensure the law's adoption, without much modification, in early February. Under the new law, Spain's public debt may not exceed 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and the central and regional administrations must reduce their structural deficit to zero by 2020. This law replicates at Spain's internal level the kind of fiscal oversight the European Union intends to apply to member countries. Read more ..

Broken Banking

Home Foreclosure Crisis: Created by Greed or Negligence?

January 31st 2012

Economy - Foreclosure

Like millions of stories from the great recession, this one begins with homeowners struggling to keep up with a mortgage payment they simply couldn’t afford. By 2009, the adjustable interest rate for Cassandra and Bernard Gray’s Durham, N.C., home loan had spiked to more than 12 percent. “I didn’t know if we were going to be on the street or in a shelter,” Cassandra recalls. “We couldn’t afford groceries. It got pretty bad.” They were thrilled to sign up for a modification plan with their loan servicer, GMAC Home Mortgage, Cassandra Gray said. The modification lowered their payment from $1,128 to $768 per month.

However, after three months, GMAC began returning their payments, the Grays claim in a complaint filed with the North Carolina Commissioner of Banks. GMAC customer service representatives told them there was a “computer glitch” and that the problem would be resolved. Instead, GMAC twice started a foreclosure action. GMAC claimed it had no record of any payment being received. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Israel Isn’t Going to Attack Iran and Neither Will the United States

January 30th 2012

Iran - Iran Nuclear
Iranian Nuclear Ventilation Tower

The radio superhero The Shadow had the power to “cloud men’s minds.” But nothing clouds men’s minds like anything that has to do with Jews or Israel. This year’s variation on that theme is the idea that Israel is about to attack Iran. Such a claim repeatedly appears in the media. Some have criticized Israel for attacking Iran and turning the Middle East into a cauldron of turmoil (not as if the region needs any help in that department) despite the fact that it hasn’t even happened.

On the surface, of course, there is apparent evidence for such a thesis. Israel has talked about attacking Iran and one can make a case for such an operation. Yet any serious consideration of this scenario — based on actual research and real analysis rather than what the uninformed assemble in their own heads or Israeli leaders sending a message to create a situation where an attack isn’t necessary — is this: It isn’t going to happen. Read more ..

The Iranian Threat

Israel and the US Perspectives on Iran at Odds

January 30th 2012

Military - Austerity Measures Israel and US

The kerfuffle over the postponement of the highly touted "Austere Challenge 12" joint US-Israel military exercise is over.  Officials in both countries are now on the same page:  it was a "joint decision" having nothing to do with finances, Iran or politics, just "technical issues."  Regardless of the lid they've chosen to cover the pot, it is worth considering where and how the United States and Israel differ in their analysis of the problem posed by Iran's nuclear activity.

The US and Israel agree on the potential danger and they agree on the unacceptability of a nuclear-armed Iran.  They differ, however, on how they assimilate intelligence information; how they assess the pace of Iran's movement toward weapons capability; and even over whether it is weapons that Iran seeks. The United States factors in more heavily what it believes about Iran's intent, which it insists remains unclear.  Reflecting, perhaps, closer proximity and a smaller margin of error, the Israeli government places greater emphasis on its Iran's capabilities, which it believes are clear. Read more ..

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