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Joe Biden says he ‘doesn’t have enough information’ on Iran to have a view. How odd – he negotiated the nuclear deal

Clearly the Democratic frontrunner isn’t planning to help the Iranians, although – like a lot of voters – I’m not clear [whom he’s accusing of lying

Robert Fisk
Thursday 02 April 2020 14:50 BST
Joe Biden's new campaign ad attacks Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic

So, while we continue to be mesmerised by Covid-19, here are a few Middle East tales that should be going viral this week.

Let’s start with a little divestment story. Microsoft has said it’s going to sell its stake in AnyVision, an Israeli facial recognition startup, after civil liberties groups in the US complained that the technology could, in police hands, lead to arbitrary arrests and limit freedom of expression. NBC news – praise where praise is due – broke the original story of Microsoft’s funding for the Israeli company last October, pointing out that it used facial recognition to observe Palestinians throughout the occupied West Bank, in spite of Microsoft’s promise to avoid using the technology if it encroached on democratic freedoms.

AnyVision has won the Israel Defence Prize, counts a former head of Mossad among its board of advisers, and its president is Amir Kain, who was director of the Israeli defence ministry’s security department until 2015. It’s run by Eylon Etshtein, who was a member of an Israeli army commando reconnaissance unit. When he initially responded to NBC, Etshtein objected to the use of the word “occupied” for the West Bank and described AnyVision as the “most ethical company known to man”. AnyVision had earlier publicly acknowledged that it provided facial recognition technology at 27 Israeli checkpoints which West Bank Palestinians must use to cross into Israel as migrant workers. It provided, the company said, an “unbiased safeguard at the border to detect and deter persons who have committed unlawful activities”.

But Microsoft’s president, Bradford Lee Smith, more than a year ago called for government regulation of facial recognition technology. He said Microsoft would not “deploy facial recognition technology in scenarios that we believe will put these freedoms at risk”. So it’s amazing – given AnyVision’s intimate connections with Israeli security – that Microsoft did not take a closer look at its original decision to fund Etshtein’s startup.

NBC discovered an AnyVision video technology demonstration which purported to show live camera feeds monitoring men, women and children wearing hijabs and abayas as they walked the streets of Jerusalem. AnyVision’s response to this extraordinary clip of film – and students of public relations will love this – was that it did not reflect an “ongoing customer relationship” with the Israeli police.

Although Microsoft hired a former US attorney general to investigate the surveillance claims – both Eric Holder and an international law firm later stated that AnyVision had not fuelled a mass surveillance programme in the West Bank – a joint statement by both Microsoft and AnyVision conceded that minority investment in sensitive technology companies “do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology”. The Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions movement – which demands Israel’s adherence to international law and an end to Israeli occupation of Arab land – has for months been calling for Microsoft’s divestment from AnyVision, and has naturally claimed a victory.

According to NBC, former AnyVision employees told them the company did not adhere to Microsoft’s ethical standards. What no one said, of course, is that AnyVision is perfectly free to continue its “surveillance” of Palestinians even after Microsoft sells its stake. “Israel is the first country where we validated [sic] our technology,” Etshtein has said, “…more than 90 per cent of our revenue is generated from end customers outside Israel.” True enough. AnyVision says it has sold its facial recognition software to casinos, sports stadiums, retailers and theme parks in the US – and even demonstrated (though did not sell) it to Arizona’s Customs and Border Protection.

But perhaps Joe Biden, who continues to augment his own ongoing customer relationship with Democratic voters, needs to look at himself through a lens these days, especially when he’s talking about the Middle East. A few days ago, Bernie Sanders announced that US sanctions should not be contributing to Iran’s “humanitarian disaster” and that its economic war against Tehran should, at least temporarily, during the coronavirus crisis, be lifted. So what did Joe think about that?

Well, the wordsmith frontrunner responded with this imperishable statement: “I don’t have enough information about the situation in Iran right now.”

Now this was very odd. Was not Biden the vice president under the Obama administration that actually negotiated the Iran nuclear accord – and which Donald Trump tore up in 2018? Even weirder was Biden’s continuing blather on the subject. “There’s a lot of speculation from my foreign policy team that they’re [sic] in real trouble and they’re [sic] lying. But I would need more information to make that judgement. I don’t have the national security [sic] information available.”

Well, he could have fooled me. Clearly Biden isn’t planning to help the Iranians, although – like a lot of voters – I’m not quite clear whom he’s accusing of lying. Does he think the Iranians are telling fibs? Or the Trump administration? Since the Iranians initially kept quiet about shooting down a Ukrainian airliner and may well have dissembled about the start of the coronavirus – and then Trump originally denied that the coronavirus even existed – we can safely conclude that both Iran and Trump lie through their teeth.

So I guess it doesn’t matter what Biden meant. Which is one of his problems.

And what, may I ask, did he mean by “national security information”? I guess the Saudis could tell him, since “security” has been their logo – we’ll have to forget poor dismembered Jamal Khashoggi in all this – ever since its present Crown Prince launched his hopeless and bloody intervention against the Houthis in Yemen just over five years ago. But now the Houthis have popped up with an intriguing offer: a Saudi pilot and four other Saudi military prisoners in exchange for dozens of Palestinians on trial in the kingdom for “supporting terrorism”.

Now we all know that the Saudis are always putting some poor chap or other on trial. Foreign “terrorists”, Shia activists (“terrorists” again) and disloyal Saudis are always appearing at grotesque “legal” hearings – in secret, and with no defence lawyers – in the kingdom and, quite often, have their heads chopped off afterwards.

The Palestinians in question – and there are dozens of them – have been accused of collecting and laundering funds for Hamas. In other words, they were accused of “supporting terrorism”. But the men have been living in Saudi Arabia for years and the Saudi court might have more credibility if one of the accused was not retired doctor Mohamed al-Khudari, who is 81 years old and who, according to his family, is suffering from colon cancer.

But fewer folk will have heard of the Saudi prisoners in Houthi hands whom the Shiite rebel leader Abdul Malek Houthi is offering to swap for the Palestinians. The pilot is believed to be one of the two crew of a Tornado fighter-bomber – an aircraft purchased from the UK in the old al-Yamama deal – which was blasted out of the sky by the Houthis (supposedly with a homemade missile) during an air raid on Yemen in mid-February. His fellow crew member may – or may not – be one of the other three prisoners. The aircraft was shot down on a day in which at least 31 civilians are believed to have been killed and another 11 wounded in Saudi air raids.

There were renewed air attacks last weekend when talks over a Saudi-Houthi ceasefire appeared to break down – proving, I suppose, that some potential ongoing relationships simply have no future. Even in the age of coronavirus.

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