Morning Report: December 11, 2006

Curiouser and curiouser. Mixed signals from Syria, questions on the future of Iraq's leadership, and new clues surface on a spy mystery.

Syria expands Golan border presence. Debka: 'Israeli intelligence chief warns: Syria is expanding its long-range missile manufacture and anti-tank rocket deployment on Golan. DEBKAfile’s military sources quote two statements by Israeli generals Sunday, Dec. 10 to the Israeli cabinet: OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen Gadi Eisenkott denounced as irresponsible talk of a war with Syria and Hizballah in the summer of 2007. Brig. Gen Yossi Baidatz, military intelligence chief of research, reported that Syria had increased its production of long-range missiles (picture)and was building up its anti-tank rocket units on the Golan border with Israel. This information is not proof in itself of a Syrian intent to go to war. Gen. Eisenkott says he sees no tangible war preparations on the Golan and Hermon despite the aggressive rhetoric coming out of Damascus, whereas it is Brig Baidatz’s job to count the missiles coming off Syrian production lines in the northern city of Homs. The volume in Nov. 2006 was 20% greater than the output of Nov. 2005. ...' Ha'Aretz: 'The head of the research division of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Yossi Baidatz, said Sunday that Syrian President Bashar Assad is preparing for a war with Israel. He said that Assad has ordered increased production of long-range missiles and instructed the Syrian army to position its anti-tank missiles closer to the Syrian border with Israel, on the Golan Heights. But, Baidatz told the cabinet, while Assad is "preparing the Syrian army for the possibility of a military conflict with Israel, on the other hand, he is not ruling out the possibility of reaching a political settlement with Israel."' (Debka, Ha'Aretz)

Pakistani islamists rally against women's protection bill. The Muslim Woman: 'The all time controversial Women Protection Bill, which was signed into law last month under the regime of Musharraf has not been welcomed by thousands of Islamic people. They came out with a rally in Karachi to show their objection towards the bill. Nearly, 10,000 supporters of the Islamist parties, chanted slogans of ‘Down with Musharraf’ and ‘Down with the Women Protection Law’ at the rally and demanded the government scrap the law. The law takes the crime of rape out of the sphere of the religious laws, known as the Hudood Ordinances, and puts it under the penal code. Under the Hudood Ordinances, a raped victim was only offered justice if she would be able to produce four male witness otherwise she would have to face the charges of treachery.' (TMW)

Iraqi politicians talk of replacing Maliki. Fox News: 'BAGHDAD, Iraq — Major partners in Iraq's governing coalition are in behind-the-scenes talks to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki amid discontent over his failure to quell raging violence, according to lawmakers involved. The talks are aimed at forming a new parliamentary bloc that would seek to replace the current government and that would likely exclude supporters of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a vehement opponent of the U.S. military presence. The new alliance would be led by senior Shiite politician Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who met with President Bush last week. Al-Hakim, however, was not expected to be the next prime minister because he prefers the role of powerbroker, staying above the grinding day-to-day running of the country.' See also Scott Sullivan's analysis in the commentary section below. (Fox)

Radiation linked to Litvinenko contact. MSNBC: 'HAMBURG, Germany - German investigators have confirmed that a car used by a contact of fatally poisoned ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko before the two men met was contaminated with the rare radioactive substance polonium-210, police said Monday. Still unknown is whether Russian businessman Dmitry Kovtun was involved in the poisoning, or a victim of it. He is reportedly being treated in Moscow for radiation poisoning.' The Telegraph: 'Staff who were working at a hotel bar on the day ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko visited it have tested positive for low levels of the radioactive substance that killed him, it emerged today.' (MSNBC, Telegraph)

Iran student demo pictures. Azarmehr has photos. 'BBC Persian said the demonstrators numbered around 300. Judge for yourself!' (Azarmehr)

Commentary. You know the IRI regime is in bad shape when even Reuters via MSNBC reports on Iranian student protests. Two articles this morning suggest that Ahmadinejad's hold on power - both at home and abroad - may be increasingly tenuous. Scott Sullivan at Persian Journal sees a bleak outlook for the Iranian regime and its apologists in the US:
This perception of an emerging US-Iranian strategic partnership could not be farther from the truth, despite the pro-Iran atmospherics created by James Baker in Washington DC. ...

... for Iran to dominate US-Iran relations, Iran must prevail with its power plays in Iraq, Lebanon, and within the Bush Administration. The reality is that Iran will fall well short of its goals in all three areas.

In Iraq, Iran is seeking to topple the Maliki-Sadr government and put together a new government, under Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's SCIRI (favored by Baker, Rice, and Gates) that would exclude Muqtada al-Sadr (see International Herald Tribune, 10 December 06). An SCIRI government in Iraq is not going to happen. Muqtada and his political party are too popular to be excluded altogether from national politics. Moreover, Hakim would be forced to rely on the Kurdish parties for this new government, which would command only a narrow base in Iraqi politics and would exclude all the major Sunni groups as well as al-Sadr. To put it another way, a SCIRI-Kurdish government will have a short life in the event it is ever established, which is against the odds. An SCIRI defeat in Iraq, as with a Hezbollah defeat in Lebanon, would represent an acute embarrassment for Iran and would substantially diminish Iran's diplomatic clout in the region and in bilateral relations with the US.

In Lebanon, the Hezbollah party, backed by Iran, faces growing internal and international resistance to its power grab. Most recently, Saudi Arabia and China are putting markers down against Hezbollah unilateralism. This means Hezbollah will have to learn the art of compromise with other parties if it, along with its Iranian sponsors, is to remain a viable force in Lebanon's politics.

In the US, James Baker is also falling short in his efforts to turn US policy decisively in a pro-Iran direction by means of his report on Iraq. ...

Amir Taheri writes in Arab News:
The first election will be for local government authorities throughout Iran, deciding the fate of thousands of village and town councils that provide the day-to-day interface of the Khomeinist regime with citizens.

At present, the various radical Khomeinist factions that supported Ahmadinejad in the last presidential election control only a third of all local government authorities. The more conservative and business-connected factions, led by former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, control a further 25 percent while the rest have majorities of independents and/or regional groupings that are always open to new alliances.

Ahmadinejad had hoped to win a majority of the local government authorities for two reasons. First, he counted on a low turnout that always favors the more radical Khomeinist candidates. Four years ago, Ahmadinejad won control of the Tehran Municipal Council, the largest local government in Iran, and became mayor of the capital, in an election that attracted only 15 percent of the qualified voters.

The second reason that Ahmadinejad had in mind was the possibility of forging a broad alliance of all radical revolutionary factions while the more conservative groups led by Rafsanjani and former Majlis Speaker Ayatollah Mahdi Karrubi appeared unable to unite.

With just days before polling, however, both of Ahmadinejad's calculations appear in doubt. The conservative and moderate groups have abandoned an earlier strategy to boycott the election and presented lists of candidates in more than half of the constituencies. The opposition groups acting outside the regime have also toned down their calls for boycott. Thus, the turnout may be higher than Ahmadinejad had hoped. A higher turnout could mean more middle class voters going to the polls to counterbalance the peasants and the urban poor who constitute the president's electoral base.

Taheri explains that
The two sets of elections are important not because they reflect the true wishes of the Iranian people. Elections in the Islamic republic are more like primaries within the same party in the United States. Also, since all election results could eventually be cancelled by the Council of the Guardians or the "Supreme Guide", the possibility of genuine opposition figures coming to power through elections is almost nil.

Nevertheless, elections in the Islamic republic must be treated as important for two reasons. The first is that they provide a more or les accurate picture of the relative strength of the various rival factions within the regime, thus providing an insight into the current mood of he ruling elite. The second is that the "Supreme Guide" and his security services could arrange every election in a way to reflect the new mood and open the way for policy changes.

Sullivan concludes that 'Iran is overestimating its position in Iraq, Lebanon, and the US. As a result, Iran is overestimating its ability to force concessions from the US and US allies. Instead, Iran could soon find itself bogged down with problems in both Iraq and Lebanon and vulnerable to pressure from the US.' 'A setback for Ahmadinejad in the two elections,' says Taheri, '...would provide a warning to Ahmadinejad not to become too big for his boots, either at home or abroad. It would be interesting to see how Ahmadinejad and his radical base might respond to their first major setback at a crucial time.'