May 19, 2017

Posted by orrinj at 6:24 PM


The Islamic Republic Is Heading for an Identity Crisis : As Iranians go to the polls, the divide between the country's octogenarian ayatollahs and its young population is wider than ever. (ARTHUR MACMILLAN, MAY 19, 2017, Foreign Policy)

Raisi, a 56-year-old cleric whose graying beard and dour demeanor make him look much older, would likely herald another era of isolation. His clerical credentials appeal to the pious -- he was taught at seminary college by the now-supreme leader. Raisi, however, is a political novice; he appeared wooden in the televised debates. Like Rouhani, he has a history of high-ranking official positions -- but this includes posts where he approved death sentences, including thousands of political prisoners killed in the 1980s. Iranians do not forget such a past, and Rouhani was not afraid to point it out. "The people of Iran shall once again announce that they don't approve of those who only called for executions and jail throughout the last 38 years," he said on May 8. [...]

Raisi's economic strategy also appears to be drawn from Ahmadinejad's disastrous playbook.Raisi's economic strategy also appears to be drawn from Ahmadinejad's disastrous playbook. His campaign promise to triple state handouts to the nation's poorest is a direct copy of the former president. During Ahmadinejad's administration, such payments proved ill-directed, took inflation above 40 percent, and set Iran on a path toward bankruptcy.

But the hard-line camp appears deaf to the economic and political lessons from this episode. The popular backlash to Ahmadinejad's policies, which were seen as impoverishing regular Iranians while enriching a small elite, were severe. The hard-line camp lost the presidency to Rouhani in 2013, and its candidates were again routed in last year's parliamentary elections following the nuclear deal.

A pro-Raisi rally in a Tehran prayer hall on May 16 underlined that there has not been any recognition, let alone a reckoning, among hard-liners on the causes for their electoral defeats. A video at the event showed women in black robes firing rocket-propelled grenades -- propaganda that is a far cry from the peaceful engagement that Rouhani espouses. The president may say that Iran is not a danger to any country, but missiles that carry slogans pledging to wipe Israel off the map suggest otherwise.

The talk at the Raisi rally was of problems caused by outsiders. There was no acceptance among the crowd that the nuclear agreement was necessary only because the covert elements of Iran's atomic and missile programs led to sanctions in the first place. Such displays of revolutionary dogma play well among the converted, but it is the votes of the unconvinced that Raisi needs on polling day.

More basic differences between the moderate reformists and hard-line camps illustrate Iran's fundamental divides. While pro-Rouhani events have seen smiling mothers and daughters in colorful headscarves working side by side with men, Raisi's gatherings have seen strict gender segregation and near uniformity among women, mainly older, of the head-to-toe black chador. While loud music is often played at reformist rallies to keep the crowd happy, an austere atmosphere akin to a sermon prevails when conservatives meet. One campaign has spoken of future hopes, the other complains about the past.

Such constraints are becoming untenable. Just as the internet can no longer be banned -- the hard-liners' campaigns embraced Telegram and other mobile channels this year -- basic changes in Iran's population cannot be ignored. While the ruling elite emphasizes the "Islamic" in the Islamic Republic, fewer people than ever are going to the mosque. Most of the young population -- two-thirds of Iranians are under 30 -- want an iPhone more than a Quran. Yet they are ultimately ruled by old men, the most powerful of which are almost all octogenarian ayatollahs.

Posted by orrinj at 6:12 PM


Between Trump and his national security adviser lie 'ferocious' internal politics (Jake Tapper, May 19, 2017, CNN)

"It can be difficult to advise the President effectively given his seemingly short attention span and propensity to be easily distracted," a source knowledgeable about McMaster's day-to-day challenges told CNN.

The source added that McMaster's task -- being an honest broker of various national security options for the President -- is further complicated by fears on the National Security Council that Trump can be reckless with sensitive information.

"You can't say what not to say," the source said of Trump, "because that will then be one of the first things he'll say."

Posted by orrinj at 5:55 PM


Trump-Russia probe now includes possible cover-up, Congress is told (MATTHEW SCHOFIELD AND LESLEY CLARK, 5/19/17, McClatchy)

Investigators into Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential elections are now also probing whether White House officials have engaged in a cover-up, according to members of Congress who were briefed Friday by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

That avenue of investigation was added in recent weeks after assertions by former FBI Director James Comey that President Donald Trump had tried to dissuade him from pressing an investigation into the actions of Trump's first national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, members of Congress said, though it was not clear whom that part of the probe might target.

Even as members of Congress were mulling over the expansion of the case into possible cover-up, and its reclassification from counterintelligence to criminal, the scandal appeared to grow. The Washington Post reported Friday afternoon that federal investigators were looking at a senior White House official as a "significant person of interest." The article did not identify the official, though it noted that the person was "someone close to the president."

Posted by orrinj at 5:02 PM


What Does it Mean to Be a Species? ( Ben Panko, 5/19/17, SMITHSONIAN.COM )

For Charles Darwin, "species" was an undefinable term, "one arbitrarily given for the sake of convenience to a set of individuals closely resembling each other." That hasn't stopped scientists in the 150 years since then from trying, however. When scientists today sit down to study a new form of life, they apply any number of more than 70 definitions of what constitutes a species--and each helps get at a different aspect of what makes organisms distinct.

In a way, this plethora of definitions helps prove Darwin's point: The idea of a species is ultimately a human construct. [...]

Perhaps the most classic definition is a group of organisms that can breed with each other to produce fertile offspring, an idea originally set forth in 1942 by evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr. While elegant in its simplicity, this concept has since come under fire by biologists, who argue that it didn't apply to many organisms, such as single-celled ones that reproduce asexually, or those that have been shown to breed with other distinct organisms to create hybrids.

Posted by orrinj at 4:33 PM


Trump Told Russians That Firing 'Nut Job' Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation (MATT APUZZO, MAGGIE HABERMAN and MATTHEW ROSENBERGMAY 19, 2017, NY Times)

President Trump told Russian officials in the Oval Office this month that firing the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, had relieved "great pressure" on him, according to a document summarizing the meeting.

"I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job," Mr. Trump said, according to the document, which was read to The New York Times by an American official. "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."

Can he ever just shut up?

Posted by orrinj at 4:21 PM


Yemen's Houthis say fired ballistic missile toward Saudi capital (Reuters, 5/19/17)

Yemen's armed Houthi movement said on Friday it had fired a ballistic missile toward the Saudi capital Riyadh, just ahead of U.S. President Donald Trump's visit to Saudi Arabia, but the claim could not immediately be confirmed.

Posted by orrinj at 12:19 PM


Huge turnout as Iranians deliver verdict on Rouhani (ERIC RANDOLPH AND ALI NOORANI,  May 19, 2017, AFP)

There was a festive atmosphere in Tehran where Rouhani, a 68-year-old moderate cleric who spearheaded a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, was mobbed by cheering supporters as he cast his ballot in a mosque in the city center.

"The enthusiastic participation of Iranians in the election reinforces our national power and security," he said, as polling stations reported morning queues were far bigger than usual.

Rouhani, who has framed the vote as a choice between greater civil liberties and "extremism", faces stiff competition from hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi, 56, who has positioned himself as a defender of the poor and called for a much tougher line with the West.

Posted by orrinj at 4:37 AM


What James Comey Told Me About Donald Trump (Benjamin Wittes  Thursday, May 18, 2017, LawFare)

The principal source for the rest of this story is, well, me--specifically a long interview I gave to reporter Michael Schmidt on Friday about my conversations with FBI Director James Comey over the last few months, and particularly about one such conversation that took place on March 27 over lunch in Comey's FBI office.

This story breaks hard on the heels of this week's revelation--also by the Times--that Trump had asked Comey to bury the investigation of Gen. Michael Flynn. A few words of elaboration are in order.

I called Schmidt Friday morning after reading his earlier story, which ran the previous evening, about Comey's dinner with President Trump and the President's demands at that dinner for a vow of loyalty. Schmidt had reported that Trump requested that Comey commit to personal loyalty to the President, and that Comey declined, telling the President that he would always have Comey's "honesty." When I read Schmidt's account, I immediately understood certain things Comey had said to me over the previous few months in a different, and frankly more menacing, light. While I am not in the habit of discussing with reporters my confidential communications with friends, I decided that the things Comey had told me needed to be made public.

As I told Schmidt, I did not act in any sense at Comey's request. The information I provided, however, dovetails neatly with the Times's subsequent discovery of the personal confrontation described above between Comey and the President over investigative inquiries and inquiries directly to the Bureau from the White House. 

I did this interview on the record because the President that morning was already issuing threatening tweets suggesting that Comey was leaking things, and I didn't want any room for misunderstanding that any kind of leak had taken place with respect to the information I was providing. There was no leak from Comey, no leak from anyone else at the FBI, and no leak from anyone outside of the bureau either--just conversations between friends, the contents of which one friend is now disclosing. For the same reason, I insisted that Schmidt record the conversation and give me a copy of the recording, so that we had a good record of what was said: both what was said by Comey as reported by me, and what was said by me about the conversation. Schmidt and I have had a few clarifying phone calls since then that were not recorded.