Monthly Archives: June 2009

The news of the military coup in Honduras provides an unplesant flash-back to the period when Central America was one of the world’s most unstable and war-torn regions. Not so long ago, really – the 1980s.

But in one respect things are very different from the Cold War era. Back then the dividing lines were clear. The Reagan administration was supporting rightist forces, like Nicaragua’s Contras, against the radical left – right across the region. This time things are, mercifully, much less clear-cut. Yesterday Hugo Chavez fiercely condemned rhe coup – and Manuel Zelaya, the deposed president of Honduras, appeared alongside Chavez and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua at an emergency summit in Managua. In the old days, appearing as part of a line-up like that would have been enough to condemn Zelaya out of hand in Washington, DC. But not now. President Obama has also condemned the coup as illegal and as setting a “terrible precedent”. And Zelaya even credited the US with discouraging the coup plotters. Read more

Pinn illustration

Most days I get an e-mail informing me that somebody or other is “now following you on Twitter!” I find this slightly baffling, since I hardly ever tweet – that is, broadcast my every thought and deed to the world, using 140 characters or fewer. I tried Twitter out on the night of the US presidential election in November and did not like it much. One of my very last tweets was: “This is possibly the most moronic form of journalism I have ever done.” Since then, I have fallen largely silent. Read more

There is much head-scratching in Britain today, about why the Iranian government has chosen to focus its anger about “foreign meddling” more on the UK than the US. Why is it Iranians working for the British embassy who have been arrested? Why did the supreme leader single Britain out for special condemnation in his speech at Friday prayers, ten days ago?

Two popular theories are doing the rounds here. First, its all to do with history – and Iranian memories of decades of British meddling. Second, the Iranians want to keep open the possiblity of accepting Obama’s famously outstretched hand. Both theories have their merits. But I think there is a simpler explanation. I’m sure the Iranians are furious with the Americans and see the CIA’s hand everywhere. But arresting Americans or bating Obama is risky. The US is the sole superpower and has troops and planes sitting in the Gulf and in Iraq. It is much easier and less risky to pick a fight with Britain.

You could see the same logic at work in the recent spats between Britain and Russia. The Russians, like the Iranians, claim to be convinced that western intelligence agencies are plotting against them and fomenting revolution. But it was the British Council that was singled out for harassment - not some branch of the American government. Again, its easier to pick on the less intimidating “little Satan”. Read more

Reports that the Americans have agreed to send emergency military aid to the Somali government are confirmation that the military situation there is deteriorating fast. In fact, without the world paying much attention, Somalia is in danger of being effectively taken over by Islamists supported by foreign jihadists. It would then look rather like Afghanistan in the years before 9/11.

The FT reported a few days ago that “several hundred foreign jihadists linked to al-Qaeda are reported to have joined al-Shabaab’s efforts to topple the government”. According to our report, the national government now controls just a few blocks of the capital, Mogadishu. Read more

Alas poor Michael Jackson, I didn’t know him particularly well. In fact, I didn’t know him at all. I did, however, play a walk-on part in the media frenzy that surrounded him as his life became increasingly bizarre.

Jackson was in Bangkok in 1993 when the first allegations that he had an unhealthy interest in children were made. I was living there and together with my wife, who was working as a freelancer for the BBC, made my way down to the Oriental Hotel to see if we could put the allegations to Jacko directly. The whole place was, of course, a circus – the Oriental was surrounded by singing fans and the lobby was stuffed with security men. Jackson was on the top floor – but the lifts weren’t stopping there. But somehow we found out the room number of a member of his management team, who was on the tenth floor. Read more

It is always interesting – and sometimes chastening – to have journalistic musings subjected to academic examination. Sean Safford has performed this service, by taking a look at the Miller-Rachman list of revolutionary pointers. He thinks we are both too optimistic about the potential for change in Iran.

There is much anticipation in Washington as important legislation on a cap and trade scheme to deal with global warming comes up for a vote in Congress later this week. But don’t get your hopes up too high about the legislation’s long-term chances. News from Australia shows how difficult it is to get this sort of legislation through. When politicians really focus on the economic costs involved, they tend to quail.

There is also the “after you, Claude” problem. The Australian opposition are arguing that there is no point in their country acting until they know what the US will do, and what will happen at the Copenhagen climate change talks. American politicians, meanwhile, are quite certain to argue that the US should not act until it has a guarantee that China will make similar sacrifices. Read more

A few weeks ago, Silvio Berlusconi was being accused of consorting with minors. Now the allegation in the Italian papers is that he consorted with prostitutes.

Whatever the truth about these strongly-denied stories, Berlusconi – now in his seventies – has never made a secret of his liking for young women. I once went to a dinner he gave in Rome for European journalists. He ensured that all the prettiest women were seated at his table. One young woman, who had evidently missed the journalism-school lecture about “not getting too close to your sources”, ended up sitting on Berlusconi’s lap. Read more

James Ferguson illustration

What does it take to make a successful revolution? That question is clearly weighing on the mind of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. In his long rant at last Friday’s prayers at Tehran university, Iran’s supreme leader accused foreign governments of trying to foment a revolt in his country. He claims that foreigners are using the uprisings in the former Soviet Union as a model. “They are comparing the Islamic Republic with Georgia,” he complained. Read more

The other night I saw Henry Kissinger on television arguing that the likeliest outcome in Iran is that the regime ultimately prevails. I’m afraid it’s beginning to look that way to me as well.

Khamenei’s hardline speech today underlined that the pro ADJ forces have no intention of backing down. The demonstrations in Tehran continue and more are scheduled for the weekend. But, if the demonstrators are getting nowhere, they might gradually lose their enthusiasm. And if the size of the crowds dwindle, so will the sense of momentum behind the protests. If the regime is “sensible”, they will just try and wait the opposition out now. Read more

I have always found the idea that new media would somehow kill off old dictatorships unconvincing. The Chinese government seems to have coped perfectly well with the rise of the internet. Still, events in Iran have given a new lease of life to this theory. The use that the Iranian opposition has made of social networking sites and, in particular of Twitter, has excited lots of interest. Yesterday the State Department even asked Twitter to delay an update of its service, so as not to disrupt the role the micro-blogging service is playing in allowing the Iranian opposition to communicate with each other. (Note for my mother, you can post tiny little updates onto a twitter site, instantly, using a computer or your mobile phone – provided the “tweet” is no more than 140 characters long.) Some people have now predictably dubbed this the “Twitter revolution”.

Certainly, some of the tweets coming out of Iran make exciting reading. Andrew Sullivan has pulled together some of the best twitter feeds. And here are a few other popular ones that give you an idea of what information is coming out. Tehran Bureau, an interesting site that pulls together reporting from Iran, also has its own twitter feed. Read more


Thirty years after the Iranian revolution, could we be witnessing an Iranian counter-revolution? In the short term, events in Iran are depressing and alarming – a stolen election, violence in the streets, repression. In the long term, the weekend has provided heartening evidence that Iran, and the Middle East in general, need not be immune to the great wave of democratisation that has swept the world since the late 1970s. Read more

Since I was unable to be in Tehran this weekend, I did the next best thing and went to watch the 2020 Cricket World Cup at the Oval in south London. Watching the West Indies play on Saturday was a nostalgia trip – I remember seeing them play at the Oval in the 1970s, when they were the world’s best team and attracted cacophonous support from recently-arrived immigrants from the Caribbean. But today’s team are not as good as their predecessors - and their London-based support is now smaller, quieter and older.

The Pakistani team- however - have a huge local fan base. I saw them polish off New Zealand, surrounded by a group of boisterous fans who had come down from Yorkshire to support them. The good thing about the Pakistani supporters is that they don’t drink. On the other hand, they didn’t seem to object to the scantily-clad cheerleaders who greeted every boundary with a twirl. One dancer even incorporated a Pakistani flag into her routine. (Yes, this is cricket, I’m talking about – it’s the modern, jazzed-up version of the game.) Read more

I am writing my newspaper column for tomorrow about Iran, but here are some preliminary thoughts on the central question – was this a fix? Even in the West, there are plenty of people who are ready to buy the line that Ahmadinejad may actually have won – with Iran’s votes splitting along class-lines, and the poor and the devout out-polling the urban middle-classes.

But I think the reporting in today’s FT and elsewhere illustrates why that line of argument is implausible. Roula Khalaf points out that the sheer margin of victory is inconsistent with what we know about Iranian voting patterns and so “defies belief”. Najmeh Bozorgmehr makes the vital point that officially Moussavi lost even in his home town and even in Azeri-speaking areas, despite his Azeri background. Juan Cole, an American academic who has been a scathing critic of neo-con policy to the Middle East, nonetheless does not buy the Iranian election results. He argues that cultural divisions within the Iranian electorate are at least as important as the economic ones – with the young and women favouring reformist candidates. Read more

I would love to be in Tehran today. But if, like me, you are having to read about the Iranian election from afar, here is some stuff to be getting on with.

One amusing aspect of the pre-election commentary is the way in which American hawks and neo-cons are already attempting to dismiss the idea that the defeat of Ahmadinejad would in any way reduce the threat of a nuclear Iran. So John Bolton writing in the Wall Street Journal argues that – “Whatever the outcome of Iran’s presidential election tomorrow, negotiations will not soon – if ever – put an end to its nuclear threat.” There is also a fairly breathtaking aside, in which he suggests that if Iran retaliated against an Israeli attack, Israel’s next step would be to use nuclear weapons; or as Bolton puts it “would produce an even broader Israeli counterstrike, which at some point might well involve Israel’s own nuclear capability.” I had to read that twice, just to make sure that it really meant what I thought it meant. Over in the New York Times, Elliott Abrams is slightly less foaming at the mouth – but still keen to emphasise that Ahmadinejad’s  defeat would change nothing. Odd that, when – until recently – the neo-cons were all too happy to use ADJ as the poster-child for the Iranian threat. Read more

Real Madrid’s £80m purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United will doubtless be portrayed, in some quarters, as meglomaniacal madness. In fact, it is part of a carefully thought-out and rather clever business strategy.

About seven years ago Florentino Perez, who has just re-assumed control of the club, built the first team of Real international superstars or Galacticos – including Zidane of France, Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo of Brazil, Beckham of England and Figo of Portugal, Critics denounced this as a team of show-boaters – the Harlem Globetrotters of football. They pointed out that Perez had sanctioned the sale of a key member of the side, the unglamorous ungalactic defensive midfielder Claude Makelele – and that Real’s fortunes declined shortly afterwards.  The galacticos never won very much. Read more

Note to self: next time you visit South Asia do not stay in a posh hotel. Yesterday’s attack on the Pearl Continental in Peshawar brings to four the number of hotels I have stayed in relatively recently, that have been the subject of bloody terrorist attacks: the Marriott in Islamabad, the Serena in Kabul, the Taj in Mumbai and now the Pearl in Peshawar.

To be fair, I stayed at the Serena a year after it had been attacked – and it had been turned into something of a fortress. That seems to be the standard response to a terrorist bombing or commando-style assault: re-open, but just with better security. I checked the Islamabad Marriott’s website today and I see that first among its advertised highlights is “bomb-proof and shock-proof double security wall”. The Taj in Mumbai has also re-opened; I got a jaunty e-mail from them the other day saying something like – “It’s been a while since you last visited us!” Yes, it has, and quite a lot has happened since then. Read more


Ever since the economic crisis broke I have been scanning the European horizon for signs of political turmoil: red flags being unfurled, jackboots polished. But on the evidence of the elections for the European parliament over the weekend, I should have directed my gaze closer to home. There is only one big country in the European Union that is having a national nervous breakdown – Britain. Read more

My FT column tomorrow is about the European elections and focuses on political turmoil in Britain and the progress made by far right, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic parties across the continent. I particuarly like this headline about Britain’s belegured prime minister from Spiegel in Germany – “Brown im Bunker”.

But the election also threw up lots of other interesting wrinkles. The French Greens did really well and will now have one of the most colourful delegations in Brussels. It will be led, as ever, by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who still looks remarkably youthful given that he made his name on the barricades in 1968. Joining Danny-the-red will be Jose Bove, the Asterix-lookalike who has led France’s anti-globalisation farmers and was famously imprisoned for trashing a McDonald’s. I once got caught in a massive traffic jam in France, caused by Bove-supporting farmers – one of whom eventually presented me with a melon, with a little note attached to it – “Ce melon est un symbol de notre colere” (This melon is a symbol of our anger). It was a memorably bizarre political statement. A third member of the French Green delegation will be Eva Joly, a crusading anti-corruption magistrate of Franco-Norwegian origin. Read more

Obama met Chancellor Merkel today. And he will be at the D-Day commemoration tomorrow – and will have a private meeting with President Sarkozy. This all sounds like US-European relations as normal – and will re-assure those western Europeans who worry that they are no longer command much attention or respect in Washington.

But that is way too complacent. It is not just that Europe is no longer at the top of the US foreign policy agenda. It’s worse  than that – when the Americans think about Europe, they are concentrating increasingly on a bunch of issues that have little to do with prosperous western Europe or the European Union. In rough order of priority, the US’s Europe agenda goes like this: 1. Russia – the reset button, Georgia etc. 2. Turkey – bind them into the western alliance; try to sort out relations with Armenia, Azerbaijan etc. 3. The Balkans – stop them imploding again. 4. Western Europe Read more