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By Paul Richter, Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Hasan Rouhani won world leaders’ warm embrace a year ago when he arrived at the United Nations General Assembly in New York as Iran’s new president, speaking of reconciliation and offering a new era in relations between his nation and the West.

But when Rouhani arrives next week for this year’s U.N. session, diplomats will be pondering a different question: What went wrong?

A year after that auspicious beginning, tensions with the West are as high as ever, and 10 months of negotiations over the toughest issue in the relationship — Iran’s nuclear program — are at an impasse. Now Western leaders want to know Iran’s intentions and if Rouhani is even calling the shots in Tehran on the nuclear issue and overall foreign policy.

Since November, when Rouhani’s team signed an interim nuclear accord that seemed to promise a breakthrough, “we’ve actually gotten further away from a deal,” said one Middle Eastern diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity in discussing sensitive diplomacy.

Negotiators from Iran and six world powers — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States — will meet Friday in New York in an effort to break the logjam and complete a deal before the Nov. 24 deadline. Next week, foreign ministers from the nations will take up the issue.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, declared last year that he was giving his full support to Rouhani to negotiate a nuclear deal that would ease international economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for commitments to keep its nuclear program peaceful.

But in recent months, signs suggest the staunchly anti-Western Khamenei is directly managing the negotiations. He appears determined to sharply increase the country’s uranium enrichment capability in seven years, and not roll it back, as the West demands.

Rouhani, who has lost a series of domestic political battles to conservatives, has taken a harder line on the nuclear talks. In a news conference two weeks ago, he expressed doubt that the United States has enough “goodwill” to negotiate an end to the standoff.

In an indication of the changing mood, President Barack Obama plans no contact with Rouhani during the U.N. session, according to White House aides. Last year, the two leaders spoke by phone while in New York, the highest-level contact between the two countries in decades.

The central question for diplomats is whether Iran’s tougher line is only negotiating theatrics, aimed at gaining better terms, or whether Khamenei has decided he can survive a collapse of the talks despite Western threats of tighter sanctions.

Increasing evidence suggests Khamenei believes he can get by without a deal, say diplomats and analysts.

In recent comments, Khamenei portrayed the United States as beset by crises, including the standoff with Russia over Ukraine and the conflict with Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq. He may view American efforts to solicit Iran’s cooperation, at least on nonmilitary matters, in the fight against the militants as a sign of weakness.

At the same time, the conservative Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is hostile to a deal, is wielding greater public influence because of fears of the Islamic State threat.

Many Western analysts argue that if negotiations fail to produce a deal, U.S and European sanctions would intensify, not collapse, choking off much of Iran’s sales of 1.2 billion barrels of oil a day.

But Khamenei may believe that if the talks collapse, he could persuade Russia, China, and perhaps other nations to abandon the sanctions and resume buying Iranian oil, providing the cash his government needs.

“Khamenei is preparing his country for a no-deal outcome,” said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official who is with the Eurasia Group risk consulting group.

Diplomats say they expect Iran will try to blame the United States during the U.N. sessions for the deadlock in talks, and will try to build support for ending sanctions and allowing Iran to maintain its nuclear infrastructure.

Wendy Sherman, the chief U.S. negotiator, predicted in a speech Tuesday that Iran would try to convince the world that “the status quo, or its equivalent, should be acceptable.”

Gary Samore, Obama’s former top adviser on nuclear proliferation, said Khamenei “seems to be very stubborn and very confident that he can retain his enrichment capability.”

AFP Photo/Atta Kenare

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The Arizona 2020 election "audit" under way

Screenshot from azaudit.org

As ongoing threats by Trump loyalists to subvert elections have dominated the political news, other Republicans in two key states—Florida and Arizona—are taking what could be important steps to provide voters with unprecedented evidence of who won their most close and controversial elections.

In both battleground states, in differing contexts, Republicans are lifting the curtain on the data sets and procedures that accompany key stages of vetting voters, certifying their ballots, and counting votes. Whether 2020’s election-denying partisans will pay attention to the factual baselines is another matter. But the election records and explanations of their use offer a forward-looking road map for confronting the falsehoods that undermine election results, administrators, and technologies.

In Republican-run Florida, the state is finalizing rules to recount votes by incorporating digital images of every paper ballot. The images, together with the paper ballots, create a searchable library to quickly tally votes and identify sloppily marked ballots. Questionable ballots could then be retrieved and examined in public by counting boards to resolve the voter’s intent.

“The technology is so promising that it would provide the hard evidence to individuals who want to find the truth,” said Ion Sancho, former supervisor of elections in Leon County, where Tallahassee is located, who was among those on a January 4 conference call workshop led by the Division of Elections seeking comments on the draft rule and procedures manual revisions.

Under the new recount process, a voter’s paper ballot would be immediately rescanned by an independent second counting system—separate from what each county uses to tally votes. The first digital file produced in that tabulation process, an image of every side of every ballot card, would then be analyzed by software that identifies sloppy ink marks as it counts votes. Several Florida counties pioneered this image-based analysis, a version of which is used by the state of Maryland to double-check its results before certifying its election winners.

“The fact that it has overcome opposition from the supervisors of elections is telling because the number one problem with the [elected county] supervisors is [acquiring and learning to use] new technology; it’s more work to do,” Sancho said. “The new technology doesn’t cost much in this case. Everyone has scanners in their offices already because every voter registration form by law must be scanned and sent to the Division of Elections.”

The appeal of using ballot images, apart from the administrative efficiencies of a searchable library of ballots and votes, is that the images allow non-technical people to “see” voters’ intent, which builds trust in the process and results, said Larry Moore, the founder and former CEO of the Clear Ballot Group, whose federally certified technology would be used in Florida recounts.

But Florida’s likely incorporation of ballot images into its recount procedures, while a step forward for transparency, is unfolding in a fraught context. In 2021, its GOP-majority state legislature passed election laws that are seen as winnowing voters and rolling back voting options. In other words, it may be offering more transparency at the finish line but is also limiting participation upstream.

The new recount rule is expected to be in place by this spring, months before Florida’s 2022 primaries and midterm elections. Among the issues to be worked out are when campaign and political party officials and the public would observe the new process, because the election administrators do not want partisans to intentionally disrupt the rescanning process. These concerns were raised by participants and observers on the teleconference.

The Arizona Template


In Arizona, Maricopa County issued a report on January 5, “Correcting the Record: Maricopa County’s In-Depth Analysis of the Senate Inquiry.” The report is its most substantive refutation of virtually all of the stolen election accusations put forth by Trump loyalists who spent months investigating the state's presidential election.

Beyond the references to the dozens of stolen election accusations put forth by pro-Trump contractors hired by the Arizona Senate’s Republicans, the report offered an unprecedented road map to understanding how elections are run by explaining the procedures and data sets involved at key stages.

The report explained how Maricopa County, the nation’s second biggest election jurisdiction (after Los Angeles County) with 2.6 million registered voters, verified that its voters and ballots were legal. It also explained key cybersecurity features, such as the correct—and incorrect—way to read computer logs that prove that its central vote-counting system was never compromised online, as Trump supporters had claimed in Arizona (and Michigan).

“I’ve never seen a single report putting all of this in one place,” said John Brakey, an Arizona-based election transparency activist, who has sued Maricopa County in the past and routinely files public records requests of election data. “Usually, it takes years to understand all this.”

Taken together, Florida’s expansion of recounts to include using digital ballot images, and Maricopa County’s compilation of the data and procedures to vet voters, ballots, and vote counts, reveal that there is more evidence than ever available to confirm and legitimize election participants and results.

For example, Maricopa County’s investigation found that of the 2,089,563 ballots cast in its 2020 general election, one batch of 50 ballots was counted twice, and that there were “37 instances where a voter may have unlawfully cast multiple ballots”—most likely a spouse’s ballot after the voter had died. Neither lapse affected any election result.

“We found fewer than 100 potentially questionable ballots cast out of 2.1 million,” the report said. “This is the very definition of exceptionally rare.”

When Maricopa County explained how it had accounted for all but 37 out of 2.1 million voters, it noted that the same data sets used to account for virtually every voter were also used by the political parties to get out the vote. Thus, the report’s discussion of these data sets—voter rolls and the list of people who voted—offered a template to debunk voter fraud allegations. This accusation has been a pillar of Trump’s false claims and is a longtime cliché among the far right.

It is significant that this methodology, indeed the full report, was produced under Maricopa County Recorder Stephen Richer, a conservative Republican who has repeatedly said that he had voted for Trump, and was fully endorsed by Maricopa County’s Board of Supervisors, which has a GOP majority and held a special hearing on January 5 to review the findings.

In other words, the report is not just a rebuttal for the Arizona Senate Republican conspiracy-laced post-2020 review. It is a road map for anyone who wants to know how modern elections are run and how to debunk disinformation, including conspiracy theories involving alleged hacking in cyberspace.

“There is not a single accurate claim contained in [Arizona Senate cybersecurity subcontractor] CyFIR’s analysis of Maricopa County’s tabulation equipment and EMS [election management system],” the reportsaid, referring to accusations that counts were altered. “This includes the allegation that county staff intentionally deleted election files and logs, which is not true.”

When you add to Maricopa County’s template the introduction of a second independent scan of every paper ballot in future Florida recounts, what emerges are concrete steps for verifying results coming from Republicans who understand how elections work and can be held accountable.

Of course, these evidence trails only matter if voters or political parties want to know the truth, as opposed to following an ex-president whose political revival is based on lying about elections. However, more moderate Republicans seem to be recognizing that Trump’s stolen election rhetoric is likely to erode their base’s turnout in 2022, as Trump keeps saying that their votes don’t matter.

“You’ve got Republican buy-in,” said Florida’s Sancho, speaking of his GOP-ruled state’s embrace of more transparent and detailed recounts. “And Republicans, more than anyone else, should be concerned about whether their votes were counted as cast and as the voter intended.”

Steven Rosenfeld is the editor and chief correspondent of Voting Booth, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He has reported for National Public Radio, Marketplace, and Christian Science Monitor Radio, as well as a wide range of progressive publications including Salon, AlterNet, The American Prospect, and many others.

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Michael Carvajal

Photo by Tom Williams via Reuters

The search is on for a new director of the federal Bureau of Prisons after Michael Carvajal announced on January 5 that he’s retiring from his appointed post and will leave when the Department of Justice finds his replacement.

The Biden Administration needs to replace Carvajal with a person who knows prisons inside and out: someone who’s been incarcerated before.

When President Joe Biden announced his first round of cabinet picks just weeks after being elected in 2020, then Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said: “When Joe asked me to be his running mate, he told me about his commitment to making sure we selected a cabinet that looks like America – that reflects the very best of our nation.

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