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Is the 'military option' on Iran off the table?

Ray McGovern

By Ray McGovern. This article was first published in the Baltimore Sun.

If, as seems likely, President Barack Obama retains enough support to complete the nuclear deal with Iran, it will be largely because enough members of the House and Senate are persuaded by his argument that the only other real option is war.

This was the rhetorical gauntlet the president threw down at his press conference last week. Equally significant, Mr. Obama omitted the until-now obligatory warning that "all options, including the military one, remain on the table."

Since then, Israeli media have been pressing hard to restore the military option to its accustomed place "on the table." Flying to Israel Sunday night for a handholding mission with top Israeli officials, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tried to make his reception in Tel Aviv less frosty, telling accompanying journalists that the nuclear deal with Iran "does nothing to prevent the military option." The context, however, seemed to be one in which Iran was caught cheating on the nuclear deal.

That this kind of rhetoric, even when it is not from the president, is still poison to Tehran was clear in the immediate reaction by Iran's Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who insisted Monday: "Applying force ... is not an option but an unwise and dangerous temptation."

  • If you're going to quote the "Secretariat of the National Council of Resistance of Iran", you could at least tell us who you're quoting so we can place their opinion in the proper context.
    at 10:28 AM July 21, 2015
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Looking for changes in official public statements was my bread and butter during a long tenure as a Kremlinologist. So on Wednesday, as I watched Mr. Obama defend the deal with Iran, I leaned way forward at each juncture — and there were several — where the timeworn warning about all options being "on the table" would have been de rigueur. He avoided saying it.

"All options on the table?" The open-ended nature of this Bush/Cheney-esque bully-type warning is at odds with Western international understandings spanning more than three and half centuries — from the treaties of Westphalia (1648), to the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928) to the post-World War II Nuremberg Tribunal to the UN Charter (1945). Try raising that with Establishment Washington, though, and be prepared to be dismissed as "picky-picky," or as quaint and as obsolete as the Geneva Conventions. Undergirding all this is the chauvinism reflected in President Obama's repeated reminders that the U.S. "is the sole indispensable country in the world."

But in the wake of last week's accord with Iran in Vienna, it is possible now to hope that the "military option" is finally off the table — in reality, if not in occasional rhetorical palliatives for Israel.

Most Americans have no idea of how close we came to making war on Iran in 2008, the last year of the Bush/Cheney administration. Nor do they know of the essential role played by courageous managers of intelligence who, for the first time on the Iran nuclear issue, supervised a strictly evidence-based, from-the-bottom-up National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded in November 2007 that Iran had stopped working on a nuclear weapon at the end of 2003 and had not resumed that work. That key judgment issued unanimously and "with high confidence" by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies played a huge role in strengthening the hand of Mike Mullen, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other reasonable national security leaders in dissuading President Bush from following Vice President Cheney's prompting to launch a war that would have made the war in Iraq look like a volleyball match between the Quaker School and Ursuline Academy.

The juggernaut toward war with Iran was already rolling downhill. Recall that then-CENTCOM commander Adm. William Fallon was abruptly cashiered after saying "we're not going to do Iran on my watch." And Mr. Cheney later admitted churlishly that Mr. Bush had been a big disappointment in giving in to intelligence and military officials on Iran.

In Mr. Bush's memoir "Decision Points," he complains bitterly that the NIE "tied my hands on the military side. ... After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?"

The wider lesson here is that, with managers with integrity, analysts freed to follow the evidence wherever it leads, and all manner of technical means of intelligence collection available, unnecessary wars can be prevented and arms control agreements can be effectively monitored. Thus, we could assure President Richard Nixon and his successors that we could "verify" should they decide to place a modicum of trust in Kremlin leaders.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has stressed both the need and the ability to verify the just concluded nuclear deal with Iran. For me, it is a source of vicarious pride that there remains such a high premium on my former colleagues in collection and analysis performing their monitoring duties as the sine qua non for such deals.

Ray McGovern served as a CIA analyst from the administration of John Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush. He was chief of the Soviet Foreign Policy Branch, chaired NIEs, and prepared and briefed The President's Daily Brief for Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan. His email is

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ACLU Files Open Meetings Complaint Against Pocomoke City


POCOMOKE, MD - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Maryland is deeply troubled that as many Pocomoke City residents organized protests over the firing of the town's first African American police chief and called for the mayor's resignation, city officials blocked reporters from covering a public hearing where residents came to express their concerns. The ACLU filed a complaint with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board on behalf of Stephen Janis, a reporter for The Real News Network, a Baltimore-based non-profit news organization, who was part of a reporting team blocked from entering the community meeting.

"Surely Pocomoke City officials can understand that blocking the media from public meetings on controversial issues violates both the First Amendment and Maryland open meetings law," said Deborah Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "Dodging press attention only prompts more questions when a community is already concerned about potentially racially biased government actions, raising the question, ‘What are they trying to hide?'"

Pocomoke City Mayor Bruce Morrison and the Town Council recently voted to fire the town's first African American Police Chief, Kelvin Sewell. No explanation was given for the town's action, and many in the community - both black and white - were upset. Concerns were raised that the Chief's termination might relate to complaints of race discrimination that had been made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission by Sewell and two other African American Pocomoke police officers. Residents are also concerned that Sewell's reporting to the U.S. Department of Justice of irregularities in the town's use of federal grant funding might have prompted the firing. Rallying in support of Chief Sewell, community members organized protests, began circulating petitions, contacted the media, and came to City Hall by the hundreds for the July 13 Council meeting to demand answers from town officials.   

Meetings of a municipal government's legislative body are required to be open to the public under the Maryland Open Meetings Act. And the First Amendment guarantees that the press and the public enjoy equal access to government information and proceedings. Nonetheless, numerous representatives of print and broadcast media were blocked from covering the July 13 meeting. The Real News team - Janis, who wrote a book with Sewell, and Taya Graham - arrived early, and should have been allowed in. Other members of the press who were already in the room were directed to leave, and those seeking entrance were barred, even as members of the public were entering.

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The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive

Andrew Levine

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

Israel thrives on “existential threats;” one could say that it survives on them.

But for existential threats, Israeli Jews would be at each other’s throats and “diaspora” money would stop flowing in. Existential threats also keep the United States and other countries that back Israel to the hilt from easing up on economic, diplomatic and military support.

Iran has long been Israel’s most serviceable existential threat. To hear the Israelis tell it, Iranians live to kill Jews, and want nothing more than to cast “the nation state of the Jewish people” into the sea. They want “the bomb” – to help them finish off the job.

The Israeli propaganda machine is emphatic: only dupes or anti-Semites would doubt for a moment that the international community’s first order of business should be to keep nuclear weapons out of Iranian hands.

They should also inflict so much pain upon that country that the Iranian people will send their Ayatollahs packing, replacing them with a biddable, Israel-friendly government.

“International community” is, of course, a euphemism for the United States and countries that tow its line. The Shah was the international community’s man in Tehran. If the Israelis could, they would raise him from the dead.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution ended his rule, Iranian governments have been railing against Israel, “the little Satan” — not because they hate Jews or love Palestinians, but because they want to be the region’s hegemon.

Inveighing against a colonial state in a post-colonial era — a settler state that oppresses the Arabs that remain on the territories European Jewish settlers ethnically cleansed — serves this purpose. It helps get what Western media call “the Arab street” on Iran’s side.

Iranians are mostly Shia Muslims; Palestinians are mostly Sunni Muslims or Christians. Nowadays, communities that identify in these ways are usually at odds.

But before Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski’s plan to stir up Islamist fanaticism to counter Soviet regional influence took hold, sectarian differences hardly mattered. The Iranians could reasonably expect to gain influence across the entire Middle East by taking a more-anti-Zionist-than-thou line. Anti-colonialism trumps all.

But talk was all it was; the Iranians would rant — and then keep on much as before. The alliance with Israel had benefited the Shah’s regime as much as it benefited the Israelis, and the Shah’s successors were no more eager than the Israelis to let that go.

The Israelis understood. For a decade, they took the verbal abuse, while their relations with Iran hardly changed.

When they turned Iran into the existential threat it has been since the nineties, the transformation had nothing to do with what the Iranian government was saying. Indeed, by the time the change occurred, Teheran’s anti-Zionist rhetoric had, if anything, toned down.

When Iran became Israel’s premier existential threat, it was because the geopolitical context had changed.

A goal of Israeli foreign policy, since even before the establishment of the state, had been to secure good relations with non-Arab countries located close by, but outside, the borders of the Arab world.

It hardly mattered that the allies Israel courted were historically or, in Iran’s case after 1979 fanatically, Muslim. It was Arabs, not Muslims generally, that the Zionist project most directly enraged. Correspondingly, from Israel’s point of view, the Arab world, not the Muslim world, was Enemy Number One.

It is different now, thanks to a decade and a half of Bush-Obama wars.

But, long before those perpetual wars got underway, Iran’s strategic importance to Israel had changed.

This happened when Bush the Father effectively took Iraq out of the picture – by defeating its army in Kuwait, and then installing a sanctions regime that would render the Iraqi military a pushover.

Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright, his Secretary of State, turned the screws – visiting misery and death upon the Iraqi people; Bush the Son took advantage, for a while, of the “cakewalk” their sanctions made possible.

But it was not long after he proclaimed the “mission accomplished,” and all hell broke loose. More than a decade on, the consequences are still unfolding – and becoming worse by the day.

But, for Israel, having Americans in Iraq, as the country disintegrated, was a blessing. They no longer had to worry about the Iraqi army.

Bush and Cheney’s war of choice was also a blessing for Iran. This too worked to Israel’s advantage: as Iranian influence in Iraq expanded, the Israelis had an easier time making Iran seem menacing.

Egypt had been out of the equation since Camp David; and Jordan before that. Syria never posed more than a negligible military threat. The Syrians could, and periodically would, stir up trouble for Israel in Lebanon. But, for the most part, the Israelis and the Syrians had arrived at a modus vivendi that neither side wanted to upset.

And so, for many years, the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, has had no Arab armies to contend with. All its attention could be focused on keeping Palestinians down.

As for Israel’s longstanding aim of surrounding the Arab world with Israel-friendly states, Israeli planners figured that they could make do with Turkey alone.

This worked out satisfactorily until Turkish politics changed, and until Benjamin Netanyahu got some Turkish citizens killed for trying to relieve Israel’s siege of Gaza.

Now, Turkey is a lost cause for Israeli strategists too.

But with Western, especially American, support, the Israelis don’t care. The state is secure against Arab armies, and all that Palestinians can do militarily is provide pretexts for periodic assaults on Gaza and for tightening the screws on the West Bank.

But the state of Israel is not home free – not while its occupation regime turns it into a pariah state in the eyes of the world.

This is why the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement has lately come almost to rival Iran in the existential threat department.

The BDS movement is a little more than a decade old. For most of the time since it was called into being by leading figures and organizations within Palestinian civil society, the Israelis ignored it. When that became impossible, it derided it as an inconsequential fantasy of deluded leftists.

However, to Israel’s dismay, the movement keeps growing.   It is becoming a force to be reckoned with – in Europe especially.

Since the EU is where most Israeli agricultural products end up, and since many Israeli firms do business there, this was one existential threat that might actually do Israel harm.

Worse still, from Israel’s point of view, the movement is beginning to make inroads in the United States and throughout the Anglophone world.

Mainstream media have been doing their best to help the Israeli propaganda system by keeping the issue out of public awareness, and, when necessary, by misinforming the public about it – depicting it as a concoction of anti-Semites and self-hating Jews. BDS is on the rise nevertheless.

Progressive university students are coming on board along with liberal Protestant churches; so are activists from the African American and Latino communities.   Black lives, brown lives, and Palestinian lives – they all matter, in much the same way. The similarities are so obvious that they could hardly fail to register.

Therefore Israel and its lobby set its sights on BDS. Iran is still Number One on Israel’s Enemies List, but BDS militants are close behind.

Iran, the Israelis say, wants to destroy Israel physically; BDS proponents want to do something nearly as bad from Israel’s point of view – they want to “delegitimize” it.

There is some truth to this — and much hokum.

There is no evidence that Iran has in any way violated the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — to which it, unlike Israel, is a party. And neither are there sound reasons to think that Iran harbors murderous designs against the Israeli people, much less against Jews generally.

There is not even good reason to think that the BDS movement threatens the legitimacy of the Israeli state, though it could come to that if Israel continues to violate the demands of international law and elementary moral decency.

Within the BDS movement, there are divisions over whether to boycott and divest from only those firms that do business in the Occupied territories, or to take aim at Israel itself.

The European institutions and the multi-national corporations that have so far acceded, however feebly, to BDS pressures are only interested in targeting the Occupation. This does pose an existential threat to a certain vision of Israel, but not – at least not yet — to Israel itself.

* * *

It should not be necessary here to go back over the case for normalizing relations with Iran or for supporting BDS. The arguments have been made many times before.

The more interesting question is why legislators and politicians in North America, Europe and around the world remain unmoved by their logic, even as more and more of their constituents are catching on.

No doubt, corruption, stupidity and ideological blindness factor in. But there is also a logic behind their refusal to go where rationally and morally compelling arguments lead.

Indeed, there are multiple logics depending on institutional considerations, which differ from place to place, and on contingent and ever-changing circumstances.

Nevertheless, some general observations do at least partly explain the phenomenon.

Thanks to the EU’s negligible level of political integration and the supremacy of regional and global financial institutions, sovereignty is challenged, in varying degrees, in every EU member state. Limited sovereignty makes for limited democracy.

We Americans have a different problem.   Our national sovereignty is intact, but our political institutions, at the national level especially, are exceptionally undemocratic.

With an Electoral College choosing the President; with two and only two Senators for each state, regardless of its size; and with increasingly many Congressional districts rendered uncompetitive thanks to politically engineered gerrymandering, our “free and fair” competitive elections make a mockery of core democratic values.

In our democracy, the people, the demos, hardly rule; and equality of political influence is a sham ideal.

Add on our semi-established duopoly party system, and our preposterous campaign finance laws – governed by legal doctrines that effectively identify all but the most egregious forms of political corruption as Constitutionally protected free speech — and it is a wonder that we Americans still claim to have a democracy at all.

For all their problems, most EU countries stray less far from democratic ideals than we do.

It is odd, therefore, that, while public support for normalizing relations with Iran and for BDS is broader and deeper in Europe than in the United States, there is more official opposition there than here, especially to BDS.

“Socialist” France is the worst; BDS activism there is punishable by law. With its center-left Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, just back from Jerusalem where he declared the BDS movement “stupid and futile,” Italy is not much better. Most shocking of all is the decision of Greece’s Syriza government to conduct joint military exercises with the IDF.

In each case, the reasons are different. For obvious historical reasons, Germany is wary of faulting a state that claim to represent world Jewry. In France, guilt over French collaboration with Germany during World War II is probably still a factor; so is a particular kind of Islamophobia that underwrites support for Israel — not exactly on philo-Semitic grounds, though the French are not beyond praising themselves for that, but on the principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

For Italy and Greece, rising numbers of refugees and asylum seekers, along with other eastern Mediterranean security issues, are involved. Now that Turkey’s role in the region is changing – not for the better, in the eyes of those who identify with “the West” — security issues have taken on a new importance.

But in all cases, at least to some degree, there is a desire to stay on the good side of the American Congress, which they all believe is full of Republicans and Democrats who, when push comes to shove, will do whatever the government of Israel wants. To Congress’ shame, this belief is justified and true.

Everybody also knows that “the institutions” that promote austerity politics throughout Europe, not only in Greece and other southern European countries but everywhere, are susceptible to American influence – through the International Monetary Fund most directly, but also through the ostensibly independent European Commission and European Central Bank.

In these circumstances, prudence requires bending over backwards to stay on Israel’s and therefore America’s good side.

The crux of the problem therefore lies on Capitol Hill.

The White House is subservient to the Israel lobby too, though, from time to time, it does put America’s interests first. The best Presidents for that, since Eisenhower put the kibosh on the Suez War six decades ago, were the first Bush and now, surprisingly, Barack Obama.

The Israel lobby’s stranglehold over Congress is partly a consequence of the money it deploys and its organizational and political skills. Even so, at this point, Congress’s servility is itself difficult to fathom. Senators and Representatives who dare not defy the lobby’s demands are living in the past.

In the end, though, they have to be elected; therefore, they cannot defy their constituents’ wishes too blatantly or for very long. Why, then, do they remain so thoroughly in Israel’s pocket when their constituents are already far ahead of them, and when it is all but certain that, in the near future, they will be farther ahead of them still?

It is an odd situation, but, in fact, it is not as anomalous as it seems. Except in rare instances, when, urged on by media attention, some issue suddenly captures the public imagination, representatives routinely ignore their constituents’ wishes.

They almost always get away with it too – so often and so conspicuously that it is fair to complain about a “democracy deficit” afflicting all the world’s so-called democracies.

Voters’ instincts are usually sound, but instincts can only work on the information at hand. The United States is an extreme case, but, in other self-described democracies too, most of the people most of the time are radically ill informed.

For this, Israel’s existential threat mongers have more than just mind-numbing, rightwing news outlets like Fox to thank. In the United States, the entire corporate media establishment has been vilifying Iran and sugarcoating Israeli violations of legal and moral norms for decades. They are at it right now; full steam ahead.

* * *

Nevertheless, polling data shows that support for the Iran deal is broad. Unfortunately, though, it is also shallow. It is the same with opposition to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to ethnocratic rule within Israel itself.

Even racists have a hard time these days supporting Apartheid-like institutions. Flagrant violations of democratic ideals of political equality fare no better. Israel’s ostensibly democratic institutions relegate its Palestinian citizens, some two-fifths of the country’s population, to second-class status. If more people knew about this and reflected on its implications, they would surely find it abhorrent.

But most people don’t know; our media are too effective at manufacturing ignorance.

In view of all the forces at work promoting idea that Israel is “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and, more astonishing still, that the IDF is “the most moral army in the world,” it is amazing that there is any opposition at all.

But when even sizeable majorities who don’t care all that much about some issue go up against smaller but well-organized, well-funded interest groups that care a great deal, the smaller groups usually win. Holders of contrary opinions cannot compete until they too become organized, focused and militant — and overwhelmingly numerous.

Times are changing, however; at least where Israel is concerned. Before long, if present trends continue, even Congress will be free from the Israel lobby’s grip. But not yet; at this point, even the boldest and most courageous members of the House or Senate risk a lot by doing the right thing.

However, when one or more do, others, seeing that the lobby can be defied, that the Emperor has no clothes, will follow.

But, until that day comes, Senators and Representatives quite reasonably figure that, so far as their own interests go, there is no percentage in doing what reason and morality require.

The reasoning behind the positions they uphold is indefensible; and it is likely that at least a few of them realize this. Still, even for those who do, it makes sense to stay on course.

It is, as it were, the logical thing to do.

It doesn’t help that Obama and John Kerry and others who speak for the Obama administration seem basically to agree with opponents of the deal they struck with Iran.

On BDS, of course, there is no debate in official circles at all; Obama and those who would fight him tooth and nail on practically everything else are in perfect accord on that. If the Israel lobby deemed it expedient, Obama would probably be just as adamant – and ridiculous – as his French and Italian counterparts have lately been.

But even on the nuclear deal that they negotiated, Obama and Kerry and the rest agree with the objectives of the other side; or at least they say they do. They insist that Iran must never, under any circumstances, have a bomb of its own.

The disagreement in official Washington is only about the best way to assure that they do not; to see that that which must never happen never does happen.

Thus, from the White House side, there has been silence about the abundance of evidence that belies the idea that Iran has, or ever had, nuclear ambitions. And the very idea that it might not be such a bad thing, after, all, if Iran had a bomb – to deter nuclear Israel from doing whatever it wants to its neighbors and to Palestinians — is never even broached.

Proponents of the Iran deal, and of BDS, have by far the better arguments. But this hardly matters; rational self-interest trumps better arguments every time. This will not change until circumstances change — in ways that put self-interest more in line with what reason and morality require.

This is where Obama’s tendency to retreat from the fray once he has announced a policy or made a speech can have especially dire effects.

At a time when AIPAC is deluging the airwaves with propaganda pitched at a level that must embarrass even minimally thoughtful Israel-firsters, he needs to use that bully pulpit that is a perquisite of the office he holds for all that it is worth.

On the Iran deal, he has the better arguments on his side, and unorganized public opinion too; if he has the backbone to lead, he can prevail — yes, he can.

And, even with the entire political class and corporate media mobilized against BDS, BDS proponents can prevail too. The Israelis themselves will see to it. Acting as egregiously as they do, the days when they can keep “the arc of the moral universe” at bay are coming to an end.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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Obama’s line on the Iran nuclear deal: A second false narrative

Gareth Porter

By Gareth Porter. This article was first published on Middle East Eye.

Buying into the narrative that Iran is a rogue nuclear state could harm the thawing of relations between the country and the US

I’m glad that the United States and Iran reached an agreement in Vienna after nearly two years of negotiations and 35 years of enmity. A failure to do so under present political conditions would certainly have left a festering conflict with unpredictably bad consequences. And the successful negotiation of such a far-reaching agreement in which both sides made significant concessions should help to moderate the extreme hostility that has been building up in the United States over the years.

But my enthusiasm for the agreement is tempered by the fact that the US political process surrounding the Congressional consideration of the agreement is going to have the opposite effect. And a big part of the problem is that the Obama administration is not going to do anything to refute the extremist view of Iran as determined to get nuclear weapons.  Instead the administration is integrating the idea of Iran as rogue nuclear state into its messaging on the agreement.

Secretary of State John Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday makes the administration’s political strategy very clear.  In two sentences, Kerry managed to combine the images of Iranian-supported terrorism and sectarian violence across the entire region and Iranian determination to get nuclear weapons.  He told the Committee about the administrations plans to “push back against Iran’s other activities - against terrorism support, its contribution to sectarian violence in the Middle East,” which he called “unacceptable”. Then he added: “But pushing back against an Iran with nuclear weapons is very different from pushing back against Iran without one.”

The administration’s determination to be just as alarmist about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions as its opponents creates a US political discourse on the Iran nuclear issue built around two dueling narratives that disagree about the effect of the agreement but have one politically crucial common denominator:  they both hold it as beyond debate that Iran cannot be trusted because it wants nuclear weapons; and the only question is whether and for how long that Iranian quest for nuclear weapons can be held off without war.

The Israeli line is that the agreement is merely a temporary lull, and that it will simply embolden Iran to plan for a bomb once the agreement expires ten years hence. But for the administration’s tough-minded diplomatic efforts, Iran would have continued advancing towards getting a nuclear weapon, and that the only alternative to the agreement is war with Iran.

The common assumption about Iran’s nuclear policy is never debated or even discussed because it is so firmly entrenched in the political discourse by now that there is no need to discuss it.  The choice between two hardline views of Iran is hardly coincidental. The Obama administration accepted from day one the narrative about the Iranian nuclear programme that the Israelis and their American allies had crafted during the Bush administration.

The Bush administration’s narrative, adopted after the invasion of Iraq, described a covert nuclear programme run by Iran for two decades, the main purpose of which was to serve as a cover for a secret nuclear weapons programme.  Undersecretary of State John Bolton and Vice-President Dick Cheney, who were managing the policy, cleverly used leaks to the New York Times and Wall Street Journal in 2005 to introduce into the domestic political discussion alleged evidence from a collection of documents of then unknown provenance that Iran had a secret nuclear weapons research programme from 2001 to 2003.

The administration also passed the documents on to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2005, as part of a Bush strategy aimed to take Iran to the United Nations Security Council on the charge of violating its commitments to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Bolton and Cheney were working with Israel to create a justification for regime change in Iran based on the idea that Iran was working on nuclear weapons under the cover of its nuclear programme.

The entire Bush-Israeli narrative was false, however. It ignored or suppressed fundamental historical facts that contradicted it as this writer found from deeper research on the issue:

  • Iran was the one state in the entire world that had a history of abjuring weapons of mass destruction on religious grounds.  During the Iran-Iraq war the military leadership had asked Ayatollah Khomeini to approve the manufacture of chemical weapons to retaliate against repeated chemical attacks by Iraqi forces.  But Khomeini forbade their possession or use forbidden by the Shia interpretation of the Quran and Shia jurisprudence.
  • Iran had begun to pursue uranium enrichment in the mid-1980s only after the Reagan administration had declared publicly that it would prevent Iran from relying on an international consortium in France to provide nuclear fuel for the Bushehr reactor.
  • Iran did not inform the IAEA about its acquisition of enrichment technology, its experiments with centrifuges and laser enrichment or its first enrichment facility because of the continued US attempt to suppress the Iranian nuclear programme. Releasing such information would have made it easier for the United States to prevent continued procurement of necessary parts and material and to pressure China to end all nuclear cooperation with Iran.
  • The US intelligence community found no hard evidence, either from human intelligence or other forms of intelligence, of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.  US national intelligence estimates during the Bush administration concluding that Iran had run such a programme, including the most famous estimate issued in November 2007, were based on inference, not on hard intelligence. That fact stood in sharp contrast to the very unambiguous human and electronic intelligence the CIA had been able to obtain on covert nuclear weapons programmes in Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa and South Korea.

Barack Obama came to the White House with a highly critical view of Bush policy towards both Iran and Iraq and was publicly committed to diplomatic engagement with Iran. But his administration’s acceptance of the Bush line that Iran was a nuclear outlaw can be explained by the continuity of policy that the national security bureaucracy generally maintains in the transition from one administration to another, with rare exceptions.

Bureaucracies create the “facts” about any particular issue that support their interests. Defining the Iranian nuclear threat as a threat to proliferate was clearly in the interests of the counter-proliferation offices in the White House, State Department, and CIA, which wielded strong influence over the issue within their respective institutions.

The senior officials on Obama’s transition team and his initial national security team, moreover, had been closely associated with different versions of the policy of treating Iran as nuclear rogue state in previous administrations.  As Secretary of Defence in the Bush administration, Robert M Gates had catered to the interests of the Congressional-military-industrial alliance behind a missile defence programme in the United States, which had required an alarmist definition of threat from Iran’s missile and nuclear programmes.

Tom Donilon and Wendy Sherman, who had presided over Obama’s State Department transition, were both protégés of the Clinton administration’s Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, who was an ardent proponent of demonising Iran. It should be of no surprise that Donilon said in 2011 that Iran had “a record of deceit and deception,” and that Sherman declared in Congressional testimony in 2013 that Iran couldn’t be trusted because “We know that deception is part of the DNA.”

Secretary Kerry and other Obama administration officials may have moderated their views of the Iran’s nuclear programme over the course of negotiations, but the external and domestic pressures for an even tougher line toward Iran have clearly outweighed any such learning process on the issue. If it isn’t changed dramatically from Kerry’s testimony, the administration’s choice of political strategy will certainly contribute to a domestic political atmosphere in which even the most limited steps toward greater cooperation with Iran are all but impossible for years to come.

- Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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The Making of Leopoldo Lopez

Roberto Lovato

By Robert Lovato. This article was first published on Venezuela Analysis.

CARACAS — In the nearly year and a half since street protests rocked Caracas, the U.S. press has been kind to Leopoldo López, the 44-year-old jailed leader of Venezuela’s radical opposition. He has been painted as a combination of Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, and his distant grand uncle, Simón Bolívar, for his magnetic brand of in-your-face politics. Newsweek wrote of his “twinkling chocolate-colored eyes and high cheekbones” and called López a “revolutionary who has it all.” The New York Times published a photo of him, jaw out, fist in the air, in front of a crowd of screaming protesters and gave him a platform on its op-ed page. In New York, when the United Nations met last September, protestors rallied to show support for López, and President Barack Obama listed him among a group of political prisoners from repressive countries such as China and Egypt who “deserve to be free.” López, who has done interviews shirtless, came to embody freedom and democracy for audiences across the globe, with stars from Kevin Spacey to Cher rallying to his cause, while the hashtag #freeleopoldo rocketed across Twitter.

But in Venezuela the picture is far more complicated. López has been in jail since February 2014 on charges of arson, public incitement, and conspiracy related to the first big anti-government protest that year, on Feb. 12, 2014, which left three protesters dead and kicked off weeks of rallies, street blockades, vandalism, and violence. The charges against him, which Amnesty International has called “politically motivated,” could carry a prison sentence of 10 years. Outside the courtroom, the public debate continues to swirl between those who believe López is a freedom fighter facing trumped-up charges and those who believe he is the violent “fascista” the government of President Nicolás Maduro claims.

Compared to that wave of street protests — which ultimately left a total of 43 anti-government protesters, government supporters, and national guardsmen dead — López’s trial has proceeded largely without fanfare. The judge has been far from friendly to López’s defense, rejecting all but one of the 65 witnesses his attorneys sought to call, while admitting 108 witnesses for the prosecution. “This isn’t a trial,” López wrote from jail last summer. “It’s a firing squad.” Last September, by means of his official Twitter handle, he claimed that Maduro and his interior minister were “the ones truly responsible for the violent acts.” Still, when proceedings resumed this February, Venezuelan media barely took note.

López’s court dates in Caracas have generally attracted only small groups of supporters outside the courthouse, led by Lilian Tintori, López’s wife. Other key opposition leaders have stayed away, though they routinely voice support for López’s release. A recent campaign by his party, Voluntad Popular, to convene an assembly to rewrite the constitution and reorganize the government attracted criticism, with the leader of a rival opposition party calling for “responsibility and maturity” and one opposition governor calling for an end to “anarchy or guarimbas,” the street barricades that were the preferred tactic of López’s youthful followers.

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During visits to Venezuela last year, it was clear that López remained a rock star among young opposition activists, even after his arrest. “Leopoldo is a person of extremely high democratic and Catholic values,” Alejandro Aguirre, a member of JAVU (United Activist Youth of Venezuela), one of the main student groups behind the February protests, told me. “He’s also an athlete,” added Aguirre, who I met at a May 7 opposition forum called “Thinking Differently Is Not a Crime” that was hosted at El Nacional, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “Athletes are morally clean, unblemished, [and] more mentally sharp than other people.” He also talked about López being a good family man. “Leopoldo,” he said, “is an example for youth.”

Later that day, the telegenic Tintori, a former model, kite-surfing champion, and reality show star, appeared at a rally for political prisoners held in Chacao, the Caracas district where her husband once served as mayor and which has been a center of anti-government opposition. It also happens to be one of the wealthiest localities in all of Venezuela. Vibrant in a bright orange windbreaker, with her flawless smile and long blonde hair, Tintori’s strengths as standard-bearer for her jailed husband’s message were on full display.

“They want to imprison our dream!” she shouted, posed next to one of the life-sized cardboard figures of her husband that had become ubiquitous in the opposition strongholds of wealthy eastern Caracas. She praised her husband’s record as mayor, mentioning a Chacao health clinic where doctors “treat you with love, as if you were someone special.” She continued, “This is what we Venezuelans are all like, all equal, rights for all people without distinction and without privileges! Today, the struggle of one is the struggle of all!”

The day’s events offered a glimpse of the media-powered populism that has helped López and his political party gain traction where Venezuela’s established opposition, led by a coalition called the MUD, or Democratic Unity Roundtable, has failed. The opposition lost big in 18 of the 19 national and regional elections and referenda held since former President Hugo Chávez was first elected in 1998. Though rarely noted in the U.S. media, the deep-seated rifts between the MUD and its leader, Henrique Capriles, and the younger, more radical flank of the Venezuelan opposition led by López are reported on with the excitement of a soap opera in Venezuelan media. “For the opposition parties, Lopez draws ire second only to Chavez,” Mary Ponte, a leading member of the center-right Primero Justicia opposition party, once said, according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable. “The only difference between the two is that López is a lot better looking.” In a section of the same U.S. embassy cable titled “The Lopez ‘Problem,’” U.S. State Department officials described López as a “divisive figure within the opposition” who is “often described as arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry — but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organizer.” Certainly no previous Venezuelan opposition leader has succeeded in projecting himself onto the international stage like López has.

But the international embrace of López has depended heavily on his image as a stalwart defender of democracy — someone at a safe distance from the highly unpopular coup attempt of April 2002, in which elements of the military and business leaders ousted President Chávez for 47 hours. A July 2014 white paper about his trial authored by two attorneys who have represented him and his family — Jared Genser and José Antonio Maes — asserts that “López was not a supporter of the coup and he did not sign the Act Constituting the Government of Democratic Transition and National Unity (‘Carmona Decree’), the document that attempted to oust Chávez and dissolve the National Assembly and Supreme Court … nor was he allied with the business leaders who led it.” López himself often points to his loyalty to the constitution, as in the New York Times op-ed which appeared in March 2014, in which he wrote, “A change in leadership can be accomplished entirely within a constitutional and legal framework.”

But interviews with key figures in the 2002 coup, a look at López’s close associates, and a review of Venezuelan press accounts, videotaped events, and U.S. government documents paint a more complex picture about these claims.

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Leopoldo López was born in 1971 to one of Venezuela’s most elite families, a direct descendent of both 19th-century revolutionary leader Simón Bolivar and Venezuela’s first president, Cristóbal Mendoza. His mother, Antonieta Mendoza de López, is a top executive at the Cisneros Group, a global media conglomerate. His father, Leopoldo López Gil, is a restaurateur and businessman who sits on the editorial board of El Nacional.

“I belong to one percent of the privileged people,” López said as a teenager, long before the Occupy movement popularized the term, during an interview with a student newspaper at the Hun School of Princeton, an elite private boarding school in New Jersey. It was at Hun, whose alumni roster includes Saudi princes, the child of a U.S. president, and the child of a Fortune 500 CEO, that López said he experienced “an awakening of the responsibility I have towards the people of my country.”

López went on from Hun to Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Ohio, where he developed relationships that would serve him to this day. It was a former classmate and political consultant, Rob Gluck, who led the effort to set up Friends of a Free Venezuela, the media-centered advocacy group behind a high-profile U.S. campaign for López’s release. As a testament to the “powerful impact [López] has had on people,” Gluck, a spokesperson for the group, told me, “within days of the arrest, really within hours,” friends from Kenyon in influential positions in journalism, communications, advocacy, and government were “emailing, connecting, volunteering, [and] asking what could we do.”

Some of these classmates went on to found the Free Leopoldo campaign, a well-connected advocacy group that has run a vibrant PR and social media campaign on López’s behalf. Among the Kenyon classmates helping to power Free Leopoldo in the United States is Republican Party operative Leonardo Alcivar, who ran communications strategies for the Romney campaign and the 2004 Republican National Convention and now works at a communications firm that advises companies on their online strategy. No other element of the Venezuelan opposition has anything resembling the U.S. media operation that López has through Free Leopoldo.

Gluck is himself also a former Republican strategist who worked on Lamar Alexander’s presidential campaign and the successful campaign to recall California Governor Gray Davis, which resulted in the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He is currently a managing partner at High Lantern Group, a Pasadena-based communications strategy firm. He said López has “always been progressive,” and if measured on the U.S. political spectrum, he’d be “left of center.” Gluck runs Friends of a Free Venezuela pro bono — “personal time, passion, and connections” drive the work, he said — but his communications firm has also been retained by López’s family, he said, to “get the message out about [López’s] situation.”

After Kenyon, López went to Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he met another influential figure who would become a key supporter — Venezuelan national Pedro Burelli, a former JP Morgan executive and pre-Chávez-era member of the board of directors of PDVSA, Venezuela’s national petroleum firm, which controls the world’s largest crude reserves. The two first met, Burelli said, during a recruiting trip at Harvard while Burelli was still at JP Morgan. “Someone called my attention to this young Venezuelan who was at the Kennedy School where I had graduated many years before,” said Burelli, who is now a corporate consultant with B+V Advisors, “and I connected him.” López went to work at PDVSA in 1996 and stayed there as an analyst for three years during Burelli’s tenure on PDVSA’s board. In 1998, López’s mother joined PDVSA as well, as vice president of corporate affairs.

Burelli considers himself a “very good friend” of López, and said he has provided informal advice to the opposition leader through his many contentious political transitions, from López’s time at PDVSA to the most recent clashes with the Maduro government. Burelli explained that while he was at PDVSA, López helped found a group called Primero Justicia — which led, in 2000, to the formation of an opposition party of the same name. In 1998, a comptroller general investigation found that López’s mother had channeled $120,000 in corporate donations from PDVSA to Primero Justicia while she and López were at the firm, in violation of anti-corruption laws. López’s attorneys point out that Primero Justicia was a nonprofit at the time, not yet a party, and López never stood trial on the charges. But the comptroller general nevertheless barred López from holding office from 2008 until 2014.

López left Primero Justicia in 2007 over disputes with other party members and then leapt from one political party to another, leading up to his quixotic run for president in 2012 on the ticket of his current party, Voluntad Popular. He was also, during these years, playing a pivotal role in Venezuela’s rising student opposition movement. A leaked State Department cable from 2007 reads, in part, “the young, dynamic opposition mayor of Chacao Municipality in Caracas, Leopoldo Lopez, addressed students during early demonstrations in his jurisdiction, and he is actively advising them behind-the-scenes”; another describes López as “the best channel to the student movement.” Some JAVU leaders, including one mentioned in the cables, went on to become active in Voluntad Popular, the party that fueled López’s rise to national prominence.

While López was honing his political skills and building his base, he stayed in the shadow of his former ally in the Venezuelan opposition, Henrique Capriles, who remained the leader of Primero Justicia, running for president twice. But Capriles lost badly to Chávez, by more than 1 million votes, in 2012, contributing to catastrophic losses by the opposition coalition in governors’ races later that year. In 2013, Capriles lost again to Maduro, albeit in a tighter race. These losses created new divisions among the opposition and — combined with Venezuela’s economic downturn and the long wait until Maduro’s term expires in 2019 — sparked López and his student allies to take to the streets in February of last year, where they clamored for “Libertad!” and “Democracia!” They also began to call for the “salida,” or exit, of Maduro, a cry that was used widely against Chávez in 2002.

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Democracy is at the heart of the new, more radical movement’s claim to legitimacy. And central to that claim is the ability of their charismatic leader to distance himself from Venezuela’s brief 2002 coup attempt, which remains an open political wound.

In mid-April 2002, in the midst of an opposition-led general strike against PDVSA and mass protests against (and in support of) President Hugo Chávez, a group of military and business leaders took Chávez into custody and appointed an interim president, Pedro Carmona, then-president of Venezuela’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce. The key document in which the plotters announced their new government was signed at Miraflores, the presidential palace, on April 12, 2002, the day Chávez was arrested and Carmona assumed power. Known as the “Carmona Decree,” the document dissolved the National Assembly and the Supreme Court, effectively nullifying the country’s 1999 constitution. The fate of the coup attempt hinged on the events that unfolded over the surrounding days, as the opposition movement mounted a general strike, mass protests, and a media campaign to bolster the legitimacy of the Carmona government at home and abroad. While the attempt was denounced by governments across the globe, former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration declined to do so, putting wind in Carmona’s sails. For days, military leaders had been pressuring Chávez to willingly step down, and coup leaders then claimed, falsely, that he had done so. Meanwhile, pro-Chávez forces organized mass demonstrations of their own; riding that wave, pro-Chávez military officers threatened to remove Carmona, at which point he resigned, and Chávez was airlifted back to the presidential palace.

The attempted coup remains very unpopular in Venezuela, in no small part because of Carmona’s decision to throw out the constitution, a document that just three years earlier had been approved by an overwhelming majority of Venezuelans, including many opposition sympathizers. A September 2003 poll by Datanálisis, one of Venezuela’s most prominent polling firms, found that more than 90 percent of respondents preferred that the country’s political crisis be resolved by legal, democratic, and peaceful means. The unpopularity of the coup was further confirmed by Chávez’s resounding victory in a 2004 recall election. And those two days in 2002 remain a “delicate” subject among the opposition, according to Datanálisis’s president, Luis Vicente León. “They did something they’ve tried to forget,” he said, “and they want to keep it that way.”

López and his allies on the radical flank of the opposition have long tried to distance themselves from its memory. Over the years, López has emphasized that he did not sign Carmona’s decree — no evidence indicates that he did — and that he had no role in organizing the coup attempt. “At no point was López ever a proponent of the coup, nor was he allied with the business leaders who led it,” the white paper by his attorneys reads. The paper was released on July 21, 2014, at a National Press Club press conference that featured an emotional appeal by Tintori for “solidarity” and for her husband’s release from jail. “It breaks my heart,” she told the gathering of journalists and supporters, “having to explain to my daughter after every visit why her daddy can’t come home.”

But news reports, parliamentary records, U.S. government documents, video recordings, and interviews show that López was not quite as remote from the coup attempt and its plotters as he and his representatives claim. Coup leaders and Carmona signatories included figures who were at the time, or are now, members of López’s inner circle. Harvard-educated Leopoldo Martínez, for several years an opposition leader in parliament, led Primero Justicia with López; he was designated finance minister of the short-lived Carmona government. Maria Corina Machado, López’s closest ally, who joined him in calling for last February’s protests, was a signatory; as was Manuel Rosales, a former leader of Un Nuevo Tiempo, a party that López joined and helped build in 2007 (and was expelled from in 2009). Also among the roughly 400 business, military, media, and political figures to sign the decree during a raucous ceremony in April 2002 at Miraflores — while Chávez was being held, not far away, at a military installation — was Leopoldo López Gil, López’s father.

Last May, at the rally for political prisoners in Caracas, I approached López Sr. to ask about his decision to sign. “I didn’t, none of us who were there, signed any ‘decree,’” he said. “What they passed around was an attendance sheet that later was misrepresented. How were we going to sign something we hadn’t even seen?” But video of the Carmona signing on April 12, which only came to light in recent years, speaks to a different reality: A crowded room of men in suits cheer as the parts of the decree dissolving all branches of government are read to thundering applause by Daniel Romero, Carmona’s attorney general designate. The video also shows Carmona being sworn in as president, and Romero inviting the attendees to “sign the decree that was just read, in support of the process.”

At the time of the coup attempt, the younger López, then 30, was mayor of Chacao, a Caracas subdivision. He supported both the general strike of April 9-10 and the massive opposition march on April 11 that immediately preceded Chávez’s removal. Both events were pivotal to the coup’s brief success, and López and Primero Justicia offered its leaders both legitimacy and a crucial base of popular support.

At parliamentary hearings on the coup, convened in June of that year, video from a broadcast of 24 Horas, a news show on Venevision, was shown, in which the younger López seems to be celebrating Chávez’s removal. (Venevision said that it could not locate any footage from 2002.) “That day, for me, from the beginning was a day of not turning back,” he says, according to the official parliamentary transcript. “That was a day where we said, here is where the mask of the dictatorship fell, and we bet it all.” (A member of López’s legal team, asked to respond to these lines, said by email, “There is nothing in what Leopoldo said that indicates his support for a coup…. He never called for the removal or overthrow of President Chavez.” He added, “And you definitely cannot rely on what the Government of Venezuela has said he said.”)

Other contemporaneous video evidence seems to indicate enormous enthusiasm by López for Chávez’s ouster. In one news broadcast of the pivotal PDVSA protest rally in Caracas on April 9, 2002, a baseball-capped López steps onto the stage to lead the crowd of tens of thousands in a chorus of “Not one step backwards!” At the top of his voice, he yells: “We’ll be here all night and tomorrow all day until the president leaves!” (“The protests and march,” said López’s attorney, “were not an attempted coup — they only were transformed into that later, and not by him.”) In a video communiqué from Primero Justicia released as the coup was unfolding on April 11, López and other party leaders flank their spokesperson, opposition parliament member Julio Borges, who says he and other MPs are ready to resign their positions and demand that Supreme Court, the president, and his cabinet “resign” their posts as well, a tactic to legitimize the dissolution of the Chávez government. López repeatedly uses the same word, renuncia, or resignation, as well as salida, the favored terms of the coup leaders, during an April 11 interview on Venevision’s popular Napoleon Bravo morning talk show. According to available video excerpts from that interview, López also briefly describes what a “transition government” might look like and proposes only two ways out of the political crisis: a coup or the dissolution of the government. “What are the possibilities we have in Venezuela?” he asks rhetorically. “Either we will have a coup, quick and dry, or another kind, or the proposal we’re making [for the Chávez government to step down]. There’s no other way to get past the deadlock being played out here in Venezuela.” Of course, Chávez never did resign. He was arrested instead.

In his book chronicling the events of April 2002, My Testimony Before History, Carmona indicates that the April 11 march was originally headed to PDVSA headquarters but was rerouted to the presidential palace, where pro-Chávez protesters had already gathered. When the two sides met near the palace, the conflict turned deadly, with 19 protesters — from both sides — shot and killed. Carmona writes that he “consulted with” López and that the protest’s fatal route change was “authorized by Mayor Leopoldo López.”

Yet a month and a half after that violent confrontation, during testimony before the parliamentary commission investigating the overthrow attempt, López insisted that “at no moment did we have any contact with spokespeople of the transition government … the decisions we made were totally and absolutely autonomous.”

López’s most controversial episode remains the April 12 arrest and detention of then-Interior Minister Ramón Rodríguez Chacín. López, mayor of Chacao at the time, and Capriles, then-mayor of Baruta (another Caracas municipality), saying they had been tipped off by neighbors, showed up at a house where Chacín was staying, unguarded, to personally charge him with responsibility for the 19 shooting deaths that had taken place the previous day. As opposition supporters and media gathered outside the house in Baruta, the two mayors took him into custody. (The deaths remain unresolved; both sides maintain the other was responsible.) López told reporters at the time that he and Capriles had obtained a search warrant of the house and had coordinated with the Baruta police on Chacín’s arrest. Moments after Chacín was taken away, news video captures López telling a reporter that “President Carmona knows of the arrest,” another possible indication of coordination with the coup’s leader, something that López has denied in general terms many times since. (After Chávez was returned to power, Capriles and López were indicted for illegal detention in conjunction with the incident, but they were later pardoned as part of a far-reaching and controversial amnesty. Questioned on a pro-government talk show in 2012, López conceded that the arrest had been an error.)

In March 2014, I sat down with Chacín, now governor of the state of Guárico, to discuss that day’s events. “I had recently met with Carmona in his home, trying to negotiate with him to figure out how to reach an agreement to bring peace to the country,” he said. The arrest, just a week later, took him by surprise.

“Leopoldo López began rallying the neighbors with his megaphone, saying I was a murderer, that I was responsible for the killings,” said Chacín. “He was gathering them in, telling them I would be brought to justice for the murders of the past few days.” A news clip of the incident shows Chacín being beaten by the crowd. But according to the transcript of those June 2002 parliamentary hearings about the coup, other news video from that day quotes López claiming that the Chávez government is “in hiding, but here, justice will be imposed, because what Venezuela is calling for right now is justice.”

Chacín continued, “They said they were going to detain me and that they were going to do it anyway because ‘this is a coup d’état, and Chávez had resigned.’ I told them, ‘No. Chávez did not resign.’”

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López has never been formally charged with plotting a coup. But the fact that he played some role in the contentious events of 2002 is widely known in his home country and has likely colored how many Venezuelans view his role in the protests that erupted in Caracas last February. Last March, with the guarimbas, or street barricades, still in place in the city’s elite opposition strongholds, I spoke with Hermann Escarrá, a constitutional attorney and former opposition activist, who was one of the principal architects of the 1999 Venezuelan constitution. Though Escarrá is reviled by some Chavistas for his opposition to President Chávez and his supporters over their plan in 2009 to extend the president’s term indefinitely, Escarrá calls the events of 2002 a “rupture of the constitutional order.”

Escarrá said he respects López personally but does not share what he calls López’s disregard for the constitution. He sat next to López at an opposition gathering in February 2004, an event captured on videotape, as the young politician declared, “We should feel proud of April 11, when we toppled Chávez with a march! … The man resigned on the 11th, he put his tail between his legs and he left” — a striking assertion, nearly two years after the coup, when it was no longer plausible to claim that Chávez had ever resigned.

I asked him to reflect on the protests that were then still roiling the city and on the government’s allegations that López was responsible for some of the violence. Escarrá wouldn’t comment on the current charges against López, saying he wasn’t familiar enough with the details of the case, and he defended the opposition’s right to peaceful protest. But he expressed grave concern about the recent opposition protests that had turned lawless and violent. “In the United States, what’s happening now in Venezuela would not have happened and won’t happen. No one would think to burn cars or tires, set fire to a street leading up to the White House, because the punishment would be truly serious,” Escarrá said. “Here, there are barricades called guarimbaswhere they’ve found armaments for war, where they’ve found Molotov cocktails.”

Over the past year, a series of fresh government allegations have begun to take the shine off 2014’s wave of protests. It began with a thinly sourced government report, issued in May of last year. Called “Coup d’état and Assassination Plan Unveiled in Venezuela,” the report places the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Kevin Whitaker, and two close López allies — María Corina Machado, now leader of the Vente Venezuela party, and López’s old friend and mentor from Harvard, Pedro Burelli — as part of a conspiracy to “annihilate” Maduro and overthrow the government. The plot, according to then-Justice Minister Miguel Rodríguez Torres, included political, business, and military leaders, who, he claimed, were the true forces behind the February 2014 street protests. Burelli, who currently lives in McLean, Virginia, is now considered a fugitive from justice by Venezuelan authorities.

To back its claims, the government released emails between the alleged plotters, as well as recorded conversations involving Burelli. Burelli denies all charges and hired forensic investigators who say that the emails were forged and that Google has no record of some of them having been sent. A U.S. State Department spokesperson called the allegations against Whitaker “false accusations in a long line of baseless allegations against U.S. diplomats by the Venezuelan government.” Machado has dismissed the charges as “a fantasy.”

But Burelli has not denied the authenticity of the voice recordings of his conversations released by two local elected officials, who say they took place between Feb. 20 and March 14 of last year, in the middle of the wave of protests that launched López onto the international stage.

“What’s happened? I keep seeing lots of protests, lots of people in the streets. What’s happening inside your colectivo?” Burelli asks in one conversation with an unidentified military officer, using a term often used to refer to a political cell. (Burelli says the officer is retired and won’t name him.) “I think the world is extremely activated,” Burelli tells the officer in a voicemail. “All that’s missing is for this part of the military to make the decisions it needs to make.”

“I think that there’s another Leopoldo López in the armed forces who understands that the time has come to clean the scum of Chavismo, the scum of complicity, the scum of corruption,” Burelli continues. “Any group that stands up and says this now will generate a crisis, I guarantee it. But it must be linked to the struggle of the people, to Leo’s struggle and in solidarity with Leo…. This is the moment. There’s no risk if it’s done right.”

When I asked Burelli about the recordings, he said, “Those are my recordings, but those recordings do not prove anything…. People who’ve read the whole thing say this is a conversation one could have with anybody.”

By September 2014, Lorent Saleh, a founder of JAVU, one of the student groups most closely identified with last year’s protests, was also facing charges. Venezuela’s Ministry of Justice arrested Saleh, accusing him of terrorism, and released videos in which Saleh can be seen talking about bombing discos and liquor stores, burning buildings, and bringing in snipers to kill grassroots leaders. Though barely reported in the U.S. media, last year’s protests were marked by several such incidents, including the firebombing of government ministries, child care centers, city buses, and television stations and the fatal shootings of security forces and Chavista sympathizers.

Finally, in February of this year, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who was, along with López and Machado, one of the three leading figures behind the previous February’s upheavals, was arrested on charges of sedition and conspiracy as part of yet another alleged coup attempt. Both Saleh and Ledezma deny all of the charges; the latter’s attorney said the charges against Ledezma are “based on falsifications [and] evidence tampering.” (The two figures are linked by Saleh, who says, in one of the videos, “Ledezma is key…. The politician who has most supported the resistance has always been Ledezma.”)

The allegations against Saleh and Ledezma rattled the opposition. Both its moderate and radical wings closed ranks in defending Ledezma, whose arrest drew international attention and renewed calls for López’s release. But Saleh’s case was more divisive, with some of López’s closest allies in Voluntad Popular expressing concerns about the “violation of [Saleh’s] human rights” and others rapidly distancing themselves, saying Saleh “owes the country an explanation.” (When asked about López’s links to Burelli, Saleh, and Ledezma, the López attorney said, “There is every reason to have serious questions about the authenticity of these claims.”)

The arrest of Ledezma took place just a week after he, López, and Machado had joined forces to release — on the anniversary of last year’s upheavals — a “Call on Venezuelans for a National Accord for the Transition.” It calls for a “peaceful transition” of the Maduro government, which, the document says, is in its “terminal phase.”

President Maduro responded by releasing, on March 4, what he claims is another opposition document; this one lays out a detailed 100-day transition plan whose blueprint contains echoes of 2002. He claimed, obliquely, that the document had been authored by the “violent ones who are in prison.”

* * *

Conspiracy and counter-conspiracy may be a constant in Venezuela today, but these left-right political dramas have been overshadowed by Venezuela’s mounting economic crisis and its pressure cooker effects on Venezuelan politics. On March 9, the Obama administration piled on, declaring the situation in Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” (The administration has since backed away from this statement.)

These winds would seem to favor the Venezuelan opposition. Luis Vicente León, the Datanálisis pollster, told me that recent polls show that the figure paying the biggest political price for the current crisis is Maduro, whose popularity dropped in January to 23 percent, his lowest ever, while, as of March, approval of López and Capriles had each risen to 40 percent. (Maduro’s approval rebounded to 28 percent in March.) The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela remains the best organized, and its support remains strong in Venezuela’s poor communities, a segment that will be key in the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled for later this year. But Maduro’s personal unpopularity has eroded the party’s base, which now claims the loyalty of only 17 percent of the electorate (from a high of 42 percent under Chávez), the same as the combined total of those who identify with one of Venezuela’s many opposition parties.

The figure who gained the most from last year’s upheavals, says León, is, without a doubt, Leopoldo López. Jail has boosted López’s public image, León says, with some seeing a “valiant martyr who was unjustly imprisoned, without a doubt unjustly — and without a doubt a political prisoner who generates singular solidarity.”

His rising star, however, may also contribute to a further “fracturing” of the opposition, León says, as López now “shares the stage and popular support on an equal level with Capriles.” Opposition standard-bearer Capriles finds himself struggling to keep his more moderate opposition coalition, the MUD, from fracturing further in the face of the growing influence of López and his radical flank.

Just this past May, these schisms were on full display, following a hunger strike by López and his call for a mass protest. “A year and three months on from our call [to protest], the situation is worse than last year,” said López on May 23 in a video recording released from Ramo Verde prison. “Brother and sister Venezuelans, we want to call on you for a protest, a resounding protest, massive, pacific, without any kind [of] violence, on the streets of Venezuela this Saturday.” The hunger strike, joined by a handful of student supporters, “represents the suffering of all Venezuelans,” declared López’s wife, Lilian. She was joined by Ledezma’s wife for the Caracas protest on May 30, which attracted an estimated 3,000 followers — a sliver of the mass actions last year.

The MUD coalition issued a statement declaring it would not participate (though Capriles tweeted that he would personally attend), even taking a jab at what they called López’s “unilateral” approach: “The best decisions are those that are arrived at together, because unity has no substitute,” the release stated.

What becomes of the Venezuelan opposition may not be determined by the outcome of López’s legal case, which appears to have no end in sight. Much will hinge on Leopoldo López’s credibility: whether the court of national opinion will continue to see López and his flank of the opposition as a serious new voice for democratic change or as a movement marked by unpopular strains of radicalism.

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