Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and human rights campaigner.

Follow at @StefSimanowitz
Visit: http://www.stefansimanowitz.com

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Stefan Simanowitz is a journalist, writer and human rights campaigner.
Follow at @StefSimanowitz. Visit: http://www.stefansimanowitz.com


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FiSahara: the world's most remote film festival

FiSaharaDesert screen.jpg

Cinephiles in the Dakhla refugee camp, deep in the Sahara desert, Algeria, participate in FiSahara’s 13th edition. © Alberto Almayer

'I must have attended almost a hundred film festivals over the years but I’d never been to one in a refugee camp deep in the desert,' says Neil McCartney, Chair of The Independent Film Trust on his return from the FiSahara Film Festival in October. 'I’m still getting the sand out of my ears, but it was remarkable festival and I loved it.'

He was among the 350 international guests including actors, directors, activists and cinephiles, who travelled to Dakhla, a sun-baked refugee camp deep in the Sahara desert in Algeria, to participate in FiSahara’s 13th edition. International guests stayed with Saharawi refugees exiled from Western Sahara for nearly four decades, sharing their homes and their food and sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with them on rugs to watch movies. This year’s programme included more than 50 films, all projected at night onto two large outdoor screens attached to the side of articulated lorries.

Sergio R. Moreno

The festival took place over five days in the sprawling camp which is home to tens of thousands of refugees. Without paved roads or running water Dakhla is an unlikely place for a film festival, but it is precisely its remote location and lack of amenities that makes it the ideal choice for a festival that aims to educate and entertain both refugees and international participants. For the refugees, FiSahara helps break the monotony of camp life, offering a rare window on the world beyond the bleak desert horizons. For guests, it gives them a unique insight into the world of refugees who have been largely forgotten by the international community.

‘I’m still getting the sand out of my ears, but it was remarkable festival and I loved it’

The festival site is in the centre of the camp. Screenings take place after sundown. Each day there are activities including workshops and camel races, football matches and clown shows for the children. At night, as well as the films, there are concerts in the rolling dunes with performances by local and international musicians including the acclaimed Spanish band Vetusta Morla.

Alberto Almayer

The theme of this year’s festival was Occupied Peoples: Memory and Resistance. The programme ranged from documentaries to blockbusters, animations to films made by the refugees themselves. The winner of the White Camel, the festival’s top prize (which is an actual live camel), went to Ladjouad (2016) made by Brahim Chegaf, himself a graduate of a film school set up in the refugee camps in 2010. His film, which follows the thousand mile journey of three old men who cross the desert to visit a mystic mountain, is an exploration of Saharawi collective memory and culture. In addition to the white camel award, it is hoped that the Raindance film festival, a supporter of FiSahara, will screen the film at their festival in London next year.

Second prize went to Sonita (2015), a documentary by an Iranian film maker about an Afghan teenager who dreams of becoming a rapper. Collecting his award the film’s director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, described FiSahara as 'the most inspiring film festival I have ever been to.'

Alberto Almayer

Whilst a film festival might not seem a priority in a refugee camp where health problems include hepatitis B, anaemia, meningitis, and various forms of malnutrition, there is belief that culture is an important tool for survival. As Jadiya Hamdi, the Minister of Culture for the Saharawi government in exile, explained at a previous festival, film-making not only helps preserve and enrich their culture but also gives people in the camps a sense of purpose. 'Empty time is a dangerous thing,' she told me. 'It can kill a human soul.'

This year’s festival included numerous audio­visual training workshops, ranging from sound editing to film archiving for refugees. 'We are witnessing how cameras and film have become essential tools in the Saharawi’s struggle against occupation,' said Maria Carrion, the festival’s executive director. 'It is through these images that the hearts of people across the world are touched.'

Alberto Almayer

Mhairi Morrison a Scottish-American actress who flew out from Los Angeles for the festival was deeply moved by her stay in the camp and formed a close bond with her host mother, Warda, and her family. Warda, aged 28, was born in Dakhla, studied psychology in Algiers before coming back to work in the camp hospital. 'We could speak French together but I also taught her mime which she was fascinated by. “In which country do they speak mime?” she asked me.'

Alberto Almayer

Before coming to the festival Mhairi had read all she could about it and had come across a quote from Javier Bardem who attend in 2008 in which he described FiSahara as 'nothing short of a miracle'.

'This quote kept coming back to me, particularly on the last night,' says Mhairi. 'I was with Warda beneath a vast star-filled sky. We sat beside each other in silence for a long time. Eventually she turned to me and took my hand and said. “Thank you a thousand times for coming. Do not forget us.”' For visitors to the FiSahara film festival, forgetting Dakhla and the people who live there, is not easily done.

One man’s attempt to unseat the Prime Minister

Tony Blair

Tony Blair faced an unexpected opponent in the 2005 General Election. Chatham House under a Creative Commons Licence

General elections in Britain seldom throw up moments of high drama. Aside from the occasional bitter fight in a key marginal or a tasty televised clash where the gloves finally come off, most electioneering is predictably dull.

That is why, exactly 10 years ago, Reg Key’s campaign to unseat the sitting Prime Minister, Tony Blair, offered such a rare and memorable splash of colour.

Reg Keys was the father of a soldier, Tom, who had been killed in Iraq in 2003 and Keys held Blair responsible. The prime minister had deliberately duped the country into an illegal war and Tom, alongside over 170 other British personnel, had paid the ultimate price. In order to hold him to account, Keys, backed by a small group campaigners and with celebrity support from the likes of Brian Eno, David Soul and Frederick Forsyth, would run against Blair as an independent candidate. With a pledge to stand down and call an immediate by-election if he won, the idea was that Reg would run a single-issue campaign on the illegality of the Iraq invasion. And if he won, his would be the classic ‘hero’s tale’. That of the aggrieved father who slays the duplicitous ruler, frees the kingdom, and then rides off into the sunset.

Reg Keys had not been the first-choice independent candidate to run against Blair. I had approached outspoken critic of the war, and Monty Python, Terry Jones, whose potential campaign slogan, ‘He’s not a good Prime Minister, he’s a very naughty boy’, was ready made. But Terry declined, as did others such as Greg Dyke and Martin Bell. Just as it seemed a candidate would not be found, Keys came forward.

Keys’ campaign was launched two days after the election was called and rapidly gained massive local, national and international media interest. Three makeshift offices were established, a website set up, leaflets and posters printed. Donations flooded in and over 100 volunteers came forward to help.

Although Sedgefield, a rural constituency in County Durham, is traditionally staunchly Labour, the fact that Blair’s majority had fallen from over 25,000 in 1997 to 17,731 in 2001 suggested that his popularity was on the wane. With many traditional Labour voters angry and disillusioned with Blair over his decision to invade Iraq, the 22-per-cent swing that would be needed to defeat him seemed unlikely but not impossible.

At the start of the campaign, Reg was photographed outside a local betting shop holding a betting slip with his odds to win at 150/1. Over the coming days and weeks these odds were slashed.

In Sedgefield, where people joke that votes for the Labour Party are ‘weighed rather than counted’, it is easy to assume that Keys had no chance of overturning Blair’s majority. But a number of factors could have made a Keys victory conceivable. Principal among these would have been if the Liberal Democrat and Conservative candidates had agreed to stand down in favour of Keys.

Although it rarely happens, there are precedents for rival parties standing down to make way for an Independent candidate. Martin Bell’s challenge in Tatton was unopposed by opposition parties, as was Dr Richard Taylor’s campaign in Kidderminster. Dr Taylor stood on behalf of the town’s ‘save our hospital’ campaign in 2001, managing to turn a 6,946 Labour majority into a 17,630 majority in his favour, as well as winning a second term. However, both Bell and Taylor were standing against regional MPs on matters of local concern. Keys was challenging the Prime Minister on a matter of national principle.

Whilst it became clear that the Liberal Democrat might stand down if his Conservative counterpart did the same, the Tory candidate steadfastly refused. Apart from the fear of looking opportunistic or hypocritical, the Conservatives no doubt feared that helping an independent candidate overthrow a sitting Prime Minster might set a dangerous precedent. Such tactics could be targeted against them in the future, thereby making even the safest of seats precarious. Whilst the idea that unpopular or discredited politicians, no matter how large their majority or how senior their position, could be defeated in this way might be good for democracy, it is unlikely to be welcomed by the two main parties in the British system.

It is possible that the intransigence on the part of the Conservative candidate might have been circumvented had Keys kept to the original strategy to promise to stand down if victorious and call an immediate by-election. But under the influence of his party agent, former firebrand Labour MP Bob Clay, Reg was persuaded to drop the plan of a by-election and run for Westminster. Knowing nothing about the constituency, and very little about national politics, this decision was fatal to any chance of winning the seat.

Pledging a by-election would have meant that the opposition parties would not have been forfeiting the seat, merely agreeing to contest it a few months later. There is nothing in British electoral law to stop a candidate from running on such a platform, and by employing this strategy Keys could, in effect, have turned the vote in Sedgefield into a referendum on Blair and his leadership.

The strategy would have also helped to remove one of the other major obstacles faced by Keys, namely local people’s loyalty to the Labour Party. It would have allowed even dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporters to vote against Blair without betraying their party or their beliefs. A common sentiment expressed by many Sedgefield constituents was that they supported the Party but not its leader and would be voting Labour through gritted teeth. By promising a by-election, Keys would have given locals the freedom to register their frustration with Blair. It was the crucial difference between asking people to ‘vote Blair out’ and asking them to ‘vote Keys in’.

On Election Day Blair won the seat with a large, if reduced, majority. Keys came fourth with just over 10 per cent of the vote. It was a respectable tally for an independent whose campaign had begun a month earlier, but it was a long way from the historic victory that had been hoped for. Reg Keys nevertheless had a another moment of drama up his sleeve.

As is traditional at counts, the losing candidates are each permitted to give a short concession speech and so it came to pass that in the early hours of 6 May, Reg Keys got to stand next to Tony and Cherie Blair before the glare of the world’s media. Reg began with an explanation: ‘If this war had been justified under international law I would grieve and not have campaigned. If WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] had been found in Iraq I would grieve and not campaign. Tonight there are lessons to be learned. And I hope in my heart that one day the prime minister may be able to say sorry.’

 He then read out the names of Tom Keys and five the British military police officers killed in Majar Al-Kabir in 2003 alongside him. Tony Blair was ashen-faced. Cherie Blair was holding back tears.

Whilst the Reg Keys campaign may have failed to unseat Blair, it succeeded in bringing his story to the attention of the world and helped to ensure that the issue of the war in Iraq was firmly in the minds of voters on Election Day. If rumours are true, the acclaimed screenwriter, Jimmy McGovern, is currently turning Reg’s story it into a screenplay which, if it gets the green light, will be on our screens in 2016. Hopefully it will do justice to Reg Keys and his historic attempt to unseat Tony Blair – and his continuing fight to ensure that his son did not die in vain.

Stefan Simanowitz helped to found and run the Reg Keys election campaign in 2005 and worked closely with Brian Eno to try and ensure Keys pledged a by-election. This article was originally published in the Contemporary Review in 2005 and is reproduced with permission.

Reporting Syria: can we expect honesty from international media?

A year after the Iraq war the New York Times took the unprecedented step of printing an admission and an apology for some of its coverage of the build-up to the invasion which it found ‘was not as rigorous as it should have been’.

‘In some cases’ they admitted ‘information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged.’ Whilst this may be the only case of a newspaper publishing a high profile apology, many journalists and editors privately acknowledge that their news outlets also failed in their responsibility to adequately challenge official stories coming out of Washington and London or to give fair airing to dissenting views during the build-up to the 2003 war. And yet as the world gears up for military intervention in Syria, it seems that some of the lessons from Iraq have been forgotten.

A different conflict but similar mistakes are being made by journalists reporting it.

Patrick Feller

Last Wednesday, Der Spiegel reported on the content of a ‘secret briefing to select lawmakers’ by the head of BND, Germany’s intelligence agency, Gerhard Schindler. At the briefing Schindler disclosed details of an intercepted phone call between a high-ranking member of Hezbollah and an Iranian Embassy during which Der Spiegel reports the Hezbollah functionary ‘seems to have admitted that poison gas was used’ in last month’s attack on a Damascus suburb.

Despite the fact that the report used the word ‘seems’ and says Schindler ‘gave no indication as to the weight being given to the intercepted telephone call’, the international media has widely treated this report as being an important missing piece of the jigsaw demonstrating the Assad regime’s responsibility for and knowledge of the horrific chemical weapons attack on Ghouta. ‘Intercepted phone calls prove Assad was behind atrocities’ read one headline in the International Business Times and whilst most Western newspapers and broadcasters did not go quite so far, few included the qualifications contained in the Der Spiegel article. None asked how and why details of a supposedly ‘secret briefing’ were leaked to a national newspaper.

Officials never tell bigger and more blatant, more obvious lies than during a time of war

We all know that our governments do not always tell us the full truth, and as Channel 4 News journalist Alex Thompson observed after the invasion of Iraq, officialdom ‘never tell bigger and more blatant, more obvious lies than during a time of war.’ Once war begins, factors such as dependence on official sources and a surge of patriotism mean that our media tends to become less critical of official government propaganda. Indeed according to theorist Scott Althaus, journalists tend to internalize ideological discourses compromising their ability to view a situation objectively. ‘Once journalists have accepted or internalized such a discourse, the focus of news coverage departs from substantive discussion about whether a particular foreign policy can be justified and concentrates on the procedural question of whether the policy can achieve the desired outcome’ he argues.

‘I didn't really do my job properly’ BBC's Rageh Omaar admitted after the Iraq war. ‘I hold my hand up and say we didn’t press the most uncomfortable buttons hard enough.’ CBS anchor, Dan Rather, went even further claiming that had the media done its job ‘we could have avoided war.’

In coverage of the Iraq war, dissenting voices comprised only 5 percent of press quotations

A 2010 study into the British media’s coverage of the Iraq war, starting three days before the start of the invasion, found that ‘both television and press gave substantial reinforcement to the two main official justifications for war’ and ‘relied heavily on coalition sources’. The study Pockets of Resistance found ‘supportive battle coverage prevailed even among newspapers that had opted to oppose the war’ and ‘dissenting voices comprised only 5 percent of press quotations and 3.5 percent of those accessed by television.’ Embedded journalists were less objective than their non-embedded counterparts with 82 per cent of coverage from Sky News' embeds supportive, compared with 72 per cent from their non-embedded reporters.

Whilst the situation in Syria may be more analogous to Libya than Iraq in terms of potential levels of military intervention, the fact that action in Syria is unlikely to get UN Security Council support is a powerful throw-back to 2003. Following the invasion of Iraq, our media has more responsibility than ever to ensure that stories coming out about the Syria crisis are examined forensically and reported accurately and that the media are not used as a tool to bump a reluctant public towards supporting war.

Syrian war spills into Lebanon

Ali lives with his wife, brother-in-law and eight children in a graveyard. Their home is a single-roomed, 10’ x 10’ concrete hut beside a row of freshly dug graves in Jalil, an overcrowded Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Until they moved in, the hut was used to wash corpses before burial and two large stainless-steel washing tables still lean against the outside wall.

Ali and his home in the graveyard, Baalbekj (Taken 21 May 2013)

Stefan Simanowitz

But living among the dead holds no fear for Ali or his family who fled from Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria six months ago. ‘We are Palestinians. We don’t fear anything’ Ali says with bravado before pausing to add. ‘Of course as a father I feared for the safety of my children which is why we came to Lebanon.’ Yet in recent days and weeks, it seems as if the violence from which they fled might be following them over the border.

Jalil refugee camp is in Baalbek, a small town close to the Syrian border. On the first weekend of June 2013, over a dozen shells and rockets fired from Syria landed on the outskirts of the town. There were no injuries but the week before, in nearby Hermel, a young girl was killed and a woman injured by mortars. On Sunday 2 June, fighting between Hezbollah and members of the Free Syria Army spilled over the Syrian border into the mountains close to Baalbek. Reports suggest these clashes left at least 14 dead and the significance of this fighting taking place on Lebanese soil has not been lost on anyone least of all the Israelis whose jets flew low over Baalbek on Sunday morning.

6,000 Palestinians living in Syria have fled to Lebanon over the past two years joining a well-established Palestinian refugee community

Baalbek is a Hezbollah stronghold and whilst it has long been an open secret that Hezbollah fighters have been crossing into Syria to fight alongside Assad’s forces this was only explicitly acknowledged by Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in a speech on 25 May. Since 19 May a battle for the strategically important Syrian rebel-held town of Qusair just 10 kilometres from the Lebanese border has seen a sharp escalation in and expansion of the conflict both in Baalbek province and in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli in the north of the country.

Whilst clashes between Sunni and Alawite fighters in Tripoli’s neighbouring districts of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen up the hill have been going on for decades the ‘siege of Qusair’ has coincided with increasingly bloody fighting in the city. Eight days of intense fighting at the end of May left nearly 30 dead and over 200 injured. After a brief respite, fighting re-ignited on Sunday 2 June, so far claiming six lives and leaving 38 injured.

A woman and her granddaughter observe from a window in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Tripoli (Taken 20 May 2013)

Stefan Simanowitz

There is little doubt that the on-going battle of attrition between these warring neighbours is intricately connected to the war in Syria persuading Sunni fighters to stay at home to defend Bal al-Tabbaneh rather than joining the anti-Assad forces in Syria. Indeed if the fighting in Tripoli continues it is possible that more Lebanese fighters in Syria could return to do battle much closer to home.

When I was in Baalbek soon after the start of the start of the fighting in Qusair, five funerals were taking place for Hezbollah fighters. Posters of the ‘martyrs’ lined the streets and cavalcades of heavily-armed men dressed in black drove from mosque to cemetery, the bodies of the fighters travelling in ambulances in simple wooden coffins. But apart from the crackle of guns being fired into the air, the funerals did not impinge on life of the refugees in Jalil who were focused on more immediate concerns.

‘I have suffered so much. Sometimes I think I would rather have died than to live in this situation’

‘We are struggling to cope with the numbers of refugees arriving from Syria’ explains Hamed Khalaf, who helps administer humanitarian relief in the camp, also known as Wavel opened over sixty years ago to house refugees from Palestine. ‘The main problems here are lack of accommodation, food and medicines.’

The United Nations estimates that more than 56,000 Palestinians living in Syria have fled to Lebanon over the past two years joining a well-established Palestinian refugee community over 400,000 strong. Unlike other Syrian refugees, Palestinians fleeing from Syria are not eligible for assistance from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees having to rely instead on the less well-funded United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA).

Taking a break from fighting in Bab al-Tabbaneh, Tripoli (Taken 20 May 2013)

Stefan Simanowitz

‘UNRWA is meant to give us assistance but it is not nearly enough’ says 40-year-old Imad Erjaya who fled from Khan Eshieh Palestinian refugee camp in Syria with his five brothers and their families in February following shelling. They all live together in impossibly cramped conditions in two small concrete rooms. ‘How many of us sleep in here at night? 28? 29? If you want to know, count the shoes outside and divide by two,’ he jokes darkly. His mother 75-year-old Fatima, displaced for the second time in her life buries her head in her hands. ‘I have suffered so much. Sometimes I think I would rather have died than to live in this situation’ she sobs.

Until now life in Jalil has been safe but as Syria’s civil war starts to seep over its borders fears are growing that parts of Lebanon will be destabilized and that life for the both refugees and locals will become less secure. Whatever happens the effects of war are already being felt. ‘My 10-year-old son spoke to me yesterday,’ says Imad Erjaya. ‘He said “If I die tomorrow, take my body back to Syria and bury me there.”’

Iran? Yes you can!



Photo by US government under a Public Domain Licence.

Howdy Barack,

Now I’ve no great interest in politics but it dawned on me that I have a duty to write to you, Commander-in-Chief 43 to Commander-in-Chief 44.

I was flipping burgers at the annual Republican fundraising barbeque I throw in Crawford, listening in to a conversation Dick, Donald and Wolfy were having about attacking Iran. They were all agreed the time is right and everything’s in place. A few diplomatic skirmishes are still in the pipeline and the media have yet to be fully embedded but Thunderbirds are almost go. The only question remaining is the big one. Does Obama have what it takes?

Apparently the view on Capitol Hill is that you’re in the midst of a major moral dimella about going to war, and I realized that as one of a few men alive who has stood in the Oval Office and had to make that most momentous of decisions, I’m one of the few men that truly understands that dimella.

Of course everyone wants to be a war President. Who wouldn’t! But so far you’ve been dropping the ball. When you came to office you tried out a new type of foreign policy and even offered the Tehranians the ‘hand of friendship.’ But you quickly learned that the president of America has gotta be awful careful about the friends he chooses.

I was real lucky with the friends I had around. The guy I relied on most was Dick. He had an ability to explain the most complicated things in a way that normal folk could comprehend. I remember one time he summed up the entire US plan for the Middle East while teeing off during a round of golf.

‘Look George,’ he says. ‘It’s kinda like how you’d play this hole. No matter how good you are, you’re not going to sink a hole-in-one on the 17th. A hole like this will need a couple of big thwacks at least before you even get up on the green.’ He hits the ball down the fairway. ‘First thwack, Afghanistan.’ He tees up again and takes another drive. ‘Second thwack, Iraq.’ He tees up once more. ‘Then we thwack the real bad guy, Iran.’

As you know, it wasn’t as easy as Dick made it sound. In Afghanistan the evil-doers are still up to mischief and the fighting in Iraq dragged on so long that some people started comparing it with Vietnam. I couldn’t comment on that ’cos I only went to Iraq at Thanksgiving and never went to ’Nam in the 70s. It was way too dangerous back then.

We almost went into Iran back in 2007 and again in 2008. Even just before I stepped down I was up for it but Condee reckoned it might make me look like the guy who starts a brawl then jumps into the nearest cab. So we left Iran to you.

The truth is sometimes hard, so I won’t try to sugar-coat it. Going to war was the toughest decision I ever had to make. Even though I knew it was the right thing to do and God was on our side, I was still shitting grits for days.

What made it easier was the support I got. Republicans and Democrats backed me a 100 per cent on Iraq just as they’ll back you 100 per cent on Iran. Don’t lose sleep over UN resolutions or international law. Remember you’re the sheriff in this town and as long as you’ve got a good posse to back you up, your word is law. Blair may not be in charge of England anymore but Prime Minster Dave seems like a real pushover. The best thing he has going for him is that tight-lipped Brit accent. He could call for of the invasion of Disney Land and Americans would be punching the air.

We have a saying here in Texas about leading a horse to water but not being able to make him swim and you Mister President are now in the position of that horse. So far it seems you’ve taken the right steps - UN resolutions, sanctions, covert operations yada yada. You’ve said the right things - all options on the table, windows of opportunity closing yada yada. The next thing you need to do is set a deadline.

Deadlines are great ’cos they take things out of your hands. Once a deadline expires then you have a simple choice: take action or look like a wuss. I gave Saddam a deadline to hand over his WMD. He missed the deadline. I gave the order. You give Amadinnerjacket a deadline to hand over his nucular weapons and let the countdown begin.

Even though they had nothing to do with 9/11, Dick reckons the countdown for the Iranians began as soon as that second plane hit the North Tower. But whenever it started the fact is that the clock is ticking down. So it’s over to you. Have you got what it takes? I believe you do. I believe you can, Barack. Yes you can.

G.

Africa’s hidden hunger

‘When you arrive in a village, everything may seem normal at first but then you start to notice things,’ explains Assumpta Ndumi. ‘It is lunchtime but there is no food on the fire. There are children in the village but no laughter or play. These are some of the signs of chronic malnutrition.’ For Assumpta, Save the Children’s nutrition adviser for East Africa, chronic malnutrition is a problem every bit as serious as acute malnutrition, even if it seldom captures the headlines. ‘In Kenya last year, the acute malnutrition that followed the drought was widely reported, but even before the rains failed there was a hidden hunger and children were dying because of it,’ she explains.

Children cooking in southern Uganda

Neil Palmer/CIAT under a CC Licence

Assumpta has witnessed firsthand the situation faced by children in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Darfur and Kenya. ‘Many families eat just one meal day, but it is often the quality rather than the quantity of the food that they eat that leaves them dangerously weak,’ she says, pointing to reliance on staples such as maize and cassava, which have low nutritional value, as well as the lack of fresh fruit and vegetables.

But she has also seen how simple, low-cost interventions can have a significant positive impact, transforming lives and preventing unnecessary deaths. According to A Life Free From Hunger, a new report by Save the Children, nearly two in five children in Africa – 60 million in total – are chronically malnourished. The report argues that malnutrition is the underlying cause of one third of child deaths worldwide, although it may not appear on their death certificates. Secondary illnesses such as diarrhoea, pneumonia and malaria, rather than chronic hunger, are usually put down as the cause of death.

Pressing concerns

As well as causing fatalities, chronic malnutrition is having a devastating impact on children’s development. Without the necessary protein, vitamins and minerals, children’s bodies and brains do not develop properly. In Niger, for example, recent World Health Organization research shows the average two-and-a-half-year-old will be more than 8 centimetres shorter than a well-nourished child, and a 2011 UNICEF study found that one in three children in Zimbabwe suffers from chronic malnutrition.

Nearly two in five children in Africa – 60 million in total – are chronically malnourished

Malnourished children often suffer from diminished IQs, and if they survive to adulthood are more likely to suffer from heart disease, diabetes and renal damage as well as being far less productive members of society.

Despite a significant global reduction in child deaths, progress on tackling chronic malnutrition has been painfully slow. While over the past 20 years the number of deaths from tuberculosis fell 40 per cent globally and deaths from malaria fell by over 30 per cent in Africa, levels of stunting across the continent have dropped by just 1 per cent over the same period. There are now growing fears that a combination of trends – including rising food prices, climate change and demographic shifts – could reverse even this modest gain.

In a recent survey, also by Save the Children, half of families polled in Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, India and Bangladesh said they were forced to cut back on food last year. The poll also found that 1 in 6 parents asked their children to skip school in order to work to help pay for the families’ food. In Nigeria, a quarter of all parents surveyed said their children sometimes or often go without food for an entire day, and 94 per cent pointed to rising food prices as their most pressing concern.

According to Assumpta, tackling chronic malnutrition is neither difficult nor expensive. ‘I have seen how encouraging breastfeeding and fortifying basic foods with essential minerals or vitamins can have an immediate and dramatic impact on children’s health,’ she says. Back in 2008, the Lancet medical journal identified an affordable package of 13 direct interventions – including vitamin A and zinc supplements, iodized salt, and the promotion of healthy behaviour such as breastfeeding – that were proven to have an impact on the nutrition and health of children and mothers. It is estimated that it would cost little more than $10 billion per year to implement this package and help protect 90 per cent of the world’s most vulnerable children from hunger.

Integrating strategies

According to a 2011 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization, three quarters of Africa’s malnourished children live on small farms and 43 per cent of agricultural work is carried out by women. Key to improving nutrition is therefore improving agriculture among small holders, sharecroppers and agricultural labourers, particularly women, by ensuring increased access to vital inputs such as land, tools, fertilizers and seeds, credit, agricultural services, markets and water.

Gathering the harvest in Kenya

Neil Palmer/CIAT under a CC Licence

Integrating strategies on health, nutrition and agriculture has been shown to produce positive effects. In Mozambique, for example, where the Food Security and Nutrition Strategy is overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture, a significant decline in malnutrition rates has been achieved.

It would cost little more than $10 billion per year to protect 90 per cent of the world’s most vulnerable children from hunger

But despite some limited successes, nutrition-focused agricultural interventions are not able to address the underlying causes of malnutrition – such as chronic poverty and maternal health. In Rwanda, despite efforts to promote balanced diets and the introduction of specific structural anti-poverty interventions, including the provision of school milk and kitchen-garden projects, rates of malnutrition remain stubbornly high. ‘The roots of malnutrition are anchored in poverty and behaviour,’ Rwandan health minister, Agnes Binawahlo, explains. ‘Only sustainable development based on education and economic growth can beat it.’

For Assumpta, who has worked to tackle malnutrition for nearly two decades, the fact that chronic malnutrition can be alleviated with simple interventions gives her hope, but it also increases her frustration when she sees its devastating effects: ‘Last February, an old woman arrived at an outreach centre in Wajir, north eastern Kenya, carrying a listless child. I thought the girl was about two years old but the woman, her grandmother, told me she was five. The girl – who was very thin and had a cough and breathing difficulties – did not survive the night.’

Stories like this are all too common and highlight the urgent need for a concerted global effort to tackle malnutrition.

Save the Children's report, A Life Free From Hunger, can be downloaded here.

Prospects for peace in Western Sahara

Stefan Simanowitz

‘We would prefer settle the situation in Western Sahara by peaceful means,’ Mohamed Abdelaziz, Secretary General of the Polisario Front, told a press conference on Saturday. ‘But if the peace process is not successful, our army is ready.’ He was speaking just a week before the start of the next round of UN- sponsored negotiations, expected to take place in New York on 11-13 February and his sentiments echoed those of the UN Secretary-General’s Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, Christopher Ross, who recently warned of the growing risks should the negotiations fail. As well as the danger of a renewal of military hostilities after a hiatus of over two decades, Ross also warned of a possible increase in popular unrest and even the ‘possible recruitment of the unemployed Saharawis into terrorist or criminal groups’. He emphasized that failure of the negotiations would have negative effects not just on the parties themselves but on the whole Maghreb region and entire international community.

Protests in Seville town centre.

Stefan Simanowitz

Despite lack of progress in the previous eight rounds of talks, Mohamed Abdelaziz expressed cautious optimism about the upcoming negotiations. ‘With the new government we hope that there will be new and positive developments and that the Moroccans come to the negotiations with a new position that is compatible with international law.’ While it is highly unlikely that the Moroccans will have made the slightest shift in their position on the autonomy plan for Western Sahara, the formation of new moderate Islamist coalition government in last November’s elections will inevitably result in changes to the Moroccan negotiating team. The team is likely to be led by new foreign minister Saad-Eddine el-Othmani, a man who has made no secret of his desire for Maghreb Union.

Failure of the negotiations would have negative effects not just on the parties themselves but on the whole Maghreb region and entire international community

Another fresh voice calling for Maghreb Union is Tunisia’s new President Moncef Marzouki, who on 8 February began a six-day trip to Morocco, Algeria and Mauritania. Marzouki harbours ambitions to revive the Arab Maghreb Union, a trade agreement signed in 1989. The Arab Maghreb Union, roughly modelled on the European Union, has been ‘in the freezer’ since 1994, largely because of the Western Sahara dispute. While the new Tunisian government has not indicated where it stands on the issue, it may be able to play an intermediary role in the conflict. Even if this is not the case, the arrival of a new democratically elected government keen for a resolution of the conflict could prove a useful catalyst. Indeed, Mohamed Abdelaziz undoubtedly had President Mazouki’s visit to Morocco in mind when he said on Saturday: ‘The governments that have emerged from the Arab Spring should spare no effort to convince Morocco to respect rights of the Saharawi people as a prelude to building Maghreb unity.’

The Arab Spring effect

The Arab Spring is also having an effect on the political topography of the Western Sahara conflict. It is perhaps too early to assess in what ways it will impact, but it has helped to emphasize the importance of allowing people to be heard, as well as exposing the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in Western foreign policy in the region. Morocco has used the Arab Spring to make a case for its importance as a bulwark of stability in the region, and while the Polisario Front has argued strongly that regional tensions would be reduced were they to be allowed to determine their own future, there is a tendency among international policymakers to stick close by partners that they know, rather than attempting to forge new alliances with ones that they don’t.

‘The Saharawi people are still deprived of their most basic rights. There has been an alarming deterioration in the situation and an increase in repression and violence by the Moroccan authorities and police’

Another recent shift came in the European Parliament with its unexpected decision last December to reject an extention of the EU-Morocco fisheries agreement. The agreement had allowed EU vessels to fish waters off Western Sahara’s 1,100-kilometre coastline since 2005 and its rejection was viewed as a significant victory by campaigners. However, on 3 February the EU member states agreed to authorize the European Commissioner of fisheries to negotiate a new fisheries protocol with Morocco on behalf of the EU. How far the passage of a new fisheries agreement goes remains to be seen.

Aminatou Haidar.

Stefan Simanowitz

Meanwhile, in Western Sahara itself there has been a sharp increase in the repression. Speaking this Sunday at the 37th annual European Coordination Conference of Support to the Saharawi People (EUCOCO), prominent human rights activist Aminatou Haidar described the last year as like ‘living in hell’. ‘The Saharawi people are still deprived of their most basic rights,’ she said. ‘But since the 36th EUCOCO conference there has been an alarming deterioration in the situation and an increase in repression and violence by the Moroccan authorities and police.’ She traces the worsening situation back to November 2010 and the destruction of the Gdeim Izik protest camp outside Laayoune. ‘Twenty-four human rights defenders arrested after Gdeim Izik are still incarcerated in deplorable conditions in Salé prison awaiting military tribunal,’ she explained.

With the Syrian city of Homs in flames and conflicts smouldering across the Arab world, it is unlikely that international attention will shift much focus to this forgotten conflict on the edge Africa. Nevertheless, efforts are growing and pressures are mounting for the resolution of this, one of the world’s longest conflicts.

Stefan Simanowitz attended the EUCOCO conference in Seville from 2-5 February.

Egyptian fugitive ex-minister exposed at London lecture

Also wanted: Military General Hamdy Badeen, has been accused of ordering brutal attacks on demonstrators.

Photo by Stefan Simanowitz

What had started off as a sedate lecture examining Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution ended in high drama on Monday night when a man at the front of the auditorium was publicly exposed as Youssef Boutros-Ghali, former Egyptian finance minister, wanted by Interpol and on the run from a 30-year prison sentence in Egypt. The police were called but the ex-government minister slipped out through a side door.

The talk at the London School of Economics (LSE) by Harvard professor of Middle Eastern history Roger Owen, had been a rather desiccated affair but at the end of the talk the floor was opened up to questions. A young woman was the first to be passed the microphone.

‘I’m sorry professor, but I couldn’t concentrate on your lecture due to the fact that the ex-Egyptian finance minister is sitting in the audience,’ she said, her voice shaking with emotion. ‘I am amazed at the audacity of this man, this fugitive from justice in Egypt, in sitting here,’ she went on, indicating a man in a dark suit sitting near the front of the auditorium.

A ripple of excitement passed through the audience but Professor Owen side-stepped any comment. Asked by another audience member whether he knew anything about the current status of the alleged fugitive, Professor Owen suggested that the question should be directed at the former finance minister himself.

But this was not possible. As soon as the lecture was finished Mr Boutros-Ghali and his two companions were ushered out of the front of the auditorium by LSE security staff and out of the building through a side door. At the front of the building a crowd of around 20 angry young Egyptians had gathered.

One student, Alia Moussallam, had checked Interpol’s website and seen a request for anyone with information about Mr Boutros-Ghali to ‘please contact your national or local police.’ So she called 999.

‘They asked if he was still in the building and I told them I thought he’d been taken out the back,’ she says. ‘The police said that they would be unable to do anything until they heard back from Interpol but they would be verifying Mr Ghali’s status with them.’

Mubarak's man

Mr Boutros-Ghali, nephew of the former United Nations Secretary General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, served as Hosni Mubarak’s finance minister from 2004 until 2011, skipping the country last February. In June he was convicted of corruption in absentia by an Egyptian court and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Interpol issued a red notice against Mr Boutros Ghali – the closest thing to an international arrest warrant – but he cannot be arrested by British police until such a warrant is issued by Egypt.

Egyptian political analyst Adam Taylor-Awny is uncertain as to why an international arrest warrant has yet to be issued. ‘Maybe it is because we have not had a revolution yet and those with vested interests are still protecting each other,’ he says.

‘We believe the London School of Economics have gone out of their way to protect an international fugitive. They should have learnt their lesson from the Saif al-Islam Gaddafi affair’

Many of the students expressed anger that LSE had not only prevented them access to the lecture hall but were seen to be giving Mr Boutros-Ghali special treatment by allowing him to leave from the front of the auditorium and the back door of the building. Gehad Youssef, a 23-year-old Egyptian biology student accused LSE of cosying up to criminals.

‘We believe LSE have gone out of their way to protect an international fugitive,’ he said. ‘They should have learnt their lesson from the Saif al-Islam Gaddafi affair,’ he added referring to the furore LSE faced over its links with the Gaddafi regime which led to the resignation last year of its director Sir Howard Davies.

It transpired that, despite having helped to ghost Mr Boutros-Ghali out of the building, LSE staff also reported his presence to the police. ‘Our primary concern before that was security and the safety of everyone there and the man himself,’ an LSE spokesperson said. ‘At that time we weren't aware of the Interpol red notice – that was only apparent to us just as he was driving away. Once we were aware of it we did call the police and let them know.’

Speaking outside LSE’s new academic building, Dina Makram, the Egyptian student who had highlighted Mr Boutros Ghali’s presence in the lecture theatre, described the wave of shock and anger she had felt on realizing that the man sitting half a dozen rows in front of her was the former finance minister.

‘I was enraged and insulted,’ she said. ‘I was in Tahrir Square during the revolution. I was there when Mubarak fell. It is an insult to every single Egyptian who was in Tahrir Square over the last year that he was sitting comfortably in this lecture theatre tonight.’

Egypt’s unfinished revolution

A crowd in Tahrir Square last Friday.

Photo by Stefan Simanowitz.

Burnt out cars, a pile of rubble outside a blacked shop front and an army checkpoint were just some of the obstacles that voters casting their ballot in a polling station off Tahrir Square had to negotiate on the first day of the first stage of Egypt’s parliamentary elections yesterday.

But few seemed bothered as they strolled down Mansour Street past armoured personnel carriers and barricades coiled with razor wire and turned into Muhammad Mahmoud Street to vote. Both streets were the scenes of intense battles less than a week before. Although Sunday’s heavy rain had washed away the remnants of blood, the acrid smell of smoke still hung in the air. Undeterred, a steady flow of people turned out to vote at this polling station where queues were short and everything appeared to be going smoothly.

This was not the case in some other Cairo polling stations where lines of people began snaking around buildings even before doors had opened, the queues exacerbated by the late arrival of ballot papers and of the judges required to oversee the ballot.

‘I went to vote in Maadi twice yesterday but each time the lines were six blocks long so I didn’t bother,’ says corporate trainer Anal Ibrahim on the second day of polling. ‘Instead I went this morning at 6.30 am. The doors opened at 8 and it all went very smoothly.’

Cairo has not felt like a city gripped by election fever. Apart from a few placards and banners there has been little to suggest that this is a country on the verge of an historic election

For others it is not the queues that are the problem but the lack of information about what each of the parties stands for.

‘Waiting one hour or two hours to vote is not a problem for me,’ says Khaled El Adly a 28 year old mechanic standing in line in Shubra, a poor district of the city. ‘My problem is choosing who I will vote for. No-one has told us what they will do if they are in parliament. There were no meetings. No speeches. No papers.’

And for others the main issue of contention is the poor planning and coordination of the election itself.

‘I waited for three-and-a-half hours at a polling station in Zamalek only to find my ballot had not been stamped and that my vote would not count,’ says a man who works for a government department and chose not to give his name. ‘I’m very disappointed of course but I do not think this was deliberate, just the result of bad organization.’

Cairo has not felt like a city gripped by election fever. Apart from a few placards and banners there has been little to suggest that this is a country on the verge of an historic election. In Tahrir Square the crowd on the first day of the elections was much smaller than it had been on preceding days. There were still groups chanting and flags waving as well as clusters of people engaged in heated debate.

To vote or not to vote?

One of the central discussions among activists in Tahrir has been whether to boycott the elections. Would voting give legitimacy to an election that, no matter the result, will see the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) retaining ultimate power? Or would opting out of the ballot open the way for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to get an even larger majority of the vote than already predicted?

Other groups in Tahrir Square discuss the merits and composition of the proposed government of ‘national salvation,’ the way forward for the Tahrir-appointed civil presidential council chaired by Abdel Fotouh, Mohamed el-Baradei and Hossam Essa.

A protester takes a nap at the occupation in front of the Egyptian Parliament building. The man graffitied on the wall is the head of the Military Police, General Hamdy Badeem.

Photo by Stefan Simanowitz

Feelings run high but despite differences of opinion all agreed that military rule must end and most agreed that the Tahrir Square occupation should continue until such time that it does.

‘To dismantle our tents before then would be to dismantle our hopes for a better future,’ says Mourad Haikal. ‘Whatever happens in the elections the important thing is that Tahrir should stay.’

This month’s return to Tahrir Square has not only succeeded in reawakening the spirit of defiance in Egypt and achieving some significant political gains but it has also cemented the position of Tahrir Square as a permanent practical and symbolic heart of the country’s freedom movement: a place to which people can always return and whose very existence will help shape Egyptian politics for generations to come.

The military leaders, no doubt fearful of being held to account for past crimes, are not going to hand over power readily

As prominent political activist Ahmed Abdel Maksood puts it, ‘the January revolution gave us the path. It showed us the way. We now have a weapon and that weapon is called Tahrir Square.’

Leaderless revolution

There is nevertheless a long way to go. SCAF’s leaders, no doubt fearful of being held to account for past crimes, are not going to hand over power readily. Egypt’s leaderless revolution, so effective in overthrowing President Mubarak, has struggled to evolve a cohesive political leadership capable of challenging the organization and popularity of the Islamic parties at the ballot box. Ahmed Abel Maksood is confident that the FJP will win the most parliamentary seats but not gain an overall majority.

‘It is not because people believe in the principles they espouse,’ he says. ‘It is because Egyptians are a very religious people and the message the Brotherhood and Salafists are offering is “if you follow us, you are following God.”’

Although they claim to believe in pluralism and democratic politics, Maksood fears that the Islamic parties are attempting to ‘kill democracy by democracy’; namely by attempting to win a parliamentary majority by democratic means and then amending the constitution to usher in an Islamic State.

‘We must be patient. This stage of the revolution will not be over in eighteen days,’ one young woman tells a group in Tahrir Square. Her nostrils are clogged with tissue to soak up the blood from a nose bleed caused by inhaling tear gas some days earlier. Listening is a man who lost an eye to police bird shot last Tuesday. Beside her a vendor sells gas masks and nearby donors give blood in the field hospital beside the Mosque.

In the distance a young girl sits on her father’s shoulders chanting: ‘Be strong my country. Your labour maybe painful but the child you will bear will be called “Freedom”’.

Suspicions remain over Iran's nuclear ambitions

Ahmadinejad is under increasing pressure from the West after the latest IAEA report.

Photo by Marcello Casal Jnr/Agencia Brazil under a CC licence.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) latest report on Iran’s nuclear programme presented to its board of governors in Vienna on Tuesday is being heralded as a watershed moment in the standoff between Iran and the West. But it is unlikely to be the smoking gun that will trigger military strikes.

‘I do not think this report is likely to be a game changer,’ says Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council. ‘People’s opinions are pretty fixed and everyone will read what they like into it.’

The report indicates that Iran has carried out ‘activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.’ While these activities took place under a structured programme prior to the end of 2003, the report concludes that some ‘may still be ongoing.’

Even though much of the report is historical and offers no actual evidence of a weapons programme, the Western media has been filled with speculation that, with the help of a Russian scientist, Iran may now have the technical means to build a nuclear weapon.

Despite the report confirming that Iran’s weaponization schemes have been downgraded since 2004 from building and testing components to largely computer modelling, the allegation that Iran may have computer models of a nuclear warhead has done little to allay fears.

Mutual distrust

Ingram believes that the report will only reinforce feelings of distrust rather than changing minds.

‘For the US and Europeans it will confirm their suspicions that the nuclear programme is essentially a cover to develop a weapons capability,’ he says. ‘For the Israelis it will confirm their belief that the Iranians are playing a clever game that will inevitably lead to their possessing an arsenal. For the Russians and Chinese it will be inconclusive, lacking the killer facts that would force their hand into applying additional sanctions. And for the Iranians it will smack of conspiracy.’

It is the inflexibility of these different viewpoints, combined with the lack of trust, that presents the greatest challenge to resolving the ongoing standoff with Iran.

Coming into office President Obama showed a willingness to engage in direct negotiations with Tehran without preconditions. In his broadcast to Iran he publicly acknowledged Iran's right to enrich uranium and in October 2009 he held direct talks with the Iranians in Geneva.

Commenting on these talks, the Financial Times noted that President Obama ‘got more out of Iran in eight hours than his predecessor's muscular posturing did in eight years.’

But Geneva was to prove a high-water mark in US-Iranian relations. In the intervening years Iran has accelerated its enrichment activities and President Obama has long since withdrawn his ‘hand of friendship’.

Reports suggest the US has shipped hundreds of ‘bunker-buster’ bombs to military bases on the island of Diego Garcia and supplied 55 of the bombs to Israel

At the Geneva talks a proposed agreement devised by the US would have seen Iran exchange most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) for fuel rods from Russia and France. This ‘fuel-for-fuel’ swap was largely accepted by President Ahmadinejad but he proposed that the IAEA assume control of the LEU in Iran until the fuel rods were delivered. The Americans rejected this proposal.

The following year Brazil and Turkey negotiated a deal with the Islamic Republic where the LEU would be taken to a neutral country. The deal was almost identical to one put forward by the US in Geneva but rather than welcoming it Washington responded with scepticism and imposed new sanctions on Iran.

In the meantime the US has reinforced its military force in the Gulf, carrying out large scale naval manoeuvres in the Atlantic with the British and French and allowing Israel to use NATO bases for exercises. NATO’s missile defence system has been deployed across the region and reports suggest the US has shipped hundreds of ‘bunker-buster’ bombs to military bases on the island of Diego Garcia and supplied 55 of the bombs to Israel.

On Monday, in response to the heightening tensions, Sergei Lavrov and Yang Jiechi, the Russian and Chinese foreign ministers, both expressed concerns about any Western military strike on the Islamic Republic. French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe warned of the ‘irreparable damage’ an attack would cause.

A setback for democracy

In Iran itself, the ratcheting up of tensions is having a negative impact on the beleaguered Green Movement. Since the 2009 elections the democratic issue had taken priority over the nuclear issue for many ordinary Iranians but there is nevertheless huge popular support for Iran’s civil nuclear programme. Nuclear fuel production is regarded as a sovereign right and a source of great national pride and many Iranians believe that Western allegations of a nuclear weapons programme are being used for political purposes.

‘The current threat of a military attack on Iran is huge setback to the cause of democracy in Iran,’ says Dr Nader Hashemi, assistant professor of Middle East and Islamic Politics at the University of Denver. ‘It strengthens the Iranian regime and makes the work of democracy and human rights activists more difficult.’

This week Dr Hashemi was one of many pro-democracy supporters to add his signature to a statement drafted by leading Iranian dissident, Akbar Ganji, which strongly condemns military threats against Iran.

With the US economy in disarray, Obama will not be keen to get involved in another bloody and unpopular war in the Middle East

The Green Movement is in abeyance with its leaders Mehdi Karoubi, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Zahra Rahnavard under house arrest and leading activists and intellectuals imprisoned or forced to flee abroad. But discontent remains widespread and support on a societal level for democracy remains strong.

‘The Green Movement is waiting for another opportunity to reassert itself,’ says Hashemi. ‘This opportunity may arise during the March 2012 parliamentary elections.’

Elections are also looming in America. With the US economy in disarray, Obama will not be keen to get involved in another bloody and unpopular war in the Middle East. However, he may be coming under increasing pressure to take a harder line against Iran not just from Congress but from within his own party.

Like the conservative Iranian leadership, neo-conservatives and policymakers in Washington are concerned by the unprecedented rise of people power sweeping Middle East and the resulting loss of strategic influence. With US troops due to withdraw from Iraq at the end of the year, the State Department is deeply concerned about the possibility of Iran extending their sphere of influence.

Assessing the state of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program at a meeting in Parliament last year Saba Sadeq, head of the BBC’s Persia service, argued that ‘both sides are exaggerating Iran’s nuclear capacity for their own motives.’ While few would accuse the IAEA’s detailed technical report of exaggeration, it nonetheless leaves many questions unanswered.

Hawks will claim that it adds to the weight of suspicion that Iran is engaged in a nuclear weapons programme. Doves will counter that no actual evidence has been produced to show Iran has diverted from its peaceful enrichment scheme.

The report will, however, be used by the West to try and push through a fifth round of international sanctions against Iran. And the opposing sides in the stalemate will, almost inevitably, move further from the negotiation table around which they should be sitting.

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