Friday, October 14, 2011

Some U.S. officials question response to Iran plot

These officials, while not disputing many facts of the case, say that if anything, the scheme reveals weaknesses in Iran’s security agencies, and the increasingly fractured state of Iran’s government as it faces intense international pressure.They also questioned the wisdom of the White House strategy in using the affair to rapidly push for tougher sanctions on Tehran, increasing regional tensions.”A lot of people basically feel really suspicious about this,” one official said, questioning the White House’s motivation “in ratcheting this thing up so quickly.”Like others, this official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.A second U.S. official said he shared those concerns, and questioned whether new sanctions, especially unilateral U.S. ones, would have much more than a cosmetic effect on the already heavily sanctioned country.The consensus view in the administration is that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, probably knew of the alleged plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, while President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad did not.But the skeptical officials said there is no hard evidence Khamanei knew or approved of the plan.A criminal complaint unsealed this week charges an Iranian-American now in custody, Manssor Arbabsiar, and Gholam Shakuri, a reputed member of Iran’s shadowy Quds Force, of conspiring to kill the ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir.RAISED EYEBROWSThe odd facts of the case — including Arbabsiar’s apparently bumbling nature, and his approach to a supposed Mexican drug cartel figure, who happened to be a U.S. federal informant — have raised eyebrows among Iran specialists.Some U.S. officials said this week they were initially skeptical of the alleged plot, but ultimately were convinced by evidence linking the affair to Iran and the Quds Force, the covert operations arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).As far as is known, there is no division among Obama’s closest advisers over the plot evidence or the threat it represents.The White House strongly defended its handling of the case and its diplomatic strategy in the last few days.”You have a clear case of a plot to assassinate a diplomat in the United States that is tied back into the senior levels of the Iranian Quds force. So the facts themselves demonstrate the seriousness of the issue,” said White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.”We have not in any way gone beyond those facts,” he said.Asked about the way the administration went public with the alleged plot, including a news conference by Attorney General Eric Holder, Rhodes said the White House followed “an established order” for such cases, including presenting a suspect in court, compiling a public charging document and then holding the Justice Department news conference.”We handled this as we would handle a high-profile incident with obvious international implications,” Rhodes said.ELECTION MODEBut Paul Pillar, a former top CIA analyst, said the strong words from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also reflect the coming election.”They’re in a re-election mode and making sure that they sound … tough on Iran,” said Pillar, now a Georgetown University professor. “It just gives additional red meat for those who would like to push us toward even more confrontation, especially in the use of military force.”The White House has not signaled it will respond with military force. And some of the skepticism over the Iran plot may be a hangover from the case President George W. Bush made for war in Iraq in 2003, based on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were never found.Differences over how the plot is viewed are a rare example of division within an administration that prides itself on unity.Knowledge of it was closely held within the U.S. government until the complaint was released on Tuesday, officials said.Since then, the White House has overseen an aggressive U.S. diplomatic strategy to confront Iran, sending teams to brief allies and demanding more sanctions on Iran.Obama said on Thursday the United States would press for the “toughest sanctions” possible against Iran. One target is Iran’s already heavily sanctioned transportation sector, an official said.Yet as Clinton acknowledged in a Reuters interview on Tuesday, Iran is already under an array of sanctions, including United Nations, U.S. and European Union penalties. She suggested Washington was hoping other nations will now be compelled to enforce existing sanctions more stringently.”The administration wants and needs to use this moment as evidence of the dangers of Iran and they want to use it to catalyze further international pressure,” said Juan Zarate, a top counter-terrorism aide to President George W. Bush.”I don’t think we would be making the charges we are unless there is a body of data out there that buttresses our sense that the Iranian leadership, at least at the highest levels of the Quds force, is behind it,” said Zarate, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.The strongest evidence that the Quds Force was behind the plot are wire transfers of almost $100,000 that Arbabsiar facilitated to an undercover U.S. government bank account.While the details are still classified, one official said the wire transfers apparently had some kind of hallmark indicating they were personally approved by Major General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force.THEORIESWhether the plot went any higher than that is not known.While Obama has not publicly fingered Khamanei or Ahmadinejad, some U.S. officials say the supreme leader must have been involved somehow.But that case is based entirely on analysis of how the Quds Force has operated in the past, not hard evidence, officials acknowledged.Some officials with expertise on Iran’s activities believe that there are equally plausible alternatives.Because of the plot’s amateurishness, one explanation is that it was an operation by “rogue” elements within the Quds Force, a person familiar with internal administration policy debates said.One theory, skeptical officials said, is that the plot was a kind of “Hail Mary” pass, a long-shot attempt to harm a member of the Saudi government, which Tehran loathes. Another is that it was a “test” by Quds Force elements to see how effective U.S. defenses are.According to this theory, the Quds Force and IRGC, which played a major role in quashing mass peaceful protests following Ahmadinejad’s contested 2009 reelection, may have felt emboldened by their success and allowed more “free rein” by ruling ayatollahs to launch exotic operations in support of the regime.Instead of being under Khamenei’s rigorous control, this theory goes, the alleged assassination plot indicates a lack of oversight of the IRGC and Quds force by Iran’s leaders, who historically have sought to needle the United States but have usually restrained themselves from bold moves which might provoke a violent U.S. reaction.Still, one senior U.S. official said, “There shouldn’t be skeptics.”“You can say: ‘Why the hell would anyone be so stupid?’ That’s fair game. But you can’t translate that into innocence.”

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Lions and 49ers clash in battle of division leaders

Elsewhere in the conference, the New Orleans Saints face NFC South rivals the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Florida where the 2009 Super Bowl winners will be looking to extend their lead atop one of the league’s toughest divisions.While the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers remain favorites in the NFC thanks to an impressive 5-0 start to the 2011 campaign, it is the rise of Detroit that has been the story of the season so far.The NFC North-leading Lions (5-0) relished their nationally televised win over the Chicago Bears Monday while the NFC West-leading 49ers are coming off a crushing 48-3 victory over Tampa Bay that showed the turnaround San Francisco (4-1) has enjoyed under new coach Jim Harbaugh.A year ago, the 49ers were 0-5 and had a minus-10 turnover differential. This year, they are plus-10 in that category and are third in the league with eight interceptions.San Francisco’s impressive pass rush and smart secondary means Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will to have to be at his most quick thinking to keep the Detroit offense moving.”They put pressure on the quarterback and in most of their schemes, all of the guys in the secondary are facing the quarterback,” said Stafford.”They don’t play a lot of man coverage where guys are turning their backs so that you can throw it right by their ear and they’ll never know. It’s guys looking at you and you have got to be cognizant of that.”Stafford will no doubt look again to target wideout Calvin Johnson, who had 130 receiving yards against Chicago, including a superb 73-yard touchdown to open the scoring.The athletic and imposing Johnson, nicknamed “Megatron,” is fifth in the NFL this year with 451 yards receiving and 49ers cornerback Carlos Rogers knows he is in for a busy day.”Johnson’s their guy, they are going to get the ball to him any way they can,” said Rogers. “Even if he’s not open, they are going to throw it up.”The Saints have won four straight since losing the opening game of the season at Green Bay and enjoyed an easy 31-6 win at Tampa Bay last season.However, the Buccaneers won the return game in New Orleans of the final weekend of the regular season and quarterback Drew Brees believes the Bucs’ heavy loss last week will ensure a hard-fought encounter.”The fact we’re going to their place, that it’s a divisional game early in the season and they are coming off a tough loss are reasons why we’re going to get their absolute best performance and they’re going to be ready for us - but we’ll be ready for them,” said Brees, who threw three touchdowns in last season’s game.Elsewhere, the New England Patriots (4-1) host the Dallas Cowboys (2-2) while the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills (4-1) visit the New York Giants (3-2).Monday night’s game pits the New York Jets (2-3), looking to recover from a defeat to the Patriots last week, against the winless Miami Dolphins.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

GLOBAL MARKETS-Asia shares fall after Alcoa, Slovak move caps euro

* US earnings eyed for growth impact from euro debt crisisBy Chikako MogiTOKYO, Oct 12 (Reuters) - Asian shares fell on Wednesday on signs that Europe’s debt crisis has hurt confidence in the global economy and is starting to weigh on corporate earnings, while the Slovak parliament’s rejection of a plan to expand the euro zone rescue fund added to uncertainty.Slovakia is the only euro zone country yet to approve a plan to boost the funds available to the bailout vehicle, which is seen as crucial to containing Europe’s debt crisis, and a re-vote was expected later this week.While the main opposition party was set to support the measure now the government has resigned, the twist has added to market nervousness just as European authorities were striving to come up with concrete steps to avoid a systemic contagion.MSCI’s broadest index of Asia Pacific shares outside Japan fell 0.4 percent, while Japan’s Nikkei average opened down 0.6 percent.Global stocks, as measured by MSCI’s All-Country World index , gained 0.4 percent on Tuesday, but eased after New York close as Alcoa Inc , the largest U.S. aluminium producer, said slowing economic growth knocked prices for the metal lower, denting its third-quarter profit and sending its shares down in after-hours trading.”Alcoa wasn’t all that bad, so we won’t see an ‘Alcoa shock’ today, but investors took it as bad news that the company clearly felt the impact of slowing growth,” said Kenichi Hirano, operating officer at Tachibana Securities in Tokyo.”Those who were looking for reassurance about the U.S. earnings season didn’t find it,” he said.The euro’s recent rally stalled after the Slovak vote, and was trading down around 0.1 percent on Wednesday at $1.3620.Oil prices fell, with Brent crude futures down 0.4 percent and U.S. crude futures down 0.9 percent.Market sentiment had improved this week, after a weekend pledge by German and French leaders to come up with a plan to tackle the debt crisis. In Asia, China stepped in to shore up banking shares.European officials continued to seek ways to restore the region’s banking sector after the banks’ weakening financial strength due to sovereign debt problems prompted a fresh round of credit rating downgrades.Banking and regulatory sources said on Tuesday that Europe’s banks would have to achieve a significantly stronger capital position under a quick-fire regulatory health check and may need to raise some 100 billion euros ($137 billion).Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Union’s executive European Commission, said he would propose a bank recapitalisation plan on Wednesday, even though there is no agreement yet on where the money will come from.Rating agencies Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings downgraded Spanish and Italian banks on Tuesday, underscoring concerns about the impact of the escalating debt crisis on the sector.Investors eyed developments on the euro zone debt crisis ahead of an EU summit on Oct. 23, as well as minutes of the U.S. Federal Reserve’s last policy meeting due later on Wednesday For clues on the state of the U.S. economy.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Murdochs should be kicked off News Corp board -ISS

* News Corp says “strongly disagrees” with ISS analysis, Oct 10 (Reuters) - Rupert Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan should be kicked off the News Corp board along with 10 other directors when shareholders vote at this year’s annual general meeting, a corporate governance watchdog said on Monday.The phone hacking scandal at News Corp’s UK weekly tabloid paper News of the World has rocked the entire company since it erupted in July. ISS said the scandal has “laid bare a striking lack of stewardship and failure of independence.”The board had been unable to set a “strong tone-at-the-top” about unethical business practices, ISS said. ISS is a proxy firm that advises some of the largest institutional investors in the United States on shareholder votes.The statement was particularly critical of the board’s decision to approve a 180 percent increase in Chief Executive Rupert Murdoch’s cash bonus to $12.5 million in the fiscal year to June 2011 soon after the phone hacking fallout began.Rupert Murdoch controls the company through a 40 percent stake in the company’s voting stock.Including the Murdochs, ISS recommended shareholders vote against reelecting 13 of the 15 directors at its annual general meeting on Oct. 21. It suggested votes against executives on the board including Chief Operating Officer Chase Carey, Chief Financial Officer David Devoe and former general counsel Arthur Siskind as well as independent directors including former British Airways CEO Rod Eddington and former assistant attorney-general Viet Dinh.The only two directors ISS backed were veteran lawyer Joel Klein and venture capitalist Jim Breyer “as neither has yet served on the board for more than a few months. Breyer is set to join the board on Oct. 21, after fellow venture capitalist Tom Perkins announced he was stepping down last month.News Corp said it “strongly disagrees” with ISS analysis.”The company takes the issues surrounding News of the World seriously and is working hard to resolve them. However, ISS’ disproportionate focus on these issues is misguided and a disservice to our stockholders,” said a company spokeswoman.”Moreover, ISS failed to consider that the company’s compensation practices reflect its robust performance in fiscal year 2011.”