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Fighting returns to Beirut’s streets in an echo of the civil war

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FOR MANY Lebanese, the scenes in Beirut on October 14th harked back to their country’s darkest days. Gunmen crouched behind cars and fired wildly at apartment blocks or rushed out from cover to launch rocket-propelled grenades. Frantic parents searched for safe routes to collect children from school. Residents cowered in hallways and bathrooms. The guns fell silent after a few hours, but the streets were left carpeted with broken glass, the buildings pockmarked with bullet holes.

At least seven people were killed and dozens injured in the worst violence in Lebanon’s capital since 2008. It centred on a rally organised by the two main Shia parties, Hizbullah and Amal, to protest against the investigation into last year’s catastrophic explosion at Beirut’s port. Soon after the rally began, snipers fired into its midst from a nearby building. Hizbullah and Amal, which are both militias as well as political parties, blamed this “ambush” on the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party led by Samir Geagea, a warlord-turned-politician. His party denies it was involved (there is no evidence yet to prove it was).

Ostensibly the protest was about the “politicisation” of the probe. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, says the lead investigator is biased. His allies mumble darkly about an American-backed conspiracy. This is mostly nonsense. The investigator, Tarek al-Bitar, is a judge with a clean reputation. He has won support from families of the 218 people killed in the explosion. Pressed for evidence of a foreign conspiracy, supporters of Hizbullah and Amal offer little beyond the fact that some American congressmen have praised Mr Bitar.

It would be more accurate to call this a protest against the investigation itself: a rally for impunity, of which Lebanon has a long history. An amnesty law passed in 1991 meant that almost no one was held accountable for atrocities during the 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990. Since then politicians, security officials and intellectuals have been assassinated, with few consequences for their killers.

Mr Bitar, by most accounts, takes his job seriously. He has summoned high-ranking officials, including a former prime minister and cabinet members. On October 12th he issued an arrest warrant for Ali Hassan Khalil, a former finance minister from Amal, after the latter failed to turn up for questioning. Hours later a court ordered Mr Bitar to halt his work pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Mr Khalil and a colleague.

The investigator’s opponents have ample reason to want him gone. The explosion was caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had arrived at the port in 2013 and was stored improperly. Many senior officials were aware of the stuff but did nothing to make it safe. Amal is known to wield influence at the notoriously corrupt port. Some Lebanese believe Hizbullah wanted to use the ammonium nitrate for bomb-making, either at home or in neighbouring Syria (a claim that is so far unproven). Both parties are members of the ruling coalition and see a serious investigation as a threat to the political order.

They have already removed one judge. Mr Bitar’s predecessor was dismissed in February, in part because his own house was damaged in the blast. This supposedly made him too biased to oversee the work—an absurd standard that would disqualify about one in seven Beirutis (more than 85,000 homes were damaged).

For the civil-war generation, the fighting on October 14th carried grim echoes of their childhoods. Even the location, Tayouneh, was resonant: a former front line between Christian and Shia neighbourhoods, near the site of a massacre in 1975 that is widely considered the war’s starting point. For most of Lebanon’s political factions, however, a renewed war would be a suicide mission. Hizbullah is by far the country’s strongest force, better-equipped than even the army. None of its rivals has the muscle to challenge it, nor do they enjoy the level of foreign support they did decades ago.

If war seems unlikely, though, so does stability. Lebanon defaulted on its foreign-currency debt in March 2020 and has since slipped into an economic crisis that the World Bank ranks as one of the worst anywhere since the mid-1800s. The Lebanese pound, long pegged at 1,500 to the dollar, now trades at around 21,000; annual inflation exceeds 100%. Earlier this month the national electricity grid went offline for a day when its two main power plants ran out of fuel. There has been no progress on restructuring debt, a financial-rescue plan or an agreement with the IMF.

This endless crisis affects everyone—including the impoverished, demoralised security forces. The interior minister said in a television interview this month that more than 240 police officers had walked off the job. The army does not release statistics, but desertions there are thought to number in the thousands. Other soldiers have side jobs to feed their families, since conscripts now earn less than the equivalent of $60 a month (compared with $800 before the currency collapsed).

For decades, Lebanon’s leaders have framed justice and peace as opposing choices, where one is only possible without the other. The campaign against Mr Bitar, and the deadly violence that followed, underscores that they have in fact provided neither: a state too corrupt to prosecute its criminals, and too dysfunctional to protect its citizens.

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The meaning of South Africa’s most popular magazine

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A GLANCE AT its website belies the historical significance of Huisgenoot, the magazine with the highest circulation in South Africa. Among the most-read stories in early October were “Skokoomblik toe bruidegom se rug tydens onthaal breek” and “Vrou se oog per ongeluk met supergom toegeplak”. For those unfamiliar with Afrikaans, the language spoken at home by 12% of South Africans, these tales concern the “Shocking moment when groom’s back breaks during wedding reception” and the sticky situation in which a “Woman’s eye is accidentally glued shut with super glue”.

It is a far cry from the early days of the magazine. After the Anglo-Boer war (1899-1902) there was what Herman Giliomee, a historian, calls “the building of an Afrikaner ethnic consciousness” among the disparate group of South Africans of mostly Dutch descent. Important to that effort was Huisgenoot (Home companion), launched in 1916. It presented Afrikaner history as a heroic epic, extolled Afrikaner literature and helped standardise Afrikaans as its articles were used in school comprehension tests.

By the 1970s Afrikaner nationalism had long since metastasised into apartheid, and circulation of the dry cultural weekly was dwindling. As well as being racist, apartheid South Africa was stuffy, pious and insular. Television, which one politician called the “devil’s own box”, was introduced nationwide only in 1976, meeting a pent-up demand for escapism and glitz. A revamped Huisgenoot tapped into that desire, introducing celebrity features, puzzles, recipes and so on, while glossing over apartheid. It was like People, but for white people.

“It is painful to look at how we covered politics in those days,” says Yvonne Beyers, the current editor. But in its own way Huisgenoot reflects how nowadays, “We are South Africans first and Afrikaners second.” White celebrities are prominent but reporters use shoe-leather journalism to get gripping first-person accounts of South Africans from all walks of life. It recently featured the gay wedding of two “coloured” (mixed-race) characters in a soap opera. “If we had published that 20 years ago there would have been an outcry,” says Ms Beyers. Today the magazine reflects “how varied Afrikaans-speakers are”, she adds. Some 44% of its readers are coloureds (most of whom speak Afrikaans), a slightly higher share than the 42% who are white.

Editors remain the custodians of Afrikaans. They keep an eye on English neologisms or translations of English idioms. (In Afrikaans one says the “ears of the hippopotamus” rather than “the tip of the iceberg”.) But, in contrast to a century ago, Huisgenoot embraces the language’s diversity by, for instance, quoting coloured South Africans in their vernacular. “We want to show a language that is still alive,” says Ms Beyers. “This is not the Afrikaans of 1916.”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Ja to change”

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At the Dubai expo, no one is eager to talk about reality

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THE SETTING is dramatic. Visitors passing from the harsh midday sun to the dim interior are met with slogans. “We believe that every human is part of the collective conscience,” reads a message on the walls of the Syrian pavilion at the Dubai expo. Why the Syrian government has spent years dropping bombs on many of those humans is not explained.

The $7bn fair is the first “World Expo” in the Middle East. Like much else in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which wants to attract visitors to revive its economy, the expo strives to gloss over politics. Exhibitors are able to present Panglossian visions of themselves to investors and tourists.

Many of the pavilions, intentionally or not, capture something about a country’s character. America puts guests on a moving walkway for an earnest civics lesson. China greets them with a video from Xi Jinping. Visitors to the British one spend most of their time in an orderly queue.

For countries in the region, there is much to gloss over. Lebanon’s pavilion feels like a tourism ad, with large monitors showing glamour shots of the country. Such an exhibit would be impossible in Lebanon itself, where the power went out for 24 hours earlier this month. Some countries have yet to showcase anything. Libya’s is almost empty, with walls that smell of fresh paint and a television playing cartoons. Iraq missed the opening, too.

Egypt is a popular stop. There are a few nods to the past: hieroglyphs and a replica of King Tut’s coffin. Much of it, though, is given over to portraying Egypt as an economic powerhouse, an image at odds with its sluggish private firms. On a giant video screen, a woman in pharaonic garb talks about industrial zones being built along the Suez canal. If Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is Egypt’s new pharaoh, a fish farm near Suez is apparently his Karnak temple.

No one acknowledges politics, not even occupied Palestine, which allows visitors to touch a piece of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock and smell soap made in Nablus. Instead, many countries want to do business. At Iran’s unfinished pavilion, where one door leads to a construction site, space is given over to a sort of bazaar, with companies hawking ceramic tiles and carpets.

Back at the Syrian stall there are booths for firms selling cables and olive oil, and one for Cham Holding, a conglomerate under American and European sanctions. Another space is lined with 1,500 wood panels that were posted to Syrians around the world with instructions to draw their hopes. Some are painted with the regime’s flag, or Bashar al-Assad’s face. Organisers insist they tried to reach a representative sample of the now-sprawling diaspora. Yet none seems to have sent wishes for a less brutal government or accountability for a war that killed hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. A neon sign nearby declares, “What you see isn’t all there is”—an apt slogan for the whole expo.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The far-fetched pavilions”

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Burkina Faso opens trial for the assassination of Sankara

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AFTER BARELY four tumultuous years of revolutionary government, Thomas Sankara was gunned down in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, in 1987, during a coup. It was hatched by his erstwhile best friend, Blaise Compaoré, who has said that he did not order the killing, but who then ran the show until he in turn was turfed out after an uprising in 2014. Since 2015 this poor, arid country of 22m has wobbled along more or less democratically.

In the past few years, however, a wave of jihadist violence across the five countries of the Sahel (the others are Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) has washed over Burkina Faso, too, giving everyone the jitters. So what is the point of the trial, which opened on October 11th in Ouagadougou, of 14 men accused of being involved in the killing of Mr Sankara and a dozen or so of his comrades all those years ago, seeing that the chief defendant, Mr Compaoré, is snug in exile next door, in Ivory Coast?

Another leading defendant, Hyacinthe Kafando, Mr Compaoré’s security chief, is also abroad. But Mr Compaoré’s right-hand man, General Gilbert Diendéré, sat dressed in camouflage among the other 12 accused in the packed courtroom, not far from the families of the victims of the coup, including Mariam Sankara, the late president’s widow. “We are expecting justice to be done,” she says. “It is unfortunate that all the accused are not here.”

Sankara, a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist and admirer of Fidel Castro and Muammar Qaddafi, is still revered in left-wing circles across Africa for his firebrand populism and fierce hostility to the West. He was especially critical of France, his country’s former ruler. Aged 33 when he took power, he promptly changed the country’s name from Upper Volta to Burkina Faso (The Land of Upright People). He expropriated feudal landholdings, promoted education and health care (with mass-vaccination programmes), opposed female genital mutilation and forced marriage, urged reforestation and rejected foreign aid (“He who feeds you, controls you”), rebuffing the IMF and railing against corruption and capitalism.

He also banned political opposition, muzzled the media, clobbered trade unions, terrified much of the country’s small, beleaguered middle class and summarily executed a clutch of figures tied to the previous regime. He set up Cuban-style “committees for the defence of the revolution” and “popular revolutionary tribunals” that sometimes chastised people for “laziness”. Pioneers of the Revolution, his youth movement, wore berets like Che Guevara. Many Africans liken Sankara to Che. Whether this is a compliment or an insult depends on one’s view of handsome, violent Marxists.

“He was dedicated to everything he did. He sacrificed everything to serve his people,” says Pierre Ouedraogo, an old friend who presides over a memorial in his name. “Most African intellectuals think first about themselves, but he thought about the people first,” he says. Sankara’s friends and fans in Ouagadougou hope the trial will expose the murky details of Mr Compaoré’s plot to oust him, punish the alleged assassins and so bring belated comfort to the families of those who were killed.

Less clear is whether details of France’s suspected involvement in Sankara’s demise will be revealed. Brian Peterson, a biographer of Sankara, doubts there will be a smoking gun implicating any foreign powers. “This will disappoint many people,” he says. If France were candid about what happened, the trial could help to redefine its relations with Burkina Faso “as a partner, not as imperialist overlord”. President Emmanuel Macron may not agree.

Some reckon the current president, Roch Kaboré, will try to use the trial to boost his own government’s popularity, which has been waning in part because of its failure to fend off the growing jihadist insurgency linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State. Thousands have perished and more than a million have been displaced. Moreover, Mr Compaoré still has a following in the country, especially in the army. So it is not certain that bringing him to book, even in absentia, will enhance national reconciliation, as the government claims.

The insurgency caused 335 civilian deaths in May, June, July and August, up from 80 in the previous four months. Both sides have committed atrocities. “The Sankara trial should not be made to bear the sole burden for tackling Burkina Faso’s long-held culture of impunity,” says Corinne Dufka of Human Rights Watch.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The ghost of Thomas Sankara”

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Iraq’s dismal election prompts militias to threaten violence

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ELECTIONS ARE supposed to be a smooth way to change power. In Iraq they seem to heighten hostilities. The vote on October 10th split the Shia majority between two snarling blocs. Muqtada al-Sadr, a gruff cleric-cum-militiaman popular with working-class Shias, emerged as the front-runner, with more than 70 of parliament’s 329 seats, a third more than his tally in the previous election, in 2018. His nearest Shia rival, Nuri al-Maliki, won about half as many. But within hours Mr Maliki, a besuited former prime minister, had assembled a coalition of Shia factions and militias friendly with Iran, topping Mr Sadr’s tally. Both men are claiming to have a mandate to form the next government.

Much will depend on which side Iraq’s Kurds and Sunni Arabs take. Preliminary results suggest that Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party has 32 of the 63 seats won by Kurdish parties, so he will probably style himself as a kingmaker. Sunni voters, previously more divided, rallied behind Muhammad al-Halbousi, parliament’s speaker, giving his party, Taqaddum, 38 seats.

Elections in Iraq are usually followed by months of wrangling between the main parties over who gets the big jobs with control of big budgets. But this time, before they could begin horse-trading, the two Shia blocs were threatening war against each other. In his victory speech on state television, Mr Sadr (pictured) vowed to disarm the pro-Iranian factions. “Arms must be controlled by the state only,” he said, without a hint of irony, even though he heads one of Iraq’s largest private armies.

The pro-Iranian militias bristled. Their main political arm, Fatah Alliance, had a bad election. According to preliminary results, its clutch of seats dropped from 48 to 14. Kataib Hizbullah, the most pro-Iranian militia, fielded 31 candidates, but won only a single seat. Few Iraqis, it seems, want it to brandish its swords. But rather than heed the message, the group’s spokesmen denounced the result as “the biggest fraud…in recent history” and called on the militia to assemble. For some, this deployment was simply theatrical sabre-rattling. For others it was preparation for a re-enactment of the bloodshed of 2008, when Mr Maliki, then the prime minister, sent troops to crush Mr Sadr’s forces in Basra, Iraq’s second city.

Western tensions with Iran are making matters worse. Mr Sadr once fought against American forces but now considers Iran the bigger threat to Iraq’s independence. In his victory speech he said embassies from every foreign country were welcome, tacitly including America. Although he still refuses to meet American officials, he uses the incumbent prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, as a go-between.

Iran, meanwhile, is egging on its local allies to oppose Mr Sadr. Esmail Ghaani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force, the foreign wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, arrived in Iraq on election day. “They’re not going to hand Iraq to Mr Sadr on a golden plate,” says an Iraqi official.

Iraq’s election commission further muddled the mayhem. Its claim of a turnout of 9m voters, or 41%, in the face of a boycott, induced a few guffaws. Some monitors guessed it was possibly half that. The EU, observing an Iraqi election for the first time, listed numerous violations in its mission report. The comma in its phrase, the “officially announced turnout was low, 41%”, sounded a bit like a cough. Millions of people were left off the register of voters. Days after the vote the election commission was still changing results on its website, citing problems with manually counting the vote. Some losing candidates and their followers have alleged vote tampering and blocked main roads with protests. Others called on armed supporters to descend on the commission’s offices unless the results were changed.

The gloom, however, is not entirely without glimmers. Mr Kadhimi, who is also a former intelligence chief, is wisely staying outside the fray. He withdrew from the election months ago, but hopes he may again be picked as the compromise candidate on whom all factions might agree. Young Iraqis, who call themselves the Tishreenis (after the Arabic word for the month in 2019 when they first started their protests to demand sweeping change), also celebrated. Despite their calls for a boycott of the ballot, their main party, Imtidad, together with independents, won some 20 seats. New Generation, their Kurdish counterpart, won another nine. “Next election we’ll sweep the board,” enthused a protester in the southern city of Najaf. Had he and his friends voted, they might not have needed to wait.

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “Vote first, fight later”

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A new crisis between America and Iran looms

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A FORMER FRENCH president, Nicolas Sarkozy, summed it up best: tough nuclear diplomacy with Iran, he said in 2007, was the best way to avoid the catastrophic choice between “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran”. To escape this dilemma President Joe Biden has been trying to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran that Barack Obama negotiated in 2015 and Donald Trump tore up three years later.

But Iran is not making it easy. It refused to speak directly to American officials in the six rounds of talks in Vienna that ended in June (it negotiated instead with European, Russian and Chinese intermediaries). It has not resumed formal negotiations since, citing the need for personnel changes after the election as president in June of Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner. Talks could resume in November, Iran says.

Iran is spinning up a growing stock of 60% enriched uranium, which is a hair’s breadth away from bomb-grade stuff. The acceleration has been helped by Iran’s deployment of more, and more sophisticated, centrifuges to purify the fissile material. Other alarming developments include the conversion of enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium metal—for which the most likely use is in bombs—and the hampering of inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

All told, Iran’s “breakout time”—the time it would need to make one bomb’s-worth of highly enriched uranium—has shrunk to about a month, calculates David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think-tank. American officials put it at “a few months”. Either way, it is much shorter than the year or more that the world enjoyed when the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was in force. (Putting a nuclear warhead on a missile would take perhaps another two years.)

Among Iran-watchers in Washington, there is a sense of foreboding about an approaching showdown. “The runway is getting shorter,” says Antony Blinken, the secretary of state. On October 13th he warned that America “is prepared to turn to other options” to prevent an Iranian bomb—without saying what these might be.

Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is blunter: “Iran’s nuclear programme has hit a watershed moment. And so has our tolerance,” he told the UN General Assembly last month. Israel makes little secret of its covert campaign to assassinate Iran’s nuclear scientists and sabotage its facilities. “Operations to destroy Iranian capabilities will continue—in various arenas and at any time,” said Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi. Iran is the main subject of a flurry of diplomatic meetings, including one between Mr Blinken, Israel’s foreign minister, Yair Lapid, and his Emirati counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed.

The looming crisis was predictable from the day Mr Trump withdrew from the JCPOA, calling it “the worst deal ever”. The deal had placed limits on the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of many, but not all, international economic sanctions. Mr Trump’s new barrage of sanctions was intended to exert “maximum pressure”. But it failed to compel Iran to accept more stringent terms. Nor did it halt the country’s development of ballistic missiles, or its support for client militias around the Middle East.

Mr Biden campaigned on a promise to restore the JCPOA. In office, he retained most of Mr Trump’s sanctions in the hope of preserving America’s bargaining power. But as the nuclear programme accelerates, it is Iran that is now exerting “maximum pressure” on Mr Biden, argues Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank.

In Iran’s view, America has proven itself untrustworthy, as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long warned. The economic benefits of the JCPOA were short-lived. And Iran thinks it has withstood the worst economic pressure that America can apply. Sanctions, compounded by covid-19 and oil prices that until recently were low, have hurt a lot. The economy contracted by 6% in 2018 and 7% in 2019. The rial has lost 85% of its value since 2017 and annual inflation recently surged to 45%.

But now the economy is improving. The IMF estimated in April that it would grow by 3% this year, and that was before the recent spike in oil prices. China has become the biggest buyer of Iran’s oil, and is incorporating it into its Belt and Road infrastructure scheme. Russia is talking of integrating Iran into a Eurasian trade group.

Regionally, too, Iran has become more powerful. It has helped to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria and defended its friends in Iraq from the jihadists of Islamic State. To the south, its Houthi allies in Yemen have forced a Saudi-led military coalition to seek a way out of the war. In Afghanistan, the Americans have been chased away by the Taliban. Even America’s allies in the Gulf have started trying to patch up relations with the theocracy.

Iran claims it seeks to build only a nuclear-power industry. But it seems determined at least to develop the wherewithal to make nuclear bombs at short notice. The JCPOA was hardly a permanent solution to the problem. It allowed Iran to continue enrichment and to experiment with more-sophisticated centrifuges, but under tight limits. “Sunset clauses” would remove most of these restrictions after eight, ten and 15 years (a tightened inspection regime would go on indefinitely). These compromises provoked intense opposition by the Republicans and parts of the Democratic Party, whipped up by Mr Bennett’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.

The Biden administration at first sought an agreement that would be “longer and stronger” than the original. Iran, arguing that America had to atone for reneging on the JCPOA, has also demanded better terms, not least that America should move first by lifting all Trump-era sanctions.

Such a more-for-more deal seems beyond reach. The likeliest option is what Mr Blinken calls “a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA”. But that is losing its appeal, too. Even if stocks of highly enriched uranium are shipped out of Iran and centrifuges are dismantled, Iran has acquired valuable know-how that cannot be unlearnt. Mr Albright thinks the JCPOA can no longer restore the one-year breakout time. Moreover, the sunset clauses mean that Iran would be allowed to expand its enrichment programme in 2025.

Although the Biden administration does not intend to submit any agreement with Iran for congressional approval (just as the Obama administration skirted Congress with the JCPOA), hawkish congressmen are trying to find ways to oblige it to do so. Mr Biden will be hoping that some opponents, having seen the dangerous consequences of an unconstrained Iran, will support a deal. Under Mr Bennett, Israel has acquiesced to the talks for now; some Israeli officials see merit in the JCPOA. But some are privately expressing dismay about the apparent lack of an American Plan B, including military options. One idea floated by Israel is a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts”—conducting many small military and diplomatic actions, short of open air strikes.

Jim Risch, a Republican senator, warns Mr Biden that a revived JCPOA is bound to be repudiated by a future Republican president. His answer? Tighten the economic noose and prepare for the worst. “If the Iranians get close to getting nuclear weapons, this administration needs to think: what are they going to do when they get the call from the Israelis?”

This article appeared in the Middle East & Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The final countdown”

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A new crisis between America and Iran looms

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THE FORMER French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, probably summed it up best: tough nuclear diplomacy with Iran, he said in 2007, was the best way to avoid the catastrophic choice between “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran”. To escape this dilemma, President Joe Biden has been trying to revive the nuclear agreement with Iran that Barack Obama negotiated in 2015 and Donald Trump tore up three years later.

But Iran is not making it easy. It has refused to speak directly to American officials in the six rounds of talks in Vienna that ended in June (it negotiated instead with European, Russian and Chinese intermediaries). It has dragged its feet since—citing the presidential election in June that brought to power Ebrahim Raisi, a hardliner (pictured, during a visit to the Bushehr nuclear power plant); and the need to appoint new ministers and a negotiating team. Talks could resume in November, Iran says.

As though taunting America, Iran has stepped up its nuclear programme. On October 9th Iran said it had produced more than 120kg of 20% enriched uranium, sharply up from the 84kg reported by UN inspectors last month, and approaching the 170kg required to make a bomb after further enrichment. It is already spinning up a growing stock of 60% enriched fissile material, a hair’s breadth away from bomb-grade stuff. The acceleration has been helped by Iran’s deployment of more, and more sophisticated, centrifuges to purify the fissile material. Other alarming developments include the conversion of enriched uranium hexafluoride gas into uranium metal—for which the most likely use is in bombs—and the hampering of inspections by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.

All told, Iran’s “breakout time”—the time it would need to make one bomb’s-worth of highly enriched uranium—has shrunk to about a month, calculates David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, a think-tank. American officials put it at “a few months”. Either way, it is much shorter than the year or more that the world enjoyed when the nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was in force. (Putting a nuclear warhead on a missile would take perhaps another two years.)

In Washington, there is a sense of foreboding about an approaching showdown. “The runway is getting shorter,” says Antony Blinken, the secretary of state. Unless progress is made soon, American officials say, they will have to turn to “other options”—without saying what these might be. Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, is blunter: “Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment. And so has our tolerance,” he told the UN General Assembly last month. Israel makes little secret of its covert campaign to assassinate Iran’s nuclear scientists and sabotage its facilities. “Operations to destroy Iranian capabilities will continue—in various arenas and at any time,” said Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi; Israel would always have “an effective and timely military response.”

The looming crisis was predictable from the day Donald Trump, Mr Biden’s predecessor, withdrew from the JCPOA, calling it “the worst deal ever”. The deal restricted the Iranian nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of many, but not all, international economic sanctions. Mr Trump’s barrage of sanctions was intended to exert ”maximum pressure”. But it failed to compel Iran to accept more stringent terms. Nor did it halt its development of ballistic missiles, or its support for client militias around the Middle East.

Mr Biden campaigned on a promise to restore the JCPOA. In office, he retained most of Mr Trump’s sanctions in the hope of preserving America’s bargaining power. But as the nuclear programme accelerates, it is Iran that is now exerting “maximum pressure” on Mr Biden, argues Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank.

In Iran’s view, America has proven itself to be untrustworthy, as the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has long warned. The economic benefits of the JCPOA were short-lived, and felt only in the cities. And Iran thinks it has withstood the worst economic pressure that America can apply. Sanctions, compounded by low oil prices and the covid-19 pandemic, have exacted a painful cost. Iran’s GDP contracted by 6% in 2018 and 7% in 2019. The rial has lost 85% of its value since 2017. Inflation is high and living standards have plunged.

This did not bring about the collapse of the clerical regime, as some in the Trump administration hoped. If anything it reinforced hardliners as the champions of “resistance”. As private firms floundered, those linked to the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) flourished. The Guards have tried to boost their popularity through charitable work such as distributing food to the needy. But the regime has also resorted to the iron fist. Security forces shot dead hundreds of people to put down nationwide protests over the economy in 2019.

Now the economy is improving. The IMF estimated in April that Iran’s GDP would grow by 3% this year, and that was before the latest spike in oil prices. China has become the biggest buyer of Iran’s oil, and is unlikely to bow to America’s wishes. If anything, Iran is being incorporated into China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure projects. Russia is talking of integrating Iran into a Eurasian trade group.

Regionally, too, Iran has become more powerful. To the west, it helped to save Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus, and defended its friends in Baghdad from the jihadists of Islamic State. To the south, its Houthi allies in Sana’a have forced a Saudi-led military coalition to seek a way out of the war. And to the east, in Afghanistan, the Americans have been chased away by the Taliban, who are now on friendly terms with Iran.

President Biden has vowed that “Iran will never get a nuclear weapon on my watch”. Yet Iran knows that he wants to disentangle America from the “forever wars” in the Muslim world, and will be loth to fight a new one over Iran’s nukes. Gulf kingdoms have started trying to patch up relations with Iran.

Iran claims it seeks to build only a nuclear-power industry. But it seems determined at least to develop the wherewithal to make nuclear bombs at short notice. The JCPOA was hardly a permanent solution to the problem. It sought to postpone the reckoning. It allowed Iran to continue enrichment and experiment with more sophisticated centrifuges, but under tight limits. “Sunset clauses” would remove most of these restrictions after eight, ten and 15 years (a tightened inspection regime would go on indefinitely). These compromises provoked intense opposition by the Republicans and parts of the Democratic party, whipped up by Mr Bennett’s predecessor, Binyamin Netanyahu.

The Biden administration at first sought an agreement that would be “longer and stronger” than the original JCPOA. Iran, arguing that America had to make up for its reneging on the deal, has also demanded better terms, not least that America should move first by lifting all Trump-era sanctions and that it should guarantee that the deal will not be repudiated again.

Such a more-for-more deal seems beyond reach. The likeliest option is what Mr Blinken calls “a mutual return to compliance with the JCPOA”. But that is losing its appeal, too. Even if stocks of highly-enriched uranium are shipped out of Iran, and centrifuges are dismantled, Iran has acquired valuable know-how that cannot be unlearnt. Mr Albright thinks the JCPOA can no longer restore the one-year breakout time. Moreover, the sunset clauses mean that Iran would be allowed to expand its enrichment programme starting in 2025. Iran knows that the Democrats could lose control of Congress next year, and of the White House in 2024.

Although the Biden administration does not intend to submit any agreement with Iran for congressional approval (just as the Obama administration skirted congress with the JCPOA), hawkish congressmen are trying to find ways to oblige it to do so. Mr Biden will be hoping that some opponents, having seen the dangerous consequences of an unconstrained Iran, will support a deal. And if the talks fail after a good-faith effort to revive the accord, it thinks it will be easier to secure European support to tighten sanctions. Under Mr Bennett Israel has acquiesced to the talks for now; some Israeli officials even see merit in the JCPOA. But some are privately expressing dismay about the apparent lack of an American Plan B, including military options. One idea floated by Israel is a strategy of “death by a thousand cuts”—conducting many small military and diplomatic actions, short of overt air strikes on Iran.

Jim Risch, the senior Republican on the Senate foreign-relations committee, warns Mr Biden that a revived JCPOA is bound to be repudiated by a future Republican president. His answer? Tighten the economic noose, and prepare for the worst. “If the Iranians get close to getting nuclear weapons, this administration needs to think: what are they going to do when they get the call from the Israelis?”