Israel and Iran: posturing or something more sinister?

So, Israeli shows off its fighter jets. Iran responds by test-firing missiles twice. Israel unveils new spy plane.

Is this just posturing between old enemies, or is this a very strong warning from both sides that we could be on the brink of a new war, one that involves two states? Does Israel, or does Iran, have anything to gain from war?

The answer, to my mind, is no. A definite: Iran will not strike first. If they do so, I think they immediately lose any support they could hope for from Moscow or Beijing. As for Israel, an attack would make life very difficult for Washington, which is opposed to military force as the first solution in dealing with Iran — and it would give John McCain, and perhaps moreso Barack Obama, headaches.

It would probably scupper plans of Senator Obama’s to talk directly, without preconditions, to President Ahmadinejad of Iran — he would lose Jewish support (or whatever is left of it, since he’s still stressing he will speak with Iran) in a hurry. The U.S. would support Israel at the UN, probably reluctantly, but they can’t afford to be seen as leaving their allies in the lurch.

As for the current standoff, this has already triggered new conflict between Washington and Moscow, over Washington’s planned missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington says Iran’s test proves the need for them to protect their interests in Europe; Moscow says Iran’s test proves that their missiles do not have the range to threaten Europe and the U.S. shield is an aggressive act against Russia.

In the world of tense relations between two great superpowers — and between two Middle Eastern states each of the superpowers back to an extent — I think the answer is, you’ll never know what is going to happen until it happens.

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Iranian MPs’ “Death to America” chant — how will Sen. Obama and McCain react?

Iran speaker warns nuclear agency — BBC News

Iran’s new parliament speaker has warned that it could set limits on future co-operation with the United Nation’s nuclear agency, the IAEA.

Former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani said parts of the agency’s latest report on Tehran’s nuclear programme had been “deceitful” and “ambiguous”.

Addressing parliament in a speech broadcast live on radio, Mr Larijani accused the IAEA of secretly sharing information about the Iranian nuclear file with Tehran’s critics in the UN security council.

“Parliament will not allow that such deceptions are made,” Mr Larijani said.

“If they continue along this path, the new parliament will intervene in the case and set a new line for co-operation with the IAEA.”

The comments drew chants of “God is great” and “Death to America” from the audience of MPs.

Senator John McCain has consistently attacked Senator Barack Obama over his continual commitment and promise to speak “without preconditions” to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has in the past called the U.S.’ main Middle East ally, Israel, a “stinking corpse” which should be “wiped off the map”. Sen McCain has also accused Iran of killing American service personnel in Iraq.

Today, as above, Iranian MPs have started speaking about “Death to America”. Does Sen Obama really want to talk to the leader of a country whose members of parliament — and President Ahmadinehad himself might harbour similar, if less explicit, feelings — want Americans dead? How will the two camps react to this? Will they let it slip past? Will Sen McCain take the opportunity to hit Barack Obama? Or will we see Sen Obama speaking out against this — which would be a first?

Pew study: If Obama is candidate, some Dems may vote McCain

Was reading Justin Webb‘s latest blog post today, and he links to a National Journal article which in turn cites a recent Pew Research Center study, dated February 28, 2008:

Summary of Findings: Obama Has The Lead, But Potential Problems Too

I found this bit particularly interesting:

Although attention has been focused on McCain’s problems with the GOP base, there are indications that some Democrats might defect if Obama is the party’s nominee. Overall, 20% of white Democratic voters say they would vote for McCain if Obama is the Democratic nominee. That is twice the percentage of white Democrats who say they would support McCain in a Clinton-McCain matchup. Older Democrats (ages 65 and older), lower-income and less educated Democrats also would support McCain at higher levels if Obama rather than Clinton is the party’s nominee.

Justin Webb asks if this is “Racism or educationism?”

It’s a good question and tough to call. I would, personally, argue that less-educated people (not just Democrats) would be more susceptible to making racially-based judgements, so it’s probably a little bit of both. Then again, is it really a surprise? What the study does not consider (or at least, was not considered in the published report) is the widespread concern (yes, there is one) that Sen Obama, with his flawless poise, could go the way of two people he has been compared to – Dr Martin Luther King Jr and former President John F. Kennedy. It is still possible that out of concern for him, some people would rather vote Sen McCain over Sen Obama.

Other interesting findings include one about Sen McCain’s age:

Nearly a third of all voters (32%) believe that, at 71 years old, McCain is too old to be president, while 66% say that being 71 does not make him too old. Opinions about whether McCain is too old to be president are comparable with views about Bob Dole during the 1996 campaign. In March 1996, 34% said Dole, who would have been 73 upon inauguration, was too old, while 63% said he was not.

Arguably Sen McCain would be a single-term president at his age. However, surely you should be judging people based on whether they’re qualified for the job or not? My personal opinion is that Sen McCain is more qualified than Sen Obama, and I would hope his age doesn’t count against him. Even a single-term presidency for Sen McCain would be better than a half-term for Sen Obama, especially when we start talking about foreign affairs and the War in Iraq – which I will get to now.

Pew findings about War in Iraq
(Graphic: Pew Research Center)

This certainly suggests that the American public do feel that things are improving in Iraq. Since the military troop surge, security and safety in Iraq has improved slightly. Although suicide bombings and kidnappings continue, they certainly are not at the rate as they were in 2004.

If you ask most Iraqis, many of them want the Americans to stay put. Some of them, including the government in Baghdad, want the Americans to help with Iraq’s development. Others say the U.S. should finish what it started in a “you came here and wrecked this place, you stay here and clean it up” kind of way.

On last week’s BBC Radio 4 From Our Own Correspondent programme, the BBC’s Hugh Sykes in Baghdad interviewed Baghdad residents over the electricity issue – there is just not enough power in the country. And, as with any report about Iraq, the story touched on terrorism. One respondent told him, “If America leaves, there will be a massacre.”

That’s where the American Presidential race comes back into play. As we all know, both Sens Obama and Clinton want troops out of Iraq and have promised to start withdrawing troops if elected. Sen McCain backed the troop surge and would likely keep a fairly sizeable number of forces stationed in the country.

It’s the United States that is maintaining security in the region right now, not Iraq. If the U.S. withdraw, widespread violence could easily spill over into neighbouring countries, and the price of oil – already at a record high $109 – could easily spike further. It appears to me Sen Obama and Sen Clinton are oblivious to this.

Back to the Pew study. Sen Obama, very obviously, has the lead; the report says “70% of Democratic voters — including 52% of those who support Clinton — say that Obama is most likely to win the Democratic presidential nomination.” Unfortunately for the Democrats, with Florida and Michigan both making noise now and senior leaders unlikely to want to alienate voters in both states, this contest is, in truth, far from over…

Elections in Malaysia, Spain, France, U.S. and Iran

Quite a weekend this has turned out to be, and the week ahead bears more elections to come. There’s been elections in Malaysia, Spain, France, and in the U.S. state of Wyoming, while tomorrow there will be primaries in Mississippi and Iran will hold parliamentary elections on Friday.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi’s ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, won the general elections but suffered a major setback as they lost their parliamentary majority for the first time since independence in 1957, leading to his predecessor, Tun Dr Mahatir Mohamad, to call on Mr Badawi to resign. However, Mr Badawi has since been sworn in for a new term as PM.

BBC News: Malaysian prime minister sworn in

His Spanish counterpart, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, fared similarly in Spanish polls. Despite his Socialist Party hanging on to power, Mr Zapatero’s team failed to gain enough seats in Parliament for an absolute parliamentary majority. Across the border in France, however, there was a different story in local elections. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP has taken a hit from the opposition Socialists and is currently trailing in the first round of elections. This vote is the first real chance for the French people to judge Mr Sarkozy, and it appears that his constant appearances in the press about his private life has lost his party support and votes.

BBC News: Socialists win Spanish elections
BBC News: Poll setback for Sarkozy’s party

On to the continuing race for the Democratic nomination for the United States Presidency. On March 8, Democratic caucuses were held in Wyoming. Senator Barack Obama convincingly won the vote, by 23 percentage points, picking up seven delegates in the process to Sen Hillary Clinton’s five. This win is crucial for Sen Obama as it takes some wind out of Sen Clinton’s three wins on March 4. Also, this was his first real test following the departure of a key foreign policy adviser, Samantha Power, over comments she made calling Sen Clinton a “monster”. He appears to have survived his aide’s outburst.

BBC News: Obama defeats Clinton in Wyoming

Tomorrow, the two candidates will once again go head-to-head in the Mississippi primaries, which will provide 33 pledged delegates. The Republicans will also hold a primary, although that will (excuse the poor pun) primarily be a voting exercise, as Sen John McCain has already won his party’s nomination and has no real challengers left in the race. Mrs Clinton will be looking to win tomorrow to avoid Sen Obama picking up new steam.

And finally, to Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be looking for a strong mandate in parliamentary elections this Friday, ahead of next year’s presidential elections. As always, this election will be a fight between the hardliners and the reformists. If Mr Ahmadinejad’s hardliners win well, as they are expected to do (many reformist candidates have been disqualified), it will be a sign that the nuclear issue is nowhere close to being solved.

Iran vote may strengthen Ahmadinejad

Jyllands-Posten does it again

Oh boy, here we go again.

The BBC reports that Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten has reprinted the Prophet Mohammed cartoons from 2006 following arrests in the past few days of people alleged to be planning attacks against the cartoonists of the said cartoons.

Free speech? Sure. But when people will die over it, as they did last time? This is going too far.
It’s time for the politicians in Copenhagen to step in and say that “That’s enough, stop it.”

First suicide bombing in 13 months kills three Israelis

This is still very much a developing story from about 90 to 120 minutes ago.

Reports are coming in from Dimona, Israel, of a suicide bombing at a shopping centre in the town, killing at least three Israeli civilians. This is the first suicide bombing in Israel since January 2007. Police are saying two bombers were involved, but only one was successful.

There has as yet been no claims of responsibility. Five other people were injured in the bombing. CNN’s Ben Wedeman told CNN International earlier that the blast took place close to where it is suspected Israel has a nuclear reactor, however it has not caused any damage to the reactor and there has not been a leak.

More updates from the BBC or CNN.

UPDATE: The Fatah-linked al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Pentagon says US killed Iraqi civilians

The United States has admitted that its troops killed nine civilians in Iskandariya, Iraq, in an air strike on Saturday. Among the dead, it admitted, was one child, with two other children and an adult injured. The statement did not give specific details, except to say “the incident is under investigation”.

Will post link(s) to official statement(s) when it is/they are put online.