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Robert Dreyfuss

Bob Dreyfuss

News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.

The Israel-Saudi Alliance Against the US-Iran Talks

Iranian president Hasan Rouhani (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)

It’s an odd partnership, to say the least, but it’s utterly accurate to say that Israel and Saudi Arabia are happily traveling together along the same path toward a confrontation with Iran. Both countries are bitterly opposed to the growth of Iran’s influence in the region, and both take hawkish positions demanding the shutdown of Iran’s nuclear program.

For decades, in fact, Israel and Saudi Arabia—perhaps America’s two chief allies in the Middle East—have worked as a sort of “tag team” in regional affairs, agreeing to disagree (mostly) on the Palestinian issue but collaborating on many other subjects. During the Cold War, for instance, Israel and Saudi Arabia were unspoken allies against President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, and when Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought a proxy war in Yemen in the 1960s, Israel covertly aided Saudi Arabia. So it’s no surprise, really, that Israel’s top negotiator in the talks with the Palestinians, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, proclaimed the reality of the Israel-Saudi alliance, according to Reuters:

Saudi Arabia and Israel are united in their opposition to Iran, but they cannot cooperate as long the Palestinian conflict continues, Israel’s chief peace negotiator said on Thursday.

“When you hear the Saudis talking about what needs to be done in order to prevent a (nuclear-armed) Iran, I mean it sounds familiar,” said Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli foreign minister who is leading talks with the Palestinians.

“I think that you can hear that Arabic sounds familiar to Hebrew when it comes to Iran,” she said, making a rare public linkage between the goals of Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have long been enemies and have no diplomatic ties.

She added: “In order to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon, we need to cooperate with those (who) understand that Iran is a threat to them as well.”

Recently, Saudi Arabia has expressed bitter unhappiness with the fact that the United States is talking to Iran, and the kleptocratic kingdom has also stated its extreme disasstifaction with the fact that President Obama, instead of bombing Syria, opted for a diplomatic path there, too. As I wrote earlier this week:

Saudi Arabia, which is fostering the war in Syria as part of what it sees as a regional Sunni vs. Shiite conflict, is in a major snit. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking UN members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the UN Security Council—a post the country had long campaigned for—because the Saudi rulers are upset with the UNSC and the United States over what Riyadh considers their insufficient enthusiasm for the kingdom’s Syria policy. Now, according to The Wall Street Journal and other sources, Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a fundamental break with the United States.

What’s interesting is that hardcore neoconservatives such as John Bolton are now rallying to Saudi Arabia’s cause. Commenting on the Saudi decision to reject a seat on the UN Security Council, Bolton, writing in The Weekly Standard, says rather gleefully: “Saudi Arabia has just fired a diplomatic cruise missile into the U.N.’s engine room.” (President George W. Bush vindictively named Bolton, a long-time opponent of the UN, US ambassador to the UN.) Asserting that Iran’s nuclear program is an “existential threat” to both Israel and Saudi Arabia, Bolton is effusive in his support for Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic tantrum:

The Saudis have been entirely candid: They think the Security Council is broken. For nearly three years Riyadh has watched Moscow and Beijing stymie every effort to have the Security Council weigh in against Syria’s Assad regime, while U.S. diplomacy has been inconsistent and ineffective. Weak American policies toward Iran, moreover, combined with Russian and Chinese political cover for Tehran, have largely rendered the council a bystander to the Iranian nuclear problem. Now, with President Obama yearning for a negotiated “resolution” of Iran’s nuclear weapons threat, the Saudis have snapped.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Karen Ellliot House weighs in, too, justifying the Saudi snit as a logical response to Obama’s commitment to diplomacy on Syria and Iran. She writes:

Today, the Saudis find themselves alone regarding Syria, trapped in a proxy war with Iran, their religious (Sunni Saudi Arabia vs. Shiite Iran) and political enemy. The Saudis had sought and expected U.S. help in arming the rebels against Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, but the military aid never materialized. Instead, last month at the United Nations General Assembly gathering, President Obama eagerly sought a private meeting with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, to discuss its nuclear program. Mr. Obama seemed desperately grateful merely to get him on the phone.

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To reach a deal with Iran, now, Obama will have to reject the advice and influence of both Washington’s Israel lobby and the Saudi lobby. But the fact is, if the United States wants to, it can easily act independently of both. Like it or not, both Israel and Saudi Arabia are dependent on the United States. Israel desperately needs the United States as virtually its sole remaining friend on the planet, and US aid is Israel’s economic lifeblood. Saudi Arabia, whose throne is increasingly vulnerable to the turmoil that surrounds it and to internal dissension against rule by its ultraconservative princelings, cannot really risk alienating the country that has protected and propped up its throne since the 1940s.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both released reports on civilian casualties from Obama's drone wars.

Amnesty, HRW Document Civilian Deaths in Drone Attacks

President Obama speaks about national security at the National Defense Universit

Two important new reports and a New York Times story written about a Pakistani town called Miram Shah have shed new light on civilian deaths from American drones in Pakistan and Yemen.

The first report, from Amnesty International, is called “Will I Be Next?” (The full report, seventy-four pages long, can be read here.) Investigators with Amnesty International spent nearly a year on the report, conducting sixty interviews with victims and survivors, eyewitnesses and others affected in North Waziristan and other parts of Pakistan. Though not comprehensive, the Amnesty International report is based on “detailed field research into nine of the 45 reported strikes that occurred in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal agency between January 2012 and August 2013.”

Despite enormous difficulties, including only limited cooperation from Pakistani authorities, Amnesty was able to document specific instances in which Pakistani civilians were killed and injured in drone attacks, including one in which eighteen male laborers, including a young boy, died in a “macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror.” Citing US assurances that few civilians have been killed, Amnesty added:

Critics claim that drone strikes are much less discriminating, have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, some of which may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes, and foster animosity that increases recruitment into the very groups the USA seeks to eliminate.

And it said:

According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured.

The Human Rights Watch report is called “Between A Drone and Al Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen.” (You can read the full ninety-seven-page report here and a summary here.) The report “examines six US targeted killings in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013.” It says:

During six weeks in Yemen in 2012-2013, Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed more than 90 people about the strikes including witnesses, relatives of those killed, lawyers, human rights defenders, and government officials. Human Rights Watch reviewed evidence including ordnance and videos from attack sites. Security concerns prevented visits to four of the attack areas.

Among its conclusions:

The six strikes investigated by Human Rights Watch killed 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians. They include a US drone-assisted attack in September 2012 in Sarar, central Yemen, that unlawfully struck a passenger van, killing 12 civilians.

Like Amnesty International, which released its report jointly with HRW, the report provides some broad data on the scope of the targeted killing program since 9/11:

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the US government has carried out hundreds of targeted killings in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. In Yemen, the US is estimated to have conducted 81 targeted killing operations, one in 2002 and the rest since 2009. Research groups report that at least 473 people have been killed in these strikes, the majority of them combatants but many of them civilians.

The New York Times, too, reporting from Miram Shah, describes the terror and panic that often grips residents of the targeted areas:

But viewed from Miram Shah, the frontier Pakistani town that has become a virtual test laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been the antiseptic salve portrayed in Washington. In interviews over the past year, residents paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the American drones hunting them.

“Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared,” reports the Times, adding:

Unusually for the overall American drone campaign, the strikes in the area mostly occur in densely populated neighborhoods. The drones have hit a bakery, a disused girls’ school and a money changers’ market, residents say. One strike occurred in Matches Colony, a neighborhood named after an abandoned match factory that is now frequented by Uzbek militants.

In recent years, a number of organizations and research groups have grappled with the difficulty of estimating the collateral damage caused by the American drone policy of targeted killings. One compilation is provided by the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Its director, Sarah Holewinski, told a Senate committee last May:

Despite recent attempts by the Obama Administration to be more transparent about these drone operations, significant questions remain, including: What civilian protection protocols are in place? How are drone operators trained on distinction? How is a civilian defined? How is civilian harm assessed post-strike? So far, the answer to all of these questions has been “just trust us.” This is not an appropriate policy for a nation that prides itself on transparency and the just use of force.

Other resources on drone attacks can be found at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has tried to compile statistics on civilians killed.

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The Obama administration, to its credit, has reduced the number of drone attacks each year since 2010, but the deadly attacks continue in secrecy, without legal justification and without moral authority in the eyes of much of the world. The Washington Post, in its report on the Amnesty International and HRW studies, quoted a White House spokesperson to the effect that President Obama has sought to avoid civilian casualties when ordering strikes. But, said the Post, citing the two groups:

In virtually all cases, the groups said, it was impossible to know whether the targets had met Obama’s threshold of posing an imminent threat to the United States, because U.S. officials have kept that information a secret.

Greg Mitchell looks into government claims that NSA spying prevented dozens of attacks. 

US, UK Are Having Trouble Finding ‘Moderates’ to Attend Syria Peace Talks

Barack Obama

Everyone’s looking for “moderates” in Syria, in advance of efforts to schedule a peace conference in Geneva in November. Moderates may not be too hard to find outside the country, at the posh hotels and conference centers that house the Syrian opposition groups backed by the United States and its allies, but inside Syria moderates are increasingly difficult to locate. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Al Nusra Front and other extremist and pro–Al Qaeda types are increasingly dominant among the rebels against President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and that’s a major obstacle in front of Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to bring Syrian oppositionists to the bargaining table in Geneva.

The Free Syrian Army, which represents what purports to be the moderate opposition to the Syrian government in the civil war, is now engaged in a two-front war, battling both the government and the ISIS/Nusra bloc.

And even the moderates outside Syria aren’t exactly thrilled by the idea of going to Geneva. They’re being prodded, cajoled and sweet-talked by the United States, the UK and France, but so far at least they’ve not committed to attending the planned meeting. Yesterday, the main opposition group outside Syria, the Syrian National Coalition, said that would defer a decision on whether to attend. (The Syrian government says it will attend.)

The refusal of the opposition to talk to Assad’s representatives is backed by Saudi Arabia, as reported by Reuters:

Plans for talks to end the fighting in Syria were in jeopardy on Tuesday after the opposition refused to attend unless President Bashar al-Assad is forced from power and a furious Saudi Arabia made clear it would no longer co-operate with the United States over the civil war.

Saudi Arabia, which is fostering the war in Syria as part of what it sees as a regional Sunni vs. Shiite conflict, is in a major snit. Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking UN members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the UN Security Council—a post the country had long campaigned for—because the Saudi rulers are upset with the UNSC and the United States over what Riyadh considers their insufficient enthusiasm for the kingdom’s Syria policy. Now, according to The Wall Street Journal and other sources, Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a fundamental break with the United States. Prince Bandar, the Saudi Arabian intelligence chief, lambasted the United States, according to the Journal:

Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief told European diplomats this weekend that he plans to scale back cooperating with the U.S. to arm and train Syrian rebels in protest of Washington’s policy in the region, participants in the meeting said. …

Diplomats here said Prince Bandar, who is leading the kingdom’s efforts to fund, train and arm rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, invited a Western diplomat to the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah over the weekend to voice Riyadh’s frustration with the Obama administration and its regional policies, including the decision not to bomb Syria in response to its alleged use of chemical weapons in August.

The Saudis wanted the United States not only to bomb Syria but to do such serious damage that the strike might topple the Assad government. But Obama, who found himself with few international allies and no domestic support for war with Syria, backed down in humiliating fashion and agreed to a Russian plan to disarm Syria.

The program to locate, dismantle and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, jointly agreed to by the United States and Russia and overseen by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is going well enough, though the OPCW is hampered by the fact that at least some of the chemical stockpiles are located on bases surrounded by rebels, making it hard for inspectors to get there. But even if the OPCW efforts proceed through 2014, that doesn’t guarantee that diplomatic efforts to resolve the broader conflict peacefully will gain traction. Indeed, because OPCW relies on the assistance of the Assad government to get to and destroy stockpiles of the weapons, many rebels are sullenly uncooperative with the disarmament plan.

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Meeting in Paris with ten other nations involved in supporting the Syrian rebels, the United States has admitted that the ISIS faction has made the problem much more difficult, reports The New York Times:

Even as planning intensifies for a Geneva peace conference on the war in Syria, the emergence of a group affiliated with Al Qaeda has undermined the chances of negotiating an end to the conflict, a senior State Department official said on Monday.

Meanwhile, the ISIS/Nusra bloc in Syria is carrying out what can only be called terrorist bombings, massacres and Islamic extremist repression in areas in controls. Its forces carried out a suicide bombing this week that killed dozens of people in Hama, and thousands of foreign fighters with Al Qaeda sympathies are flocking to Syria through Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Literally dozens of rebel groups in Syria have broken ties with the “moderate” bloc, reports AP:

Several dozen rebel groups in southern Syria have broken with the main political opposition group in exile, a local commander said in a video posted Wednesday, dealing a potential new setback to Western efforts to unify moderates battling President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

And Human Rights Watch has documented the involvement of the ISIS-allied rebels in massacres, according to The New York Times:

In a coordinated attack, numerous rebel groups fought off a small garrison of government troops and swept into the villages, killing 190 people, according to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Friday. At least 67 of the dead appeared to have been shot or stabbed while unarmed or fleeing, including 48 women and 11 children, the report said. More than 200 civilians are still being held hostage.

Max Blumenthal documents Israel’s new racism.

Getting to ‘Good Enough’ in Afghanistan

US Marines on patrol in an Afghan school building, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

In Afghanistan, the war goes on. As The Nation documented recently, tens of thousands of Afghan civilians have died since the war began in 2001, and with the war having entered its thirteenth year, there’s no end in sight. The American combat mission is winding down, but if the Obama administration has its way there won’t be an end to the counterterrorism war in Afghanistan for years to come. And, in an editorial today, “An Exit Strategy from Afghanistan,” The New York Times admits without irony that what the United States has got for a dozen lethal years in Afghanistan is a stalemate:

As it winds down its 12-year-old military commitment in Afghanistan, the United States is still looking for a face-saving way out of a conflict that seems headed, at best, for a stalemate.

Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to put pressure on President Hamid Karzai to accept American terms for a continued US military presence past 2014. Among the terms that the United States wants: immunity from any prosecution by Afghan authorities for crimes and atrocities committed by US forces and permission to engage in Special Forces raids against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups anywhere in the country, even though only a few dozen Al Qaeda members remain. Despite the positive spin that Kerry and the State Department put on his visit, however, he utterly failed to get a deal. As Reuters noted:

A draft pact known as the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) was hammered out in Kabul last weekend by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. But he left without a final deal as Afghan President Hamid Karzai said only the assembly, the Loya Jirga, had the authority to decide contentious issues.

And the Loya Jirga, a big national meeting of tribal elders, warlords, clergy and others, might not cotton to American demands to allow US troops free reign to engage in counterterrorism—especially if Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in 2014 after elections next spring, steers them in another direction.

There’s an unofficial Halloween deadline for a pact. Otherwise, the military is hinting, the United States will have to start dismantling everything, including bases nearby that might be used to evacuate US forces and equipment, and making other plans.

In Kerry’s mind, of course, is the fact that when a similar situation faced the United States in Iraq five years ago, the Iraqis rejected American demands, and the incoming Obama administration proved unable to satisfy Iraqi concerns, so the United States pulled out completely from Iraq. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan, though, is that while Iraq has oil revenues to keep it solvent, Afghanistan has nothing, and it’s totally dependent on the United States and other Western allies to provide aid. That aid, the Obama administration is not-so-subtly telling Karzai, depends on Kabul allowing the United States to keep troops in-country. As the Times editorial puts it:

Congress is unlikely to keep paying for the Afghan Army and police, at a cost that could range from $4 billion to $6 billion, unless Americans are deployed there.

Meanwhile, the Taliban continues to strike US and Afghan targets, including an attack on an international convoy last week, the assassination of a provincial governor, and other high-profile actions. In its editorial, the Times notes correctly that a political deal with the Taliban is essential to preserve Afghanistan’s security, or some semblance of it, after 2014, but that so far there’s no sign of any movement there, and it says that the talks with the Taliban, which seemed to get going earlier this year, won’t restart until after the April elections.

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The Obama administration has to redouble its efforts here, coupling a pledge to withdraw and any all US forces from Afghanistan unconditionally with a diplomatic offensive to get Pakistan, Iran, India, Saudi Arabia and others countries on board with a plan to rebalance and reorganize the government in Kabul.

Check out The Nation’s in-depth report on the civilian death toll of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

New DHS Nominee Spent Years Justifying War on Terror’s Excesses

President Barack Obama has chosen former Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson as the new secretary of the Homeland Security Department. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Back in 2012, just before he stepped down as general counsel for the Department of Defense, Jeh (“Jay”) Johnson delivered a speech at Oxford University titled: “The Conflict Against Al Qaeda and its Affiliates: How Will It End?” The very title carries an optimistic ring, since it often seems that the war on terror will never, ever end—as evidenced, perhaps, by the simultaneous raids last week into Libya and Somalia that captured a former Al Qaeda big wig and sought, without success, to take down an Al Shabab leader. The two actions, coming amid a steady stream of statements from top Obama administration officials that Al Qaeda has been decimated, followed an extraordinary sign earlier this year that Al Qaeda—or at least the threat of Al Qaeda as bogeyman—is still alive and kicking: that, you’ll remember, was the reported intercept of an e-mail from Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s chieftain in Pakistan, to the head of Al Qaeda’s Yemen franchise, containing an unspecified threat against the United States that led to dozens of American embassies shutting down from North Africa to the Middle East and deep into South Asia. No attack was forthcoming.

Now, Johnson has been tabbed by Obama to be the new Secretary of Homeland Security. Which makes his speech at Oxford relevant again. To be sure, in his post at the Department of Homeland Security, as opposed to DOD, Johnson won’t have responsibility for the war on terror, if we’re still calling it that. (Obama, at least, isn’t.) But Johnson’s speech was widely cited as important back in December 2012 because he had the temerity to suggest that there would come a day when the conflict with Al Qaeda will “end.” In the speech, Johnson said:

I do believe that on the present course, there will come a tipping point—a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al Qaeda and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al Qaeda as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.

At that point, we must be able to say to ourselves that our efforts should no longer be considered an “armed conflict” against al Qaeda and its associated forces; rather, a counterterrorism effort against individuals who are the scattered remnants of al Qaeda, or are parts of groups unaffiliated with al Qaeda, for which the law enforcement and intelligence resources of our government are principally responsible, in cooperation with the international community—with our military assets available in reserve to address continuing and imminent terrorist threats.

Problem is, of course, until that as-yet-undefined moment when the “war” against Al Qaeda ends and the “counterterrorism effort against individuals” begins has not, it appears, yet occurred—at least in the eyes of the Obama administration. So, as a result, the White House continues to order drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere, launch Special Forces raids to kill or capture alleged Al Qaeda officials in Africa and Asia, and, in Afghanistan, insist on the continuing right of U.S. forces to seek and destroy Al Qaeda units in that country, even though experts say only about 75 members of the organization remain there. And, as long as the “war” continues, then everything that goes with it—extra-judicial detention of captured fighters, vast electronic surveillance of U.S. and foreign citizens by the National Security Agency and its partners, the Guantanamo prison, and the rest, continues too. All of that, in his Oxford speech, Johnson—as the then-DOD lawyer—was willing to support, justify and explain, even while admitting, as he did:

Some legal scholars and commentators in our country brand the detention by the military of members of al Qaeda as “indefinite detention without charges.” Some refer to targeted lethal force against known, identified individual members of al Qaeda as “extrajudicial killing.”

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal, in reporting Johnson’s 2012 speech, noted that in fact it was delivered primarily as a justification to the Europeans for Obama’s widely reviled counterterrorism policies:

Pentagon officials and legal experts also noted that Mr. Johnson chose to deliver the speech in the United Kingdom, in part to reassure European allies about the Obama administration’s legal justification for its continuing war on al Qaeda as well as other counterterrorism operations.

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“It’s important that the DOD General Counsel has chosen to give this speech in Britain where many legal experts disagree with the concept that the U.S. is in a war with al Qaeda,” said John Bellinger, a former State Department legal adviser during the George W. Bush administration. “Most of the previous speeches by administration officials have been given inside the U.S.”

And, according to the Washington Post, Johnson helped shape the rationale for killing Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen living in Yemen, over his Al Qaeda affiliation:

Johnson was also involved in one of the most controversial counterterrorism questions of Obama’s first term, whether the United States could use an armed drone to kill a U.S. citizen who had joined al-Qaeda.

He and others concluded that the U.S. government had the authority to carry out a strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and became a senior figure in al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen before being killed in a joint CIA-U.S. military operation in 2011.

Johnson, a 56-year-old African-American lawyer who’s spent many years at the ultra-establishment law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind when not serving in government, is no boat-rocker. How he’ll deal with the issues confronting him at Homeland Security, including the thorny issue of immigration and border security, aren’t at all clear. He’s been a prosecutor and a Democratic party stalwart, serving in the Clinton administration and then as counsel to John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, in addition to his stint at DOD under Obama. (Notably, it was Kerry who, in 2004, suggested that the the threat of terrorism could eventually be reduced to the level of a nuisance, an ahead-of-his-time statement for which he was roundly savaged by the Bush campaign and its various attack dogs in the media and the neoconservative movement.)

But, as AP reports:

As general counsel at the Defense Department during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Johnson was an aggressive advocate on a number of complex and contentious legal issues. He oversaw the escalation of the use of unmanned drone strikes, the revamping of military commissions to try terrorism suspects rather than using civilian courts and the repeal of the military’s ban on openly gay service members. He also mapped out the legal defense for the American cross-border raid into Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden.

Bob Dreyfuss on the promising start to ongoing US-Iran talks.

Hawks Squawk, but US-Iran Talks Start Well

Iranians celebrate the election of Hassan Rouhani. (Reuters/Fars News)

Despite the squawking of hawks—from Israel and pro-Israel neoconservatives worried that talking to Iran is like “Munich 1938” to Saudi Arabia’s paranoid belief that the United States and Iran are about to strike a deal to divvy up the Persian Gulf—it does appear that progress is being made in two days of talks between Iran and the P5+1 in Geneva.

Caution: there is a long way to go, and even the Iranian proposals so far seem to suggest a minimum of six months before a deal is reached. The next round of talks in Geneva is already set for November, according to Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif:

“The talks will continue in a few weeks in Geneva and during this period the members of the P5+1 will have a chance to acquire the necessary readiness regarding the details of Iran’s plans and the steps that they must take.”

So far, the reaction of US and European officials at the Geneva talks seems cautiously optimistic, in sharp contrast to past talks, after which Western diplomats appeared glum and criticized Iran for being unwilling to respond in detail to concrete proposals. This time, both US and EU officials used almost identical phrases, according to The Christian Science Monitor:

“For the first time, very detailed technical discussions took place,” said Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the talks for the P5+1 group (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany). That exact choice of words was echoed by a senior US official, who said in a statement: “For the first time, we had very detailed technical discussions.”

After two days of talks, Ashton said that the two sides had held “the most detailed talks ever” and Zarif said that the talks were “extensive and fruitful,” according to the BBC. Though details are scarce, and Iranian officials refused to describe their proposal in public, Iran put forward the general outline of a six-month plan to end the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, and the chief negotiators for Iran and the United States held a rare, one-on-one session. The title of Zarif’s presentation in Geneva was “Closing an Unnecessary Crisis—Opening New Horizons.” Though Iran, according to Zarif, will never abandon its right to enrich uranium and maintain a nuclear program for civilian purposes, Iran is willing to open itself for highly intrusive inspections, including spot checks by the International Atomic Energy Agency, and to limit its production and stockpiles. Reports the BBC:

Key P5+1 demands include the acceptance by Iran of a comprehensive verification regime—with unannounced checks—and a reduction in Iran’s level of uranium enrichment.

Asked about these two points earlier on Wednesday, [Iran’s] Deputy Foreign Minster Abbas Araqchi was quoted as saying: “Neither of these issues are within the first step [of the Iranian proposal] but form part of our last steps.”

Confounding the Israeli hardliners, Araqchi even gave an unprecedented interview to a reporter for Israel Radio in which he suggested that Israel could live in peace with Iran after a deal is struck:

“Any agreement reached will open new horizons in [our] relations with all states,” Araqchi told Israel Radio reporter Gideon Kutz. Araqchi also responded with a “Yes” when Kutz asked him whether Israel would be able to live in peace with whatever deal would be reached between Western powers and the Islamic Republic.

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In the pages of National Review, The Weekly Standard, and The Wall Street Journal—along with the ever-hawkish Washington Post—the hawks are near-apoplectic over what many of them see as Chamberlain-like appeasement by the Obama administration, even though there’s no deal yet. It’s true that Congress, which has imposed tough sanctions on Iran, can refuse to lift them—under pressure from AIPAC—if and when an accord is tentatively reached. Fact is, though, once an accord is in sight, international sanctions against Iran will crumble into nothing even if the United States refuses to ease them, because the rest of the world—China, Russia, India, Turkey and the Europeans and Japan—won’t go along with sanctions backed only by the United States and Israel.

Ari Berman dissects the troubling voting restrictions in Arizona and Kansas.

The Long Road to an Iran-US Deal

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani addresses the UN General Assembly.(AP Photo/Mike Segar) 

As the talks between Iran and the P5+1 get underway tomorrow, amid lots of promise and lots of talk about Iran’s new charm offensive and apparent readiness for a deal, it remains to be seen whether the administration of President Barack Obama has the diplomatic savvy and political clout to pull it off. Can Obama strike a deal with Iran that ignores and angers hardliners in Washington, including the Israel lobby, neoconservatives and hawks? Does Obama and his negotiating team—which, inexplicably, will not include Secretary of State John Kerry, even though Iran’s team will be led by its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif—understand Iran well enough that it can be sensitive to the requirements of President Hassan Rouhani, Zarif et al., especially since not a single top US official or diplomat has visited Iran, ever?

And the same can be said for Iran, too, which has its own influential hardliners and which also lacks a proper understanding of American politics and political culture, especially among Iran’s top clergy, few of whom have traveled outside of Iran or visited North America.

It doesn’t make one optimistic. The talks tomorrow, of course, are the start of a long journey, not the end of one. Iran, it appears, will advance an initial negotiating offer tomorrow, hopefully one designed to elicit a positive response from the P5+1. But there are countless stumbling blocks. Perhaps the biggest is how to design a set of confidence-building measures—called CBMs by acronym-happy diplomats—that allow Iran and the P5+1 to move toward a resolution that results in the deal that everyone knows is the win-win solution, if indeed a deal is to be struck. That deal, we’ve known for years, involves public recognition by the United States and its allies, and the rest of the P5+1, of Iran’s demand to retain the right to continue to enrich uranium, and to acquire and develop all of the components of a peaceful nuclear energy program. In exchange, it is believed by nearly all analysts, Iran will sign on to the Nonproliferation Treaty’s so-called Additional Protocol, submitting to much more intrusive and strict inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency and, in addition, will accept limits on the degree to which it will enrich uranium and limits on the size of the stockpile it maintains.

There’s the deal. But the trick is getting there. A chief goal of Iran’s is an end to economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations and an end to the parallel, but separate and unilateral, sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies. It’s very unlikely—let’s say, there’s zero chance—that the United States will ease sanctions in return for statements, promises and other words on paper from Iran. On the other hand, there’s very, very little chance that Iran will make significant, unilateral concessions without getting in return absolute guarantees that sanctions will be removed. So, who goes first, who trusts whom, and how a step-by-step process can be put in place is what makes this hard.

Both Iran and the P5+1 can safely ignore Israel’s maximalist demands, namely, that there will be no deal until Iran shuts down its enrichment program, dismantles its centrifuges, closes its facilities, and exports its stockpile of uranium. Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bluster, Israel is increasingly isolated in its view of Iran, and no one takes seriously Israel’s dark hints about bombing Iran’s facilities without direct American support. As long as the United States and Iran are talking, Israel can’t do a thing, and Tehran knows it.

Still, reaching an agreement will take a lot of time, with lots of interim steps and, yes, CBMs.

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The New York Times, in its report today, quoted two Iranian insiders, Abbas Aragchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister and one of its negotiators, and Hamidreza Taraghi, a spokesman of sorts for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and taken together their comments suggest that a deal might be in the works. Said Aragchi:

“We need to move towards a trust-building road map with the Westerners. To them, trust-building means taking some steps in the nuclear case, and for us this happens when sanctions are lifted… Of course we will negotiate regarding the form, amount, and various levels of enrichment, [but] the shipping of materials out of the country is our red line.”

Added Taraghi:

“We now have a new negotiating team in place, which means business and has the full authority to come to an agreement. We will continue to enrich, but we can talk about the level of enrichment; we will continue to have our stockpile, but can discuss the size of that stockpile.”

According to Bloomberg, Zarif, the foreign minister, seemed miffed that Kerry wasn’t going to attend the talks. He said:

“I will present Iran’s proposal in the opening session and then my colleagues will carry on the talks. In order to decide about the details and starting procedure, we will probably need another meeting at the level of foreign ministries.”

The level of mistrust is high on both sides, and it isn’t clear, yet, that either side understands the other well enough to strike an accord. (The hawkish Washington Post, in an editorial today, notes that Iran seems to be moving in the right direction but then adds: “But the Obama administration should not necessarily be prepared to accept an Iranian “yes” for an answer, even if it is unqualified.”) One of the few Americans who may actually understand Iran is John Limbert, a former US diplomat who was one of the hostages held for 444 days in Tehran in 1979-1981, and who served recently as the State Department’s Iran desk officer. In a piece for the Middle East Institute, Limbert says:

Now officials will have to relearn how to handle more delicate tools that have grown rusty from long disuse. Since 1979 interactions between the two sides have consisted mostly of glaring at each other across an abyss and trading insults, threats, and empty slogans. Iran is part of an “axis of evil.” The United States is “world arrogance.” Thirty-four years of practice have made both sides creative at bash­ing the other. Sometimes the abuse goes beyond words, and an Iranian civilian airliner is shot down or hundreds of American marines are murdered in Beirut.

Limbert, who is fluent in Persian and who is married to an Iranian, suggests that listening, patience and controlled, judicious language will be critical in advancing the talks. He says:

Thirty-four years of mistrust will not disappear with one meeting, one exchange, or one telephone call. There will be setbacks and disappoint­ments, and individuals and groups with special agendas will seek to sabotage an engagement process. Others, by design or mistake, will make ill-judged statements. What is important is not to give up after a setback, but to keep pursuing the goal of finding a way of talking that serves the interest of both sides.

And he points out the stupidity—he doesn’t use that word—of some of the language used by the Obama administration, including the president himself:

Diplomacy demands that we choose words with care. We do not have the luxury of venting in public. When an American official says publicly to a Senate committee that deception “is part of [Iranian] DNA” or when President Obama, shortly after his telephone call with President Rouhani, refers to the “Iranian regime,” they are using language that has no place in diplomacy. Such phrases belie the claim that the United States wants to deal with Iran on the basis of “mutual respect.”

It’s going to be a long road.

Peter Rothberg suggests five videos for understanding Columbus Day. 

Obama Is Flailing on Egypt

Members of the Egyptian Republican Guard stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed president Mohamed Mursi. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

Of course the United States ought to cut off military aid to Egypt. (For that matter, it ought to drastically cut down on military aid to all countries across the board.) But with the Obama administration flailing in confusion about how to respond to the military coup that ousted the odious Muslim Brotherhood in July, it’s important to remember two things: first, American influence in Egypt, in the Middle East and around the world is declining fast, as I noted yesterday. And second, whether or not the United States aids Egypt militarily will have very little bearing, if any, on Egypt’s future course.

In what was intended to be an on-one-hand, on-the-other hand decision yesterday, the US administration cut some aid to Egypt’s military and let other aid flow. The United States will “withhold the delivery of several big-ticket items, including Apache attack helicopters, Harpoon missiles, M1-A1 tank parts and F-16 warplanes, as well as $260 million for the general Egyptian budget,” reports The New York Times. But other aid, including support for counterterrorism and border control, will continue.

In a long, twisted-and-turning background briefing yesterday, five—count ’em! five!—administration officials tried to explain and justify the split decision. Said one official, explaining what was supposedly an effort to send a message to Egypt that the United States is very unhappy:

We also will continue assistance that advances our vital security objectives like countering terrorism, countering proliferation, and ensuring security in the Sinai. We will also continue support like military training and education, and will continue spare parts, replacement parts, and related services for the military equipment that we provide.

Take that, Egypt! That same official made it clear that Egypt can get it all back, even what’s suspended, if it signals “progress on the democratic transition.” Another official explained that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had a “friendly” conversation with Egypt’s military boss—the twentieth such conversation they’ve had in the past several monthsduring which, with Benghazi on his mind, Hagel “discussed the importance of continuing to secure US embassies and facilities in Egypt, and providing for the security of Americans in Egypt.” In other words, it’s all about us. Hagel, said the official, told General Al-Sisi that the United States wants Egypt to know that continuing military training of Egyptian officers is “really a symbol of our long-term relationship with Egypt.”

He hopes. In Pakistan, of course, in the 1980s, when the United States cut off aid and training missions there, a whole generation of Pakistani military officers grew up without any connection to the United States, many of them hard-core Islamists, and since then they’ve been running the place. In Washington, officials are well aware that Egypt has plenty of options besides the United States for military support, including the option of turning to Russia. And Saudi Arabia, which strongly backs the military’s takeover in Cairo, has poured billions of dollars into Egypt’s coffers since July. It dwarfs anything that the United States can provide.

So, really, what leverage does the United States have? Not much.

And Egypt is not impressed. According to The Wall Street Journal, the spokesman for Egypt’s military isn’t happy, saying that Egypt will “adjust” its policy toward the United States:

Some accords, such as American ships’ special access to the Suez Canal, should be “adjusted,” said Col. Ahmed Ali, the spokesman for the Egyptian military. “The U.S. is abandoning Egypt as it fights a serious war against terror,” he said. “This is a stance that doesn’t coincide with such a strong, long-standing relationship.”

And the Journal reports this:

Some people reacted with anger on Wednesday, saying that Egypt was better off without the aid and could seek out other sources of military financing in China, Russia or the Persian Gulf. “This is actually a chance for Egypt to be free of this burden,” said Tahani Al Gabali, a former constitutional court justice and a vocal opponent of the Brotherhood and U.S. influence in Egypt. “The U.S. is pressuring Egypt to allow the Brotherhood back into politics and it won’t work. Unfortunately, the current American administration has a failed foreign policy.”

Exactly right. Indeed, since the very start of the Arab Spring in late 2010 and the toppling of former President Mubarak in February 2011, the United States has tacked this way and that in response, often buffeted by the self-serving demands of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other conservative regional powers who feared what might happen post-Mubarak. Yet very little of what the United States did accomplished anything at all, and events in Egypt proceeded independently of American design.

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Of course, various neoconservatives, hawks and pro-Israel members of Congress, plus The Wall Street Journal, are aghast at the suspension of even part of US aid to Egypt’s military. Said Eliot Engel, the pro-AIPAC Democrat in the House:

“I am disappointed that the Administration is planning to partially suspend military aid to Egypt. During this fragile period we should be rebuilding partnerships in Egypt that enhance our bilateral relationship, not undermining them.”

In other words, says Engel, let’s back the Egyptian army to the hilt. Well, the Egyptian army will do what it wants, including, it appears, putting former president Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood on trial early next month. Egypt may or may not eventually find its way back to some sort of democratic-style constitution, or it might settle in to military rule for, say, a decade or two. What Washington does, or doesn’t, do won’t make much difference.

The Nation’s editors take on the GOP shutdown.

China Gains, US Loses in Asia Power Play

US and Chinese national flags are hung outside a hotel in Beijing. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)

The paralysis in Washington, brought to crisis levels by the Tea Party–led Republican shutdown, is having a crucial impact overseas, underlining the long-term decline of American influence abroad. The beneficiary: China, of course.

Meanwhile, the US-led “Doha Round” trade talks and the long-running American effort to create an anti-China trade bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are both going nowhere fast. China, taking advantage of its clout in the region and America’s decline, is proposing its own counter to the TPP, namely, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

The inevitable decline of American influence and power, of course, is not going to be reversed by US military shows of force, such as the dangerously misguided, counterproductive and reckless interventions in Libya and Somalia this week. That impresses no one, except perhaps gullible viewers of Fox News. In the real world, fewer and fewer people are taking America seriously.

The most obvious result of the shutdown-cum-default crisis in Washington—which has drawn alarmed reactions in both Tokyo and Beijing—is that President Obama canceled his visit to Asia this week, including an important appearance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting in Indonesia, where in Obama’s absence China’s president, Xi Jinping, took center stage. As the New York Times reported, ruefully, Xi took over as “the dominant leader at a gathering devoted to achieving greater economic integration,” adding:

Mr. Xi, the keynote speaker, delivered a long, tightly scripted speech that made no reference to Mr. Obama and concentrated on the theme of Chinese economic overhaul at home, and the need for China to have the Asia-Pacific region as a partner abroad.

A panicky-sounding editorial in The New York Times, noting that Xi “grabbed the spotlight” at APEC, added:

The Republican-induced government shutdown and the party’s threats to create another crisis next week over the debt ceiling are causing harm internationally as well as at home. They are undermining American leadership in Asia, impeding the functioning of the national security machinery, upsetting global markets and raising questions about the political dysfunction of a country that has long been the world’s democratic standard-bearer.

China is exercising its economic muscle throughout East Asia, becoming the most important trading partner for country after country in the region that is supposed to be the target of Obama’s vaunted “pivot.” (Instead, Obama finds himself bogged down in the Middle East and Afghanistan, dealing with the Syrian civil war, talks with Iran, a crisis in Afghanistan, and the military takeover in Egypt.) So, as the Times noted:

Mr. Obama’s absence was particularly damaging to American interests here in Indonesia, where the growing economy has been bolstered by a stronger Chinese presence that until a few years ago was resisted, said John Kurtz, the head of the Asia Pacific region for A. T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm.

Mr. Xi visited Indonesia last week and announced that China would open a $50 billion infrastructure bank to service the region.

China is clearly unhappy with the emergence of the TPP idea, despite less-than-convincing statements from Washington that TPP isn’t aimed at China:

In its account of the APEC summit, the China Daily, an English-language newspaper in China, slammed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It said the negotiations over it were “confidential talks” and the pact was “widely considered a new step for the United States to dominate the economies in the Asia-Pacific region.”

The Washington Post, in its report, says that China is rather unrestrained in its thrilled accounts of the sans-America meeting at APEC:

Chinese media gloated Tuesday over President Xi Jinping’s “star” performance at an Asia-Pacific trade summit in Indonesia that his American counterpart was unable to attend.

The Post report gave many examples of China’s reaction:

“Bipartisan games in the US have let the world see the worst of US democracy,” wrote senior commentator Huang Haizhen. “It is clear to other Asia-Pacific countries that America’s return [to Asia] strategy has become powerless.”

In an editorial, Wen Wei Po said the US “pivot” to Asia had undermined peace and stability in the region by encouraging Asian countries to see China as a threat and as the instigator in regional territorial disputes.

Now, the editorial said, more and more countries are “no longer being used by the US but are improving relations with China rationally.”

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The United States, which had intended to wrap up the initial agreement on the TPP this year, now admits that it’s not going to happen. A big obstacle is that the TPP would stress the key role of dismantling state-owned enterprises, or SOE’s, which is a direct challenge to Vietnam, a socialist country that, like China, has many SOE’s in all fields of industry. As Reuters reports:

More intrusive than other trade pacts, the TPP seeks to regulate sensitive areas such as government procurement, intellectual property and the role of state-owned enterprises as well as giving corporations more rights to sue governments.

Inside Vietnam, of course, there’s a debate between pro-free market reformers and advocates of a socialist-based economy built around SOEs.

Stymied on trade and economics, Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama’s stand-in, fell back on the tried and true, namely, American military power and security issues, as The Wall Street Journal noted in its lede:

US Secretary of State John Kerry is moving his focus from trade to regional security matters as he fills in for President Barack Obama at back-to-back summits in tiny Brunei beginning Wednesday.

That’s because the United States hopes it can parlay its military power in the region, still overwhelming, into strengthening military alliances and relationships with Japan, Australia, the Philippines, Taiwan and other countries, including Vietnam, by raising the Chinese boogeyman. But, as the Journal notes, Xi knows that:

“China will firmly uphold regional peace and stability,” Mr. Xi said in a speech to business leaders at the APEC meeting Monday, for instance. “Without peace, development is out of the question, like water without a source or a tree without roots.”

Oh. And next year, APEC will meet in—you guessed it—Beijing.

Leslie Savan breaks down Jon Stewart’s puzzling interview with Kathleen Sebelius.

Karzai Lashes Out Over Civilian Deaths

US Marines observe an area from a school building during a patrol at a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, May 1, 2009. (Reuters/Goran Tomasevic)

No wonder President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan is threatening to blow up the entire US-Afghan security relationship.

Perhaps your attention has moved elsewhere, as it has for the vast majority of Americans, but people—civilians and military personnel are still dying apace in the ongoing war in Afghanistan, which entered its thirteenth year yesterday. Earlier this month, The Nation presented a detailed compilation and analysis of civilian deaths caused by US and NATO forces since 2001, by this reporter and Nick Turse. Civilians are still dying: in early September, for instance, an American drone strike in Kunar Province killed as many as sixteen people, many of them women and children.

Yesterday, asked about the possibility of a continuing American presence in Afghanistan after 2014, Karzai told the BBC that Americans and their allies continue to cause needless suffering among Afghan civilians:

“The worsening of relations began in 2005 where we saw the first incidents of civilian casualties, where we saw that the war on terror was not conducted where it should have been.”

According to the BBC, which also provided video of the Karzai interview:

Mr Karzai said the war should have been conducted “in the sanctuaries, in the training grounds beyond Afghanistan, rather than that which the US and NATO forces were conducting operations in Afghan villages, causing harm to Afghan people.”

As for the United States staying in Afghanistan beyond 2014, Karzai said:

“If the agreement doesn’t suit us then of course they can leave. The agreement has to suit Afghanistan’s interests and purposes. If it doesn’t suit us and if it doesn’t suit them then naturally we will go separate ways.”

Of course, in part Karzai is bluffing, because Afghanistan needs the United States indefinitely to prop up the weak and corrupt government in Kabul, even after Karzai leaves office next year. But, as in Iraq—when the Obama administration tried and failed to negotiate a semi-permanent American role there—the United States could very well find itself kicked out of Afghanistan unceremoniously if no accord is reached. Karzai is demanding that the United States formally make Afghanistan an ally, thus requiring the United States to come to its defense if and when it is attacked. He also insists that the United States halt all efforts to track down Al Qaeda elements that still remain inside Afghanistan, because those raids, by US Special Forces units, and drone attacks kill civilians. (Only a few dozen Al Qaeda operatives still remain inside Afghanistan.)

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The Obama administration has rejected both Karzai demands, and it has suggested that it is willing to go with the previously unthinkable “zero option,” i.e., no US forces, after 2014, according to The New York Times:

American officials have balked at both proposals. They have said they would cut off talks if substantial progress was not made in the coming weeks and begin preparing for what is known as the zero option: a complete withdrawal.

Last July, the Times reported that Obama—frustrated with the Afghanistan talks—was indeed ready to go with the zero option, even though it was viewed as a catastrophe by American military and security officials:

Increasingly frustrated by his dealings with President Hamid Karzai, President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of United States forces from Afghanistan and to a “zero option” that would leave no American troops there after next year, according to American and European officials.

Perhaps thinking of the recent raids into Libya and Somalia, where the United States has no combat troops, Obama seemingly threatened Karzai with the idea that the United States will pursue its security goals in Afghanistan even without an accord. Said Obama:

“If we can’t [get an agreement], we will continue to make sure that all the gains we’ve made in going after Al Qaeda we accomplish, even if we don’t have any U.S. military on Afghan soil.”

Of course, the only real solution in Afghanistan is not more war but a peace accord that brings the Taliban and its allies into a political agreement with a new, rebalanced government in Kabul that gives additional weight to Pashtun elements of the country. Such an accord would have to be supported by both Pakistan and India, which have long fought a proxy war on Afghan soil, and by Iran. Pakistan, which supports the Taliban, has provided signals recently that it might be willing to strike a deal with the government in Afghanistan, and Pakistan and India are talking to each other again, though tensions remain high between those two nuclear-armed powers.

Check out The Nation’s interactive database of civilian fatalities in Afghanistan from 2001–12.

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