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The Hardliners' Nulcear Dilemma

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

01 Dec 2009 19:5518 Comments
khamenei+IRGC.jpg[ comment ] Iran's rejection of a preliminary agreement it reached on Oct. 1, 2009, in Geneva, has taken its confrontation with the United States and its allies in the P5+1 group -- the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany -- to a new and possibly dangerous phase. According to the preliminary agreement, Iran was supposed to send 75% of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium (LEU) to Russia for conversion into fuel for a research reactor in Tehran. Russia was supposed to enrich Iran's LEU to 19.75% (Iran's LEU is at 3.8%), and for France to convert it into fuel rods.

Pursuant to the Geneva agreement, Iran would allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to visit the newly disclosed uranium-enrichment facility in Qom -- called the Fordow facility -- within two weeks of signing the agreement. Iran did deliver on that promise. And despite much alarm-sounding and debate in the West about the facility, the IAEA inspection did not reveal anything dangerous. In fact, Mohamed ElBaradei, the outgoing IAEA Director General, declared that the facility was a "big hole in the mountain," and nothing to worry about.

When the preliminary proposal was taken to Tehran, however, the various factions within the hard-line and conservative camp could not decide how to respond to it. Some, such as Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, Chief of Staff of Iran's armed forces, strongly supported the proposal. Others, such as Ali Larijani, the Speaker of the Majles (parliament) and Iran's former chief nuclear negotiator, accused the West of wanting to steal Iran's LEU.

Larijani's younger brother, Sadegh, who is Iran's judiciary chief, also criticized the agreement, saying, "This is not in our country's interest. According to the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty], advanced countries [that enrich uranium] must provide us the enriched uranium that we need [for the research reactor]." Many hard-line Majles deputies also rejected the proposal. Heated debates among the hardliners about what to do with the Geneva agreement rage on.

Compounding the difficulty is the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "re-election" in the June 12 presidential election has been rejected by a large majority of the Iranian people, hence costing him and the hardliners legitimacy at home. The rigged election has created a deep crisis in Iran, a crisis that has persisted. In fact, the Green Movement that has resulted from it has directly affected the outcome of the negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the West. Before explaining how, let me discuss one important point.

I am often asked why I call the June 12 election "rigged" and not, for example, "disputed." I call the election rigged because it was so. There is a steadily-growing mountain of evidence pointing to foul play in the election. The latest evidence came from two very different sources. One piece of evidence was provided by Alireza Zakani, a hard-line Majles (parliament) deputy and an ally of Ahmadinejad. He recently revealed that a poll taken by the Ministry of Intelligence just before the election had indicated that the election would go to the second round, meaning that Ahmadinejad was not expected to win, at least not in the first round, even by his own Ministry of Intelligence.

Recall also that, in their attempt to attack and discredit Ali Larijani, the hardliners also accused him of making a phone call to Mir Hossin Mousavi on the eve of the election and congratulating him for his decisive victory. Raja News, a website run by Fatemeh Rajabi, the hard-line wife of Gholamhossein Elham (who is Ahmadinejad's spokesman) and an ardent supporter of Ahmadinejad [Rajabi has called Ahmadinejad 'the miracle of the 3rd millennium'], accused Larijani of revealing state secrets when he called Mousavi!

A second piece of evidence was provided by Behzad Nabavi. He is a member of the central committee of the Islamic Revolution Mojahedin Organization, one of the major reformist groups. He was arrested three days after the election, and recently temporarily released for 10 days after posting a $800,000 bail.

In meeting with many reformist figures at his home, Nabavi said that his arrest warrant had been issued three days before the election. This indicates that the hardliners had planned the election fraud, knew that the reformists and voters may react strongly, and prepared the arrest warrants for the major reformist figures in advance of the election. As former president Mohammad Khatami put it, "If anything, what has happened indicates that there has been a velvet coup."

Due to the domestic crisis and lack of legitimacy in the eyes of a big majority of Iranian people, the hardliners have only two choices when it comes to Iran's relations with the West. One is that, because re-establishing ties with the U.S. is popular with the Iranian people, they can try to reach an accommodation with the West by making concessions, with the hope of lessening the outside pressure, recovering some legitimacy at home, and buying some time in order to decide how they want to resolve the mess at home.

The hardliners' second choice is to ratchet up the confrontation with the U.S. and its allies and create a war-like atmosphere in Iran, with the hope that the people would rally around the government and forget, at least temporarily, what happened after the June 12 election.

Both choices have their perils. If the hardliners make too few concessions, there may be no "grand bargain" on the horizon with the West. If, on the other hand, they make too many concessions, they will be accused of selling out to the West, which will make the people, particularly the opposition Green Movement, even angrier. Indeed, Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main leader of the opposition, called the Geneva agreement "astonishing," and said that,

If the Geneva agreement is implemented by Iran, it will destroy the work and achievements of thousands of Iranian scientists, and if it is not, it will create consensus for imposing very broad sanctions on Iran. They [the hardliners] constantly accuse the revolutionary nation-serving children of Iran of having links with the West or East, but they themselves bow to the U.S. overtly and repeatedly [in order to reach an agreement with it].

Although some may believe that Mousavi is opposed to the deal due to his opposition to Ahmadinejad, we must recall that it was during his premiership in the 1980s that Iran's nuclear program was restarted and he was a leading proponent of it. In fact, Mousavi's statement has proven to be prophetic. By agreeing to the preliminary agreement in Geneva, but backtracking and rejecting it later, the Islamic Republic has put itself in a tough spot. The U.S. and its allies have vowed to punish Iran.

I believe that Ahmadinejad does want to reach an accommodation with the West. In particular, he wishes to re-establish Iran's relations with the U.S. He sees that as a major political prize, and a way of restoring some credibility for himself. He is, however, not supported by major elements in the hardline camp, including Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected the Geneva proposal. He declared that the Islamic Republic will not be fooled by the West. The hardliners then made a counter proposal. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki declared that Iran was willing to consider a simultaneous exchange of fuel rods for its research reactor with its LEU. This was rejected by the United States and its allies in the P5+1 group.

The rejection of Iran's counter proposal only adds to Iran's suspicion of the West. One can reasonably ask, if the main goal of the West is transferring Iran's main stockpile of LEU abroad, why does it matter whether the exchange of the LEU for the fuel for the research reactor takes place in Tehran or elsewhere?

How has the Green Movement affected the Islamic Republic's negotiation tactics with the West? The fact is that the hardliners cannot make up their minds about how to respond to the West's and IAEA's proposal. Although Ayatollah Khamenei rejected the proposal, Mottaki's counter proposal is still based on receiving fuel for Tehran's research reactor in return for transferring most of Iran's LEU to Russia.

The fact is that the hardliners cannot make up their minds because they are no longer assured of the support of the people. They simply cannot count on the support, even though they publicly claim that they are supported by the people.

If the hardliners stand firm against the West, crippling sanctions, and ultimately even war, may follow. In that case, the hardliners would need the support of the people to resist the extraordinary pressure by the US and its allies. But, why should, or would, the people support the hardliners, after their peaceful demonstrations against the rigged election were brutally crushed? They have arrested hundreds, if not thousands, of people. They have paraded many of them before cameras in Stalinist show trials. Scores have been killed, raped and sodomized while in government detention.

On the other hand, the hardliners can reach an accommodation with the United States only if they make very significant concessions. The goal of the United States is for Iran to dismantle its uranium enrichment program. To reach an accommodation with the U.S., the hardliners must either agree to suspend the enrichment program indefinitely, or more likely accept a "compromise" closely resembling the ultimate U.S. goal, such as enriching uranium at low levels, but transferring the LEU abroad for further enrichment and conversion to fuel rods that would make it practically impossible for the Islamic Republic to enrich the LEU into high-enriched uranium suitable for nuclear weapons [assuming there is any intention of making such weapons, if at all].

But, in that case, how would the hardliners respond to the charges of selling out to foreign powers? After chanting for years that energy-ye hastehei hagh-e mosallam-e mast [atomic energy is our inalienable right], what would they say to the people? The Green Movement and its leaders -- Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and Khatami -- will probably correctly declare that, "This government is only interested in staying in power, and is willing to pay any price, including selling out Iran's national and international rights." In fact, I believe that Mousavi's criticism of the Geneva agreement forced the hardliners to have second thoughts about it.

That is one important reason why downplaying the Green Movement's direct influence on the current confrontation between the Islamic Republic and the West over Iran's nuclear program would be a mistake. In its talks with the Islamic Republic, the West should not neglect this important element or allow it to be marginalized. The only way that the West can do this is by attaching equal, or nearly equal, significance to the gross violations of human rights by the hardliners in Iran, and making sure it is one of the issues on the table in their talks with the Iranians.

Some may argue that doing so would be tantamount to interfering in Iran's internal affairs, and trying to limit Iran's sovereign rights. Not so! Iran has signed all relevant international agreements regarding human rights. As a signatory to any other international agreement, those concerning human rights and respect for them demand certain obligations for the Islamic Republic. As the Islamic Republic correctly points out, it is entitled, within the framework of the NPT, to the complete cycle for producing nuclear fuel, including uranium enrichment technology. But at the same time, it must be reminded that it is also obligated to carry out its obligations, not only under the NPT and its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, but its obligations under other international agreements that it has signed, including those on human rights. Rights and obligations under international agreements are the two sides of the same coin.

At the same time, respect for human rights is a universal value that transcends national boundaries. Demanding that a government respect human beings and the rights of its own citizens does not constitute an infringement on its sovereignty.

After the Islamic Republic seemingly rejected the Geneva agreement, the US and its allies responded by lobbying the Board of Governors (BoG) of the IAEA to pass a resolution on November 27 to censure Iran over the construction of the Fordow enrichment plant. The resolution, drafted by the P5+1 group, demanded that Tehran stop uranium enrichment and immediately freeze the construction of the Fordow nuclear facility; it was passed in a 25-3 vote with six abstentions.

As expected, Tehran rejected the IAEA resolution as "politically motivated" and "illegal," aimed at depriving Iran of its basic rights. It also quickly announced a lofty goal of setting up 10 other enrichment facilities on the scale of Natanz, which is supposed to house up to 55,000 centrifuges [it currently has about 8000 centrifuges]. The announcement is, however, more likely a bluff, as Iran has had problems speeding up completion of the Natanz facility.

Is there any validity to the hardliners' charge that the latest IAEA resolution is illegal? Let me first emphasize that, in view of Iran's June 12 rigged presidential election, I refuse to accept Ahmadinejad's "re-election" as legitimate, and consider it to be fraudulent. He and the government that he leads, which is essentially a military junta, are dangerous to Iran's future.

However, the issue between Iran, the IAEA and the West goes beyond Ahmadinejad, or any other Iranian government -- democratic or not. It has to do with Iran's national and international rights in the framework of the international agreements that it has signed, and in particular the NPT.

The issue also has to do with the double standards of the US and its allies. They have agreed to transfer their nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and India.

The U.S. and its allies did nothing to prevent Pakistan from developing a nuclear arsenal, and supported Israel in its quest for nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and its allies have also not opposed agreements between Egypt and Russia; Oman and Russia in their pursuit of nuclear cooperation and construction of nuclear reactors, all within Iran's vicinity. This is a glaring example of having double standards when it comes to Iran, especially as the U.S. and its allies go on about a nuclear race in the Middle East, and the "threat" that Iran's nuclear program supposedly poses for peace and stability in that region.

In issuing the new resolution, the BoG of the IAEA has continued its questionable actions against Iran, which started in the fall of 2006, after Iran ended the voluntary suspension of its uranium enrichment program. The BoG demanded that Iran suspend its nuclear program. However, the demand was illegal, because the IAEA statute does not give the BoG or the Director General the authority to demand suspension of a peaceful nuclear program.

After Iran refused to comply with the BoG's illegal demand, the Board voted on February 4, 2006, to send Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council. The two main reasons given for the referral were that: 1) The BoG had found Iran in non-compliance of the NPT and its Safeguards Agreement obligations; and 2) Iran had resumed enriching uranium after suspending them voluntarily for nearly two years. As I have explained elsewhere, the BoG action was totally illegal.

The same thing is happening now. The BoG has no legal rights to order Iran to stop the construction of the Fordow facility. As much as I despise the hardliners, I believe that they are correct when they say that the latest IAEA resolution against Iran is illegal.

There is one and only one path to resolve peacefully the issue of Iran's nuclear program: diplomacy without any prejudice, without double standards, and without illegal demands, without ignoring the gross violations of human rights in Iran, and without marginalizing the Green Movement. If a diplomatic solution is reached, it will allow Iran's democratic movement to advance further. If Iran does become a democracy, the question of its nuclear program will become moot.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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The most insightful analysis on the nuclear dilemma I've read in any media.

Amir / December 2, 2009 3:42 AM

"I am often asked why I call the June 12 election "rigged" and not, for example, "disputed." I call the election rigged because it was so. There is a steadily-growing mountain of evidence pointing to foul play ..."

There are some stupid cynics (mostly in media and politicians) that really don't WANT to accept the election was rigged! I just stop arguing and point them to the youtube videos and try to tell them about the economical situation in IRAN ,the job market and the rising number of psychological patients in IRAN. Iran society is like a pressurized vessel that is stable only because of a lot of tyranny and FORCE. A small carelessness of the safety engineer will result in a BIG Explosion.

Amin / December 2, 2009 7:39 AM

agree with Amir- a lot for me to digest- one can only hope for a peaceful resolve.. but that path looks like it could be a long road

barb / December 2, 2009 7:42 AM

Thank you for this great article. It goes a long way to show that nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems, particularly in international politics. The last paragraph is especially pertinent.

Alan / December 2, 2009 8:37 AM

"Compounding the difficulty is the fact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "re-election" in the June 12 presidential election has been rejected by a large majority of the Iranian people"-- Dr. Sahimi

Wow. I guess if you say it enough times in print, the hope is that readers will just start believing it. Be honest with yourself and your readers, Dr. Sahimi, do you have ANY HARD EVIDENCE to support such a sweeping claim? So far, the only hard evidence I've seen is the WPO poll, which shows overwhelmingly the opposite is true.

And that Ministry of Intelligence poll, while it projected that Ahmadinejad would not gain enough votes to prevent a runoff, it did project the president as being in first place. Polls taken by the reform movement drew the same conclusion.

So here we have a situation where Ahmadinejad is number one in the polls, the official result declares him the winner (albeit without the need for a runoff), and yet you draw the highly illogical conclusion that "the election has been rejected by a large majority of the Iranian people". HOW? Are all those Ahmadinejad voters now somehow anti-Ahmadinejad? Again, the WPO poll shows quite the opposite.

The rest of what you say about the election are very brief snippets of pretty much the same circumstantial evidence.

As a trained scientist, this is enough for you to draw such a strident conclusion? Incredible.

I also totally disagree with your assessment of the Green movement figuring into Iranian political considerations. I believe the reform movement has become utterly marginalized and is now pretty much irrelevant. The only relevance of the Green movement inside Iran takes place sporadically during certain national events, as a vocal leaderless minority.

However the points you make concerning the West's hypocritical (and illegal) nuclear dispute with Iran are accurate. But I do not share your vision of Iran's political establishment being weak in its response. The fact that there is such a lively debate within Iran's leadership is a sign of vitality, not weakness, and goes to show that unlike the claims of its many critics in the diaspora, Iran is not a totalitarian state.

Pirouz / December 2, 2009 1:52 PM

Mr. sahimi, if history has taught us anything is that the Islamic Republic can not be reformed in any form or way. How can you claim the democratic movement can advance in Iran when the country is run by a group of murderers who have no shame to rape and torture their victims prior to taking their lives?These people are animals.We need a total removal of this regime for a secular democratic alternative in which case the nuclear issue as well as the issue of human rights will become moot.The green movement with the likes of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad in power can only serve as a diversionary side show.Perhaps we should ask Hitler to play the role of mother teresa and hoped he would change in time? You are a dreamer sir.

Parang / December 2, 2009 2:21 PM

Mohamed Sahimi: Haspara or What?

Give me some of your time to read this


Abdi / December 2, 2009 4:28 PM


It is not enough to criticize, as constructive as it may be. One must also suggest alternative ways. Please spell out your alternative way to make Iran a democracy.


Your usual. Just a small point: It is precisely because I am a scientist that I refuse to accept Ahmadinejad's "re-election" as legitimate.


I had already read the piece. It is about Tom Friedman's "outright lies, half-truths, and propaganda," using his own language. He had a major role in convincing the public that Iraq's invasion was good, and he is still at it!

Muhammad Sahimi / December 2, 2009 7:36 PM

Parang, I agree and you are absolutely right. +1

Saumon / December 2, 2009 8:31 PM

To begin to critique the election results scientifically, one must assume that all other factors (of democracy) are constant: the free flow of information; the idea of fair play (e.g. not buying votes); candidacy is open to all; ballot stations are guarded by neutral international monitors, etc.. The list goes on.

If these factors are not constant then the whole concept of an election becomes void.

In Iran's case, there was no free flow of information. Looking at the pure facts, Ahmadinejad had a 40 minute prime-time TV slot the night before the elections to state his case. The other candidates did not. Furthermore, public money was used for Ahmadinejad's campaign. The others had no such privileges.

In the weeks leading to the election, Ahmadinejad toured provincial towns and villages and handed out potatoes in the name of social justice. This act of populism is a clear example of foul play.

To even begin to view the elections as legitimate, one must assume that candidacy is open. This is not the case in Iran. 4 candidates were pre-selected based on strict criteria, therefore making the election null and void.

Finally, there were numerous reports of opposition monitors being declined entry to ballot stations. Based on this treatment, it is no surprise that international monitors were not available either.

We should stop giving these elections legitimacy by calling them elections. As one protest banner proclaimed, "This is not election, this is selection". We should not bother analysing the election itself but rather the response. Those who still refer to the election to state their defence of the regime are doing so because they have no other way to legitimise them. Furthermore, high turnouts do not represent a satisfaction with the regime. On the contrary, high turnouts represent enough dissatisfaction for an Iranian to actually put in the effort to vote, and vote *against* the main candidate rather than vote for another candidate. Clearly, the regime's propaganda is still working on ignorant Iranians. These Iranians fail to see that this "elected" government has since pursued a policy of oppression comparable to medieval times (which, according to growing evidence, was pre-planned). There is a saying that better illustrate my point;

Tell me something once and I believe you. Tell me something twice and I get suspicious. Tell me something three times and I think you are lying.

Now, how many times has this regime called the elections completely free and fair?

Pak / December 2, 2009 11:05 PM

Dear Pirouz,

The WPO poll, if I recall correctly, was based on calls made by the polling agency at random to potential voters. I am not sure how I would have responded if called by a stranger and asked whom I would vote for. It was also conducted before the election campaigning approached its final weeks, when the opposition had not yet gathered momentum.

Without full access by non-governmental, unbiased experts to the electoral slips and other records, it is hard to posit any conclusive evidence that the election was rigged, but this does not mean that we must forfeit our common sense.

If the results of the U.S. election showed that the majority of African-Americans had voted against Obama, we would not need any "hard evidence" to realize that the stats were doctored.

Do you, for example, have any "hard evidence" that Saddam did not win the referendum he conducted on the legitimacy of his rule in late 2002, a few months before the American invasion? If I recall correctly, he won that referendum with a margin of more than 90 percent.

I wish to draw your attention to an interesting study conducted by Chatham House in the UK, entitled, "Preliminary Analysis of the Voting Figures in Iran's 2009 Presidential Election."

You can download the study here:


The study compares voting patterns in the 2005 and 2009 presidential elections, using figures released by Iran's interior ministry.

There is a wealth of interesting data in this study, so I encourage all readers to download it. But for those who do not want to read the whole thing, I will quote here some of their key conclusions:


1. In two conservative provinces, Mazandaran and Yazd, a turnout of more than 100% was recorded. In four others, a turnout of 95% or higher was shown.

2. According to the official data, Ahmadinejad has received approximately 13 million more votes in this election than the COMBINED conservative vote in the 2005 Presidential election

3. If Ahmadinejad's victory was primarily caused by the increase in voter turnout, one would expect the data to show that the provinces where
there was the greatest 'swing' in support towards Ahmadinejad would also be the provinces with the greatest increase in voter turnout. This is not the case. The lack of a direct relationship makes the argument that Ahmadinejad won the election because of an increase in participation by a previously silent conservative majority somewhat problematic.

4. In 10 of Iran’s 30 provinces, in order for the official statistics to be correct, Ahmadinejad would have needed to win over ALL new voters, ALL former Rafsanjani voters, and also up to 44% of
former REFORMIST voters.

5. In 2005, as in 2001 and 1997, conservative candidates, and Ahmadinejad in particular, were markedly unpopular in rural areas. That the countryside always votes conservative is a myth. The claim that this year Ahmadinejad swept the board in more rural provinces flies in the face of these trends.

6. At the same time, the official data suggests that the vote for Mehdi Karrubi, who was extremely popular in rural, ethnic minority areas in 2005, has collapsed entirely in 2009, even in his home province of Lorestan, where his vote has
gone from 440,247 (55.5%) in 2005 to just 44,036 (4.6%) in 2009. This is paralleled by an overall swing of 50.9% to Ahmadinejad, with official results suggesting that he has captured the support of 47.5% of those who cast their ballots for reformist candidates in 2005.


Assuming that Ahmadinejad did actually change the voting culture of Iran and managed to win the popular vote by almost a 2:1 margin, then what better solution for a popular, legitimate government than to allow his opponents to exercise their constitutional right of protest in licensed, regulated and peaceful demonstrations and protests every Friday afternoon nationwide? After a few weeks, they will blow off steam and retire back to their homes.

I have no doubt that Ahmadinejad has a solid and significant support base in Iran, and is a very formidable populist politician.

But I also think that the election results were doctored to give him a resounding first-round victory and avoid a risky run-off.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the brutality with which the regime handled the protesters has made the whole issue academic.

Ali from Tehran / December 3, 2009 2:58 AM

Mr. Ali from some where in Los Angles, The only thing that made sense in your posting was the last sentence of the last paragraph. You are an insult to my intelligence.The entire election process in Iran is a farce starting from pre selected candidates to killing people on live camera inquiring about their God given right, The right to be free.Why don't you offer your services to Press TV where you would be in more demand.

Rita / December 3, 2009 6:42 AM

It opened my eyes to alot of areas in this issue that I had not thought about. Thank you

Mehdi A Vancouver / December 3, 2009 8:02 AM

Rita,I think Ali and Sahimi both from Los Angeles belong in Press TV.Most of what they put out is designed for the simple minded. Take a look at this picture of Iran's Sepah commanders and the guy in khaki in partucular.This is the true picture of Iran and its leadership.Do you see a single person among this crowd that is physically fit? Let's not even talk about their mental state since we observed their mental attitude last summer.Now, I would like you to lay back and relax. Close your eyes and take a deep breath and think Green and think Green and think Green.Sahimi? You got it. Any other questions?

Behrooz from Paris / December 3, 2009 11:45 AM

@ Piruz:

In citing the dubious WPO poll, you fail to mention that 48% of respondents refused to answer! Of the half that did, I'll bet many were afraid to disclose their true views.

Are you so out of tune with Iran that you don't know how paranoid people are talking on the monitored phone lines? Especially when the call is from America asking about their political affiliations?

The real poll is on the streets, and the numbers speak for themselves.

Amir / December 3, 2009 9:33 PM


Ok, let us assume that Sahimi is who you claim he is - simplistic.

Give us your sophisticated analysis of what is happening, and explain your way of moving Iran toward a democracy. Let us see whether Paris has taken away all of your sensibility and endowed you with fantasies, or you still can suggest a way that can be taken seriously. Explain your analysis and approach so that even simple-minded people can understand it.

George / December 4, 2009 1:44 AM

Great as usual. What's your opinion of Gary Sick
's latest article on Iran?

""Ahmadinejad’s grip is slipping. The ayatollah is losing ground. And the military is on the rise. Gary Sick on how Obama should handle the aftershocks of a political earthquake.


jalehoII / December 13, 2009 3:50 AM