Idealism vs reality in Central Asian transport arrangements

Deirdre Tynan reports on Eurasia Insight that the Central Asian route of supply for the American war project in Afghanistan isn’t working as planned. Welcome to the real world of Central Asia. What’s most interesting in the article is the statement that the best route of supply is through Iran. Yes, that much has been true all along. Iran is the best route of access into Afghanistan (along with Pakistan) but because the Iranian government (lets not say the Iranians) is so obnoxious. RLC [Click on the title for a link to the source.]

Eurasia Insight:
Deirdre Tynan: 7/23/09

The Northern Distribution Network, an American-assembled logistical pipeline designed to ease and expand the flow of supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan, is off to a lackluster start.

The land routes for the delivery of non-military goods from Europe to Afghanistan via Central Asia provided just over 250 containers between June 5 and July 14. That total is far short of the number originally envisioned by military planners. During a Senate hearing in March, Gen. Duncan McNabb, the head of TRANSCOM, the military’s transport wing, predicted that the NDN would transport “hundreds of containers” per day.

In June and July, according to publicly available data, only seven containers a day on average were arriving in Afghanistan via the NDN. A commercial source, speaking on condition of anonymity, characterized the performance as “ridiculous.” Railway experts have also questioned whether the Uzbek rail route, which crosses the Afghan border at Termez-Hairaton, is capable of handling the amount of traffic envisioned by the US military and its allies.

David Brice, an international rail consultant who made recommendations on upgrading the capacity of Hairatan two years ago, said the depot remains under-equipped to deal with a large volume of traffic. “There will certainly be a capacity problem in the Termez-Hairatan section, which two years ago was handling its full capacity of three or four trains daily without the US traffic,” Brice said.

… . “The ideal route for this traffic would be deep sea via Bandar Abbas and the new Iranian rail line being built from Sangan to Herat. It’s a massive problem, though, due to the current political tension between the United States and Iran.”

… Given the complexities of overland operations, an air-transit deal for arms and military equipment, struck by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow in early July, appears to be an important breakthrough. However, America’s partners in the region say similar arrangements with the United States have not been negotiated.

Daniyar Mukataev, a spokesman for the Kazakh Ministry of Transport and Communications said, “There are no agreements or talks between Kazakhstan and the United States on the transit of military cargoes through the territory of Kazakhstan. …

Some regional observers suggest the United States may have underestimated the complexities, both political and logistical, of establishing the NDN. “We have to realize that this network implies crossing of the borders of several states and every transit country is looking out for its own material interests,” said Andrei Grozin, the director of the Central Asia Department at the CIS Institute in Moscow.

….Central Asian leaders publicly express concern about the security threats originating from Afghanistan, but, although they don’t say so openly, the NDN is also seen as a lucrative opportunity, Grozin said. “The United States understands that for solving its geopolitical and other problems, it has to pay,” he added.

But many experts are asking: is Washington overpaying? Several indicators would seem to suggest that the Pentagon’s tendency to throw money at the problem is not producing desired results. Not only is the rail network not delivering as expected, financially speaking it’s shaping up as something of a boondoggle.

Russian and Uzbek companies are reorganizing their structures to take maximum advantage of the Pentagon’s commercial approach to the NDN. In a move designed to get the network up and running quickly, defense officials eased tender rules to allow for lucrative contracts to be granted with no competitive oversight. That has seemed to stimulate a feeding frenzy among regional transport entities.

Editor’s Note: Deirdre Tynan is a freelance journalist who specializes in Central Asian affairs.

Iran’s Embarrassing Abuse of Its Own: Mullah Abtahi

Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal today provides “before and after” pictures of Muhammad Ali Abtahi that seem to reveal how much weight Abtahi has lost in prison. Abtahi holds the rank of Khojat ul Islam, second only to the rank of Ayatullah, and was a Vice President of Iran under former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami. Since being out of office Abtahi himself has been a familiar figure, as he blogged about affairs in Iran. As he is well connected his stories of conversations among the religious elite in Iran provide a glimpse of what that secluded world is like.

Owing to his involvement in the demonstrations against the regime he has been detained in an Iranian prison for nearly two months. He is now the poster boy for the regime’s claim that the election on June 12 was not rigged. His statement in court claims that the ring leaders of the opposition had been planning their activities for years Of course the regime’s claim that this is Abtahi’s personal statement is spurious. Who would suppose that after many weeks in prison and a loss of about a fifth of his weight Abtahi would come to this view on his own? Yes, he has lost more than 40 pounds. He is short and weighed at least 200 pounds when he visited us here in St Louis a couple years ago (a guest of Covenant Seminary, during which time he paid a visit to Washington University), so a loss of that much weight in so few days comes to about two or three pounds a day for over 20 days. Whatever they are doing to him includes starvation. Have a look at Fassihi’s photos and his report:

To conceal the truth Iran brutalizes and humiliates the family of its most famous victim

The actual results of the election in Iran is no longer the point in the struggle between the opposition and the government, owing to the behavior of the government. The response of the government has been [a] to deny any need for a serious recount [instead it offers to recount only a few of the precincts, and even then selectively], [b] to bully the public into submission, and [c] to claim that the whole affair was created by outsiders. Total denial.

Repressive regimes flaunt their lunacy. To make sure the Iranian government embarrassed its own claims to legitimacy it publicly dismantled all semblance of concern for its own citizenry by the way it treated the family of Neda Soltan. Neda’s offense was to allow herself to be murdered by Iran’s paramilitary Basij in front of the cameras of her friends — and so to become the world-renown emblem of Iranian repression. The family was then forced to suffer further owing to Neda’s “offense”. Here is The Guardian’s report on how the Iranian government treated Neda’s family:

Neda Soltan’s family ‘forced out of home’ by Iranian authorities

> The family were banned from mourning and funeral services were cancelled. “The Iranian authorities have ordered the family of Neda Agha Soltan out of their Tehran home after shocking images of her death were circulated around the world.”

> In accordance with Persian tradition, the family had put up a mourning announcement and attached a black banner to the building. But the police took them down, refusing to allow the family to show any signs of mourning. The next day they were ordered to move out.

> Since then, neighbors have received suspicious calls warning them not to discuss her death with anyone and not to make any protest.

> A neighbor said her own family had not slept for days because of the oppressive presence of the Basij militia, were were “in the area harassing people since Soltan’s death.” “We are trembling,” another neighbor said. “We are still afraid. We haven’t had a peaceful time in the last days, let alone her family. Nobody was allowed to console her family, they were alone, they were under arrest and their daughter was just killed. I can’t imagine how painful it was for them. Her friends came to console her family but the police didn’t let them in and forced them to disperse and arrested some of them. Neda’s family were not even given a quiet moment to grieve.”

> Another man said “Neda’s family was forced to be alone, otherwise the whole of Iran would gather here,” he said. “The government is terrible, they are even accusing pro-Mousavi people of killing Neda and have just written in their websites that Neda is a Basiji (government militia) martyr. That’s ridiculous – if that’s true why don’t they let her family hold any funeral or ceremonies? Since the election, you are not able to trust one word from the government.”

> A shop keeper who knew her said, “She was a kind, innocent girl. She treated me well and I appreciated her behaviour. I was surprised when I found out that she was killed by the riot police. … She has been sacrificed for the government’s vote-rigging in the presidential election.”

> The police did not hand the body back to her family. They buried it without the family knowing it.

> The government now accuses protesters of being the killers of Soltan, describing her as a martyr of the Basij militia.

> Also, a pro-government newspaper has blamed the recently expelled BBC correspondent, Jon Leyne, of hiring “thugs” to shoot her so he could make a documentary film.

[Click on the title for a link to the whole article.]

1953: What American’s don’t know and Iranians can’t forget.

Most Americans are proud of their “free press” and their history of great humanitarian achievements, but they are surprisingly ignorant of their own history – at least of the sordid activities of their government, some of them successfully veiled from their own “free press.” As a result, like every other people the Americans have a selective memory of the past. Currently there seems to be a return to stories of World War II, which is recalled as the last “good war” in which Americans participated. What we forget – or in fact, for most Americans, we never knew ‒ are some of the unseemly ventures of our government in other countries. One of those unseemly ventures was what the CIA did in 1953 in Iran: they overturned a duly elected government led by a very popular Prime Minister, Muhammed Mussadegh, by paying goons to create an appearance of public disorder so that Muhammad Reza Shah could be installed as an American client.

In fact, most of us had no idea; the act only became known many years later – at least to Americans; the Iranians came to know it very quickly, and were soon deeply resentful of it. [The tale is well told in Stephen Kinzer’s book, All The Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror.] This affair has loomed in the Iranian public imagination ever since. It was a major factor in the massive revolt against the Shah in 1978 that eventually brought Khomeini to power. The Iranian people supposed that the Americans were behind the abuses – beatings, executions, intimidations, especially by the secret service agency known as SAVAK ‒ that became increasingly common in the 1970s. And the supposition was right, for indeed the Americans had trained SAVAK and funded the Iranian military that kept the Shah in power.

That memory, the sense that America messes with Iran’s internal affairs, is still alive. This is the reason why the Obama administration dares not take sides in the current struggle in Iran, for merely by expressing support for the opposition it will delegitimize it, turn it into ‒ again ‒ a seeming attempt of the American government to overturn a “duly elected” administration. Or at least “duly elected” as the Iranian administration wants everyone to believe but that many now doubt, judging from the demonstrations of outrage in at least the Iranian cities. And now the country’s highest electoral authority, the Guardian Council, admits that the “votes collected in 50 cities surpass the number of people eligible to cast ballots in those areas.” [].

The government would like nothing better than to pin the opposition on American meddling. And accordingly the opposition most urgently desires to avoid any evidence of contamination by American support.

So the dance by all sides – Khameinei and the Iranian administration, the Mousavi-led opposition, the Americans, even the Europeans ‒ has been carefully calibrated in terms of that grotesque unseemly event of the past. As always, the past poisons the present, in this case a past that most Americans never knew and virtually all Iranians will never forget.

Private news on the Iranian regime’s butchery of its own people

My colleague at Washington University in St Louis, Fatemeh Keshavarz, sends out periodical notes on the situation in Iran: WINDOW_ON_IRAN@ARTSCI.WUSTL.EDU. Her latest post, as of this morning, reveals how desperate the situation there is. On it a medical student describes “chaos” in the emergency room in the hospital where he works. Many people were brought in with wounds. Nine died. “Employees were crying till dawn”. “The government moved dead bodies on backs of trucks before we were even able to get their names or other information. What can you even say to the people who don’t even respect the dead. No one was allowed to speak to the wounded.”

Fatemeh says that many people believe the bizarre suicide bombing at the tomb of Khomeini was staged by the government to discredit the opposition. “An unconfirmed report said the bombing was reported on the National TV minutes before it actually happened.”

Contact Fatemeh to see her whole report. [I believe she wants her reports to be distributed, so would be glad to have your name on her mailing list. There is soon to be a blog also.]

An interview with Trend

The situation in Iran now seems beyond repair. I here reproduce an interchange I had with Tatyana Konyayeva, a Correspondent with TREND News Agency in Baku, only becuase so far it doesn’t seem to be unduly out of date.

Q: Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, the chairman of the Votes Security Organization founded by presidential candidate Mir Hosseyn Musavi, stated that there is a need to establish the Justice Search Committee in order to conduct fair and transparent elections. How do you think, such a committee will affect the transparency of the future elections?

A: I know nothing about the committee so nothing I could say would reveal anything significant. The one impression I have, as you also must have, is that the Iranian administration wants the legitimacy of having won an election without actually having allowed a true election to take place. The administration’s behavior reveals that they cannot bear to have the public reject them openly, so they are using violent means to contain the obvious outrage that permeates the society. They want to seem legitimate in “democratic” terms without being willing to subject themselves to an open electoral process. So I presume they would manipulate whatever agency was assigned to oversee the process. Through a private source I know that the announcement of the winner of the election was made before the vote counters had finished counting the votes in at least one place [from one of the vote counters].

Q: The Guardian Council announced the re-count of the ballots at some polling stations. In your opinion, whether the re-count of the ballots will guarantee the transparency of the elections, or nevertheless, the new presidential elections should be arranged?

A: What I said above reveals my opinion: this administration has been generally losing its legitimacy over time. Certain elements in the population are evidently in support of Ahmadenijad. But behind the whole system is a religious pretense that has undermined the general respect of the population for authentic religious faith. The religious “experts” in power have become excessively rich under this system and their abuses now resemble those of the super-rich westernized class allied with the shah in the 1970s, against which the Islamic revolution took place. They pretend to be good Muslims and to allow authentic belief but in fact they brutalize those who reject their faith and want to convert to another faith [for example, Christianity]. As you know, they even try to control ayatullahs who criticize them.

Modern Iran has a history of long periods of stability punctuated by massive public uprisings [early 1900s; 1970s], and if this regime does not relent it will eventually have to deal with a huge public explosion like that of 1978-1979. What should be very disconcerting to many of the mullahs is that among those who are now outraged are some of their own children and grandchildren.

A gas deal between Iran and Pakistan

According to AFP Iran and Pakistan have announced that they are about to sign an agreement to export gas to Pakistan. India was once to be part of the deal but they withdrew from talks about the deal last year. The report says, “The 900-kilometre (560-mile) pipeline is being built between Asalooyeh in southern Iran and Iranshahr near the border with Pakistan and will carry the gas from Iran’s South Pars field.” It says that only 250 kilometers of pipeline was still to be constructed. The infrastructural mechanisms for integrating south Asia and Central Asia is proceeding apace, with large implications. Pakistan’s need for gas will soon be desperate. It will pass through Baluchistan, making a zone of dissidence that is already vital because of its own gas reserves all the most vitally important to the country of Pakistan.

Egregious criminality of the Iranian government

Today, 60 Minutes aired an interview with an Iranian who was imprisoned and tortured in Iran because he was photographed in a demonstration and his picture was placed on the cover of the Economist Magazine. Ahmad Batebi was one of what is believed to be thousands who are held in Iranian prisons for political reasons. Not only that, they torture their prisoners. And they make the process of execution as painful and prolonged as possible.
Batebi reports that when he was in prison they beat him on the feet and back with a cable and beat him on the testicles. When he fainted they slashed his skin and rubbed salt into his wounds.

Other forms of torture that were mentioned by 60 Minutes:
• Hanging by pulling the victims up slowly so their necks would not be broken but would be awake as they strangled to death.
• Partly burying people in the ground before they are stoned by rocks that are not too big so that the victim will die slowly.
The point seems in some cases to be to force confessions and in other cases to terrorize the populace from displaying any dissent.

Wherever such brutal practices take place they deserve the highest condemnation of the world. The claim to be acting on God’s behalf, as the Iranian state avers, adds to the egregiousness of their criminality.

Stratfor’s article on Iran’s concerns about the Taliban

Stratfor has produced a good statement on the problems created by the US attempts to negotiate with “moderate Taliban.” I note, in the statements I have seen by Karzai, that he does not call the people he wants to deal with “moderate Taliban”; he refers to them as authentic Afghans who have some problems with the present situation and are for their own local reasons allied with the Taliban. They can be won over, he says. I’m not sure what real “moderate Taliban” will actually look like; it seems to be a term Americans have invented.

But, as Stratfor points out, the Iranians are not pleased by any overtures to the Taliban. The Iranians and the Taliban / Al Qaeda are more serious enemies than many Americans understand: Allied with the Taliban are Sunni Islamist organizations that believe it is their religious duty to kill Shias, and they have attacked an killed many in Pakistan in recent years. As Stratfor points out, the Taliban killed several Iranian diplomats and a journalist as well as many Hazara Shia in a romp through Mazar-e- Sharif in 1998.

So the Iranians are displeased by the news that Obama might make contact with “moderate Taliban”. At the same time the Saudis are delighted because for one thing their Wahhabi religious ideology is similar to the Taliban and anyway many Saudis have supported the Taliban for years, and for another thing the Saudis are frightened of the Iranians. Iran is a much bigger country and is just across the Persian Gulf. Moreover, the Saudis have a good sized Shia population that happens to be astride most of the Saudi oil fields. And the Shia in Arabia have been restive recently.

All this is a mere overview of affairs in this part of the world: layers of adversaries supported by other layers of adversaries, etc., each with its particular grudges. Another reason for worry is the ignorance of such subtleties that those in the West have who will make policy decisions. It has not been long since various notable politicians, Senators and Congressmen, were accusing Iran of supporting Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Little did they know . . . .

China and Iran: $3.2 billion natural gas deal

LA Times is reporting this deal as if it were a surprise. It has been in the works for years. But it is important, not because it shows how ineffective economic sanctions are (what LATimes makes of the deal), but because it shows how many ways infrastructural investments are tying Eurasia more tightly together, much of it centering on China. Iran’s saber-rattling to the west is pomposity and hubris; its deals with China, India and Pakistan to the east are investments for the future.

For those of us interested in Central Eurasia, this deal is yet one more sign of how strategic Central Asia is becoming. For those of us who would like to assess trends for the future in Eurasia infrastructural developments are a pretty good index of trends that are likely to hold up for a long time. RLC
[click on the title above for a link to the source article.]

Iran signs $3.2-billion natural gas deal with China

By Borzou Daragahi March 15, 2009
Reporting from Beirut –

Iran announced a $3.2-billion natural gas deal with China on Saturday, a move that underscored the difficulty of using economic sanctions to pressure Tehran to bow to Washington’s demands on its nuclear program.

Iranian state television quoted a senior government official as saying the deal with a Chinese consortium, announced two days after the Obama administration renewed U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, would eventually include an unnamed European country as a partner.

Under the three-year deal, China will help develop the South Pars field, a sprawling cavity beneath the Persian Gulf seabed that is part of what geologists describe as the world’s largest natural gas reservoir.

Washington has routinely renewed embargoes on doing industrial-scale business with Iran since the 1990s, even barring foreign companies that do more than $10 million a year of business with the Islamic Republic from operating in the U.S.

Under Washington’s pressure, the French energy giant Total has quietly scaled back plans to develop Iranian gas fields. But many companies still do business with Iran, especially from the rapidly expanding Asian economic and political powerhouses of India and China and in countries with few commercial ties to the U.S., such as Russia.

Iran says it supplies China with 14% of its oil and recently announced that it was signing a $1.3-billion deal for two methanol plants with the Danish firm Haldor Topsoe and a $260-million deal for a tire factory with Italy’s Maire Tecnimont.

On Thursday, the Obama administration extended U.S. sanctions for another year, a move Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad dismissed as “childish.” President Obama has called for talks with Tehran as a way of resolving a years-long dispute over the nature of Iran’s nuclear energy program and its support for Lebanese and Palestinian militant groups opposed to Israel.

Some European officials, frustrated after years of attempts at dialogue with Iran, say that Obama must work harder to coordinate his policies with Moscow and Beijing.

“The big challenge will be to get the Russians and Chinese on board for tougher actions and sanctions once [the Americans] try to engage and fail,” said a Western diplomat in Tehran, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Advocates of sanctions say they keep Tehran’s ambitions in check and its leadership isolated by denying Iran revenue and technical expertise.

But Iranian officials say sanctions hurt mostly ordinary people while convincing all Iranians of the need to forgo Western partners in favor of cultivating their own technological advances. That includes Iran’s controversial drive to master the enrichment of uranium, a process that can be used to produce fuel for a nuclear reactor or fissile material for a bomb.

Los Angeles Times