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By now you know that a Russian military kangaroo court sentenced Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov and Ukrainian civic activist Oleksandr Kolchenko to, respectively, 20 and 10 years imprisonment on trumped-up charges of terrorism. Amnesty International and other human rights groups immediately responded with protests, while Amnesty’s press secretary in Ukraine compared the trial to Stalinist show trials.

How to Destroy a City in Five Minutes

You don’t need a weapon of mass destruction to ruin a city.

Well, maybe sometimes you do. You’re not getting rid of New York City without one. But some of the world’s cities are so vulnerable, so precariously perched above an abyss, that a single bloodthirsty nutjob with a rifle can bring it to its knees in a matter of minutes.

Look at Tunisia’s resort city of Sousse on the Mediterranean. Two months ago, an ISIS-inspired nutcase named Seifeddine Rezgui strolled up the beach with a Kalashnikov in his hand and murdered 38 people, most of them tourists from Britain.

The police shot him, of course. There was never going to be any other ending than that one. And before the police arrived, local Tunisians formed a protective human shield around Rezgui’s would-be foreign victims. “Kill us! Kill us, not these people!” shouted Mohamed Amine. According to survivor John Yeoman, hotel staff members charged the gunman and said, “We won’t let you through. You’ll have to go through us.”

Tunisia’s hospitality and customer service are deservedly legendary, but that was truly above and beyond. It’s how Tunisia rolls, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Tourists are not going back.

A few still wander around here and there, but the locals are calling them ghosts. Who else lives in a ghost town but ghosts?

Hotels are laying off workers. Shops are empty and many will have to be closed. The city is reeling with feelings of guilt and anxiety. Guilt because one of their own murdered guests, the gravest possible offense against the ancient Arab code of hospitality, and anxiety because—what now? How will the city survive? How will all the laid-off workers earn a living with their industry on its back? Sousse without tourists is like Hollywood without movies and Detroit without automobile manufacturing.

Even Tunisia’s agriculture economy is crashing. Prices are down by 35 percent because the resorts don’t need to feed tourists anymore.

Rezgui’s ghoulish attack was spectacularly successful, wasn’t it? A single act of violence and—boom. Just like that, it’s all over.

Tunisians can still hang out in Sousse when they have some leisure time, but why should foreigners go there on holiday when they can go to Morocco instead? And if a couple of freakjobs shoot a bunch of tourists in Morocco, that country, too, could go into a tailspin. Why go there for a Mediterranean holiday when you could go to Spain, Malta, Corsica, or Croatia? Europeans who want to go farther afield can fly down to Key West, the Azores, or Bermuda. 

When it’s stable, Tunisia is a wonderful place for Westerners. The southern half of the country is quintessentially North African while the coast is startlingly European. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say the coast is Mediterranean. With a few exceptions (Gaza, Libya, and to a lesser extent Egypt), the European and Africans sides of the Mediterranean are two halves of a coherent whole. 

Only when you move inland and away from the sea do the unique characteristics of each nation-state fully assert themselves. Coastal Morocco is a lot like Spain, partly because southern Spain is a lot like Morocco. Beirut is an Arabic-speaking version of Tel Aviv. Istanbul is a Greek city inhabited by Turks while Athens is an Ottoman city where Greeks dwell. Coastal Tunisia feels like an Arabic-speaking province of France without the clash between natives and immigrants.

A French person who holidays in Sousse will feel as eerily at home as a Californian in Cabo San Lucas.

There’s a lot to love about Sousse. It’s an Arab city to emulate. If only Egyptians and Saudis and Iraqis could see this place, I thought to myself when I first got there, they’d see what’s possible in their own countries.

And that’s precisely why the likes of ISIS want to destroy it. ISIS isn’t gunning for Mecca. It is not targeting the Taliban-ruled parts of Afghanistan. It wants to swallow as much as it can, of course, but it can’t tolerate anything in the Muslim world that reminds people like me of a decadent infidel nation like France.

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Thousands of Tunisians have run off to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Tunisians are, in fact, overrepresented in ISIS’s ranks.

Don’t get the wrong idea. It’s not because ISIS is popular in Tunisia. It’s not because Tunisians are more Islamist than people everywhere else. The democratically-elected government is composed of a staunchly secular coalition that spans the political spectrum from the socialist left to the moderate right.

Tunisia is the one Arab Spring success story. There is no chance it will voluntarily transform itself into anything resembling a Taliban state. The only Arab country less likely to rally around the ISIS flag is Lebanon, and that’s because a third of Lebanon’s people are Christians.

So if you live in Tunisia and yearn for that sort of thing, you have to go somewhere else.

Most of Tunisia’s ISIS members come from the same town anyway, a nasty place called Kasserine that I vowed to never visit again even before it became the ISIS factory that it is now.

Some countries suffer from brain drain. Their best and brightest emigrate to gentler and more prosperous lands when they can flourish. Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Egypt—these places are all suffering from spectacular levels of brain drain.

Tunisia, meanwhile, is experiencing psychopath drain.

But some of its home-grown psychopaths are sticking around, and it’s extraordinary what just a handful can do. If they blew up their home town of Kasserine, hardly anybody would notice or care, but massacring people in Sousse is like massacring people in Miami. Americans by and large aren’t familiar with Sousse because it’s far away on a strange continent, but it’s a short hop for Europeans and Arabs and is as well-known on that side of the Atlantic as Cancun is on this side.

I’ve visited Sousse three times, first with my wife, then with my friend and occasional traveling companion Sean LaFreniere, and again with my colleague Armin Rosen.

A few years ago, in the early days of Tunisia’s democracy, Sean and I had dinner at an old French restaurant near the beach. The place was packed, the food outstanding, the bill tiny. I looked around the restaurant and saw bottles of red wine atop almost every table. None of the women were covered. The mood was care-free and light, airy and full of laugher. We could have been in France, but I heard no language in that restaurant but Arabic.

You can find restaurants like that one in Jordan, but they’re almost all attached to hotels and nearly all the patrons are foreign. In Sousse, though, Sean and I were perhaps the only foreigners, not because tourists were afraid to visit back then but because we were there in the winter, during the off season.

I’ve been almost everywhere in that country more than once. It felt solid. Kick the walls if you want. They won’t buckle. It will not come apart like Syria, Iraq or Libya. It was obvious from the very beginning that, post-Arab Spring, Tunisia would not explode in civil war like Syria, rupture into fragments like Libya, or devolve into another police state like Egypt. It sure as hell wouldn’t go the way of Afghanistan. That was clear.

“If the Islamists want to Talibanize this place,” I said to Sean as he sipped from his glass of Johnny Walker at that delightful restaurant in Sousse, “they’ll have to kill half the population in order to do it.”

He froze after I said that. I didn’t ask what he was thinking at that moment, and I doubt he’d remember if I asked him—this was years ago—but he clearly felt a chill. I felt a chill, too. And I remember what I thought when I felt it: The bastards will probably try.

Reversals in Burma's Democratic Reform

Burma’s president, Thein Sein, once said he could imagine Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader, as president of Burma. “If the people accept her, I will have to accept her,” he told an interviewer in September 2012. It was a remarkable statement from a former general whose military persecuted Aung San Suu Kyi for decades after her National League for Democracy party was prevented from taking office after its landslide 1990 electoral victory. At the time of his comments, Thein Sein was leading Burma in what appeared to be an exciting, if tentative political opening. Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from house arrest. In 2012, she and her party swept by-elections, giving them a toehold in the Parliament. 

Anti-Donbas Sentiment Growing in Ukraine

Is Ukrainian public opinion turning toward getting rid of the Russian-occupied Donbas enclave?

The evidence is beginning to look persuasive. A year ago, the suggestion that Ukraine would be better off without the Russian-occupied bits of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces provoked cries of treason. No more. The view has become legitimate, and it may even be winning the day.

A May 2015 public opinion survey by the Sofia Center for Social Research showed that 61.8 percent of Ukrainians would be willing to give up the occupied territories in exchange for peace. Only 22.9 percent supported continuing military operations until the region’s full liberation. (The survey was not conducted in Crimea or the occupied territories.)

Obama Toughens Stance Against China's 'Fox Hunt'

On Monday, Beijing revealed that the US had demanded it withdraw agents from American soil.

The revelation came on the same day of a CNN report saying US officials had confirmed that they had told China to stop covert operations in the US aimed at pressuring Chinese citizens to return to China.

The activity, part of Beijing’s “Fox Hunt” and “Sky Net” operations, was illegal, Washington reportedly told Chinese officials. CNN’s confirmation followed New York Times reporting on the topic Sunday.

The Price of American Diplomacy in Cuba

If you watched the American Embassy’s reopening ceremony in Cuba on television, or saw some of the photographs, you may have noticed dozens of bare flagpoles in the background.

There’s a story behind that.

After the US and Cuba dissolved relations during the Cold War, the former American Embassy building became the US Interests Section.

Not a lot went on in that building since our two nations didn’t have normal relations, but even mutually hostile governments have to talk to each other once in a while, especially if they’re neighbors, so the US posted diplomatic staff there.

And in 2006, they created a gigantic electronic billboard in the windows of the building to broadcast messages to the Cuban population outside. They quoted some terrific people.

 “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent” – Abraham Lincoln

“Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.” – Frank Zappa

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”—Universal Declaration on Human Rights

According to the Wall Street Journal, the billboard even pointed out that Forbes listed Fidel Castro as the seventh-richest head of state in the world. The guy is worth 900 million dollars while the wages of his miserable subjects are capped at twenty dollars a month.

You can imagine how well that went over down there. The whole thing enraged Castro. Remember, he and his brother Raul own all the newspapers in Cuba. You can’t buy the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or The Economist down there. Google News doesn’t exist either because private Internet access is outlawed.

If you want to read something, you’re stuck with the Granma, the Communist Party daily, or Rebel Youth, the magazine written by the elderly walking dead for the island’s young people who’ll go to prison if they rebel or even complain.

So yeah, Castro hated that billboard at what’s now the American Embassy. How dare the United States quote Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. So he erected 138 black flags in front of the building so the people of Cuba couldn’t see it.

In 2009, Barack Obama pulled the plug on it.

Let’s get one thing out of the way here. Barack Obama is not best friends forever with Fidel Castro. He does not prefer a tyrannical regime to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. He pulled the plug because he wanted to improve relations with Cuba, and that billboard got in the way.

Fine. But it creates a bit of a quandary, doesn’t it? How does it look from the Cuban street if the United States government is all chummy with the government that kicks them in the ass every day?

Maybe it’s fine. Honestly, I don’t know. You won’t encounter much if any hostility from Cubans toward Americans if you go down there like I did. The same was true of the communist bloc in Europe during the Cold War.

Remember the 1979 revolution in Iran? Anti-Americanism was rampant there then. Why? Because the United States was all chummy with the tyrannical regime of the Shah Reza Pahlavi. Iran is still hostile more than a third of a century later.

And let’s not forget that Cuban anti-Americanism of yesteryear was the result of the United States government being all chummy with the previous dictator, Fulgencio Batista.

Sometimes you have to choose between having good relations with a nation’s government or good relations with a nation’s people. When dealing with awful regimes, you generally have to pick one or another.

There are exceptions. The US gets along just fine with both the government and the people of Vietnam right now despite the fact that Vietnam is still ruled by a one-party state that calls itself communist. Perhaps the same can happen in Cuba after a while. I have no idea, really.

Either way, I rather doubt the people of Cuba enjoyed having their access to Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln denied. Because they certainly aren’t getting inspiring messages from Fidel or Raul Castro.

Putin Destroys Tons of Food Imports. What's Next?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s wanton destruction of hundreds of tons of Western food products has provoked a storm of criticism.

The outrage is justified, but, no less important, his bizarre behavior gives us an opportunity to test some of the theories that have been applied to Russia’s behavior in the last two years.

Start with realism, the theory of geopolitics, national interests, and hard facts, as preached by John Mearsheimer, Henry Kissinger, and Stephen Cohen.

Realism explains Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine as a defensive measure made in response to NATO enlargement and American instigation and/or support of Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution. The West supposedly tried to wrest Ukraine from Russia’s legitimate sphere of interests, and Russia had no choice but to defend itself by playing hardball in Ukraine.

Shortsighted on Cuba

On Friday, the US took another step in its pursuit of normalized relations with Cuba. Fifty-four years after President Eisenhower broke off relations with the Castro regime in 1961, the American flag was raised over the re-opened US Embassy in Havana in a ceremony attended by Secretary of State John F. Kerry and Cuban officials. The US side excluded Cuban democracy activists. Kerry explained in an interview on the Telemundo television network that the dissidents were “not invited … quite openly” “because that is a government-to-government moment, with very limited space, by the way, which is why we are having the reception later in the day, in which we can have a cross section of civil society, including some dissidents.” Of course, it’s possible that the Obama administration never considered including activists and dissidents, and it has not released the guest list.

The American Flag Flies Again Over Cuba

The American flag was raised over Cuba this weekend for the first time in 54 years at the official reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. Three of the Marines who lowered the flag as young men in 1961 ran it up the flagpole as old men.

Diplomatic relations between our two nations have been officially restored.

This is controversial in the United States, to say the least, but look: Cuba is not Iran, and it is not Syria. It certainly isn’t the Islamic State’s psychopathic “caliphate” in Raqqa.

Nothing bad is going to happen to the United States because we’re talking to Cuba again. Cuba is no longer hostile to the United States in any way that could conceivably harm us.

The Castro regime is hostile to ordinary Cubans, though, no doubt about it. It still runs the island as a jailhouse state with by far the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.

Dissidents are routinely arrested and thrown into prison. Those who are eventually sent home live under constant total surveillance. The government stakes out their homes with intelligence agents and even video cameras.

Poverty is enforced by law. The vast majority of citizens are not permitted to earn more than twenty dollars a month unless they work in the tourist sector and get tips from foreigners. They’ll go to prison if they catch and eat a lobster. (All lobsters are strictly reserved for government-owned restaurants that cater to foreigners.) Private Internet access is illegal.

“The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Havana at the embassy’s reopening ceremony, “where people are free to choose their leaders.”

Indeed. And we should be honest about the fact that restoring diplomatic relations will not make that happen.

But it probably won’t stymie it either. Why would it? Cubans will either revolt against the government and bring it down or they won’t. Having diplomatic relations with Tunisia didn’t prevent people from overthrowing the crooked Ben Ali a couple of years ago. Nor did diplomatic relations with South Korea and Taiwan in the early years of the Cold War prevent those countries from transitioning to democracy from military rule.

I visited Cuba in 2013. The economic reforms President Raul Castro has implemented are so marginal that they’re barely even detectable. Cuba is not communist-in-name-only like China and Vietnam. It’s still startlingly old-school.

Economic activity scarcely exists. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, there’s almost nothing to buy. Cubans still live mostly on ration cards. There are no boutique shopping districts, no chain stores, no corporate billboards along the highways and certainly no big-box stores like Target.

Billboards consist entirely of hysterical state propaganda. All newspapers (which is to say, both of them) are owned and controlled by the government. Dialogue doesn’t exist in that country. The state lectures and hectors while everyone else shuts up and listens.

Much of the propaganda is cartoonishly anti-American, but let me tell you: ordinary people hardly ever talk smack about the United States. I didn’t hear a single complaint about we dreaded Yankee imperialists from a single person. On the contrary, Cubans make it abundantly clear that they admire what we have and would like it for themselves. Their attitudes are remarkably mature, and their knowledge of the United States and its political system is surprisingly undistorted considering the fact that they’ve lived in a global media blackout and been served nothing but lies from their own government for more than a half-century.

Let’s just say that they’re a lot more friendly and neighborly than Fidel Castro.

I can’t be sure about this, but I’d wager they’re more pro-American than anyone else in the hemisphere. They’re certainly more pro-American than Mexicans and they’re probably more pro-American than Canadians.

They aren’t more pro-American despite living under a communist regime. They’re more pro-American because they live under a communist regime.

Don’t be surprised. We saw this in Europe. To this day, formerly communist Europe is vastly more pro-American than Western Europe. The only exception is Serbia, partly because the United States went to war against Serbia twice during the genocidal Milosevic era, but mostly because Serbians feel a cultural and political kinship with Russia.

Cuba is not a Caribbean version of Serbia. It’s more like a Caribbean version of Poland that hasn’t yet managed to free itself. If it had a land border with the United States, the regime almost certainly would have collapsed a long time ago. Practically every Cuban on earth would now be living in Florida. The regime should thank God, Marx and Engels that nature provided it with a permanent Berlin Wall in the form of the sea.

So we have an embassy in Havana again, but all is not normal. The embargo is still firmly in place. The White House and the State Department can restore diplomatic relations on their own, but Congress decides whether or not to lift sanctions. And Congress is not in the mood.

The Cuban government, for its part, insists that diplomatic relations will not be fully normalized until after the embargo is history, which is fair enough, actually. Nations with which we have truly normal relations—Canada, Chile, India, Japan and so on—are not being sanctioned by the American government.

It goes without saying that the embargo hasn’t led to democracy in Cuba, though that was not its original purpose. Congress imposed it when Fidel Castro stole millions of dollars in American property after he seized power from Fulgencio Batista. The embargo was partly a punishment, but it was also a way to future-proof American assets from a thieving gangster regime.

The embargo stuck around after the end of the Cold War, though, because it theoretically gave the United States a bit of leverage to bring Cuba’s political system in line with the norms in our hemisphere.

It didn’t work.

So maybe it is time to just scrap it. The government is spectacularly unlikely to steal American property again. Raul Castro’s second priority after keeping himself and his party in power is enriching the island.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Lifting the embargo won’t lead to democracy either. It would help the Cuban economy, and it would give Americans another nearby tourist option, but it would not bring about a regime-change any more than trading with Vietnam and China have led to regime-change in those countries. Lifting the embargo would, however, dissolve whatever leverage Washington might otherwise have in the future.

It would be a little like a surrender on our part. But surrender to what?

Should we do it?

Writers like me are supposed to pretend we have all the answers. I’m sorry to say that I don’t.

The Forward's Dispatch from Iran

The Forward just published the very first dispatch from Iran in a Jewish newspaper that was tolerated by the Iranian government since the revolution in 1979.

The article by Larry Cohler-Esses is interesting and worth reading, but it’s also a bit on the naïve side. Reporting from police states on a journalist visa doesn’t always take nerves of steel (such countries are generally not dangerous places for foreign visitors if permission to work there has been granted), but it does require heavy doses of skepticism.

“Though I had to work with a government fixer and translator,” he writes, “I decided which people I wanted to interview and what I would ask them.”

Perhaps, but he has no way of knowing if the translations are accurate, and meanwhile I know for a fact that both the translator and the fixer reported on him to the government. They were required by law to do so. For all he and I know, they worked for the Ministry of Intelligence.

Regardless, reporters should never take what police state apparatchiks say at face value, but Cohler-Esses does so more than once.

During the course of my conversations with several senior ayatollahs and prominent political and government officials, it became clear that there is high-placed dissent to the official line against Israel. No one had anything warm to say about the Jewish state. But pressed as to whether it was Israel’s policies or its very existence to which they objected, several were adamant: It’s Israel’s policies. Others, notwithstanding their ideological objection to a Jewish state, made it clear they would accept a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians if the Palestinians were to negotiate one and approve it in a referendum.

You really have to read between the lines on this stuff.

First of all, anyone and everyone in Iran who talks to an American journalist flanked by an official fixer and translator knows that every word they utter will be carefully read by the authorities. That’s as true for people inside the government as it is for people on the street. Authoritarian regimes install fear in everyone, including their own officials. Nobody wants to be purged. So who knows what they privately believe? 

Second, political figures even in free countries lie to routinely lie to reporters and say what the intended audience wants to hear. And Iran’s official line right now to Western audiences is that the government is increasingly moderate, reasonable, and flexible. (That’s probably the only reason a reporter from The Forward was given a journalist visa in the first place.)

Anyway, it makes no sense that Iran only objects to Israeli policy. Iranian leaders routinely scream Death to Israel. They also routinely scream Death to America.

Hezbollah in Lebanon likewise shouts Death to Israel and Death to America, and Hezbollah likewise says it’s just objecting to American policies, but come on. The United States government objects to plenty of Mexico’s policies, but not even Donald Trump or Pat Buchanan begins meetings by screaming Death to Mexico or appears at any Death to Mexico rallies.

The United States doesn’t even have Death to Mexico rallies.

But let’s go ahead, for the sake of discussion, and take these relatively moderate statements at face value. Some members of the Iranian government still say they want to destroy Israel.

“We believe that the State of Israel must be changed, corrected and improved,” Ayatollah Ardebili told him, “and if that is not possible, and if the nature of the state does not allow for improvement, then the state must be destroyed.”

So maybe the government really is divided on this question. It’s impossible to say for sure. For all we know, the whole Death to Israel thing is just a big put-on to gain credibility in an Arab world that has been suspicious of Persians for thousands of years.

What I can say with some confidence, however, is that we shouldn’t trust a damn thing anyone in that government says to foreign journalists on the record. We can only trust what they say when they’re being secretly wiretapped, and those conversations rarely if ever get leaked to the press.

Cohler-Esses had some interesting conversations with ordinary Iranians, though. And it’s worth keeping in mind that the Middle East is a place where what’s not said is just as important as the things that are said.

None of the regular people he interviewed expressed the slightest interest in war against the United States or Israel, which should surprise nobody who has followed Iranian public opinion during the last decade or so.

Government dissemblers aside, people in that part of the world almost never conceal feelings of hostility toward Israel. Toward the United States, sometimes, but toward Israel, never. Most Egyptians will proudly tell you they hate Israel and why, but whenever I asked Iraqis what they thought about the Jewish state, most scratched their heads and wondered why I was asking irrelevant questions. Plenty of Lebanese hate Israel and don’t feel the slightest compunction about shouting it from the rooftops, though plenty of others have more…complicated feelings about the so-called Zionist Entity, and some are semi-secret supporters. Tunisians for the most part can’t stand Israel and will gladly tell you about it all day, though in less lurid terms than their Egyptian counterparts.

Hysterical anti-Israel talk has been largely absent on the streets of Iran for some time. The eliminationist warmongering comes almost exclusively from the government, the state-owned media, and the state-managed rallies.

Most Iranians want to live in a normal country that has normal relations with everyone else, but they have no way of making that happen. Publicly criticizing the government has been allowed for a while now, but actually doing something about it is punished severely.

He describes “a dynamic push-and-pull between a theocratic government and its often reluctant and resisting people,” but his own reporting contradicts that somewhat. He himself describes the brutal suppression of dissidents that we have all been grimly aware of since even before the stomped-on Green Revolution in 2009. And he spoke to a woman who was detained by the police simply for showing emotion at the tomb of Cyrus the Great. The guards thought she  “might be associated with some kind of political movement.”

What kind of political movement? Who knows? But the revolutionary regime that seized power in 1979 has been hostile to pre-Islamic Persian history since Day One. Revering the Cyrus the Great, then, might suggest to dogmatic paranoiacs that she’s a supporter of the overthrown monarchy—or any other conceivable movement in Iran that opposes the government. 

And he makes it clear that Jewish life in Iran is sub-awesome.

The Iranian Jewish community, whose members are today free to stay in the country or emigrate, currently numbers anywhere from 9,000 to 20,000, depending on whom you talk to, and down from 80,000 to 100,000 before the revolution. These Jews — along with Christians and Zoroastrians — are tolerated and protected under Iranian law, but subject to a number of discriminatory laws and practices that limit their opportunities for work in senior government posts and in other ways. But they do not limit their opportunities in business.

The Jews, who felt free to complain to me openly about these areas of discrimination, as they do to the government, are basically well-protected second-class citizens.

He mentions that Ayatollah Khamenei’s power trumps that of the elected government, which is true as far as it goes, but he neglects to mention that the government is not really elected. Khamenei hand-picks everyone who gets to run for president.

How democratic would the United States be if Dick Cheney or Barack Obama were president for life and got to hand-pick everyone who ran for office beneath him?

In Iran today, freedom of the press remains a dream. But freedom of tongue has been set loose. I was repeatedly struck by the willingness of Iranians to offer sharp, even withering criticisms of their government on the record, sometimes even happy to be filmed doing so.

That’s also believable and has been happening for some time now. Egypt in the final days of Hosni Mubarak was the same kind of place. So is Cuba today under Raul Castro. I didn’t hear a single Cuban complain about Castro or Che Guevara by name when I visited two years ago, but I heard criticism of “the government” in the abstract from every single person I spoke to on the island.

Not every police state is like North Korea or Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Most of the Iranians he interviewed seem happy about the nuclear deal with the United States because they want sanctions relief, but they’re also skeptical that it will do them much good.

Asked about prospects for the international nuclear agreement, which is coming under angry fire in Iran no less than in the United States, Qaderi told me: “I think it will be implemented. But there will be no improvement for the Iranian people. Our main concern now is freedom!

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In Shiraz, in south-central Iran, Hassan Sha’aeri, a locksmith who appeared to be in his 60s with a shop on Zand Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, told me: “Generally speaking, people are in favor of the agreement. But I personally don’t think it will make any special change in the lives of people. The power holders will not allow it to benefit the people.”

So Cohler-Esses’ naiveté is balanced out to an extent with this sort of reporting. It’s also countered by an accurate analysis of who’s really in charge.

He ably dissects what he calls the Deep State—Khamenei and the instruments of power he controls directly, such as the Revolutionary Guard Corps. It’s the Deep State that executes dissidents, throws demonstrators into prison, and backs Iranian terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Iraq. And the Iranian people, try as they might, have no leverage to stop it, not even when they “elect” a relative moderate.

Let’s hope he doesn’t want to go back there any time soon. The regime might view him and his newspaper as useful, but his work is critical enough—he stresses that freedom of the press is non-existent and that Iran executes more people per capita than almost anywhere else in the world—that the government will probably never let him back in. 

Russia and Ukraine: A Legal Perspective

The following is an interview with Thomas D. Grant, senior research fellow of Wolfson College and senior associate of the Lauterpacht Centre for International Law, both at the University of Cambridge.

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MOTYL: Your recently published book, Aggression against Ukraine, argues that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and war in eastern Ukraine is a challenge to international law and global public order at large. Has Russia effectively destroyed the postwar security architecture in Europe?

China to Build Olympic Site in Nature Reserve

Earlier, outdoor enthusiasts had charged that municipal authorities were planning to build the alpine ski course and sledding tracks in the Songshan National Nature Reserve, considered an “ecological barrier” protecting the urban portion of Beijing from seasonal winds and sand blowing from the north.

Beijing, in its bid documents, apparently told the International Olympic Committee that events would be held adjacent to the sensitive reserve, in the northwest portion of the sprawling Beijing municipality. Yet activists and others, after examining IOC photographs, satellite images, and official Chinese geographic coordinates, determined that the municipality had reserved sites inside Songshan for the Games. Censors took down blog postings on the matter.

A Wave of Attacks Across Turkey

Turkey is rapidly becoming one of the most interesting countries in the Middle East, and not in a good way.

A terrorist organization called the People’s Defense Unit detonated a car bomb at a police station in Istanbul. The Kurdish PKK blew up an armored police vehicle and shot and killed a soldier flying in a military helicopter.

And the Revolutionary People's Liberation Party–Front (DHKP-C) attacked the US consulate in Istanbul.

None of these organizations are affiliated with ISIS. They aren’t even Islamist. They are all radical leftists.

The People’s Defense Unit is a brand-new organization, but the DHKP-C has been around for decades. They’re hardcore Maoists of the old school variety and would be a laughing stock if they didn’t kill people. They splintered off from the Revolutionary Way in 1978, which had splintered off from the Turkish People’s Liberation Party-Front, which had splintered off the Revolutionary Youth Federation.

So yes, the United States was just attacked by communists. In 2015.

And lest you confuse this organization with the quasi-communist Kurdish PKK—which is somewhat pro-American now since we’re sort of helping their allies in Syria—the DHKP-C is not a Kurdish movement and has nothing to do with the Kurdish struggles against the governments of Iraq, Syria, Iran, or Turkey. This crowd thinks the Turkish state is an arm of “American imperialism” in the region and would therefore like to annihilate it.

It’s still 1978 as far as they are concerned—not that the Turkish state was an arm of “American imperialism” back then either.

Five days ago the English language edition of the Daily Sabah reported that 335 people were arrested across Turkey in raids against ISIS, the PKK, and the DHKP-C. Today’s attacks, presumably then, were retaliatory.

So Turkey is now at war with leftists and totalitarian Islamists simultaneously. A few years back, a Hurriyet Daily News editorial bluntly stated that “the ‘No problems with neighbors’ foreign policy strategy of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu unfortunately evolved in the past year into a ‘No friends’ reality.” It’s even worse for Turkey today.

The Turks would be well-advised to make a no-bullshit effort to close the Kurdish file and wrap up that problem once and for all so it join the rest of the world against ISIS, but the government would rather double down and set the country on fire. It will be interesting to watch. From a distance.

Hard to believe that Turkey was once a serious candidate for European Union admission. Its largest city is mostly in Europe and much of the country feels quasi-European the way that Russia does, but it’s a crossroads nation that has all the problems of the Mediterranean region, all the problems of the Balkan Pensinula, and all the problems of the Middle East simultaneously.

Turkey’s Parallel War

Fighting between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) is heating up again after a two-year hiatus. In late July, the PKK murdered two Turkish policemen in their homes, and Turkish warplanes bombed PKK positions across the border in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds is officially off.

Which means Turkey is less likely than ever to help the rest of the world cope with ISIS.

It has been obvious for a while now that Turkey implicitly sides with ISIS against Syria’s Kurds since the Kurdish militias there are on side with the PKK. Less understood is that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is also hammering the Kurds for purely domestic political reasons.

He’s doing everything he can to transform Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to an “enhanced” presidential system, and if he pulls it off he’ll wield most of the power. Think of him as a wannabe elected Roman dictator or Hugo Chavez shorn of the Marxism.

“Erdoğan is accustomed to winning,” Claire Berlinski writes in Politico. “Since the 2002 general election that brought his AKP to power, he has defeated rival after rival, imprisoned military officer after military officer, prosecuted journalist after journalist, tear-gassed protest after protest; and — most importantly — won election after election.”

Recently, though, he hit an obstacle—the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a united coalition of Kurdish nationalists that spans the political spectrum from the radical left to the socially conservative right. They united and won enough seats to derail Erdogan’s plans, handing his AKP its first parliamentary loss in thirteen years.

Plenty of Kurds voted for Erdogan in past elections, but one of the reasons the HDP won this time is because they know as well as the rest of us that Erdogan is implicitly siding with ISIS in Syria.

HDP party co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş is a reasonable and moderate man. He eschews the violence waged against the Turkish state by the PKK. No matter. Erdogan has him in the crosshairs, not because he’s a terrorist but because he won’t sign off on an “enhanced” presidency.

Berlinski lived in Istanbul for years and has forgotten more about the ins-and-outs of Turkey's Byzantine politics than most of the rest of us put together will ever know.

By Turkish law, if no coalition is formed before August 23, snap elections must be held — a “re-run,” as Erdoğan has termed it. So he has until then to correct the Peoples’ Will. As the Turkish economist Emre Deliveli has pointed out, data from 2007-2015 shows, quite strikingly, that support for the AKP rises after episodes of political violence.

So if you look at it from Erdoğan’s perspective — it’s all about the Palace — Demirtaş has to go. The easiest way to ensure that is to fracture the Kurdish vote: make sure Kurds grasp they must choose between Demirtaş and chaos. Smear the HDP with charges that they and the PKK are one. Whip up nationalist rage (it is not hard to do, in Turkey). That may help recoup the 2.5 to 3 percent of the vote the AKP lost to the nationalist MHP on June 7 as well.

After the election, Burhan Kuzu, one of Erdogan’s advisors, said “Yes, the election is over. The people have decided. I said ‘Either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos. May it bring happiness.”

Erdogan’s party, as Berlinski notes, is now delivering chaos.

The Kurds voted for a party that eschews violence, but they’re not getting peace, not in Syria and not in Turkey.

The Turkish-Kurdish civil war has lasted more than three decades. More than 40,000 people have already been killed. If this spins out of control again—and it easily could—NATO member Turkey will become even more hostile to our only ally in Syria capable of taking on ISIS.

Wherever this is heading, it will not bring happiness.

Moscow’s Info War in Sweden

Last week brought the news of a most alarming discovery off the Swedish coast: a sunken Russian submarine. Given the Swedish Navy’s unsuccessful hunt for a suspected Russian submarine last fall, it was perhaps inevitable that the discovery—made by a private diving company and first reported by the tabloid Expressen—should generate massive international headlines.

The Swedish Navy soon declared that the vessel was an imperial Russian submarine that had sunk off the Swedish coast in 1916, but by that time, Russian media had a field day with the discovery. “Sweden finally gets their Russian sub (but it’s 100 years old) [sic],” declared Sputnik. “Ghosts of Russian submarines continue to haunt Sweden,” reported RT.

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