IRAN: TENSIONS SOAR
-BIG PICTURE…Tensions between the U.S. and Iran haven’t been this high since the days of the hostage crisis and Khomeini’s ascendancy; and today, into an already toxic brew, the Iranians have added a death sentence for an American and a significant ratcheting-up of the nuclear program.
-NUCLEAR PROGRAM: WHERE’S THE TIPPING POINT?…Diplomats confirm to the AP this morning that Iran has begun uranium enrichment at the “Fordo bunker,” a site deep under a mountain near the Shiite Muslim holy city of Qom. They say Iranian centrifuges are churning out 20 percent uranium that can be turned easily into warhead material. Western experts says uranium that pure is not necessary for power plants – and therefore can only be seen as a step towards a bomb. The new facility is buried deep underground on a well-defended military site and is considered far more resistant to airstrikes than the existing enrichment site at Natanz, limiting what Israeli officials, in particular, consider an important deterrent to Iran’s nuclear aims. Key questions raised here: where’s the so-called “red line” or tipping point for Israel – when that country would attack these sites? And for the U.S.? What does the new, better-defended site mean for any military effort to strike at the program? And – bigger picture: Are the sanctions and outside pressure driving Ahmadinejad and others to a harder line?
-AMERICAN SENTENCED TO DEATH…In the midst of all this, a 28-year-old American man of Iranian descent, Amir Mirza Hekmati, has been sentenced to death in Iran for spying for the CIA. He was arrested in December and accused of receiving training at U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hekmati was born in Arizona. His family is of Iranian origin. His father, who lives in Michigan, said his son is not a CIA spy and was visiting his grandmothers in Iran when he was arrested. Iran has aired a televised confession, denounced by Washington, in which Hekmati said he worked for a New York-based video game company designing games to manipulate public opinion in the Middle East on behalf of U.S. intelligence. “Amir Mirza Hekmati was sentenced to death…for cooperating with the hostile country America and spying for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency),” ISNA news agency quoted a judiciary spokesman as saying. Our stringer in Tehran, Afshin ABTAHI, advises that the State Department has asked for our Swiss representatives to meet with Hekmati a number of times, and been denied. He has the right to an appeal in 20 days’ time.
-NO GOOD WILL FROM U.S. NAVY RESCUE?…Iran’s defense minister downplayed the importance of last week’s American rescue of Iranian sailors saying, “This issue does not provide any reason for legitimacy of the US troops’ presence in the Persian Gulf region…We do not reject the good nature of the work by the US navy; however, that cannot provide any reason for the presence of western forces in the Persian Gulf region.”
-AHMADINEJAD LOOKS FOR FRIENDS IN LATIN AMERICA…Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is to meet today with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as part of a four-nation Latin American tour designed to show off Iran’s relationship with its allies as tensions grown over its nuclear program.
-SYRIA…Alex MARQUARDT reports: The Arab League mission that has been plagued by criticism will continue and be augmented, following an emergency meeting yesterday in Cairo. The League’s committee on Syria “has decided to give Arab League observers the necessary time to continue their mission according to the protocol,” it said, while calling on “the Syrian government and all armed groups to immediately stop all acts of violence”. The question of including the UN is still undecided.
-YEMEN: IMMUNITY FOR THE DICTATOR?…A draft law has been approved by Yemen’s cabinet that would give outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh and those who worked under him immunity. Immunity for Saleh and his family was part of the GCC deal, but this goes well beyond that to include “those who worked with him, including in civilian, military and security institutions during the period of his presidency.” MARQUARDT again: This will naturally infuriate the many who want to see Saleh and his cohorts on trial. The parliament has to officially approve the law; Saleh is to hand over power to his VP on Feb. 21.
-MUBARAK TRIAL…Family members of victims killed in Egypt’s uprising last year are expected to speak in court today as the trial of ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak continues. Mubarak’s complicity in ordering the killing of protesters is being scrutinized – and that issue will be the key factor in determining his fate. There is speculation that a verdict could be issued before January 25.
-ANOTHER YEAR…A report out today from Amnesty International warns of another year of protests and government repression in the Middle East if the region’s rulers do not ensure democratic and human rights for their people. The report on the 2011 Arab uprisings details harsh crackdowns and notes that activists appear unlikely to give up their demands.
STILL IN THE MIDEAST…SESAME STREET, MONEY + AND POLITICS
The Palestinian version of Sesame Street – known as Sharaa Simsim – has been put on hold for 2012 after Congress froze nearly $200million of USAID’s budget following the Palestinian efforts to gain international recognition. The executive producer say the actors are looking for work elsewhere and that Palestinian children will now miss out on “things like friendship and tolerance, mutual respect, respecting the other, sharing. Things that are part and parcel of the Sesame ethos.” Meanwhile, the Israeli version has started shooting with $750,000 in US funding.
Pakistan holds a hearing today on the now-infamous “memogate” incident, in which the country’s civilian government allegedly asked for American help in stopping a possible coup by the Pakistani military shortly after the American raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The New York Times profiles the former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, who was forced to resign from his post under pressure from the military over the memo. He insists he had nothing to do with the document.
EURO-CRISIS: “MERKOZY” MEETING
French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet in Berlin today to discuss the new fiscal stability treaty for the Eurozone agreed upon last month.
NIGERIA ON STRIKE
The BBC reports Nigerian unions have launched a nationwide strike today over the elimination of a government fuel subsidy. Nigeria is Africa’s largest oil exporter, but analysts don’t expect the strike to significantly affect crude oil prices.
U.S. AUTOMAKERS POISED TO TAKE ON JAPAN
As press previews begin today in Detroit for the North American International Auto Show, watch for the Big Three automakers to introduce new models, designed to take on Japan’s dominance in the midsize car market. The Wall Street Journal reports Chrysler will present the Dart, Ford will unveil a highly anticipated redesign of its Fusion sedan and GM is countering with the Cadillac ATS, a small sporty sedan designed to go head-to-head with BMW AG’s 3 Series.
HAPPY 30th BIRTHDAY, DUCHESS OF CAMBRIDGE
Royal followers are clamoring for details on how the Duchess of Cambridge will ring in her 30th birthday today, but the palace isn’t saying much. All we know is that she’ll spend the day with close friends and family. Just last night, she and Prince William took in the London premier of “War Horse.” As she celebrates, the Daily Mail reports she’ll gain a new title as well: Honorary Colonel in the military.
ROYAL MURDER: VILLAGE ACCUSTOMED TO ROYALTY, NOT MURDER
One day after police identified the body found on Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham estate as that of 17-year-old Alisa Dmitrijeva, USA Today explores the closest village, Anmer, where people are more accustomed to royalty than murder. Only 63 people live in the village, many of whom work on the royal estate, and many are shocked that such a crime could take place in their midst.
EVEN THE POPE USES WIKIPEDIA
The Guardian reports the Vatican used Wikipedia to write biographies of the 22 new cardinals appointed Friday. The biographies, sent to journalists, were cut and pasted from Wikipedia’s Italian language site without attribution. Journalists were tipped off when they noticed the new cardinals were repeatedly referred to as “Catholic” – which seems pretty obvious.
COFFEE PRICES HEADED UP?
There is a lull in supplies of arabica beans, the most widely consumed variety of coffee, after rain damaged output in Colombia and Central America. The Wall Street Journal notes that roasters have two options: pay up for the beans (March futures are already up $1, this price will trickle down to consumers) or start mixing more heavily with a less-expensive, more bitter variety that consumers may not like as much.
TARGET CHINA (I): WEIGHT WATCHERS LOOKS TO CHINA
With New Year’s Resolutions come new customers and Weight Watchers has introduced its first male spokesperson to lure more men to the scale: Charles Barkley. Their other target for 2012? China. The company predicts obesity rates will rise with income level.
TARGET CHINA II: WINE INDUSTRY GOES AFTER CHINA
The Wall Street Journal reports that Weight Watchers isn’t the only company going after China. The wine industry is setting its sights on China ahead of the region’s most important holiday: Chinese New Year.
UPDATE ON CHINA’S LUXE WHEELS
We noted last week that Rolls-Royce sold more cars in China than anywhere else in the world. Today, the LA Times reports that public outrage is growing at the conspicuous consumption – particularly, the $15 billion automobile industry. Armed with cellphone cameras, Chinese have started posting photographs on a microblog called “Anti-Official Cars Extravagance.”
LEOPARD MAULS VILLAGERS