Coal Industry Collapsing in Appalachia, leaving behind Blighted Landscape

By Laura Gottesdiener. | ( | – –

In Appalachia, explosions have leveled the mountain tops into perfect race tracks for Ryan Hensley’s all-terrain vehicle (ATV). At least, that’s how the 14-year-old sees the barren expanses of dirt that stretch for miles atop the hills surrounding his home in the former coal town of Whitesville, West Virginia.

“They’re going to blast that one next,” he says, pointing to a peak in the distance. He’s referring to a process known as “mountain-top removal,” in which coal companies use explosives to blast away hundreds of feet of rock in order to unearth underground seams of coal.

“And then it’ll be just blank space,” he adds. “Like the Taylor Swift song.”

Skinny and shirtless, Hensley looks no more than 11 or 12. His ribs and collarbones protrude from his taut skin. Dipping tobacco is tucked into his right cheek. He has a head of cropped blond curls that jog some memory of mine, but I can’t quite figure out what it is. He’s pointing at a peak named Coal River Mountain. These days, though, it’s known to activists here as “the Last Mountain,” as it’s the only ridgeline in this area that’s still largely intact.

We continue picking our way along a path on topless Kayford “Mountain,” a few miles from Hensley’s hometown (population 514, according to the 2010 census), as he resumes chronicling his adventures on ATVs. Nearby is the Seng Creek mine, still semi-active and one of Hensley’s favorite racing spots. Active mines are always the best race tracks, he assures me, since you get the added thrill of outrunning security guards and watching explosions, which sound, he tells me, like hundreds of dump trucks emptying their loads all at once.

As we walk, we’re careful to step over crevices known as “mine cracks” — deep narrow drops into the earth most often formed by the caving in of old underground mines. Hensley stops to peer into one crack filled with broken Bud Lite bottles and I joke that it leads straight through to China.

But Hensley knows better. At his young age, he’s already an expert on everything about mountain-top removal: how companies blast the peaks with ammonium nitrate and fuel oil — the same chemical combination that Timothy McVeigh used to detonate the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He knows that the process fills the air with toxic coal dust, benzene, and carbon monoxide, while contaminating nearby streams with arsenic.

However, Hensley doesn’t know and can hardly imagine what this region — his home — was like before the peaks were removed. “I wasn’t alive when those mountains were there,” he observes a few hours later. And even though the industry in West Virginia is in the grips of an unprecedented collapse that threatens to dethrone King Coal once and for all, this 14-year-old and all the other children growing up in the shadow of these “blank spaces” will never see the decapitated peaks return to thickly forested mountain tops.

The King Is Dead

In the first half of this year, at least six domestic coal companies filed for bankruptcy. In February, West Virginia’s Covington Coal fell, followed by Xinergy and Grass Creek Coal in April, Patriot and Birmingham Coal & Coke in May, and A&M Coal in June. In August came the biggest announcement of all: the $10-billion coal giant Alpha Natural Resources had entered the bankruptcy sweepstakes, too.

Only four years earlier, Alpha had secured its position as one of the world’s largest coal outfits by purchasing the Appalachian company Massey Energy for $7 billion and expanding its operations to 60 mines, many in Appalachia. But its reign would prove short-lived. The price of coal has been plummeting as utility companies shift to significantly cheaper shale gas, extracted through the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to produce power. This April, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1973, gas surpassed coal as the nation’s number one producer of energy.

By late July, the New York Stock Exchange announced that it had suspended trading of Alpha Natural Resources’ stock because it was worth next to nothing.

In August, the inevitable occurred. Alpha submitted a bankruptcy filing which read in part: “The unprecedented changes facing the coal industry run deep and are occurring at a frenetic and unpredictable pace…The U.S. coal industry as currently structured is unsustainable.”

By now, the funeral was underway and the first obituaries were appearing. Headlines in various papers not only announced Alpha’s demise, but offered autopsies for the entire industry. As the New York Times put it in its headline three days after the filing: “King Coal, Long Besieged, Is Deposed by the Market.”

Causes of death: the explosion of cheap natural gas, the rising costs of new environmental and worker safety regulations, and a simple geological reality — the industry has already mined out the majority of all economically recoverable coal.

This energy version of regime change had been long in the making. The coalfields are filled with now-abandoned company towns, where the industry once employed hundreds of thousands of men to work in underground mines. The extraction process generated massive wealth, at least for the mine owners. In the late 1880s, Bramwell, West Virginia, was reputedly home to the highest concentration of millionaires per capita of any town in the United States. Today, its high school still boasts of that legacy through its teams’ nickname: the Bramwell Millionaires.

In the second half of the twentieth century, many of those towns all but evaporated as the industry turned to strip mining, a mechanized process that uses heavy machinery rather than muscle power to carve away rock and expose seams of coal running along hillsides. The town of Kayford, which sits at the base of its namesake mountain, is one such example. Once a company town for men employed in the mines, its main road is now lined only with poplars, sycamores, and basswood, a few poured-concrete foundations, and a crumbling single-story brick wall. The town’s last building is said to have burned down toward the end of the 1970s.

The former town is still, however, home to an active strip mine called Alpha’s Republic #1, which employs few people but has managed to extract a considerable amount of coal. In 2012, organizers with the climate justice group Mountain Justice formed a human blockade to shut down work traffic going in and out of the site. It was just one of dozens and dozens of blockades, “tree-sits,” and other direct actions Mountain Justice has executed as part of a decade-long campaign, which has won regulatory improvements to reduce water contamination, shielded schools in the coalfields from the worst health impacts of mining, moderated flooding caused by that mining, and demanded the industry do more to replant trees and grasses on old mine sites. That campaign also helped inspire almost all the major environmental activism in the nation today — from the university divestment movement to tree sits in Texas to block the Keystone XL pipeline to the arrest this month of people seeking to halt the construction of the first commercial tar sands mine in this country.

In many ways, however, Mountain Justice’s protests were among the least extreme in the state’s long history of organizing. Drive farther up the mountain and you’ll find concrete bunkers built by hired guns from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency sent in to quell a powerful miner’s strike in 1912-1913. Less than 10 years later, as many as 10,000 armed miners from West Virginia would launch the largest labor uprising in the nation’s history.

The Mountains at the Center of the World

Even higher up the mountain, past the bunkers, lies Stanley Heirs Park, a 50-acre swath of land surrounded by the final stage of coal extraction: mountain-top removal.

In the 1970s, as more and more of the readily available coal was extracted from West Virginia’s underground mines and ridge lines, companies decided to take strip mining to its logical conclusion: they would simply blast away the entire tops of mountains to get at the remaining coal. The results are visible in the flattened, barren mines that surround the park, including the Seng Creek mine where Ryan Hensley likes to ride his ATV.

Hensley and dozens of others converged here for an annual Fourth of July celebration, an event hosted by the family of the late Larry Gibson, a prominent organizer against mountain-top removal. His family has lived here on Kayford Mountain since the late 1700s and this section alone has remained unblasted because Gibson turned the family plot into a land trust in order to fend off the industry.

Before his death in 2012, Gibson was much hated in the area for taking on the coal companies, so his friends and neighbors tell me as we share fried chicken and Budweiser. His house was riddled with bullets. His dogs were poisoned or shot. But he succeeded in protecting at least his small plot of land from the explosives. Now, as his family points out, the land that used to lie in the shadow of surrounding taller peaks has become, after 30 years of mountain-top removal, the highest site in the area.

Few know more about the impact of the mining industry than Elise Keaton, a 30-something native West Virginian with the enthusiastic, commanding voice of a camp counselor. Years ago, she did what many of the state’s residents do if they can: she left. She earned a law degree in Texas and later helped with disaster relief in post-Katrina New Orleans.

“But being from West Virginia is like having a fishhook in your heart,” she tells me. So she returned and, following Gibson’s death, took over the role of educating newcomers about Kayford. Standing at the edge of the Seng Creek mine, owned by the now bankrupt coal company Patriot, Keaton explains that the surrounding mountain peaks have been reduced by at least 400 feet, if not more. The removed earth — known in industry parlance as the “overburden” — was dumped into the nearby valleys, where it covered streams, reducing the region’s fresh water supply.

Before coal companies came along, Appalachia had been “burdened” by these mountains for more than 400 million years. They were formed by the same collision of tectonic plates that produced the single supercontinent Pangea. The Appalachian mountain range then lay at the heart of the world’s only unified landmass.

Today, the unblasted sections of West Virginia’s mountains are blanketed by a temperate forest so diverse that researchers are still discovering new species, including a reddish-orange crayfish that was plucked out of the water in 2013 and dubbed Cambarus hatfieldi — a Latin play on the name of the famed West Virginia family, the Hatfields, who feuded with their neighbors across the river in Kentucky, the McCoys.

Keaton recently invited a forest expert to visit Kayford Mountain and survey the decommissioned mines. The coal companies have made only the most meager efforts to reclaim this devastated land by planting quick-growth pine trees, black locust, grass seed, and other plants that can live with high levels of acids in the soil. Keaton wanted to know how long it would take for these stands of identical pines to be transformed into a diverse rainforest, so she took the expert to one of the ridges and asked him when the real forest would grow back.

“And he said,” Elise recalled, “‘About 100 million years.’”

Before his death, Gibson dubbed the entrance to the Seng Creek mine “Hell’s Gate,” since for many years this site looked out across a vast expanse of gray broken only by the movements of massive machines and those explosions, which occurred every day of the year. A writer for Smithsonian Magazine who visited Kayford in 2009, while this mine was still being blasted frequently, wrote that “entering a mountaintop site is like crossing into a war zone.”

Now, few are the explosions at Seng Creek, but the nothingness remains.

There’s almost no sound down in the mine itself except for the muffled rush of the wind unshielded by trees. Heaps of sandstone and fragmented shale rock stretch for what looks like miles. Much of the surface dirt has been packed down into undulating wide roads by the giant wheels of coal trucks. Most of the birds long ago left this desolate spot, although you can hear the occasional singing of meadowlarks from nearby reclamation sites. (“We’ve never had meadow larks here before,” Keaton later tells me, as she stands on a nearby ridge overlooking a decommissioned mine seeded with grass. “But this is more like a meadow now.”)

I walk to the far edge of the mine, sit down, and peer into some of the cylindrical holes, about 11 inches in diameter, that workers once drilled into the shale rock as places to pack full of ammonium nitrate. I recall what one of the festival’s musicians said about coal — that he liked to think of it as old sunlight trapped inside rocks as long decomposed organic matter. Maybe it would be simpler, he added, just to use new sunlight, as the weekend’s solar-powered event was, in fact, doing.

Finally, hours later, I conclude that there is very little else to be written, at least by me, at the edge of a mountain top that’s been transformed into blank, dead space. After all, I’m new to West Virginia, which gives me something in common with Ryan Hensley: I never saw the mountains here, either. And I never will.

The Life That’s Left

This state’s longest-serving governor once famously asked: “Why does everything bad happen to West Virginia?”

His question gibed well with the sense I ran into that the state’s history is a tragic one and that the coal industry’s collapse is its grim final act. Indeed, it’s unclear just what West Virginia’s future will hold. Coal has been the region’s mono-industry for so long that it’s hard to imagine anything else. Elise Keaton points out that the region’s rich coalfields were a major part of the reason President Abraham Lincoln approved a controversial Act of Congress in 1863 to carve out West Virginia as a new state. It was one of only two states created in the midst of the Civil War and even some of Lincoln’s advisors deemed the move unconstitutional. But annexing the region was militarily expedient. It gave the north all those rich coalfields and the prized Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, which hauled Union soldiers south to the front lines and Appalachian coal north from Charleston to stations in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City.

In other words, West Virginia was created, as Keaton puts it, as a resource colony.

Perhaps, in the end, the death of coal will spell not doom but liberation for the state, freeing it from the energy needs of the rest of the nation. These days, as the coal industry crumbles, West Virginians are rallying in support of what’s being called “transition work” — the building, that is, of a new economy based on agriculture, local arts, wineries, and the like.

Indeed, if West Virginia is able to build these alternative economies, if the state is able to do more than simply pivot from being a coal colony to becoming a shale gas supplier, it will provide evidence that any region can be transformed as the planet’s industrialized nations hurtle into a post-fossil fuel future, kicking and screaming every step of the way.

Such a transition will require not only building anew, but also healing old wounds.

Hours later, Hensley begins pleading for one more expedition in Stanley Heirs Park, so we set off for Hell’s Gate with a handful of others. As we walk, I suddenly realize just whom his cropped blond hair, which has felt so eerily familiar, brought to mind: a young worker I met in North Dakota’s fracking fields in the summer of 2014, shortly before he was beaten to death outside a bar. In that moment of recognition, I find myself pleased that Hensley will have, at best, a slim chance of finding a coal job when he’s older, but then I begin to worry about where the need for work will carry him if new industries haven’t sprung up in time.

Another member of our group is Charles Lee Williams, a former miner who lives a few miles away. Forty-six years old, Williams has a round head and small, deep-set blue eyes. He’s a man who knows about death in the coalfields better than most. He worked for coal giant Massey Energy until 2010, when a series of explosions ripped through subterranean tunnels at his worksite killing 29 of his co-workers — and nearly getting him, too. The force of the blasts, he tells me, was so powerful that it felt as if his skull were being sucked out of his head.

Now, Williams spends most nights dreaming of the ghosts of those men. He sought treatment once for the resulting PTSD, but the pills prescribed for him only seemed to make the nightmares worse. In them, he tells me, his former co-workers usually appear headless.

After we’ve returned from Hell’s Gate, Williams confesses that it’s his first time surveying a mountain-top removal site from above — despite living so close to mines that the explosions sometimes shake his house.

“It feels like there’s nothing alive left over there,” he says. Then he pauses and adds, “That’s what it feels like in the mornings, too. That there ain’t no life left in me, neither.”

Laura Gottesdiener is a freelance journalist and a news producer with Democracy Now! The author of A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Fight for a Place to Call Home, her writing has appeared in Mother Jones, Al Jazeera, Guernica, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and frequently at TomDispatch. Special thanks on this piece go to filmmaker Jordan Freeman and Mathew Louis-Rosenberg.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Laura Gottesdiener



Related video added by Juan Cole:

VICE News: “Toxic Waste in the US: Coal Ash”

President of Israel declares Israeli Squatting in Palestinian West Bank a “Right”, key to Zionism

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Monday declared Israeli squatting on the Palestinian West Bank a “right” and as an essential Zionist principle.

Reuven, a former chairman of the far-right Likud Party now in power, is known to favor a paternalist form of the one-state solution. He has said he would rather give Palestinians citizenship than give up Israeli squatter settlements in the West Bank. (Although, it must be pointed out, he hasn’t actually done anything practical to end Palestinian statelessness and lack of basic rights in the West Bank, and Israeli squatter settlements there often disadvantage native Palestinians by stealing land, water and other resources without offering compensation). Reuven, who speaks fluent Arabic, has a vision of Israel as a multi-ethnic state, and has championed rights for Palestinian-Israelis, even the right to dissent from Israeli government policy. But he clearly also gets the confidence for this relative generosity to minorities from a conviction that Jews will remain on top of the political and social hierarchy. His supremacism extends to the Orthdox/ Conservative/Reform/Reconstructionist divide in contemporary Judaism. Reuven has been dismissive of Reform and Conservative Judaism, the major denominations in the United States, as not really Jewish, insisting that a fundamentalist approach to law is what makes for the essence of Judaism (in the same way that Muslim fundamentalists see sharia as the essence of Islam. He is not himself terribly observant, though).

Rivlin said, “I love the land of Israel with all my heart. I have never and will never give up on this land. For me, our right to this land is not a matter of political debate. It is a basic fact of modern Zionism . . We must not give anyone the sense that we are in any doubt about our right to our land. For me, the settlement of the land of Israel is an expression of that right, our historical right, our national right.”

Yes, and Mussolini thought he had a historic right to rule Libya, too, and Italians saw themselves as “returning” to North Africa in 1911 and after, since it had been part of the Roman Empire. People who say they love the fatherland with all their heart and that its borders extend beyond the present map should be viewed with suspicion. Such claims to supremacism over other people and their territory are frankly absurd, and doomed to the dustbin of history.

What is worrisome is that past Likud leaders, such as Ariel Sharon, staked out claims to the Ghur Valley in Jordan or to southern Lebanon (or once upon a time, Egypt’s Sinai). Zionist leader David Ben Gurion once boasted that Israel had not fixed its borders.

The question is whether Rivlin’s dream of subjecting the 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank to permanent Israeli annexation, and his placing of this project at the center of the Zionist project, heralds a permanent split between Jewish Americans and the Likud government of Israel. Because most American Jews don’t approve of this kind of annexationist project.

Related video:

AFP: “Palestinian Christians protest controversial barrier in the WB”

Is Israeli military using Barak in struggle w/ Netanyahu over Iran Deal?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) – –

The revelations from former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s memoir keep coming. Another excerpt was broadcast by Israel’s Channel 2 on Sunday.

Barak gave the interviews as background to his autobiography “Wars (Milhamot) of my Life.”

“Bibi is weak, he doesn’t…he doesn’t want to take tough steps unless he is forced to do so . . . Bibi himself is immersed in a kind of deep pessimism and has a tendency…in the balance between fear and hope, he prefers, generally, to err on the side of fear. He once referred to it as ‘worried . . .”

In an excerpt released Saturday, Barak had said that he and Netanyahu were ready to launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities (at Natanz outside Isfahan) on three separate occasions in 2010-2012, but were foiled each time.

In 2010, Israeli chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi stopped them by maintaining that the military did not have the capacity for this mission. (Iran is very distant and Israel’s planes can’t get there and back very easily, nor would they be allowed to fly over Turkey or Iraq, nor would the Iranians take it lying down). In 2011, even other far right wing hard liners on the cabinet voted against. And in 2012, the US launched joint military maneuvers with Israel around the time of the planned attack, which would have made it look as though the US were behind the strike and even Netanyahu and Barak couldn’t risk Washington’s wrath.

Note that strikes on thousands of active centrifuges and stockpiled enriched uranium would have released enormous amounts of radioactive material into the air of Isfahan (pop. nearly 2 million, i.e. nearly the size of Houston, Texas), constituting a de facto dirty-bomb attack on Iran with large loss of life. Some of the radioactive fallout would have come back on Israel itself.

Apparently Barak thought that the interviews would remain background for his book and not be leaked because military censors in Israel would never approve them for publication or broadcast.

But the military censor has twice given Israel 2 radio the go-ahead to broadcast excerpts from the tapes.

While speculation rages in Israel that Barak is trying to undermine his enemies as part of a bid to come back as the head of the Labor Party and make another bid to be prime minister (Ashkenazi is a rival here), and that trash-talking Netanyahu is part of this plan, it seems more likely that he did not expect the interviews to be allowed on the air.

If this interpretation is true, then it is likely that elements in the Israeli military high command ordered the censor to allow the tapes to come out in public, and that it is they who want Netanyahu weakened.

We know that Israeli army chief of staff Gen. Gadi Eizenkot and many other high officers do not think Iran is the primary security threat to Israel. It is likely that they have been extremely annoyed by Netanyahu’s challenge to the Obama administration in trying to derail the Iran deal on monitoring its nuclear facilities.

The tapes would serve the Israeli military well in any struggle with Netanyahu. First, they underline that a previous chief of staff, Gaby Ashkenazi, had the ability to block the prime minister from a reckless strike on Iran in 2010. Second, Barak’s comments make Netanyahu look like an unstable combination of Hamlet and Napoleon– pessimistic, depressed, timid, and yet capable of erratically deciding to lash out at a country 10 times the size of Israel that has millions of armed allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

The airing of the interviews also undermines Barak himself (a fierce opponent of the Iran deal), who is widely considered a wild card in Israeli politics. He looks like a blabbermouth and backstabber. He was never likely to come back to the helm of Labor, but now is even less so.

Netanyahu has been ruthless in pursuit of power. He openly said there would be no Palestinian state in his lifetime, tearing the tattered fig leaf from the US State Department’s standard enabler role for Israeli expansionism in Palestinian territory. He used the army as mafia hit men in Gaza, ordering rules of engagement so loose they were bound to result in high civilian casualties (Eizenkot is known not to have agreed with such an approach in the 2006 Lebanon War). He paraded around Washington boasting of his ability to veto Barack Obama’s Iran negotiations, with an open alliance with the worst elements of the Republican Party. The Israeli security establishment, which is pragmatic and level-headed, must be terrified of him.

Israeli parliamentarians are demanding an inquiry as to how in the world the military censors allowed the Ehud Barak tapes to air. How, indeed.


Related video:

Wochit News: ” Ex-Defense Minister Says Israel Aborted Plan to Strike Iran in 2012 to Prevent U.S. From Being Dragged into war”

Youth Revolts are back– Lebanon, Iraq Shaken by demand for Services, end to Corruption

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The master narrative of much Western journalism is that the youth protests of 2011 have been replaced by civil war and terrorism. But while there is plenty of both in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Libya, in fact here and there in the region youth protests have popped up from time to time–in Turkey, Yemen, and now Beirut and Baghdad– where they have shaken up politics. The common denominator is that people are tired of their governments not providing services or working properly. While the US focuses mainly on Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), for many Arab youth it is a symptom of incompetent, corrupt and sectarian government, not a phenomenon in its own right.

In Beirut on Saturday, thousands gathered on at Martyr’s Square and Riyadh Sulh Square, shouting “You stink!” as a way of protesting the paralyzed Lebanese government’s inability to collect the garbage. (Even where trash is removed, it is often dumped in streams or the ocean or illegal landfills, becoming a threat to public health). The crowds also chanted against the “sectarian” character of the government, which has lacked a president for the past year.

The protesters were viciously attacked by security forces using live ammo, batons and military-grade tear gas. Dozens were injured. The Beirut press was shocked at the brutality of the security forces toward the protesters.

Lebanon barely has a government in the way that most people think of a government. American Libertarians would be very happy with it. But most Lebanese want their government actually to provide them with services, including garbage collection. Some of the paralysis comes from Lebanon’s peculiar “confessional” or religious-sectarian from of democracy, in which people are forced to vote on the basis of religious identity. The protesters critiqued this system and its dysfunction.

This weekend in southern, Shiite cities of Iraq, demonstrators also gathered in the thousands. Some of them are protesting the hold that sectarian parties have over the state. Others are protesting unemployment or lack of electricity (it has been scorching hot in Iraq in the past month, and frequent electricity outages have left people without air conditioning, which there is often a matter of life and death.) The Baghdad demonstrations of this movement have forced Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi to attempt to streamline the Rube Goldberg Iraqi government so as to allow him to attempt to address the problems in a systematic way.

The demonstrations have never really gone away, though in some times and places it is very dangerous to protest publicly. The Houthi tribal militia that staged a coup in Yemen from September of last year, for instance, has acted in brutal and high-handed ways that dismayed the youth activists who had gathered in 2011 at Change Square in Sanaa to demand the resignation of then president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Last January when the Houthis forced out the elected president, Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, some 10,000 youth marched in protest in downtown Sanaa. I thought to myself that it was very brave, using urban crowd protests against a tribal militia. The latter was unlikely to listen, but the crowds showed that they could not be cowed.

In Beirut, the protests are having a political effect. If they go on, perhaps the almost fuedal power-wielders will have to engage in some real politics.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Reuters: “35 injured in Beirut anti-government protest”

Barak– Netanyahu was on verge of Attacking Iran 3 Times 2010-12 (Why Listening to him on Iran Diplomacy is Daft)

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In a radio interview, former Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak revealed that the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was on the verge of attacking Iran on 3 separate occasions in 2010-2012, but was consistently blocked by other (even far right wing) cabinet ministers or by the military chief of staff.

Although Netanyahu consistently depicts Iran as a military aggressor, that country hasn’t attacked another in a conventional war in modern history, whereas Israel has repeatedly launched wars of aggression, including 1956, 1967, 1982, 2009 and 2014. (The 1982 Israeli act of naked aggression on Lebanon eventuated in an 18-year occupation of 10% of Lebanon, during which Lebanese Shiites formed Hizbullah to resist their oppression; Iran’s support for this resistance is typically held against it by the US and Israel as ‘support for terrorism,’ while Washington’s and Tel Aviv’s support for the illegal invasion and occupation are considered perfectly normal.)

Israel has several hundred nuclear warheads, whereas Iran has none, but Iran has been sanctioned for its civilian nuclear enrichment program for generating electricity whereas Israel thumbed its nose at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and kicked off a nuclear arms race with Iraq that led, ironically and through propaganda, to the 2003 US invasion of that country.

The Iran attack plans were previously revealed by former Israeli intelligence chief Meir Dagan, who clearly considers Netanyahu and Barak to have a screw loose and to be terminally flaky. His allegations have been covered by Informed Comment, as below from March:

“Meir Dagan, the former head of Israeli intelligence, has long been on the outs with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Now he is actively campaigning for the Israeli electorate to dump him as prime minister in the upcoming elections. Soon after leaving office four years ago, he broke longstanding protocol to retail the story in public of how he and other security officials vetoed a hare-brained scheme by Netanyahu and former Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak to attack Iran.

I wrote in June of 2011:

“Netanyahu appears to have forced out Meir Dagan, the head of the Israeli spying agency Mossad, whose departure coincided with that of the chief of staff, the head of domestic intelligence, and other key security officials. Dagan, having become a civilian, promptly went public, lambasting Netanyahu for refusing to make peace with the Palestinians while it was still possible.

Dagan went on to accuse Netanyahu and his Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, of grossly exaggerating the threat from Iran, calling a strike on that country “stupid idea that offers no advantage.” He warned that it would provoke another rocket attack on Israel by Lebanon’s Hizbullah, and perhaps by Syria as well– i.e. it could lead to a regional conflagration.

The back story that has emerged in the Israeli press is that Barak, who is a notorious war-monger and adventurist, had gotten Netanyahu’s ear and pressed for a military strike on Iran. Dagan and all the other major security officials stood against this foolhardy plan, and managed to derail it. But Dagan is said to be concerned that virtually all the level heads have gone out of office together, and that Netanyahu and Barak may now be in a position to revive their crazy plan of attacking Iran. Moreover, they may want to attack in September, as a way of creating a crisis that will overshadow Palestinian plans to seek membership in the United Nations.

Dagan and other high Israeli security officials appear to believe that Iran has no present nuclear weapons program. That is what Military Intelligence Director, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, has told the Israeli parliament. Kochavi thinks it unlikely that Iran would start up a military nuclear program.”

Dagan’s beef with Netanyahu is apparently not personal. The prime minister helped the former head of Mossad get a liver transplant. Dagan affirmed, “I have no personal issue with the prime minister, his wife, his spending and the way he conducts himself. I’m talking about the country he leads.”

Netanyahu clearly believes that he can openly side with the Republican Congress against President Barack Obama without facing any consequences at all. Dagan sees a danger that the next time the UN Security Council wants to condemn Israel for violating international law, Obama will decline to use his veto to stop sanctions.

Israel is in violation of large numbers of UN Security Council resolutions regarding its treatment of the stateless Palestinians, the status of Jerusalem, etc. etc. That Iraq was in violation of UNSC violations was given by the Bush administration as a grounds for invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iran’s economy has been deeply harmed and its oil exports cut from 2.5 mn b/day to 1.5 mn b/day as a result of UNSC sanctions, along with those of the US. Israel, in contrast, as been held harmless from Security Council condemnation and sanctions by the US veto, which has been exercised every single time the UNSC tried to condemn or sanction Tel Aviv, regardless of the merits of the case.

I have argued that any US president, including Obama, could have long since resolved the Israel-Palestinian conflict by simply declining to exercise that veto, and allowing the Israelis to be pressured into making peace by the UNSC. I think the PLO would make peace tomorrow if it could get 1967 borders and an end to Israeli land grabs, and that the real obstacle to a settlement is Israeli expansionism, which the US veto de fact encourages.

Israel is also facing significant challenges from the UN in another way. Palestine has been granted non-member observer state status there by the General Assembly. It has signed the treaties and instruments necessary to joining the International Criminal Court and gaining standing to sue Israel over its creeping annexation of Palestinian territory beyond the generally recognized 1949 armistice lines. The Rome Statute of 2002 under which the International Criminal Court operates forbids colonization of other people’s territory, prohibiting

“The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory;”

If Palestine sues in the ICC, it seems to me certain that Israel would lose. The PLO seems increasingly to be moving in this direction.

So Dagan sees a world where Israeli military action like last summer’s attack on Gaza was almost universally condemned; where Palestine may successfully take Israel to the ICC (where the US has no veto), where boycotts of Israel could grow; and where an angry US president might start declining to veto all UNSC resolutions against Israel.

Dagan said in an interview, as reported by The Guardian,

“As someone who has served Israel in various security capacities for 45 years, including during the country’s most difficult hours, I feel that we are now at a critical point regarding our existence and our security.

“Our standing in the world is not brilliant right now. The question of Israel’s legitimacy is up for debate. We should not erode our relations with our most important friend. Certainly not in public, certainly not by becoming involved in its domestic politics. This is not proper behaviour for a prime minister…”

“An Israeli prime minister who clashes with the US administration has to ask himself what the risks are. On the matter of settlements, there is no difference between the two [US] parties. And even so, they provide us with a veto umbrella. In a situation of a confrontation, this umbrella is liable to vanish, and within a short time, Israel could find itself facing international sanctions.

“The risks of such a clash are intolerable. We are already today paying a high price. Some of them I know and cannot elaborate.

“I would not have confronted the United States and its president. Netanyahu may get applause in Congress, but all the power is in the White House. What will Netanyahu gain by addressing Congress? I just don’t understand it. Is his goal to get a standing ovation? This trip to Washington is doomed to failure.”

I think it is undeniable that by making Israel a partisan GOP issue, Netanyahu risks undermining the bipartisan consensus in favor of knee-jerk support of Tel Aviv’s vast land thefts from the Palestinians.

Whether Dagan is exaggerating the risks Netanyahu is taking or not, it is significant that many figures formerly in high positions in the Israeli security sector are openly coming out against Netanyahu, whom they clearly see as unhinged and flaky and a danger to the future of Israel.”


Related video added by Juan Cole:

PressTV: “Ehud Barak says he, Netanyahu drew up plan to attack Iran in 2011”

No, AP, Iran doesn’t get to Inspect its own Nuclear Facilities under Deal

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Eminent Iran and security expert Gary Sick pointed out in an email late Wednesday that the Associated Press just ran a shamefully inaccurate story alleging that under the UN Security Council deal with Iran, Iran would carry out some of the inspections of their own “sensitive sites.”

The accord actually provides for the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency always to be present at such inspections. The reason for the presence of Iranian experts is that there is a long history of outside nuclear teams being sent in by the Great Powers for espionage. I.e., the Iranian inspectors are there to keep an eye on the UN inspectors, not to cover up Iranian activities (to which the IAEA will have full access). The 1990s UN inspections of Iraq were infiltrated, for instance, by US intelligence.

Sick points to a note put up 3 weeks ago by the Arms Control Association’s entitled “P5+1 and Iran Nuclear Deal Alert” (July 30):

Would the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] Depend on Iran for Nuclear Residue Testing? No.

Congressional critics of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] are misinterpreting information received in briefings about the process for IAEA inspections at sensitive sites. Under managed access procedures that may be employed the IAEA, the inspected party may take environmental swipe samples at a particular site in the presence of the IAEA inspectors using swabs and containment bags provided by the IAEA to prevent cross contamination. According to former IAEA officials, this is an established procedure.

Such swipe samples collected at suspect sites under managed access would likely be divided into six packages: three are taken by the IAEA for analysis at its Seibersdorf Analytical Lab and two to be sent to the IAEA’s Network of Analytical Labs (NWAL), which comprises some 16 labs in different countries, and another package to be kept under joint IAEA and Iran seal at the IAEA office in Iran a backup and control sample if re-analysis might be required at a later stage. The process ensures the integrity of the inspection operation and the samples for all parties.

The AP should retract its inaccurate allegations. At this sensitive point in the political campaign by the US Right Wing against the UNSC deal reached with Iran at Vienna, such disinformation could be highly consequential if it convinces, e.g. wavering Democrats in the House or Senate that the deal is flawed (which it is not).

Update: AP has removed most of its allegations from the story. For more see Max Fischer at Vox

For rebuttal of another false charge against the deal, that it is dangerous for Iran to be able to stall 24 days from having inspectors visit sensitive or military sites, listen to the refutation by a nuclear scientist and adviser to the British government the at Scott Horton’s show.

One of the problems scientists face is that their work is often complicated and hard to explain in sound bites. As with global warming and lung cancer from cigarette smoking, so nuclear inspections are an arcane subject on which the public can easily be confused by loudmouthed ignorant bluster by interested parties. Poor American science and math education also leaves the public without basic tools and ways of thinking needed to participate fully in a modern democracy. And although I admire so many of my colleagues in journalism, it also has to be admitted that some people advertised as journalists just aren’t very good– there are always the Judy Millers (who gullibly sold the Iraq War), or others who are generalists trying to report on a technical subject in which they have no expertise.

PPS Thurs. afternoon: The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Yukiya Amano, who has been a strong critic of Iran, has intervened in this debate to slap AP down:

Statement by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano

20 August 2015

I am disturbed by statements suggesting that the IAEA has given responsibility for nuclear inspections to Iran. Such statements misrepresent the way in which we will undertake this important verification work.

The separate arrangements under the Road-map agreed between the IAEA and Iran in July are confidential and I have a legal obligation not to make them public – the same obligation I have for hundreds of such arrangements made with other IAEA Member States.

However, I can state that the arrangements are technically sound and consistent with our long-established practices. They do not compromise our safeguards standards in any way.

The Road-map between Iran and the IAEA is a very robust agreement, with strict timelines, which will help us to clarify past and present outstanding issues regarding Iran’s nuclear programme.

Related video:

Lugar Center: “Senator Lugar discusses the Iran nuclear deal and ISIS on MSNBC”

Defying Saudis, Iran: Muslim thinkers call for Action on Climate Change at Istanbul Conference

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Attendees at the International Islamic Climate Change Symposium in Istanbul from 20 countries produced, and 60 of them signed, a declaration this week warning of the dangers of climate change and urging urgent action to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

But, I fear the press reporting on this meeting is exaggerating its significance.

Contemporary Islam is more like Protestantism in Christianity than like Roman Catholicism, in not having a single head or firm church hierarchy. While the message of the symposium is most welcome and one hopes it will be influential, it has to be pointed out that it seems to come mainly from Muslim academics, with only a few clerics joining in, and that there weren’t many representatives from the Muslim world’s big hydrocarbon states such as Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t seem that al-Azhar Seminary in Cairo, Egypt, one of the foremost seats of Sunni learning and authority, was in any way involved.

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The most important clerics seem to have been the mufti or jurisconsult of Lebanon, the mufti of Uganda (where Muslims are a minority), and Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI). With the exception of the latter, these university professors and NGO heads are not the real authorities in the Muslim world.

In fact, that culture region has a problem when it comes to taking on climate change. While it does not generate very much of the world’s CO2, its major countries produce much of the petroleum and gas that is burned by the industrialized world– Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, e.g.

Oil states such as Saudi Arabia are extremely influential in the Muslim world, spending billions on influencing preachers and mosque congregations.

Saudi Arabia’s officials led the charge at international meetings in the 1990s forward on climate change denial and attempting to stop international bodies from highlighting this issue.

Though, it should be underlined that some hydrocarbon states, such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, frankly recognize the problem of global warming and urge climate action. Qatar mainly produces natural gas, which produces about half the carbon pollution of coal, so in a way its product could help reduce carbon emissions in places like India and China that are now heavily coal-reliant. But this process is only a decade-long bridge to wind and solar, which will soon be so inexpensive even not counting externalities that the world will abandon oil and gas.

The Guardian says only one of the attendees at the Istanbul conference was a Saudi national. And all the Shiite invitees from the Middle East declined the invitation (Iran is the chief patron of Shiites, and it has big plans for selling more oil and gas once international sanctions are removed as a result of the UN Security council deal on its civilian nuclear enrichment program.) The Shiite mystic and intellectual Seyyed Hossein Nasr attended from the United States.

Indeed, many of the speakers and signatories at the conference appear to be expatriate Muslims in the West.

It is the hydrocarbon-consuming countries, not the producers, that are taking the lead on carbon reduction. Morocco, for instance, wants to get 40% of its energy from renewables in only five or six years. Malysia, Indonesia, Turkey and Lebanon bulk large at the Istanbul conference, and they are all consuming, not producing nations. So I think we are beginning to see a split between the Muslim producers of oil & gas, and the Muslim consumers of these fuels. The consumers are more fearful of the effects of climate change and less negatively affected if renewables are substituted for fossil fuels. They will likely get pressure and pushback from oil states like Saudi Arabia.

And it was for the most part intellectuals from the consuming countries who produced this document.

The manifesto argues that the vision of the Qur’an, the Muslim scripture, is that God has created the world to be in balance, and charged human beings to be wise stewards of its bounties. There is some pretty good green theology in the statement.

I checked Arabic news for reports of the manifesto, and didn’t find it mentioned in the major Saudi-funded press. Nor did it seem to be in the Egyptian press. The independent Arabic media outlets, Middle East Online (based in London) and Al Bawaba did carry the story (the latter is based in Amman, Jordan). Maybe the rest of Arab media will carry it tomorrow, I don’t know. But it isn’t there as I write.

So, no, this declaration isn’t like the Encyclical of Pope Francise. It is more like a resolution passed at the annual conference of the Modern Language Association (not there is anything wrong with the latter). But it is a welcome sign that Muslim intellectuals are thinking about how to enlist their faith in the fight against climate change. It is brave and selfless of them; but they’re likely to suffer for it.

How many thousands US troops would GOP Hopefuls send to Iraq and Syria?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Bill Barrow of the Associated Press took a look at the specifics of plans for US troop deployments in the Middle East put forward by some of the GOP presidential hopefuls. Several Republican politicians have pledged a return of US combat troops in large numbers to the Middle East. Barrow draws the contrast with Gen. Ray Odierno, who had been commander in Iraq, warned that US troops could not do this job. They might be effective on the battlefield, but 6 months later we’d be back where we are, he warned.

His column provoked me to go back and look at what some candidates have been saying about Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I was surprised at how ignorant they all sounded.

Jeb Bush said recently that Daesh (ISIS,ISIL) is spreading like a pandemic and that the US may need to send more ground troops into Iraq to defeat it.

Bush maintained that defeating Daesh in Syria will require the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad. Whaat?. Al-Assad’s troops are fighting Daesh in the northeast. How would overthrowing him help the fight against it? Likely the day after al-Assad was toppled by Jeb, Daesh would sweep into Damascus!

Jeb said the way he would remove al-Assad was to organize the “moderate” forces and have U.S. troops on the ground in Syria “back them up as one force.” He added, “And we should back that force up all the way through – not just in taking the fight to the enemy, but in helping them to form a stable, moderate government… It’s a tough, complicated diplomatic and military proposition, even more so than the current situation in Iraq. But it can be done.”

But like 90% of rebel territory in Syria is held by the Support Front (Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate), Daesh, and a few smaller Salafi groups associated with the Army of Conquest or the Army of Islam. The Army of Conquest recognizes al-Qaeda as part of itself.

That is, there are no or almost no moderates for Jeb to back in the overthrow of al-Assad. So what he is actually proposing is to turn Damascus over to al-Qaeda. (Reagan tried that sort of strategy in Afghanistan in the 1980s and it came back to bite us on the ass.)

So Bush has actually advocated more US troops for Iraq, but has offered to put boots on the ground to help the mythical “moderate” opposition overthrow al-Assad. I wonder whose throats al-Qaeda would cut the very next day?

Lindsey Graham has something of the same plan as Bush but is far more frank about the numbers. As Barrow writes, the number is 20,000, some 10,000 for Iraq and a similar number for Syria. He said, “I am going to destroy the Caliphate. We are going to pull it up by its roots.”

Along with sending 10,000 ground troops to Syria, Graham says he would set up a “regional army” in Syria. He said he would tell the rebels,

“And here’s the deal: We will help you but stop funding terrorists is the price of admission, stop double dealing, stop supporting a terrorist group one day and fighting them the next. And, oh by the way, let women drive.”

I don’t know if the message is meant for the rebels or for backers such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Surely Sen. Graham knows that women can drive everywhere in the Muslim world except the small country of Saudi Arabia (citizen population: 22 mn.) As for supporting terrorist groups, if you count al-Qaeda virtually the only ones supported by US allies in the region are non-moderate Salafis or groups to their far right.

The problem with Graham’s position is that the US had at some points like 160,000 US troops in Iraq, and they could not stop the civil ware of 2006, nor could they defeat Daesh or its predecessors. So why would 10,000 each for Iraq and Syria be able to pull this off?

Gov Scott Walker of Wisconsin “wouldn’t rule out US boots on the ground in Syria. Syria?RT: “ISIS launches chemical attack on Kurdish forces in Iraq – report”

The Long Knives Come out in Baghdad

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

In principle, the idea of streamlining the Iraqi government and making it more efficient is a capital one. But the reforms being pursued by Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi have to raise some questions about the direction the country is taking.

One step al-Abadi has taken announced Sunday, is to streamline his cabinet, making it less a set of rewards to parties and cronies and more like an executive body. The number of cabinet posts has been cut to 22 from 33. In principle, that is great.

But why is it that among the posts that have gone are Human Rights and Women’s Affairs? And if you had to abolish a post, should it really be the Environment (it has been folded into the Ministry of Health)?

The drive to reform has been impelled most recently by large demonstrations against the lack of electricity in largely Shiite cities like Baghdad and Basra. The demonstrations threaten the ruling Da`wa (Islamic Mission) Party, because they show deep dissatisfaction by their own constituents. Iraq has been suffering a heat wave, one that makes the torrid United Arab Emirates far to its south seem balmy, but electricity outages have left people without air conditioning.

But the bigger issue is the loss of 40% of Iraqi territory to Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), including the loss of Ramadi in the spring.

The Iraqi government was cobbled together under US military occupation, and contains many redundant features designed to reassure the major ethnic groups. So there’s a president (who has usually been a Kurd), but there were a Sunni vice president and a Shiite vice president. For a long time in the last decade the Sunni vice president just refused to sign off on any new laws. Ultimately the veto power was taken away from the vice presidents. There were also 2 deputy prime ministers.

The reforms passed by parliament last week have abolished all those redundant executive positions.

This reform was not abstract, but personal. One of the vice presidents was Nouri al-Maliki, the former long-serving Iraqi prime minister whom al-Abadi succeeded. Al-Maliki was dumped after the fall of Mosul to Daesh in summer of 2014, in part at the insistence of US President Barack Obama. But that al-Maliki was made vice president and remained the head of the ruling Da`war Party made it possible for him to continue to hold a lot of power and to obstruct al-Abadi’s reforms (he called the most recent ones “unconstitutional.”) Al-Maliki has now been deprived of his continued lever of power.

This development may be a great good thing, since al-Maliki has a conspiratorial mindset and does not trust Sunnis, and the alienation of the Sunni Arabs from the Baghdad government is partially his fault. Charges are also swirling in Baghdad that he was involved in embezzlement on a vast scale.

But more worrisome is the prospect that al-Maliki an other officials considered to have been responsible for the fall of Mosul may be brought up on charges. A A parliamentary commission has a list of officials they deem culpable, and al-Maliki is on it despite pressure from the Da’wa Party. Those targeted include the Sunni Arab governor of Ninewah Province when it fell to Daesh, Atheel al-Nujayfi, along with military commanders and the Ninewah chief of police. Also targeted are the former Sunni Minister of Defense Saadoun Dulaymi (who hosted some of us Western scholars at a conference on Translation a couple of years ago) and the army chief of staff Babaker Zebari and his deputy Aboud Qanbar. It is being alleged that if the army commander of Mosul had not just run away, he would still have the city.

Al-Maliki had kept the minister of defense portfolio for a couple of years himself, during which he appears to have ordered no training or drills, letting the army go soft. That there should be some accountability for those who lost much of Iraq to Daesh is desirable.

But the down side of going after all these officials is that they have supporters, and there is a danger of the central government falling into faction-fighting. In some ways this outcome is what took place in Yemen.

In the meantime, Daesh still has Ramadi and Falluja . . .

Related video added by Juan Cole:

Euronews: “Iraq: series of Baghdad bombings kills at least 24”

New Poll: only 1 in 4 in US want more American involvement abroad; Cuba & Iran lower on List

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) – –

A new NORC/ AP poll, done before the Iran deal was announced by President Obama, shows how out of touch most of the presidential candidates are on foreign policy public opinion.

The American public just doesn’t want more involvement overseas. To be exact, a third of Americans want less involvement overseas and a third is satisfied with the amount we have. Only about a fourth wants a more pro-active foreign policy.


That speech GOP presidential Marco Rubio made yesterday about how wrong President Obama’s policies are on Cuba and Iran? Those weren’t the high items on the public’s list. Only a third even care what the president’s position is on Cuba. Something over two-thirds did care about the president’s policies toward Iran. But that issue was less on their minds than terrorism and Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). Respectively, 90% and 86% wanted to know the prospective president’s position on terrorism and Daesh.

Americans are enthusiastic about using diplomacy and economic tools to promote US interests abroad. The only times they really want to see military action is in defense of the US and its allies from a terrorist attack, or to stop a country blowing up an atomic bomb.

The public is desperately uninterested in military democracy promotion of the sort the Bush administration said it was doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it isn’t really happy about deploying military tools for virtually any non-defensive goal.

Listening especially to the GOP candidates, you hear a lot of saber-rattling of a sort this poll says most Americans don’t approve of. You hear a lot of talk of issues like Cuba, about which they couldn’t care less. You hear a lot of trashing of diplomacy, but the American public really likes the idea of achieving goals through diplomatic means. With a couple of exceptions, the US public is far more sensible than the people who say they want to lead it.

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