Hugo Chavez said that a military coup against his government does not stand a chance.
Chavez was responding to a prediction by Newsweek magazine, which listed a coup in Venezuela among its world predictions for 2010. It also predicted Chavez's friend and mentor Fidel Castro would die.
"Newsweek magazine takes the liberty of predicting and saying that 2010 will be Fidel Castro's last year on Earth. Well, could it be that he's going to the moon?" Chavez said with a chuckle, dismissing both predictions as the wishes of those who prepared the list.
I have to disagree with the Gran Comandante: The moon is actually becoming a hot topic these days and Castro is by far not alone in this. But Chavez got it right with his general point: it looks like some people just never die.
El Comandante Chavez and his spiritual mentor Fidel Castro
Those of you who commented on Doing Business in the Middle East probably noticed the story of Midi, who wasted more than half a year (and most of his savings) trying to receive Israeli citizenship, but was defeated by the unholy coalition of the Jewish Agency and Interior Ministry. Given this very sorry state of affairs and Midi's desperation, I came to conclusion that it's time to write a really big Shalom, Haver post. However, just I has finished designing a tremendous masterpiece, a true rival of Shalom, Farfur, I was surprised to learn that Midi was finally awarded an Israeli Teudat Zeut (not that I am very sure how big honor is this). Besides my obvious disappointment (the post was almost ready), what else can I say? Actually yes, I can say: Shalom Midi!!! (in Hebrew hello and bye are the same word)
7 Dec 09 Yazd Iran. A Baseeji jeep ramming into a motorcycle with fleeing protesters. The two guys seem to have escaped unhurt.
December 21, 2009
Grand Ayatollah Montazeri died at age 87
Prepare for another round of mass destruction of bicycles. This time at the very heart of the Vatican of the Islamic Republic.
December 22, 2009
The Imperative Test
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is said to follow hardline Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi as his spiritual mentor, has not issued a condolence message even though Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei issued a message of condolence to the family of the grand ayatollah within hours of his death.
In his message, Ayatollah Khamenei acknowledged the Grand Ayatollah Montazeri’s theological credentials by calling him “the eminent jurisprudent” and praising his services to his mentor, the founder of the 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, while continuing to question the grand ayatollah’s political positions.
Referring to the dispute over the execution of political prisoners that led to the grand ayatollah’s resignation as successor to Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Ayatollah Khamenei asked “God’s forgiveness” for the grand ayatollah for not passing the “imperative [divine] test” to become the supreme leader of Iran.
Seed Hasan Khomeini, the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini and custodian of his shrine, who has shown support for the opposition, was also among the first to send condolences to the grand ayatollah’s family and followers.
What a nice picture of consensus and unity among the ranks of the Islamic Republic's establishment. As to the imperative tests for remaining the Supreme Leader, I would cautiously bet on Khamenei to find the one about destruction of bicycles particularly challenging. May Allah forgive him.
El Farouki - Air Stone
December 27, 2009
Zen and the art of dying
People are reported shot dead in Iran today including a nephew of Mousavi himself in what appears the fiercest clashes ever since the beginning of the Green Revolution. Regardless of my overall skepticism regarding the Revolution's immediate prospects I still have to note two things. First of all, the Khomeini's revolution was a long affair that took months to develop. Iran is apparently not a country of overnight revolutions, so everything is still possible. Second, regarding the death of Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, it's impossible to deny that the old man has chosen the timing of his death with the most impeccable precision.
Coinciding with Ashoura, when Shia passions and the spirit of martyrdom are running particularly high, the departure of the Grand Ayatollah has set the country ablaze. The regime is apparently crossing another major red line with the Revolutionary Guards and Baseej resorting more and more to use of fire arms to subdue the protests and these are activities that carry significant risks. Parts of the religious elite unsympathetic to the regime (and these may be actually the bulk of the elite) are now facing a stark choice of either speaking out or losing it completely, the prestige of the spiritual establishment is plainly at stake here. The short term consequences of a failure to respond may not be immediately obvious, but the long term consequences will be profound. Montazeri's departure leaves these people with no excuse, he was almost the only voice in the wilderness of them all. Somebody has to take his place.
There is some almost surreal quality about this man, his life and even more his death. Often claimed to have been Iran's top Islamic scholar, the Grand Ayatollah was one of the chief architects of the very system of velayat-e faqih. Following his fallout with Khomeini, the grand Ayatollah spent decades in a fierce struggle against his creation, but he failed to wrestle back even an inch. The Grand Ayatollah was lucky enough to witness the beginning of Green Revolution. During the first stage of the crackdown on the opposition Montazeri repeatedly rejected the legitimacy of the regime and issued stern warnings to the Baseej accusing them of acting against Islam. Not that it made a truckload of difference.
And yet, in his death Montazeri seems to be finally accomplishing something that has avoided him all the last decades of his life as his death is escalating the conflict to new levels, possibly all the way beyond the point of no return. The protesters, probably inflamed by the passions of Ashoura, are growing remarkably fearless. Broken legs and arms, now bullets, the regime is plainly struggling to get hold of this storm. Whether Montazeri in his death will prove more deadly for the regime than he was in his life remains to be seen, but there is something nobody can deny: it was a perfect timing.
December 28, 2009
Time to go home
There are rumors that a prominent Shia scholar is about to step in to take Montazeri's place. If the rumors are right, expect very clear cut and dramatic edicts from Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei to be soon given wide publicity.
Meanwhile, the regime seems to be taken by surprise by the intensity of the latest clashes and both Ahmadinejad and Khamenei seem to be quieter than usual. The regime has now got on his record shooting people dead during Ashoura and attacking mourners of a revered cleric. Meanwhile one recent poll established that a clear majority in 18 Arab countries thinks that Iran represents a greater threat to security in the Middle East than Israel. You don't have to guess really hard about the reasons. Iran's latest incursion into Iraqi territory has triggered an outbreak of anti Persian sentiment in Iraq riding the wave of growing Iraqi Arab nationalism.
And the war in Saada, if you believe the Arab and Iranian media, has been transformed into a Sunni Shia WW2. The Arab media is complaining all the time even about Shias from Kuwait and Bahrain supplying the Al-Houthi insurgents with money and weapons, never mind accusations of the Persian involvement and Hezbollah participation. Iranian media in its turn keeps denouncing Saudi Arabia and insinuating that elite troupes from Jordan and elsewhere are fighting on the government's side. Just the right time for Iran to proceed with Ahmalalah's nuclear program.
The Islamic Revolution has not only become totally unexportable, but another attempt to export it and Iran may find nuclear missiles directed at it from many directions. I don't claim that the latest South Korea's nuclear deal in the Gulf is about it, but it's obvious where the things will be heading if Ahmalalah is allowed to persist with his fallacies. Participation in an Arab Persian nuclear race is rather a high price to pay, let alone in exchange for such a dubious privilege as being allowed to take part in the Arab Israeli conflict that takes place two thousands miles away from Iran.
Never mind the struggling economy about which the biggest mystery is where the billions of the last oil boom have disappeared. Prominent Iranian economists have been wondering about this mystery in pubic not so long ago. There is very little in this rapidly growing pile of fiascoes that can endear the regime on anybody. And even if Ahmadinejad and Khamenei still can't figure it out, they can take a clue from a source much closer to them. If the National is right that even the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini and custodian of his shrine is supporting the opposition, then it's a clear sign that it's time for the two to pack their shit and go home.
If you are one of those fanatics of rationalism who believe in science, you may find the following piece of information very illuminating. A new report finds that significantly more Americans are nearsighted today than before.
NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – Significantly more Americans are nearsighted today than in the early 1970s, a report released today indicates.
Nearsightedness, also called myopia, is when the eyes focus incorrectly to make distant objects appear blurred. This common problem can be treated by corrective eyeglasses or contact lenses or refractive surgery.
You see guys, my grandma already knew that too much reading can be bad for your eyes. In her time there were no computers, but I bet that today she could have easily figured it all out. It's probably not for nothing that we are dealing with myopia and not its opposite. Probably this has something to do with the proliferation of close range activities such as computers, books and TV in the modern society. Though I admit that this may not be all too obvious to some people.
Researchers don't know why more Americans are becoming nearsighted, and "at this time, we really don't know how to prevent myopia," Dr. Susan Vitale of the National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, noted in a telephone interview with Reuters Health. "It's really important to get regular eye examinations from an eye care professional," she said.
The thing is that I've never met a person whose eyesight was improved by reading or working with computers, but I did meet quite a few who claimed rapid deterioration as a result of computer work or too much reading. As to why we don't really know how to prevent myopia, an intense debate with one of those rational individuals comes to my mind. The debate was held no more and no less than on a forum of the Alexander Technique of which one of the fundamental tenets is: Use affects function!!! The debate was actually triggered by a discussion of the infamous Bates Method and the person in question citing various scientific research refused to admit the possibility that misuse of the eyes and the poor eyesight can be connected. If it were not for the man's medical background, I doubt he would have held such an irrational position.
As to the scientists, it's good to know that at least they were not entirely surprised.
This wasn't all that surprising, Vitale told Reuters Health, given reports from Asia, Australia, Africa, and Israel indicating that the prevalence of myopia is increasing in those regions. "This is something that has been on the radar for a while," Vitale said, "but it's the first time that we have tried to nail it down as carefully as possible in the US."
Yet, not everything is lost. Some new research is promising a rapid conversion of science with the common sense within less than a century.
There have also been studies linking myopia to "more close-up work" such as reading, sitting at a computer screen, or using small electronic devices. This is a "reasonable" possibility, Vitale said, given how work and entertainment habits have changed in the past 30 years.
"An interesting study" from Australia, Vitale noted, found evidence that children who spent the most time outdoors were the least likely to suffer from myopia. "Outdoors you have different lighting conditions and you are looking at distant objects instead of near objects," Vitale noted, and both of these factors may have an effect on the risk of myopia.
Haaretz offers peek into Yalla Peace's "Settler-Refugee Exchange Program" (Talking peace with the Palestinians... Well, not so much talking there but you are welcome to drop your comments)
Salah Benlemqawanssa, the king of poppin, and the friends reenact the key milestones in the history of Israeli Arab attempts at peace negotiations
Well, in truth it's probably some kind of hip hop contest, but it lends itself to interesting interpretations, in particular, if you think that Salah (the man with a hat) and Damon are acting out Israel and the USA
October 21, 2009
My company is sending me the next week to see some overseas customers. There'll be no or little posting for the next two weeks.
In a 2006 speech entitled “The Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia,” Yegor Gaidar, a deputy prime minister of Russia in the early 1990s, noted that “the timeline of the collapse of the Soviet Union can be traced to Sept. 13, 1985. On this date, Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the minister of oil of Saudi Arabia, declared that the monarchy had decided to alter its oil policy radically. The Saudis stopped protecting oil prices, and Saudi Arabia quickly regained its share in the world market.
“During the next six months,” added Gaidar, “oil production in Saudi Arabia increased fourfold, while oil prices collapsed by approximately the same amount in real terms. As a result, the Soviet Union lost approximately $20 billion per year, money without which the country simply could not survive.”
Yegor Gaidar, the head of Russia's first post Communist government, died at the age of 53. My response to accusations that Gaidar has leveled Russia socially and economically with his policy of shock therapy in the comments section of an obituary by the Economist.
This debate about shock therapy is missing the point. When Gaidar took over the economy was completely demonetized. Companies switched to barter trading. In provinces local authorities were setting checkpoints to stop people moving goods out. The amount of money printed under the previous governments was such that probably decades of economic growth could not have neutralized it. Let alone that the economy could not grow anymore because of the demonetization, it was literally and figuratively disintegrating. Any government would have had to lift price controls in such situation.
The first few months of the reform were actually stunningly successful. The trade balance and current account went positive in a matter of weeks. Inflation was rapidly coming down and the rouble has become a money again, lines disappeared. If Russia has followed this line, it would have had today a normal economy. Poland enacted very similar reforms advised by the same Sachs and it's now one of the most successful economies of the region. Shock therapy had been implemented by several countries of the region from Poland to Estonia and it was mostly successful. Russia is one of those countries that did not, besides the first couple of months under Gaidar, and for some reason is now cited as an example of a failed shock therapy. People should check the facts better, and in particular the monetary inundation organized by Russia's Central Bank within months after Gaidar started with the reform. One can argue pro and contra Gaidar's reforms as much as he wants, but a shock therapy it was not as the reform was almost immediately sabotaged both by the Central Bank and by the Parliament. Shock therapy is based on abrupt monetary normalization, balanced budget and the stuff. This is something that did not exist in Russia for years before and after Gaidar.
And China is a very poor example for comparison as China's heavy industry has collapsed just as it did everywhere in Eastern Europe. North China is packed with areas that for all practical purposes are monuments to this industrial demise. But the share of this industry in the economy was very limited. The Chinese did not face such a problem. Their reforms started in the countryside. For a predominantly agrarian nation this is a very easy way to immediately boost production without having to invest a penny and without having to deal with a massive insolvent industry. There was little place in China for whatever kind of shock therapy.
Last updated: December 16, 2009 (This post is changing direction in line with the comments section...)
December 11, 2009
Grave robbers have stolen the corpse of the former Cyrus President who led the Island's Greek community to reject a UN sponsored re-unification deal.
Mounds of fresh earth lay at the site of the robbery in the Deftera village cemetery in a southwestern suburb of the Cypriot capital, Nicosia. Police investigators cordoned off the area and were searching the site. The motive was unclear.
Saturday is the first anniversary of the death of Papadopoulos, who was Cyprus' president from 2003 to 2008.
"The grave of the former president has been violated and the body robbed," said police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos.
Investigators believe the body was taken either late Thursday night or early Friday morning. The motive is unclear. Grave-robbing is rare in Cyprus.
"What happened is macabre and utterly condemnable. I am honestly still trying to comprehend what kind of warped minds could even think of doing such a thing, let alone actually carry it out. This is a perverse act that will sicken society in Cyprus," said the head of Cyprus' ruling AKEL party, Andros Kyprianou.
. . .
Kypros Chrysostomides, who served as justice minister under Papadopoulos, also expressed outrage.
"I totally condemn, with all my soul, this barbarous act of sacrilege," he said. "I cannot understand why somebody would want to do such a thing. ... Such barbarous acts only do damage to Cyprus."
The feelings of shock and outrage in the Greek part of the Island stood in sharp contrast to the attitude prevalent in the Turkish part, where many people were dismayed by the fact that the grave robbers have not stolen the body of the president while Papadopoulos was still alive.
Last updated: December 16, 2009
The Bank of Israel has just published a study on the effect of child subsidies on fertility in Israel. I would not say that the study is really breaking new grounds, but it's remarkable for a very detailed per sector and sub sector demographic data. A couple of interesting graphs from the abstract of the report published online.
In his last article on Obama's decision to send thousands of marines to Afghanistan Thomas Friedman says that for him the point of going to Iraq was never about WMD, but to check if it's possible to bring change to the Arab world from within. Given the geographical centrality of Iraq in this part of the Middle East and its status of one of the cultural centers of the Arab world, a success in Iraq could have triggered a domino effect in neighboring countries and beyond. Says TF:
Iraq was about “the war on terrorism.” The Afghanistan invasion, for me, was about the “war on terrorists.” To me, it was about getting bin Laden and depriving Al Qaeda of a sanctuary — period. I never thought we could make Afghanistan into Norway — and even if we did, it would not resonate beyond its borders the way Iraq might.
Let me put it bluntly. Afghanistan is one of those hopeless countries whose geography, topography, ethnic composition... in short, just about everything militates against any possibility of this country growing into something better. To be fair to Afghanistan, in some aspects this country does resonates very well beyond its borders. It resonates well in the neighboring Pakistan drowning in a sea of suicide bombers and the last time Afghanistan was resonating in a big Western city, two skyscrapers went down in New York in the most spectacular manner. But this is just about it. In all other respects, TF is right, this is a very marginal and insignificant country. And in terms of nation building prospects, it's a waste of time and resources.
Compared to Afghanistan, Iraq may well be worth the effort. With all the bad blood between the Sunnis and Shias in Iraq, both sides still remain committed to some kind of Iraqi unity. If the USA can sort out the Arab Kurdish mess (Convincing both sides to split is also a reasonable solution), the things may start looking much better. Iraq is relatively well developed, the country is floating on a sea of oil. In short, this is probably the Arab country most suited for this kind of nation building, both because it's relatively easy to fix and because any democratic and social advances in Iraq immediately start trickling into at least a dozen of countries around. The Green Revolution in Iran may well have been influenced by the situation in Iraq.
Forget Iraq and Afghanistan, there is an even better way to fight both terrorism and terrorists. Says TF:
4. One of the main reasons the Arab-Muslim world has been so resistant to internally driven political reform is because vast oil reserves allow its regimes to become permanently ensconced in power, by just capturing the oil tap, and then using the money to fund vast security and intelligence networks that quash any popular movement. Look at Iran.
Hence, post-9/11 I advocated that our politicians find sufficient courage to hike gasoline taxes and seriously commit ourselves to developing alternatives to oil. Economists agree that this would ultimately bring down the global price, and slowly deprive these regimes of the sole funding source that allows them to maintain their authoritarian societies. People do not change when we tell them they should; they change when their context tells them they must.
At this point it should be very instructive to compare the state of the US debate on gas taxes (this debate is almost non-existent now) with the reform of fuel subsidies championed by Ahmadinejad in Iran. The absence of a massive state tax on imported oil or gasoline in the US constitutes an implicit carbon subsidy for reasons I explained here. Defunding the Arab world through gas taxes in terms of impact would surpass any success in nation building in Iraq by orders of magnitude. However, gas tax seems to be impossible in the US right now, while the proposed cap and trade scheme is already so diluted and degraded under the populist pretext of shielding consumers from the costs of transition to low carbon economy that it should be considered a failure even before it comes into being.
On the other hand, Ahmadinejad's plan seems to have ran into troubles, but at least as originally envisioned the reform is obviously a very determined and well designed attempt to eliminate Iran's explicit carbon subsidy by means of restructuring taxation and allocation of funds. Besides making a lot of economic sense, the reform will have a dramatic impact on the future of the US Iran confrontation. For reasons I explained at the bottom of this post, if properly implemented, the reform may quickly render threats of more sanctions against Iran hollow.
So here you have two adversaries locked in a conflict over Iran's nuclear program and clashing in proxy wars all over the Middle East and beyond. For both the issue of phasing out their explicit (Iran) and implicit (USA) carbon subsidies is very much a matter of "to win it or lose it". In this sense, the determination with which Ahmadinejad is pushing through his very difficult and facing a significant opposition reform contrasts sharply with Obama eventually having lost himself between the cap and trade, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now make your own conclusions.