Nine years ago, former FBI agent Robert Levinson disappeared in Iran while on a mission for the CIA. The story of his secret journey to Iran, the CIA cover-up that followed and efforts to rescue the longest-held U.S. hostage.
The brutal killing of a British soldier in London raises terror alarms. Secretary of State John Kerry meets with Israelis and Palestinians. And the White House acknowledges drone strikes have killed four Americans overseas since 2009. A panel of journalists joins guest host Katty Kay for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Nicole Gaouette diplomatic correspondent at Bloomberg News.
- Geoff Dyer foreign policy correspondent at Financial Times.
- Michael Hirsh chief correspondent at National Journal magazine and author of "At War with Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World."
MS. KATTY KAYThanks for joining us. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. The U.S. announces it will limit the use of armed drones overseas. Russia says Syria will attend Geneva peace talks and U.S. Secretary of State meets with Israelis and Palestinians hoping to revive peace negotiations there.
MS. KATTY KAYJoining me for the international hour of the "Friday News Roundup," Geoff Dyer of the "Financial Times," Nicole Gaouette with Bloomberg News and Michael Hirsh at "The National Journal." The phone number here is 1-800-433-8850, we'll be taking your calls with questions later on in the program. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you can send us a tweet @drshow also with your questions and comments. We'd love to hear from you. All of you, thank you so much for joining me.
MS. NICOLE GAOUETTEThank you.
MR. GEOFF DYERThanks every much.
MR. MICHAEL HIRSHThank you.
KAYIt has been again a busy week, not quite as crazy as it has been on terms of domestic news. But let's start, Michael Hirsh, with President Obama and his speech yesterday, really looking at redefining American national security policy. He did try to reset the policy, what does it actually mean in practice?
HIRSHWell, first it means that we're going to probably see a continuation of what we've already seen, which is a fairly dramatic reduction in drone strikes. From height, if you just look at Pakistan where most of them occur there are about one-tenth as many, from 112 as recorded by the New America Foundation, which tracked these things down to about 12 so far this year.
HIRSHAnd that is reflective of, I think, a new policy and realization by the Obama administration that there's been quite a lot of backlash, a lot of blowback from this. a lot of anti-Americanism particularly in Pakistan and in the Arab world, completely countering what was originally Obama's stated desire, to sort of win back over, you know, the Muslim world in the aftermath of his 2008 election.
HIRSHSo I think you've seen a lot of discussion inside the administration and what the president was saying yesterday, and indeed, he signed an executive order to that effect was that we're going to be much narrower in our definition of who the enemy is and the kinds of enemy potential targets that would elicit a drone strike are going to be far fewer, they're going to reflect people who are clearly with al Qaida, part of an al Qaida effort to target the United States.
HIRSHAnd he didn't come out and say this but implicitly it means, you know, we're not going to be seeing targeting say of lone wolf terrorists of the kind we've seen in recent incidents I think.
KAYNicole, though he did still justify drone strikes even against American citizens if they pose what's being called a continuing imminent threat to the United States but how is that definable?
GAOUETTEWell, that's one of the problems that people have raised in the aftermath of this speech. The president called the strikes legal and effective and necessary in situations where there would be too great of a loss of life if American troops were sent in on the ground. But he is basically asking people to take his word for it.
GAOUETTEThe White House has put together a 16 page memo sort of laying out the legal justification for this. But it's still classified even though it's based on the Constitution of the United States. So there's a certain amount of vagueness that still troubles people.
GAOUETTEThe president also in his speech didn't raise the issue of signature strikes which are drone strikes that are conducted based on patterns of behavior that the people monitoring suspects overseas see. So they're not necessarily identified as a specific individual terrorist that they're seeking but someone who may be is driving in a pickup truck with a gun in the back in odd ways. and that's also an issue that people are concerned about.
KAYGeoff, we know as Michael was suggesting that the drone program under President Obama has caused a huge amount of unease in countries where there are these strikes particularly in Pakistan where it, the fear is that not just that you're creating a new class of militancy but that you're turning middle-class Pakistan is lawyers, journalists, doctors, who could be people who were potentially more pro-American, you're making them more anti-American.
KAYDo you think that this new program, the new limited definition of when they can use drone strikes is going to be appreciated in countries like Pakistan? Will it change public opinion there?
DYERIt will certainly be appreciated by the leadership that he's getting out there and trying to make the case for drone strikes and that was one of the great problems with it, is that everyone knew that what was going on but for such a long time the administration essentially denied that these events were even taking place and made it impossible to actually engage in a discussion with politicians and with the publics in those countries.
DYERBut I'm not sure it's going to do that much to public opinion, there's so much antipathy towards the drone strikes. We saw that in the recent election in Pakistan, it's the same situation in Yemen as well.
KAYAs the antipathy diminished, as Michael points out, the number of strikes have come down or is the dice cast?
DYERI suspect that the whole issue is now so publicized and so firmly ingrained in people's consciousness as being, you know, very negative that there's very little the president can say and sort of trying to tease out the legal framework of the drone strikes that's really going to make a big impact to public opinion.
DYERIt could help make things a little bit easier in dealing with some of the political elites in some of these countries but in the broader public opinion I suspect it won't make too much of an impact.
HIRSHYes, and the larger issue here, Katty, is the president for the first time really talking about an end to this war that began nearly 12 years ago that has been rather ill-defined that many people would say during the Bush administration became sort of absurdly expanded to included Iraq and, you know, all terrorists which essentially portended that it was never going to end because, of course, you're never going to kill off all the terrorists.
HIRSHI think the president and the administration in general have been trying to define down the enemy, as I was suggesting earlier. And really for the first time in that speech yesterday the president talked about an identifiable end to the war at some point coming.
HIRSHNow, we don't know when that will be. I mean, just last week one of his senior officials, Michael Sheehan, is head of Special Operations Defense Department suggested it could on for another 10 to 20 years. So we don't know but it's interesting to see at least the outlines for something that for this entire period since 9/11 we really haven't talked about. When is this over, when does foreign policy get normalized again, basically.
KAYAnd the passage of years is definitely changing things because I remember back in the 2004 campaign when John Kerry tried to use some of this language. He was slammed for doing so politically, it was a real political death knell for him and he couldn't win when he said, "We must have a more nuanced approach to terrorism."
HIRSHAnd just one other point on this, I mean, there's a very specific issue here which is the authorization for the use of military force was something that Congress passed just one week after 9/11. which again, is kind of open-ended, no time limits, no geographic boundaries but it has become an issue on Capitol Hill on both sides of the aisle in terms of whether it will be, you know, indefinitely mandated. So presidents can basically just use force whenever they want.
KAYGeoff, the other part of the speech that of course people around the world were watching very closely was what he said about Guantanamo Bay and plays into this redefinition of America's war on terrorism.
DYERAbsolutely but I think even, as with some of the drone comments, with Guantanamo Bay it's all about execution. Can he follow through? This is obviously not the first time that he has said this.
KAYAnd he recognized the politics are hard.
DYERAnd the reception on Capitol Hill was not entirely negative but there are a lot of, there was a lot of criticism yesterday from very senior Republicans. It's going to be a very hard battle to get this one through and he doesn't necessary have public opinion on his side on this one.
DYERWith the drones issue even though he's getting a lot of criticism from the left and from some people in the military, the public opinion is generally in favor of using drones to go after people who are suspected of being al Qaida leaders. That's absolutely not the case with the Gitmo issue. So he's got some very complicated politics ahead of him if he's going to get this through in his second term.
KAYYes, and Nicole, I mean it struck me although he was, you know, narrowing down the definition of who they could use drone strikes against and in what circumstances, he was still invoking the war in Vietnam. Basically saying, if it comes to a choice between American boots on the ground or American drones in the sky, this president prefers American drones.
GAOUETTEAbsolutely, absolutely and regardless of the political cost. I think he has, as Geoff was saying, a fairly broad public backing for it because this is a country that's war-fatigued and tired of seeing caskets come home. He has backing in Congress for the drones.
GAOUETTEIt's interesting, just to Geoff's point about public support for continuing Guantanamo, the truth is that despite Obama's appeal to Congress he could actually move these prisoners himself. I mean, he could issue an executive order to the Secretary of Defense to have these prisoners moved.
KAYEighty-six of them have already been cleared for transfer.
GAOUETTERight. And he, in his speech, said that he would be willing to send some back to Yemen, a practice he stopped after a Yemeni linked terrorist attempt on an airliner over Detroit. But really the only constituency that's calling for this are liberals like Medea Benjamin, the Code Pink activist who interrupted his speech several times.
KAYHow much of an impact would closing Guantanamo have in terms of public opinion around the world? As the president said, you know, this has become a symbol around the world for an American that doesn't follow the rule of law. It was hugely unpopular in other countries when it was opened. Does Guantanamo still have the same resonance that the drone strikes have?
GAOUETTEI don't think so, but I think it is a sort of a festering sore. I think the damage has been done as Geoff said about the drones. They've been there for too long, certainly in the countries where people are waiting for people to come home. It's a very painful and live issue.
KAYGeoff, I just want to get to this story that's coming out of Britain, touching on terrorism. Two men have been arrested after RAF typhoon jets were launched to escort a passenger plane traveling from Pakistan to the United Kingdom. What more do we know about this story?
DYERWell, it's still somewhat confusing reports coming out but it does appear to have been some sort of threat of a bomb on the plane and that's what caused it to be, you know, this intervention. But at this stage we don't know exactly what was said, how it was said, what the nature of the threat is, it's still very tentative at the moment.
KAYThe plane had been due to travel from Lahore in Pakistan to Manchester in England and it was diverted?
DYERExactly, yes and so it landed, I believe at Stansted Airport in London after being escorted by the jets.
KAYMy understanding is that Britain has two airports, Stansted Airport and then Prestwick Airport up in Scotland which are the kind of designated airports for tense, potentially hostage, hijacking type situations and that this plane was taken there. does anyone else have anymore, I know that this story is just coming in.
GAOUETTEI know that the plane was diverted 10 minutes before it was due to land so it must've been taken quite seriously and especially in the context of the terrorist attack we saw in London earlier. I think people are highly sensitive right now.
KAYOkay, and we will get to that just after this quick break to, of course, that terrorist attack in England to Syria to Israel and Palestine. Secretary Kerry's visit out there. the phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. we'd love to take your questions, do call us and you can also email email@example.com, is the email address. You can send us a tweet @drshow, we are monitoring that as well.
KAYGeoff Dyer of "The Financial Times" is here. Nicole Gaouette, diplomatic correspondent for Bloomberg News is also with me in the studio, as is Michael Hirsh. He's the chief correspondent at "The National Journal" magazine. We'll take your calls, questions and comments in just a moment. For now we're going to take a quick break. stay listening.
KAYWelcome back. I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. Diane is on a station visit to Louisville and she will be back next week on Tuesday. Let's get to this macabre bizarre story that came out of London this week of a British soldier who was hacked to death in broad daylight in Woolwich, which is a suburb in southeast London. Michael, what happened here?
HIRSHWell, we don't exactly know the motivation, even though one of the most bizarre aspects of this terrible incident was that even as it was happening, one of the suspects was allowing himself to be basically videotaped on, I think, the mobile phone camera in which he delivered some political statements indicating why he might have been doing this. You know, it was basically an Islamist sentiment about getting U.S. and British soldiers out of Muslim countries and saying the war would never end, as he put it.
HIRSHShortly after he was recorded saying those words, he and another suspect were shot by British police and taken into custody. So there's not a lot known except that they were both apparently Nigerian born, naturalized British citizens who, at least in the case of the one who appeared on the camera, might have been radicalized relatively recently within the last ten years. It was believed that he was actually raised in a Christian home and then became Muslim and then turned radical Islamist.
HIRSHAnd it also appears that Britain's domestic intelligence agency MI5, you know, was aware of the radicalization of this individual. And the British have been extremely careful in monitoring these types of activities, which is one of the reasons why this was so unusual. It's interesting that in the case of the Boston Marathon bombings, one of the surprising aspects of it was that we had that happen in this country for a long time, an actual bombing since 9/11. And Britain actually has not had anything since 2005, an act of terror like this.
HIRSHSo I think both -- this incident yesterday, like the Boston Marathon bombing was particularly shocking because it just hadn't happened in a while.
KAYIt was so bizarre, the whole thing, Geoff. I mean, the fact that, as Michael was saying, that, I mean, just, you know, grim what they were doing using these kind of machetes and knives to attack this British soldier who has now been named. We know a little bit more about him. And the way they acted after they'd attacked him.
DYERAbsolutely. But I think just to pick up on something that Michael said, that if you leave this medieval violence aside, it's striking the number of parallels there are to the Boston case here. This was individuals who, as Michael said, had been on the radar of the security services but were considered too peripheral to really pay a lot of attention. And from a community, Nigerians in the London case, Chechens in the Boston case that are not the communities that the security services are paying the most attention to.
KAYThey're not traditional radical Islamist communities.
DYERIn the UK most of the attention would be on people of Pakistani origin. That's just the way the security services think about this. Very low tech sort of attack. You know, the police cannot control who buys pressure cookers and certainly can't control who buys machetes. And it's also -- though there are some suggestions there might have been some foreign travel involved for at least one of the individuals to Somalia, at the moment the suggestion is that it is a sort of, you know, lone wolf attack. It's not part of any more organized structured initiative.
DYERAnd so what you're seeing in Britain is now this very anguished complicated conversation about how these individuals could've been radicalized, exactly like the kind of conversation we had after the bombing attack. There was this slightly almost self (unintelligible) in Britain that we'd somehow -- you know, because the police have this now quite sophisticated system of talking to people in mosques and talking to the MMs and getting advanced warning of people who are showing signs of some kind of radicalization, there was this sense that we had worked out in Britain how to deal with these kind of things. I think there's going to be a lot less of that mood now after this attack.
KAYAnd Nicole, I mean, what -- do we know anything, I mean, obviously apart from if there is a motive and we know that they were saying words like (unintelligible) , you know, just before the attacks that they were caught talking about Muslims dying daily by British soldiers on these videos. Was it too -- I mean, there seems to be a deliberate attempt to publicize what they were doing, which is slightly new. I mean the parallels with the lone wolf, I see those, but I haven't seen the reach out to social media. It seems to have almost been a deliberate attempt. We're going to do this. We're going to wait around for the police and in the meantime we're going to kind of give in to these.
GAOUETTEIt was one of the most disturbing aspects of this. I mean, they initially hit the soldier, a young 25-year-old man with a two-year-old boy with a car. They attacked him with the cleavers. And then, as I'm sure many of our listeners have seen, they approached someone -- a woman with a video camera on her telephone and asked if they could give a statement. So it was -- it wasn't just your typical terrorist act. It was committed almost theatrically with the clear intent to get that message out about Muslims dying at the hands of British soldiers to as many people and as public a way as possible.
GAOUETTEThey did not leave the scene. They reportedly asked some of the witnesses around if they had called the police yet and they waited until the police arrived. And as Michael said, shot them in the legs.
KAYMichael, is this, as Britain defines it, an act of terrorism? We were talking earlier about definitions.
HIRSHIt has been so defined. You know, an act of violence that is a political act, political statement targeted on a nation's military is traditionally defined as terrorism. And the British authorities did define it that way. You know, it's interesting that there is a pattern here, which does, I think, cover the Boston Marathon suspects and these individuals yesterday. These are so called lone wolves, most likely who are inspired by perhaps rhetoric on the internet. It's a pattern we've seen going all the way back to, you know, Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter in 2009 who was inspired himself by Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who preached individual acts of violence like this on the internet.
HIRSHThere may be a copycat aspect of this happening so soon after the Boston Marathon bombings. And a general sense of frustration that one hears among many Muslims, and not just radicalized Muslims, an unease about U.S., Western, British forces in Muslim countries. I think there's a common pattern here and I could not be surprised if we saw more attempted acts of violence like this by individualized radicalized (word?) .
KAYNichole, we should say that immediately after this attack the British Muslim Council came out and absolutely condemned it, as have other British Muslim groups since Lee Rigby was killed.
GAOUETTEThat's right. And we also saw anti-Muslim groups come out that had to be contained by the police. I just would like to add, it does seem very much like a lone wolf or a small cell attack. But overnight there have been reports that the police raided two houses and have taken other people into custody. So there may be more to this that we'll yet learn.
KAYVery interesting. Let's go to the phones and to Athens, Ohio. Michael, you have joined "The Diane Rehm Show. You have a question for the panel.
MICHAELYes. I understand that the drone program may be transferred to the Pentagon as far as continuation. And I'm wondering, who has oversight of such a program? And the reason I'm asking is because ever since about six months prior to the surge in Iraq, through Appalachia from the Great Lakes down to the Florida Panhandle, the military has used this space out here very lightly -- commercial space as training space for these missions.
MICHAELYou can see lots of Xs and over flights in the sky. It was very heavy at first and it's tapered off mow. But I've had problems with the guys -- I mean, those trajectories, they're set by people on the ground. It's not like pilots are calling out to each other over a cell phone, hey let's make an X mark over the courthouse or something. And, I mean, I've had guys almost, you know, drop a helicopter on my house just fooling around, you know. And the public officials out here are very weak-kneed and gutless as far as trying to, hey what are you doing, you know.
KAYMichael, I mean, you get to an interesting point though which is something that President Obama raised in his speech and in the shift of the drones being moved out of the CIA and into the Pentagon's command, Geoff Dyer. And I'm wondering what different that makes in practical terms. I know that it's seen as an important shift to get the CIA out of the paramilitary business. In terms of the actual strikes themselves and the impact that they have on the communities they drop on, whether it's a helicopter nearly falling on Michael's house and all, but certainly in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Does it make a difference to those people who has command of this?
DYERWell, this is one of the announcements from yesterday that might be a little bit less than meets the eye. What the White House actually said was that the Pentagon will be, by and large, the lead agency in operating drone strikes. It doesn't say that the CIA will not be doing any drone strikes at all. So that still leaves open the very open question about whether CIA will be running operations in Pakistan, which is where they have been the most prominent. And that question was answered.
DYERAnd the second thing is that in theory, while under the Pentagon, it might be a little more transparent. The drone operations are run by a very, very secretive branch of the military, and they don't give a huge amount of information either about what's going on. So we might not find out a great deal more about drone strikes, even if they are completely transferred to the Pentagon.
KAYYeah, Nichole, I mean, if you were living in the Swat Valley in northeast Pakistan, does it make much difference to you whether it's the Pentagon or the CIA that's ordered that drone that's just dropped something on your house?
GAOUETTEI would think absolutely not. I mean, it's just death raining down from the sky with more than 3,300 deaths in Pakistan alone so far.
HIRSHYeah, and in Pakistan, because we're not at war with Pakistan -- the U.S. that is -- and because formally it's an ally, it will probably remain a CIA-run covert program. But this is an attempt -- and it's a big effort by John Brennan actually, the new CIA director, who has made quite clear, since he went over from being counterterrorism coordinator at the White House to running the CIA, that he wants to turn the CIA back to its traditional role as a gatherer of intelligence and traditional espionage as opposed to paramilitary activities like this.
HIRSHBut I do think it's part of this general effort to try to really restrict the rules and the criteria that are used for drone strikes. I think Obama has been genuinely bothered by the backlash, as we were saying earlier.
KAYAnd the constitutional lawyer in him perhaps will (unintelligible) as well. We've got this from Charles who writes to us from Kalamazoo in Michigan. "Two days ago the Justice Department declassified some information regarding the deaths of four Americans in drone strikes. I was aware of these three and while Anwar al-Awlaki who was targeted, another American man who was with him and Mr. al-Awlaki's son who was killed accidentally in the latest strike. DOJ released the name of a fourth man who I had heard nothing of. Who was he and why and when was he killed?" Geoff.
DYERI believe this was (unintelligible) to Mr. Mohammad, I think is the fourth member who had been -- some suggestions that he might've been killed in a drone strike. But, he's still -- I think was on an FBI wanted list even two days ago. So he was the one individual, there was a lot less clarify about what had happened to him.
KAYEither of you.
HIRSHYeah, there really has not been much information coming out about him at all. So we're still...
KAYI mean, actually the fact that the DOJ released the names of these four people at all and admitted that four Americans had been killed had been the main news of that. But, you're right, we hadn't heard very much about the fourth man.
HIRSHI mean, I think the point here was not just to add transparency, as Obama keeps saying rhetorically. I think they were also trying to make the point that, look we know there's been a lot of debate about killing Americans overseas, but there have only been four that have actually been targeted. Which I think is an accurate number.
KAYI'm Katty Kay of the BBC. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, do call 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number here. You can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org as well or send us a Tweet at drshow. Let's go to Syria now, because there has been quite a lot of news. And we've had news coming in this morning that the Russians have announced that the Syrian government has agreed to participate in international peace talks in Geneva. We had the foreign minister Lavrov saying that just this morning, Nicole. How significant is this?
GAOUETTEIt's a step forward, but it's not clear they're actually going to get to these talks because the opposition, which has been meeting in Istanbul right now still hasn't agreed to go. They have established a couple of conditions they have and they have expressed some concerns that it's not clear who will attend the conference, what the goal is, what the agenda will be. they have also said that they will not participate until Assad resigns. And the military wing of the opposition has said they don't want to participate until the U.S. starts giving them heavier weaponry, antiaircraft equipment, antitank equipment.
GAOUETTESecretary Kerry who is right now in the Middle East and will be going on to Africa, has added onto his trip a stop in Paris where he will meet the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss this. And I would assume try and move things forward a little bit.
KAYGeoff, are you skeptical about the chances for this peace conference ever taking place?
DYERWell, I think everyone is a little bit skeptical but, as she said, I mean, this is a step forward the fact that, you know, the Russians are saying this so publicly, that the Syrian government will be there. But there is this question about the opposition, this meeting in Istanbul does seem to have shown that it's still deeply divided, even as to who's in control. Definitely very divided about what sort of ideas they want to put forward, their very competing plans within the opposition. And so it's still not at all clear that this meeting will really coalesce, that it'll really happen.
KAYAnd Michael, meanwhile on the ground we do seem to see the Assad regime making some important military advances over the last week or two.
HIRSHYeah, and I think that's one reason why this peace conference will likely go nowhere, even if all of the most important participants in the civil war agree to attend, because I don't think that there has been a clear enough military resolution here. Even as, you know, this conflict which has cost more than 80,000 lives continues to spill over the borders and really endanger the region and the integrity of some -- not such Syria itself but some of the surrounding states like Lebanon, you've had, you know, what remains pretty much a military stalemate.
HIRSHSo I think that's usually the kind of thing that undercuts a successful peace conference. If you have -- you know, if you had some kind of a determinative direction in the war, you might get somewhere in the peace talks, but I don't see that right now.
KAYAnd Secretary Kerry this week, Nicole, said that news we really knew already that several thousand Hezbollah fighters were also taking part in this conflict. It seems that the Iranians have decided to back Assad, to say to Hezbollah, we're going all in with this one. This is something that we really want to try and win. How much does that complicate any prospect of a peace conference?
GAOUETTEIt makes it much thornier. I mean, Iran's only real ally in the region is Syria. And it has what they call an arc of influence that extends from Iran through Syria to Hezbollah and the southern part of Lebanon. So they are fighting for not survival, just the -- to maintain their influence in the region. It's very interesting to see. Inside Syria we're seeing a proxy war develop basically between the sort of terrorist heavyweights on one side, Iran-backed Hezbollah. And on the other side al-Qaida-linked Sunni fighters in the form of al-Nusra.
GAOUETTESo it's gotten much more complicated with many, many regional players drawn in.
KAYAnd, Geoff, we're seeing as well, I mean, not just in terms of Lebanon and we've seen it spill over already into Turkey, but if the Sunni Shiite split that is playing out in Syria so clearly has the potential to spread to the broader region, you know, that is why the Qataris and the Saudis are funding the rebels in Syria.
DYERIt absolutely does. But I think, as Nicole was saying, Lebanon is the place where there's no looking the most vulnerable we've seen this week.
DYERAs this new information about the extent of Hezbollah is involved in the Syrian conflict. At the same time Jabhat al-Nusra one of the leading rebel groups that is essentially part of al-Qaida, they've threatened to, I think Nicole, was to set fire to Beirut. So there's no very real threats that this type of violence will become much more prominent in Lebanon.
HIRSHAnd (unintelligible) ...
KAYWe'll get back to this in just a second. We're going to take a quick break, but it is why of course the president -- President Obama had a conversation with the prime minister of Lebanon this week, to try and discuss this because. Because they are concerned about the spillover effect in Lebanon. Geoff Dyer Nicole Gaouette, Michael Hirsh are all with me. We'll have more on this International Hour of the Friday News Roundup. 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. Do call. We'll be taking more of your questions and comments.
KAYWelcome back, I'm Katty Kay of the BBC sitting in for Diane Rehm. You've joined the international hour of the Friday News Roundup. Before the break we were talking about Syria. Let's go straight to the phones, to Patrick in Houston, Tx. Patrick, you have joined "The Diane Rehm Show." You have a question about Syria for my panel?
PATRICKYes ma'am, thanks for taking my call.
KAYYou are welcome.
PATRICKMy question is regarding Bashar al-Assad. I have a really good friend, she's a Lebanese Christian, and she can't stand the guy, but she told me a long time ago. She says that they're just terrified if he loses because they think that they're just going to go like these al-Nusra and, you know, the jihadists are just going to kill everybody and there's going to be sectarian violence like Iraq-style.
PATRICKAnd so shouldn't we be backing, I mean, even if the guy's bad, but is he the lesser of two evils type deal, I mean? And so I just wanted to get all yours take on that. I appreciate your time. I'll take it off the air.
KAYWell, I mean, Patrick, you've got to exactly what the panel was talking about earlier, which is the complications of how much this is becoming a sectarian conflict, and I think whilst the position of the White House is that President Assad has to go, and it seems to be the position of the international community, more broadly apart from Russia, Geoff, I mean, you know, he raises an interesting question about the devil you know versus the devil you don't.
DYERIt's a very important question. It's one of the questions that is troubling the administration as it tries to decide whether to get more involved with the opposition. Most analysts suspect that if the Assad regime was to fall tomorrow there will be a sort of follow-on war and that it does involve a lot of ethnic violence particularly against minorities, Christians, Alawites, Jews and so on and forth.
DYERAnd that, you know, could potentially be conducted with weapons that have been supplied by the U.S. , by Britain, by France if they were to get into that game. So it's an absolutely, a live consideration that is very prominent in the debate at the moment.
HIRSHYeah, I think particularly among the Alawite sect, minority sect that has effectively ruled Syria...
KAYThe Shiite sect?
HIRSHThe Shiite sect that there are fears of a blood bath, a lot of anger, a lot of rage, we've seen that in some of the acts of violence recently, which is why you know people have begun to talk about a scenario in which you have a split-apart Syria with sort of an Alawite-run state.
HIRSHPerhaps run by what remains of, you know, the Syrian armed forces under Assad. I mean, there is potential here for perhaps even greater bloodshed, frankly, than we saw in the sectarian war in Iraq.
GAOUETTEThere's precedent too, if I could just add, and after or during the Iraq War, thousands and thousands of Christians were targeted by various Muslim sects so the caller's friend has historical grounds to be nervous about this.
KAYThe Lebanese have historical grounds to be nervous about what happens in Syria pretty much full stop from every angle. We're going to move on to Iran. Before we do so I want to read an email that's just come to us from Oguwhatu and I apologize if I've mangled your name in reference to the gruesome killing in London.
KAY"Your guest made a mistake. One of the guests said that the murder suspects are Nigerian-born. They are British-born, but of Nigerian descent. Please correct the mistake." We're doing so, but my understanding is that we actually only know the details of one of the murder suspects, that we don't necessarily know about both. Is that right, Geoff?
DYERThat's my understanding, but there's a lot of information coming out as we speak.
KAYAs we speak, of course.
DYERIt could have changed, but that's of last look, it was just the details about one of them that had been released.
KAYRight, let's get on to Iran. This week the Guardian Council approved eight candidates for the presidential elections which are going to take place next month. Nicole, how has their decision affected and how will it shape the outcome of the election?
GAOUETTEWell, they chose eight people who are very closely aligned to the Supreme Leader and his close cadre of conservative advisors and backers. And so for a lot of Iranians, if you sort of look at the social media commentary that's been coming out, since there's a sense that there's very little point in voting almost because there are no options other than the sort of conservative worldview that the Supreme Leader represents.
KAYThe former President Rafsanjani, Michael, was barred, disqualified from participating in the election. What's the significance of that?
HIRSHIt's extremely significant. Rafsanjani was known as one of the founding fathers of the Iranian Revolution, was very close to Ayatollah Khomeini in those early years and has been a longtime rival of the current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, which I think is clearly, partly behind this decision by the Guardian Council pushed by Supreme Leader himself to keep him out.
HIRSHNow, the significance for the West and for the United States here is that Rafsanjani, going back to sort of the 2009 uprisings and actually before, during the 2009 election was clearly one of those who was pushing for rapprochement with the United States discussions and what we've seen here in this decision, is a hardening of the Iranian position coming at a time when there are renewed questions about the nuclear program.
HIRSHAnd the Supreme Leader has made it clear he's not very interested in negotiating with the United States or the West over the future of that program, you know, also at a time when the Israelis are suggesting that they're getting close to their so-called red line.
HIRSHSo these are very dangerous trends here that signify a lot more than simply the outcome of this election on June 14.
KAYYou know, dangerous trends in Syria, dangerous trends clearly in Iran. We do have this, you know, this confluence of timing Geoff, but in the same week that we have this political hardening, apparent political hardening in Iran in the political process, we also have the international nuclear inspectors coming out with a new report suggesting that Iran has made progress on all fronts on its nuclear program.
DYERWell, essentially what they're saying is that Iran is accelerating its program of introducing even more sophisticated equipment for enriching uranium. Now why that is significant is if they were successful in getting this machinery in place that would give them a shorter period of trying if they did try and make the decision to try and actually build a bomb.
DYERSo while at the current estimate of the U.S. government is that it will take them about a year once they make that decision, if they get much more sophisticated equipment in place and it does work, that period of time would be narrower and so it really complicates the decisions about when and if you, and how you would undertake military action if that decision was taken.
KAYNicole, there's been a debate, of course, between the Israelis and the Americans over what the timetable is on Iran having the capacity to get a nuclear weapon. Was there anything in the report that came out this week, in the inspector's report that came out this week that increased the likelihood, do you think of Israel taking unilateral action against Iran's nuclear facilities?
GAOUETTEOn the face of it, no, the report which was leaked to several media outlets did say that they have increased dramatically the number of centrifuges that they can use to enrich uranium from about 170 in February to some 700 now. But they're not producing more uranium.
GAOUETTESo on the face of it, it shouldn't be drawing us closer to the red line that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has said, but it's a very opaque program and among the elements in the report was the fact that they noted that they've made it harder to conduct surveillance of some of Iran's other nuclear sites.
KAYMichael, we were talking about Syria earlier and now we're talking about this report and the political hardening as well in Iran. I mean, does all of this have a knock on effect? How much are they linked to what's happening? If you are sitting in Tel Aviv or in Jerusalem and you're trying to make decisions on behalf of the Israeli government or on behalf of the Israeli military, how much are you tying all this together?
HIRSHI think you're tying it completely together. It obviously comes under the umbrella of Iran's efforts to increase its influence in the region, as Nicole suggested earlier, not just inside Syria, but also in terms of pushing this nuclear program that it claims, that is, Tehran claims is not a nuclear weapons program, but does appear to everyone else, including the IAEA, to be one.
HIRSHAnd in which many experts and Iranian officials that I've talked to say as well what they want to achieve is a sort of strategic strength that comes from being a so-called screwdriver-state, where you're just a few days away from building a nuclear bomb if you want one, but you're not necessarily going to build one.
HIRSHSo this is all about Iranian influence throughout this region which, in turn, is obviously about the stance that Israel takes. Israel, you know, sees itself as an enemy, or Iran as an enemy of it, threatening its very existence and Iran's support for and encouragement of groups like Hezbollah that do not accept Israel's existence. So you see, you know, some very, very dire trends here.
KAYOkay. And the counter to that, I guess, Geoff, is then how much does the nuclear report on Iran, the political hardening on Iran, the involvement of Hezbollah in Syria, how much does that then weigh on the decisions made here in Washington...
DYERWell, there are really two ways that...
KAY...in terms of whether to arm the Syrian rebels or not?
DYER...I mean, two different ways of looking at it. There's a more, if you like, neo-conservative argument which would be the U.S. should be doing everything it can to help the opposition in Syria because that would deal a mortal strategic blow to Iran.
DYERThe alternative view might be that if you think there is a deal to be done with the Iranians this year and that is absolutely the top priority of the administration in the short term then maybe you don’t want to get too involved in Syria because you don't want to do anything that might damage the prospects for that negotiation.
DYERSo really it kind of depends on how you view the political prospects of Iran and what you think the implications of getting involved in Syria would be for those negotiations.
KAYOkay, let's go back to the phones to Owen who is calling us from Baton Rouge, La. Owen, you've been waiting patiently. Thank you for your call to "The Diane Rehm Show."
OWENYes ma'am, thank you very much. My question or statement rather is to the effect that there seems to be a gross misunderstanding on what we're using these drones for when the Obama administration is using them to target known terrorists in a foreign country. We're not using them to hit American citizens in our back yard here in the States.
OWENAnd there seems to be some type of political agenda with conservatives by saying that Obama is using them in that fashion. And I was wondering if you could speak to that misunderstanding, how that all plays out?
HIRSHYes, I mean, the president has specifically said drone strikes are not going to be occurring within U.S. borders and that the criteria are only if they are American, only those who have gone abroad and joined foreign al-Qaida-linked forces against the United States.
HIRSHSo, you know, it's been very specific about that and as we indicated earlier in our discussion very few Americans meet those criteria in terms of being legitimate targets.
KAYAnd he also made the point that if it was possible to arrest these people then that would be...
KAY...obviously the preference over taking them out with drone strikes, but they are in circumstances in which it is not possible.
HIRSHThat's another criteria and actually they haven't clarified that very well leading to an impression that the Obama administration has sort of been killing off people with drones because it's a lot easier than to capture and then detain and interrogate them. So the president did try to clarify that yesterday.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And if you'd like to join us, do call 1-800-433-8850 is the phone number. And of course, you can send us an email to email@example.com is the email address.
KAYLet's go to David in Greensboro, N.C. Dave, you've joined "The Diane Rehm Show."
DAVIDYes, good day. I want to reference back to the Syrian, oh, I'm sorry, the Nigerian attackers in London and why doesn't the media consider not reporting these rants? I mean, I know you've got to report the incident, but this just gives fuel and a vehicle for this message.
DAVIDThis whole attack was around them getting their message out. So is the media not, in some way, giving them that tool? They withhold, say, information sometimes about a young victim or the name of someone until somebody is notified. Why couldn't they do the same in this case and not report or let these people be on video, which, like I said, provides them with the very outlet that they're looking for, for their crazed acts? And I'm going to listen to you offline, thank you.
KAYI mean, David, you raise a very interesting point about what the media, you know, so a larger question about what the media should and shouldn't be reporting in terms of national security, but also in this case I think just because of the gruesomeness of some of the video.
KAYI mean, there is now video, I understand, out there of the actual killing itself. It's not surprising. We live in a cell phone age. Somebody was bound to have this. Some news organizations have chosen to put that up on their websites. Other news organizations have chosen not to link to it.
KAYBut Nicole, you raised the point earlier about, you know, I don't think we've seen this before in an incident of this kind where the clear motive was to talk to cameras and get that message out whilst standing around waiting for law enforcement to turn up. I mean ,is there? Are we just doing what they wanted?
GAOUETTEYou have to ask the question. I know there was a lot of internal debate in media organizations in the U.K. and here about what to do with that video. Obviously, we've seen several news organizations go with it and I think that your caller makes a good point that they are in a way giving the perpetrators of the crime exactly what they want, a platform and a broad one at that.
GAOUETTEOn the other hand, media organizations know that that video and photographs are going to be widely disseminated on social media anyway and may feel some pressure to release them for that reason.
DYERIt's an excellent point and there are no hard and fast rules for this sort of thing. I mean, in lots of countries, there are restrictions, for instance, on the reporting of suicides because that is deemed as something that might encourage other people to commit suicide.
DYERSo it really is a judgment call, but the caller is absolutely right. The people doing these acts are wanting this kind of attention just as the people who put a bomb at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon wanted that to be filmed as well. And the media does have to constantly ask these questions, are we playing into the agenda of the terrorist?
KAYOkay, Michael, we have a couple of minutes left on the program and I want to get to Secretary of State John Kerry. He's visiting Israel and the West Bank before going on to Africa. What are the prospects, do you think, for restarting peace talks there, a new secretary of state, new peace talks perhaps?
HIRSHWell, on the positive side, we have a would-be activist secretary of state who, quite unlike his predecessor, Hillary Clinton, really wants to get his hands dirty with negotiations over critical issues and of course there's no, you know, the Big Kahuna has always been Middle East peace, so there's no doubt we're going to see activity and there is a sort of informal deadline here.
HIRSHThe Palestinians have agreed to sort of set aside plans to join the International Criminal Court and other international organizations if something can get started. On the other hand we have this impossible divide continuing between you know, those who control the West Bank and President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas that effectively controls Gaza and who will not only not negotiate with Israel, won't even recognize Israel's existence.
HIRSHAnd without any kind of a sort of a unified front on the Palestinian side there's extreme skepticism on the part of the Israelis, particularly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that anything can come of this. So I think you're going to see a lot of, you know, a lot of noise and a lot of activity without probably in the end very much result at all.
KAYAnd we did also see the Israelis approving plans this month Geoff, for 296, I think it is, 300 new homes in a West Bank settlement. Does that complicate Secretary Kerry's visit?
DYERIt very much complicates it.
KAYAs it complicated Joe Biden's visit once upon a time?
DYERI think Mike's exactly right. I mean, there are two sorts of core conventional wisdoms about what's going on here. The first is that this is a terrible time to be starting to re-launch the talks. Israel has just had an election where the peace process was barely mentioned.
DYERThe Palestinian Authority is weakened both amongst itself and between the West Bank and Gaza. The region is inflamed, the Syrian civil war, refugees in Jordan, et cetera, et cetera. There are lots and lots of good reasons why this is a very bad time to think about arriving at peace talks.
DYERAnd the other big conventional wisdom is as Secretary Kerry said, that the window for the two state solution is about to close in the next couple of years or so. Now that has been said for a long time but eventually that will be true and John Kerry is stuck in the middle trying to carry it.
KAYAnd Secretary Kerry, we wish you of course the very best of luck. Geoff Dyer, Nicole Gaouette, Michael Hirsh of the National Journal, thank you so much for joining me.
KAYI'm Katty Kay. You've been listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Have a great weekend.
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