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October 23, 2013

Iranian Terrorism

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Matthew Levitt recounts Iran's history of terror sponsorship:

Thirty years ago today, on Oct. 23, 1983, a delivery van filled with 18,000 pounds of explosives slammed into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Seconds later, another car bomb hit a French military building four miles away. A total of 241 American and 58 French soldiers lost their lives, all members of the Multi-National Forces in Lebanon.

The attack on the Marine barracks was not only the single-largest nonnuclear explosion since World War II, it was also the deadliest terrorist attack against Americans up to that time. [Emphasis mine.]

Was the Marine barracks attack, heinous as it unquestionably was, really "terrorism"? By definition, the barracks housed military service members, not civilians.

If attacks on military targets stationed overseas in a war zone constitute terrorism, then the word essentially has no meaning. Worse, America would then be guilty of terrorism on a scale that is orders of magnitude more severe than anything Iran has done, given the number of military targets the U.S. has blown up since 1983.

(AP Photo)

October 15, 2013

Marco Rubio Wants to Make Iran an "Offer" They'll Happily Refuse

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Senator Marco Rubio has some ideas about how to "negotiate" with Iran:

And so the bottom line in any negotiations should be clear: the only way sanctions on Iran will be lifted or suspended is if they agree to completely abandon any capability for enrichment or reprocessing. Iran has a right to a peaceful civilian nuclear energy program, but it does not have the right to enrich or reprocess.

Holding this line is especially important in light of Iran's repeated and blatant disregard of its international obligations. Even a limited enrichment program and possession of sensitive reprocessing technologies is unacceptable because it would keep the path to nuclear weapons open. In fact, until Iran agrees to abandon enrichment and reprocessing, Congress should move to implement a new round of additional sanctions without delay.

As Daniel Larison notes, the Iranians have repeatedly insisted that forsaking domestic enrichment is a non-starter. So what Rubio is actually insisting on is not a negotiated settlement, but Iranian capitulation. How likely is it that Iran will knuckle under to Rubio's demands?

According to Gallup, a majority of Iranians (56 percent) approve of a nuclear program for non-military use while only 34 percent support a militarized nuclear program (41 percent oppose). Gallup did not wade into the specifics of whether Iranians would be willing to forgo domestic enrichment for a non-military nuclear program, so it's possible there is some wiggle room on this question. Still, some form of indigenous nuclear program is popular in Iran even after the costs of that program to Iranian standards of living has risen.

There's another questionable assertion in Rubio's op-ed:

The main reason why Iran's leaders are making noises about negotiating with the world now is because, over the last few years, the United States and the European Union have imposed significant sanctions on Iran. Those sanctions are starting to hurt the regime.

It has made it more difficult for them to export terrorism around the world. [Emphasis added.]

It's unquestionably true that sanctions have put the hurt on Iran, but it is absolutely not true that sanctions have thwarted Iran's ability to "export terrorism." In fact, we have rather clear evidence from the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt that sanctions and the covert campaign of sabotage and assassination that the U.S. and Israel have unleashed on Iran have fueled the Islamic Republic's recent acts of international terrorism.

From the attempt on the Saudi ambassador's life in the U.S. to attacks in Bulgaria and thwarted attacks elsewhere, there is a fairly strong correlation between the increase in "pressure" on Iran and the increase in Iranian retaliation around the world.

(AP Photo)

October 14, 2013

Our Words Are Backed with Nuclear Weapons

Fans of the incredibly popular series of computer games called Civilization will recall the strange acts of diplomacy in the early iterations of the game. For instance, whenever a rival civilization joined the nuclear club, it would always mention that fact at the beginning of any negotiation. This would result in rather awkward situations, such as Gandhi casually mentioning that he's packing some serious heat.

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Diplomacy in subsequent editions became more sophisticated and realistic, but even this primitive form of diplomacy carries a hint of truth about modern international relations: countries seek nuclear weapons not necessarily because they plan to use them, but because they believe it gives them leverage.

That's why all the worry over Iran's nuclear program, mostly from neoconservatives, is largely misplaced. The consensus in the foreign policy community is that Iran is an aggressive, rational actor. Unlike al-Qaeda or other terrorists, they aren't suicidal. The Persians want power and influence, particularly in the Middle East, and nuclear weapons are a means to achieve that end. As Barry Rubin writes for the Jerusalem Post:

[Iran's] basic goal was and is to be as powerful a regional hegemon as possible - including control over Syria and Lebanon. It would like to take leadership of all Muslims in the area...

Nuclear weapons are thus for Iran primarily a defensive shield enabling it to carry out conventional aggression with impunity.

This is also why "Rouhanimania," overly optimistic enthusiasm about Iran's new president, is also misplaced. Like former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr. Rouhani also wants Iran to be a powerful country, and he very likely believes that nuclear weapons are an appropriate avenue to achieve that end. Therefore, the only real difference between Mr. Rouhani and Mr. Ahmadinejad is that the former has a thicker beard and friendlier rhetoric. Iran's regional ambitions, however, haven't changed much.

Besides, even if Mr. Rouhani sincerely doesn't want nuclear weapons, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei (despite his alleged fatwa) probably does. And, as we learned recently, Mr. Rouhani appears not to even have the authority to shake President Obama's hand.

One is left to wonder how much power, if any, Mr. Rouhani actually possesses.

Regardless of the answer to that question, one thing is definitely clear: Mr. Rouhani will be taken far more seriously if his words are backed with nuclear weapons.

(Image: TVTropes.org)

October 9, 2013

The Truth About Any Nuclear Deal with Iran

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Stephen Walt gets to the heart of it:

...[A]ny deal that Tehran will accept is still going to leave it with the ability to produce a bomb if it ever decides it needs to; we are mostly going to be negotiating over the length of time it would take them to do so and thus how much warning we are likely to get.

It's not clear yet whether the U.S. is willing to live with such a deal. Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice said late last month that any Iran deal would not include domestic uranium enrichment (though Iran would be allowed to import enriched uranium for electrical generation). Still, it's conceivable that if a deal were in sight, the Obama administration and its European partners would relent and agree to Iranian enrichment under international inspections. (Lithuania's foreign minister has said as much.)

What's less clear is how Israel would respond to any deal that allows Iran to retain domestic uranium enrichment. Prime Minister Netanyahu's government has repeatedly insisted that Iran can have no such capability but would Netanyahu be willing to rupture a U.S. deal with a military strike? It's one thing to complain publicly about an American policy, quite another to literally blow it up.

(AP Photo)

September 19, 2013

Iran May Not Learn the Right Lessons from Syrian Diplomacy

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Max Fisher and Daniel Drezner argue that those who claim the Obama administration has lost its "credibility" toward Iran have it all wrong. Here's Fisher:

Obama's decision to back off Syria strikes, and I'm bolding this part because it's important, boosts the credibility of his stated position that he isn't seeking Iran's destruction and that he will seek peace with Iran if they first meet his long-held demands on nuclear enrichment. That's exactly the message Tehran needs to hear right now.

I think we need be careful not to get too carried away. The Russian plan has barely been put to the test. We don't know if the Assad regime is genuinely willing to hand over its chemical arsenal or whether they're simply going to stall for time and hope that the political will to launch punitive strikes further erodes in Washington. If Assad is simply stalling and manages to avoid military strikes without surrendering his arsenal, Tehran will likely draw a very different lesson than the one Drezner and Fisher think they're currently receiving.

Moreover, it's going to be very difficult for Iran to accept the idea that the Syrian deal shows the Obama administration isn't seeking Iran's destruction when the Pentagon talks openly about arming Syria's opposition even with a chemical weapons deal in place. That sends exactly the opposite message to Iran, who need only look to Libya to understand the consequences of accepting a Western disarmament deal.

Finally, it's also worth considering what lesson Washington will take away from this: namely, that threats of military force are vital to forging a diplomatic breakthrough (something many Iran analysts have been arguing for a long time). If this becomes the conventional wisdom, it could provoke the administration into another high-wire act, threatening military strikes against Iran and then banking on a last minute diplomatic breakthrough to peaceably bring about a deal.

(AP Photo)

August 7, 2013

Is the U.S. "Coming Around" to an Israeli Strike on Iran?

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Former Israeli intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said that he thinks Washington is slowly coming around to the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

“In 2012 the [Americans'] red light was as red as it can get, the brightest red,” Yadlin was quoted by the Times of Israel as telling Israel's Army Radio. “But the music I’m hearing lately from Washington says, ‘If this is truly an overriding Israeli security interest, and you think you want to strike,’ then the light hasn’t changed to green, I think, but it’s definitely yellow.”

It's hard to see what exactly has changed, from a U.S. perspective, with regard to the dangers of an Israeli strike on Iran. Moreover, with Iran's new president indicating a willingness to talk (if not to capitulate) I'd have guessed that Washington would be even more unwilling to green light an Israeli attack. Is the U.S. suddenly better equipped to deal with the fallout of such a strike, or is Washington simply resigning itself to the inevitable?

(AP Photo)

June 25, 2013

Why Is There Bipartisan Support for the MEK? Because Politicians Like Getting Paid

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Benny Avni hails the bi-partisan support for the Iranian cult group MEK and their cries for regime change in Iran:

Want to see US bipartisanship on Iran? Go to Paris and attend a rally led by Maryam Rajavi, the charismatic head of the best-organized anti-regime group of Iranian exiles.

Where else can you hear former lefty congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee calling Rajavi “my sister” and soon after listen to righty Rudy Giuliani saying she’s the best alternative to “that killer,” Iran’s President-elect Hassan Rouhani? Where else can a one-time Democratic presidential candidate, Bill Richardson, be on the same foreign-policy page as a Republican wannabe, Newt Gingrich? Or a former Obama adviser, dovish retired Gen. George Jones, support the same cause as Bushie hawks like former UN Ambassador John Bolton and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey?

Gee, what would unite Washington's political class around a cause? Maybe, I don't know, money? Let's see:

Scores of former senior officials have been paid up to $40,000 to make speeches in support of the MEK's delisting. Those who have received money include the former chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Hugh Shelton; ex-FBI director Louis Freeh; and Michael Mukasey, who as attorney general oversaw the prosecution of terrorism cases.

The former Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell, has accepted more than $150,000 in speaking fees at events in support of the MEK's unbanning. Clarence Page, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, was paid $20,000 to speak at the rally. Part of the money has been paid through speakers bureaus on the US east coast.

Others accepted only travel costs, although in some cases that involved expensive trips to Europe.

In June, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the US House of Representatives and Republican presidential candidate, flew to Paris to address a pro-MEK rally and meet its co-leader, Maryam Rajavi. He was criticised for bowing to her.

That was last June, but Gingrich evidently re-upped for 2013. And good for him, the economy's tough and everyone needs to make a living. But reading Avni's piece, you'd never know of these lavish funding efforts. (You can read more about them here.)

Avni ends his piece with this eye-opener:

Even if detractors are right that the group’s support in Iran is much less significant than in DC, Rajavi may have a key role to play. Mostly, she can help convince Americans that the best future for relations with Iranians — and for the Mideast — is regime-change in Tehran. If she succeeds, her habit of collecting fans among former US pols would end up being a worthy cause indeed.
Right. One of the reasons relations between the U.S. and Iran have been contentious is because the U.S. took it upon itself to change the Iranian regime once before. There are certainly many people in Iran who would like to see the current system fall or be systemically reformed -- but the people rejoicing in the streets after the election of Rouhani are unlikely to cheer efforts to install an MEK cultist as a temporary president of Iran.

For a more serious appraisal of the MEK you can read this RAND study on the group.

(AP Photo)

May 29, 2013

Report Sees Utility in U.S., Not Israeli, Military Strike Against Iran

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The Washington Institute convened two military experts -- Gen. James Cartwright and Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin -- to author a case study on whether the U.S. or Israel should launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear program.

The authors conclude it would be better if the U.S. did it, but raise a number of cautionary considerations:

After discussing these issues, the president and prime minister’s advisers suggest that a U.S.-led strike is preferable from a military perspective, since it would produce affirmative answers to more of the above questions than would an Israeli attack. Yet determining which country should strike extends far beyond military capabilities. Attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities is but a tactical step toward strategic goal of permanently halting the regime’s drive toward nuclear weapons. Mechanically damaging the program is not an end goal in itself, since no amount of bombs can destroy Iran’s nuclear know-how. Any strike must necessarily be followed by negotiations and a self-enforcing diplomatic deal that prevents Tehran from reconstituting the program or achieving breakout capability in the future.

Accordingly, the advisers point out that the operational benefits of a U.S.-led attack must be weighed against the post-strike political and military implications. In particular, a U.S. strike could limit Washington’s ability to negotiate with Iran’s leaders, who would not want to be seen as having been coerced by the “Great Satan.” Preserving the U.S. negotiating role is crucial. An Israeli attack may have a better chance of meeting that goal, but it would almost certainly not enjoy the same international support as a U.S. strike. regime of export controls and sanctions that President Obama has so carefully cobbled together. And without strict sanctions in place to prevent Iran from reimporting nuclear material, it may be a matter of years before the regime reconstitutes the program—this time entirely bunkered underground to protect against future strikes.

Iran is likely to react to getting bombed like most countries: unfavorably. If they have the means, it stands to reason that they would pursue a nuclear weapon in earnest following any attack to prevent a similar thing from happening again.

(AP Photo)

May 13, 2013

Does Iran Have a 'Right' to Enrich Uranium?

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If you spent the weekend reading about Iran, you may have encountered two articles. The first, by Reuel Marc Gerecht asserts unequivocally that Iran does not have a right to enrich uranium even though it is a signatory to the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

On the other hand, Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett argue (equally unequivocally) that they do have such a right and failure to recognize it is one of the key stumbling blocks reaching a negotiated settlement.

So who's right? Well, according to a close-read of the relevant treaty and expert commentary around it, Nathan Donohue concludes ... that there's no firm understanding of what "rights" the NPT actually affords:

The NPT does not clearly set out the rights of a state. Instead the language is vague and open to interpretation, possibly as a direct result of the dominant negotiating parties of the NPT. Whether this is the case or not, this inherent ambiguity has made it even more difficult to establish a common understanding between negotiating parties. In the absence of some resolve, the inherent ambiguity within the NPT will likely be a stumbling block for further negotiations between Iran and the P5 + 1 countries of the United States, China, Russia, Germany, France and Britain.

So there you have it.

(AP Photo)

April 16, 2013

Will Boston Have Any Geopolitical Fallout?

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Events are very fluid following the gruesome terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon, but speculation is already swirling as to motive and responsible parties. As I spoke with friends and neighbors yesterday, several people asked me if I thought North Korea was behind it. That possibility never even crossed my mind (and for the record, I think it's wildly implausible) but it did get me thinking about the potential geopolitical fallout of this event if it can be traced to international sources.

In fact, there's only one plausible scenario* I can think of that would carry significant geopolitical consequences: If Iran's Revolutionary Guard or Hezbollah (or both) were behind it.

In response to the assassination of Iranian scientists, Iran has launched a wave of largely unsuccessful global terrorist attacks against Israel and the U.S. While many plots were bungled, Iran (via Hezbollah) did manage to kill Israeli civilians in Bulgaria and attempted to assassinate Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.S. in Washington.

If Iran's hand is in this act of terror, it would galvanize proponents of military action against Iran's nuclear program to push the administration for immediate action. The Obama administration would be under enormous pressure to act in some overt manner to punish Tehran. Yet unlike al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, there's no simple method of punishing Iran militarily that doesn't open the door to a much broader conflict. Retaliatory attacks aimed at the Revolutionary Guard or Iran's nuclear facilities could invite Iranian counter-moves and runs the well-established risk of a direct military engagement with Iran. Standing pat, however, will be politically difficult (if not impossible).

So, of all the potential scenarios associated with the Boston attacks, linkage to Iran carries the most significant geopolitical consequences.

Why not al-Qaeda?

The most likely global culprit is also the one least likely to spur any fundamental change to American security strategy or foreign policy. Three of al-Qaeda's main groupings -- in Pakistan, in the Arabian Peninsula and in Africa (the "Islamic Maghreb") -- are already the focus of intense counter-terrorism campaigns, drone strikes and covert action. If any of these groups are linked to the Boston attack it may lead to a stepped up campaign of drone strikes and covert action, but it's unlikely to radically reorient the Obama administration's current policy (it will, however, likely lead to a sharp debate over the drone strikes and whether they're a cause of, or solution to, incidents such as these).

*There are plenty of implausible scenarios which would have far-reaching consequences as well: just pick your favorite rogue or adversarial state and make them the culprit.

(AP Photo)

April 12, 2013

How Bad Arguments About Iran Spread

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Daniel Larison highlights this from Matt Duss:

In a 2009 article for the Brown Journal of World Affairs, national security analyst Andrew Grotto probed the question “Is Iran a Martyr State?” and found that such claims are unsupported by anything like evidence, but rather have achieved the status of conventional wisdom simply by repetition.”The martyr state view rests on bold, even radical claims about Iran’s goals and behavior that defy conventional expectations of states’ actions,” wrote Grotto, “but no government in recorded history has willfully pursued policies it knows will proximately cause its own destruction.”

“Given the novelty of the martyr state argument,” Grotto continued, “and how unequivocally its proponents present it, one would expect to encounter an avalanche of credible evidence. Yet that is not the case.” Finding both that “references are scarce in this line of writings, and certain references are cited with striking regularity,” Grotto determined that the “martyr state” view essentially rests upon a few neoconservative op-eds and a report by a right-wing Israeli think tank, whose claims have been bounced endlessly around the internet.

The other thing to point out is that the supposedly deranged, fanatical and undeterrable leaders of Iran have been ruling the country for 30 years -- more than enough time to do any number of stupid things to court their own destruction and usher in the end times we're told they're waiting for. They don't appear overly eager to end it all in an atomic fireball.

(AP Photo)

March 5, 2013

Biden Promises a War with Iran

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Vice President Joe Biden warned in no uncertain terms that the U.S. would start a war with Iran if a deal could not be reached over its nuclear program.

“Presidents of the United States cannot and do not bluff, and President Barack Obama is not bluffing,” Biden declared. Of course, that's not true. Presidents bluff all the time. Still, this warning is consistent with the administration's line on Iran, which is that a war is coming if a negotiated settlement can't be reached.

Jonathan Tobin liked what he heard:

While Biden’s typically long-winded and meandering speech contained some highly questionable statements, such as his defense of engagement with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government, his remarks also took the administration another step down the road to confrontation with Iran. Instead of merely alluding to the use of force by saying that all options were on the table, he made the case that the current futile diplomatic process with Tehran was defensible because it gave the administration the ability to tell the world that it had done everything possible to avoid conflict before resorting to force.

Aside from making the adolescent hysteria over Chuck Hagel look ridiculous, Biden's promises also underscore the fact that the administration that boasted that a "decade of war is now ending" is charging headlong (and needlessly) toward another.

(AP Photo)

February 28, 2013

Are U.S. Senators Tying America's Hands on Iran?

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Senators Lindsey Graham and Bob Menendez are circulating a joint resolution that would, among other things, obligate the United States to assist Israel if it choose to start a war with Iran:

Urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.

Hayes Brown clarifies what the bill would and would not mean:

The joint resolution is non-binding and would serve as neither a declaration of war nor an Authorization of the Use of Military Force like the near carte-blanche approval granted to President George W Bush at the onset of the Iraq War. It would, though, serve as an official announcement of U.S. policy to support any Israeli strike, whether the Obama administration had been previously consulted or not.

There are two big questions around the wording here. First, what amounts to "military" assistance? Does it obligate the United States to join Israel in an attack -- in effect, obligating the U.S. to go to war with Iran -- or resupply Israel after the fact?

The second question: what constitutes "self defense"?

In most plausible readings of how an Israeli strike would play it out, it wouldn't happen because Iran was about to launch an imminent nuclear attack but because Israel would feel, on balance, safer if Iran's nuclear facilities were destroyed. It would be a preventative war, self defense broadly defined, foreclosing the possibility that Israel could contain the threat from a nuclear Iran with deterrence.

These seem like a rather important ambiguities that should be resolved before the resolution moves forward.

(AP Photo)

February 25, 2013

Iran's Middle Class Feels the Pinch: Are Sanctions Working or Failing?

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Hason Rezain reports from Iran that international sanctions are hitting the Iranian middle class, who are beginning to complain loudly about the collapse of the Iranian currency. The middle class is feeling the pinch in part because the Iranian regime is targeting the poor for subsidies and cash payments as the economy craters.

Thus far, the hit to the middle class seems to come in the form of foreign luxury goods -- cell phones, tablets, cosmetics, etc. Iranians are also less able to travel abroad, proof that sanctions are, if nothing else, beginning to isolate Iranians from the outside world.

The big question is where blame for this deprivation will fall. If more Iranians end up blaming the U.S. and Western powers for their hardships, the sanctions regime could backfire (especially if it fails to actually stop Iran from obtaining some nuclear weapons capability). If the current regime takes the blame, it could catalyze a revolt -- which is clearly the hope of the world powers currently arrayed against Iran.

Gallup data from earlier this month showed that the vast majority of Iranians blamed the U.S. for the sanctions targeting their country (47 percent). Only 10 percent blamed their own government.

According to a new report from the International Crisis Group, Iranian leaders are likely to respond to sanctions not by modifying their nuclear program but by modifying their domestic economy to adapt. As they do so, the report warns, the current regime could become more entrenched as it becomes the key economic player determining who gets what inside Iran.

The report is not completely hostile to sanctions, however. It notes that sanctions can be an effective means in getting Iran to the table and that absent the sanctions regime, Iran may have made even more progress on its nuclear program than it has to date.

(AP Photo)

February 20, 2013

Why a Nuclear Iran Won't Trigger a Regional Arms Race

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Perhaps the biggest potential danger of a nuclear-armed Iran is the prospect of other states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, seek their own weapons. Even those prone to avoid hysterical fear-mongering over Iran, like Henry Kissinger, worry about the potential for a rash of proliferation following Iran's nuclear breakout.

The Center for a New American Security is out with a report this week (PDF) arguing that if Iran does manage to build a nuclear weapon, it won't catalyze a wave of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. The report centers specifically on Saudi Arabia, arguing that the conventional wisdom surrounding the country's incentives to seek nukes is "probably wrong," as "significant disincentives would weigh against a mad rush by Riyadh to develop nuclear weapons."

The report's authors argue that there are considerable technological, legal and political hurdles that stand between Saudi Arabia and a bomb. Instead, Riyadh would run to Washington for help deterring Iran, relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella and additional assurances (such as the basing of additional "trip wire" forces in the region) instead.

The authors also pour cold water over the idea that Pakistan would simply sell nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, writing that Pakistan views its nuclear arsenal solely through the lens of deterring India. Pan-Islamic solidarity isn't a big enough motivator to run the risks involved in selling those weapons to another state, they write. There is some small possibility that Pakistan would extend a "nuclear umbrella" to Saudi Arabia, but even that prospect was deemed highly unlikely by CNAS given the costs and difficulties it would entail.

Earlier this week, Peter Jones, a professor at the University of Ottawa and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, made a similar argument, claiming that expectations of rapid nuclear proliferation in the Middle East are belied by the actual history of how states behave in the nuclear age. Granted, the nuclear age isn't all that long and taking an overly deterministic view of how the Middle East would react could be equally blinkered. But it's still worth noting that most of the potential candidates for acquiring a nuclear weapon are either close U.S. allies (Jordan, Saudi Arabia) or too dysfunctional (Egypt) to manage it.

Yet, as the CNAS authors make clear, the policy most likely to avert nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is the extension of U.S. security guarantees and the positioning of more forward-deployed military assets. That's also problematic, given how such deployments provoke anti-Americanism, waste American tax dollars and draw Washington's strategic focus from Asia. Maybe some clever strategist could devise a way to make this China's problem, given the fact that they are far more reliant on Middle Eastern oil than the U.S. is.

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2013

Five Things Americans Fear the Most

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What do Americans fear most? When it comes to America's international security interests, the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs are deemed most threatening, according to a new survey from Gallup. Americans were giving a list of nine developments and asked to rank them from more to less critical. Here are the top five threats Americans say are most critical:

1. The nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea (tied for first)
2. International terrorism
3. Islamic fundamentalism
4. The economic power of China
5. The military power of China

The poll was conducted before North Korea's most recent nuclear test.

Other issues that had previously ranked higher -- such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and tensions between India-Pakistan -- have declined.

Here's a look at the full list of Gallup's results:

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(AP Photo)

February 14, 2013

The Problem with Communicating "Strength" to Iran

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Walter Russell Mead claims that President Obama is signalling "weakness" to Iran, making a war more likely:

But over time the conviction seems to be growing in Tehran that President Obama is unwilling to take Iran on, and the fact that the President didn’t make the confrontation with Iran a centerpiece of his State of the Union message will be read in Iran as yet another signal. Their nuclear program isn’t a high enough priority for this President to lead to war.

We aren’t saying the Iranians are right about President Obama. Kaiser Wilhelm once thought that Woodrow Wilson was so determined to stay out of war that he didn’t have to worry about U.S. intervention in Europe. After Wilson ran for re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war,” Germany tended to discount Wilson’s threats.

But while Germany misread Wilson, that misreading made war more likely. In the same way, if President Obama is serious about opposing an Iranian nuclear bomb with force if necessary (and we both hope and believe he is serious), then the signals the White House is sending to Iran are unintentionally making war more likely, not less. Right now, the administration is heading pretty rapidly to a point at which it will either suffer one of the greatest humiliations in the history of American foreign policy as Iran achieves a nuclear capability in defiance of years of American warnings, or it will face another armed conflict in the Middle East. If the President wants to avoid this choice, he needs to start sending signals that convince even the hardest-line mullahs that he really does mean it.

So what will instill fear in Iran, you might ask? Mead lists several Obama administration policies that he claims Iran finds heartening, so presumably reversing those would be a first step (though he doesn't state this outright). So, to make Iran fear America, Obama would have to: not withdraw from Afghanistan, not remove a second aircraft carrier from the Persian Gulf and scuttle the nomination of Chuck Hagel. The one concrete policy proposal Mead offers is for Hagel (if he can survive the nomination process) to give a "hard line" speech about Syria.

That will show 'em.

Arguments about cowing Iran with awesome displays of American resolve that are, upon closer inspection, not all that awesome, are pretty common among Iran war hawks and we're probably going to hear versions of this argument again and again until either there is a war or Iran goes nuclear.

But it's important to point out how utterly unserious this is.

What would convince Iran that the U.S. was serious about war was for the U.S. to actually get serious about a war -- the administration would have to mobilize public and Congressional support for a conflict, begin to position combat troops and material in and around Iran, go to the UN Security Council, rally allies in NATO and the Gulf and issue clear threats to the Iranian regime. It would have to sharpen the confrontation to the point where war really was inevitable unless Iran knuckled under completely. That's obviously a bridge too far for the Obama administration at this point (and for allies in NATO and the UN), but that is what real military pressure would look like, not "hard line" speeches from Chuck Hagel.

(AP Photo)

February 12, 2013

The Iranian Election Is Getting Interesting

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't going quietly. From Thomas Erdbrink:

The [Iranian parliament] speaker, Ali Larijani, is a leading member of Iran’s most famous political family. He had been scheduled to speak at the golden-domed shrine of Fatima Masoumeh, the daughter of a Shiite saint, to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the Islamic revolution.

The shrine is in the city of Qom, Mr. Larijani’s home district, where most of his political supporters among Iran’s traditional clergy hold offices.

But when he was preparing to deliver his speech, a group of around 100 protesters, described by the news agency as “Ahmadinejad fans,” started throwing shoes and small stones used by Shiite worshipers when they pray, actions that are regarded as gravely insulting. When the protesters pressed toward the stage, Mr. Larijani’s bodyguards took him away.

The episode occurred less than a week after a high-profile clash between Mr. Ahmadinejad and Mr. Larijani in which the president released a video of what he said were secret business dealings involving Mr. Larijani’s younger brother Fazel.

Read Tom's entire story here, and also check out this Shaul Bakhash backgrounder on the Ahmadinejad camp's strategy in the upcoming June presidential election.

(AP Photo)

America's Persian Capital

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Robert Tollast makes a good point:

Just as sanctions are now thought to be strengthening IRGC control, Saddam’s regime in Baghdad clung to power seemingly impervious to rising public anger, periodic bombing and the collapse of revenues. Fanar Haddad has argued that if anything, sanctions made Saddam’s patronage more valuable and command greater loyalty, an effect opponents of sanctions have frequently highlighted. In today’s Iran, regime elements have become masters of smuggling and the black market, rather like Saddam and his elite in the 1990s.

And there is a further price. The devastating loss of human capital could make it far harder to construct a legitimate post-regime government or even one accommodating to the west. Consider the results of last year’s Gallup poll in Iran on nuclear military power. Results show the danger of educated Iranians leaving Iran or being silenced by the regime as it gains greater legitimacy for resisting the West, Israel and sanctions

And news this morning that Iran may, in a possible effort to allay Western concerns, convert some of its uranium into reactor fuel couldn't come a moment too soon, as a more recent Gallup poll indicating souring Iranian attitudes toward the United States should raise a red flag for policymakers concerned about America's long-term interests in the Islamic Republic.

Washington has no mil-to-mil ties to leverage in Iran -- much like it did in Egypt two years ago -- and economic cooperation between the two countries is accidental at best. America's one card to play in Iran, conventional wisdom so often held, was a sympathetic and silently pro-American Iranian public. That now appears to be a less reliable assumption than in recent years.

That, among other reasons, is why the U.S.-Iran status quo is no longer sustainable. If present U.S. policy is designed -- much like in the case of North Korea -- to "sharpen" Tehran's choices, then it's time to put that policy to the test and make a comprehensive offer, either publicly or quietly, in order to settle old scores and end the U.S.-Iran cold war.

(AP photo)

February 8, 2013

"Everyone Is Happy with the Status Quo on Iran"

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After committing himself to Iran blogging autopilot, Drezner argues that the status quo will endure because most of the major players, with the exception of Israel, are happy with it:

The U.S. is delighted to keep Iran contained. The Iranian leadership is content to blame the U.S. for all of its woes and possess a nuclear breakout capacity, without actually having nuclear weapons. Iran's economic elites are delighted to engage in sanctions-busting -- more profit for them. And Iran's neighbors are happy to see Iran contained and not actually develop a nuclear weapon. I think even Israel would be copacetic with the current arrangement if they knew that the Iranian regime had no intention of crafting an actual weapon unless it felt an existential threat.

I don't think this status quo is sustainable at all and the U.S. may not be all that happy with it if they thought through the implications. Put simply, the U.S. is on a similar course with Iran as it was with Iraq in the 1990s. That containment regime took a brutal toll on innocent Iraqis and helped fuel terrorism against the United States. It then culminated in a costly war because many people became convinced that the status quo was intolerably threatening.

Iran is on the same trajectory, only it may not take a decade to crumble, given Israel's repeated warnings about taking preemptive action. U.S. sanctions may or may not dissuade the ruling elite to permanently forswear nuclear weapons, but it will eventually devastate life for ordinary Iranians. Worse, the U.S. is empowering Sunni Gulf allies who are in turn helping to "contain" Iran by whipping up Sunni jihadist forces around the region. These forces pose a much more direct threat than Iran since, by their very nature, they cannot be contained and have a proven capacity to do large scale damage inside America. They are instruments of instability and they're already at work in Syria, right next door to Iran.

I think in the short-term, the rinse/repeat quality of the Iranian containment regime justifies autopilot, but I think it's likely to unravel much sooner than we think.

(AP Photo)

How Iranians Feel About U.S. Sanctions

Gallup has done some polling on Iranian views on sanctions. While a 56 percent majority say they have hurt "a great deal," they have not changed Iranian views on nuclear power.

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It's not clear though, how Iranians feel about nuclear weapons and whether they should endure sanctions for the sake of them.

In any event, Iranians overwhelmingly blame the U.S. for the pain caused by sanctions. Only 10 percent blame the Iranian government itself:

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Gallup's Mohamed Younis offers his analysis on the numbers:

Iranians report feeling the effect of sanctions, but still support their country's efforts to increase its nuclear capabilities. This may indicate that sanctions alone are not having the intended effect of persuading Iranian residents and country leaders to change their stance on the level of international oversight of their nuclear program. Iran, as one of the most populous nations in a region undergoing monumental shifts, will remain a key country in the balance of power for the Middle East. Thus, the United States', Russia's, and Europe's relationship with the Iranian people remains a matter of strategic interest. The effect of sanctions on Iranians' livelihoods and the blame they place on the U.S. will continue to be a major challenge for the U.S. in Iran and in neighboring countries such as Iraq. Recent reports that Tehran and Washington might enter into direct talks were short-lived when Iran's supreme leader made a statement strongly rejecting them. With Iran preparing for elections later this year, a turning point is needed to get leaders on both sides out of the current stalemate on the country's nuclear program.

This Is Iran's Internet

The Iranian Internet – An Infographic by Maral Pourkazemi from Gestalten on Vimeo.

Iran is no North Korea, hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world. But since the 2009 protests, the Iranian regime has been systematically censoring and spying on web users. There are now plans to create a distinct internet (dubbed "Halal web") where Iranians can browse in a regime-approved walled garden (the elite, of course, will suffer no such restrictions).

Maral Pourkazemi created the above video to highlight the plight of the Iranian internet.

(Via: Charles Pulliam-Moore)

February 5, 2013

McCain, Monkeys and Ahmadinejad

Sen. John McCain apparently found himself in some hot water this week over a Tweet comparing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a monkey:

The Tweet raised more than a few eyebrows, and sparked this exchange with Republican Rep. Justin Amash, a Palestinian-American:

Jonathan Tobin isn't buying it:

Americans have always laughed at their enemies. It is a healthy reaction and speaks of our self-confidence as well as our justified contempt for those who despise our democracy and threaten the peace of the world. The only questions about Ahmadinejad’s humanity stem from the hate that he spews, not a silly jest. Amash’s faux outrage about the insult directed at the Iranian president tells us more about his priorities than it does about those of McCain.

Three Ways Iran Embarrassed Itself (Recently)

1. They paraded around a supposedly "indigenously built" stealth fighter that defense analyst Dave Majumdar said appeared to have no room for fuel, radar and weapons, after calling it a "joke" and a "GI Joe toy."

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2. They boasted loudly about launching a monkey into space and returning him alive, until some analysts pointed out that the "before" and "after" monkeys looked completely different. There was also no independent verification of the rocket launch, further raising suspicions about whether the launch even occurred.

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3. Their global retaliation efforts against the U.S. and Israel have largely been bungled, lead by "low-rent, kooky terrorists" who spend time at brothels and carry incriminating documents and cellphones.

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(AP Photo)

What Does "Taking Iran at Its Word" Mean?

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Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Douglas Murray urges the world to take Iran's leaders seriously when they say they are going to "wipe Israel off the map." We must do so, Murray argues, because of Iran's history:

Another point made frequently by Tehran's defenders, apologists and denialists is that the regime has never acted in a hostile manner against any other neighbors. But the merest of glances across history belies this.

So, more importantly, do recent events. Iran's arming and funding of terrorist proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah, are not the inventions of right-wing warmongers. They are facts, and ones that the people of Lebanon and Syria are having to live and die with.

This is the first time I've heard the claim that Iranian funding of Hamas and Hezbollah are inventions of "right-wing warmongers." I don't think anyone seriously disputes the fact that Iran provides that support to these groups, nor would anyone really characterize Iranian intentions vis-a-vis their neighbors as benign (the reverse, however, is also true). But there is a rather enormous gap between these realities and the prospect for a nuclear war between Israel and Iran, which is what Murray is implying but is apparently unwilling to state forthrightly.

Beyond that, Murray is making a very strained comparison. Funding terrorist groups is not the same thing as starting a conventional war against another state. Iran does the former, but has not done the later (at least in the era of the Islamic Republic). This suggests that Iranian leaders understand the imbalance of power between them and their adversaries and the costs that such hostilities would bring.

Second, and related, there is nothing in Iran's history that suggests that country's leaders are suicidal, which is what they would have to be to start a nuclear war with Israel.

(AP Photo)

January 31, 2013

Cyrus in the States

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The ancient Cyrus Cylinder -- often hailed as the first recorded charter on human rights, though that has been disputed -- is finally making its debut in the United States in 2013. Get the full tour schedule here.

Back in 2011, Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor gave an interesting TED talk on the history of the cylinder, and how it has, for centuries now, played a small role in Mideast politics:

January 30, 2013

Iran's Bungling Its Global Terror War

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Though it grabbed headlines for its brazenness, the 2011 Iranian plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in a DC restaurant was equal parts absurd. The accused assassin was a failed used car salesman who was duped by a DEA agent pretending to be a member of a Mexican drug gang. That such a high profile mission on U.S. soil by what is generally considered to be the world's elite militant group would be entrusted to such an individual raised serious questions about Iran's capabilities.

In a new report (PDF), the Washington Institute's Matthew Levitt illustrates that such bumbling has been the rule, not the exception, in Iran's recent attempts at international terrorism.

Under pressure from a campaign of sabotage and assassination, Iran and Hezbollah have joined forces to seek revenge against Israeli and American interests through a coordinated campaign of attacks in places such as India, Kenya, Georgia and Thailand, Levitt notes. Unfortunately for them (but fortunately for us), most of these have been abject failures, undermined by sloppy trade craft. Operatives took minimal efforts to cover their tracks, re-used phones and SIM cards, carried Iranian currency abroad and partied with prostitutes.

"It's as if there's a systematic policy of Iran recruiting low-rent, downright kooky terrorists," remarks one unnamed analyst in Levitt's report.

"Instead of restoring Iran's damaged prestige, the attacks only further underscored Iran's operational limitations," Levitt writes. Still, Iran has had some success (a strike on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria is one recent example) and the concern is that Hezbollah and Iran "shake off the operational cobwebs" and perfect their technique.

(AP Photo)

January 28, 2013

Obama's Promise: A "Surgical Strike" Against Iran

In an interview with the Daily Beast, Israel's outgoing defense minister Ehud Barak said the Obama administration presented Israel with "quite sophisticated" plans for a "surgical" operation against Iran's nuclear program.

One question that arises is whether the Obama administration went through this exercise as a means of mollifying Netanyahu to delay a strike, without any real intention of following through, or whether the administration made more concrete assurances to buy more time for sanctions and negotiations. Either way, as Barak states at the end of the interview, the U.S. has put its credibility on the line with the Iranian nuclear program.

Still, the idea that any strike against Iran would be "surgical" is a misnomer, one designed to soften the public's expectations for what a military campaign against Iran would entail. Such a mission may be conceived of as a limited and targeted strike, but if Iran were to retaliate, all bets would be off and things could get messy very quickly.

January 24, 2013

Did Israel's Air Force Pilots Vote Against a War with Iran?

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Aluf Benn thinks it's possible:

It is hard to know what the combat pilots think about the prime minister and attacking Iran, but the outcome of the election reveals an interesting clue. In the five family residential quarters on air force bases where polling stations were opened, Yesh Atid won big over Likud-Beiteinu. This was the case at Tel Nof, Hatzerim, Nevatim, Ovda and Ramon. Only at the Hatzor base were more ballots with the Likud letters “mem-het-lamed” cast than with the Yesh Atid letters “peh-heh.” The voter turnout rate in the air force was identical to the national average 67.7 percent and of the 681 eligible voters, 32.2 percent supported Yair Lapid and 20 percent supported Benjamin Netanyahu.

The conclusion is obvious. In the pilots’ neighborhoods, people preferred Lapid and were not impressed by Netanyahu’s gestures, attention or generous budgets.

I'm in no position to say if Benn's read on this is correct, but it wouldn't be surprising. In the U.S., anti-interventionists like Ron Paul often enjoy strong support from military service members.

(AP Photo)

January 23, 2013

Crime and Punishment and Sanctions

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The indispensable Thomas Erdbrink describes the scene at a public hanging in Tehran:

An eerie silence filled the air as a crowd of around 300 gathered Sunday just before sunrise in a Tehran park. They awaited the arrival of two young men who were about to die.

The condemned stood shoulder to shoulder, motionless, in front of two police trucks with two nooses hanging from extendable cranes, about 15 feet high. Black-clad executioners were inspecting the remote controls they would use to hang the men, both in their early 20s, who were convicted of stabbing a man in November and stealing his bag and the equivalent of $20.

From behind a makeshift barrier of scaffolding, the crowd jostled for position. “Let’s move to the other side,” one spectator whispered to his wife, pointing to the spot where Iranian state television cameras had been set up. “I think we will have a better view from there.”

Capital punishment is certainly not unique to Iran, but it's the nature of the crime -- and the government's response -- that makes this story so gripping:

Many in Tehran applauded the harsh sentence for Mr. Mafiha and Mr. Sarvari, saying they hoped that it would make criminals think twice about attacking people. But others doubted that would happen.

“The number of quarrels, suicide, murder and crime are all up,” Amanollah Qaraei Moghadam, a sociologist, recently wrote on Mellat Online, an Internet news site. “It is 100 percent clear the situation will not change unless the economy improves.”

Brendan Daly provides some broader context:

This time last year, it was still very rare to hear the word “tahrim” (sanctions) on the streets of Iranian cities. Now you hear it every day. Not to mention the latest anecdotes of the dollar-rial exchange rates.

At the height of the currency crisis in October, when the rial had dropped to 20 percent of its value compared to last year, a convenience store in downtown Tehran rather humorously put up a sign saying “No discussion of the dollar rate!” As I presented my wares and the shopkeeper saw my Western face, he asked me if I could pay in dollars.

Street crime in Tehran has, by all accounts, risen exponentially over the past few years. I am told that ten years ago such occurrences as this brutal mugging – as well as the increasingly popular act of pretending to be a taxi driver in order to rob passengers at knife-point – were very rare.

More surprisngly perhaps, from around 10:30pm on most nights, on the major boulevard nearest to my apartment, young girls can be seen openly soliciting. To the uninitiated, they are simply well-dressed girls waiting to be picked up by friends. But there is a very specific, very subtle dress code – and if you stay around to observe, you will see them negotiating with men through their car windows. Again, I am told that this was unheard of only five or six years ago.

I've defended sanctions against Iran in the past, but at some point the U.S. must distinguish between tactic and strategy in its handling of the Islamic Republic. As the West continues to pile on sanctions, it's the Iranian people who continue to suffer.

The Iranian government of course bears most of the blame in all of this. The theocratic junta in Tehran has politically, psychologically and -- and times -- violently repressed its own people so much, and for so long, that Iranian drug abuse is reportedly at an all-time high. Creativity, individuality, curiosity -- such traits are deemed, at best, as out of step with societal mores, and at worst seditious. Economic transition, coupled with economic incompetence, has only exacerbated the problem, as Iranians suffering through one long crisis are now faced with a slew of more pressing crises brought on by sanctions, mismanagement and isolation.

Perhaps this is all just collateral damage in the ongoing cold war between Iran and the United States, but, at some point, the West may have to reckon with its own role in bringing the Iranian people to their knees.

(AP Photo: Alireza Mafiha, second left, leans his head on the shoulder of a security officer moments before his execution along with Mohammad Ali Sarvari, second right, in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013. Iran executed two men on Sunday publicly, after posting a video on YouTube in December 2012 showing them robbing and assaulting a man with a machete on a street in Tehran.)

January 14, 2013

Israeli Voters: Economy Trumps Iran

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A poll by the Times of Israel shows some surprising results: only 12 percent of likely voters cited Iran's nuclear program as an "urgent" issue vs. 43% who said economic problems were more pressing. Security issues in general were given short shrift next to economic and social problems.

Meir Javedanfar takes a stab at explaining why that is:

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tries to play on the population's fears by portraying Israel as a country facing imminent demise from Iran (unless he saves it), the fact that today Israel is a regional superpower is not lost on many Israelis. This is why, unlike the first few decades after Israel’s independence, Israelis can afford to focus on domestic issues more than on Iran.

Unlike Israel's current settlement policies, when it comes to the Iranian regime’s threats, not just the US but the entire Western world stands with Israel. Even the Chinese and the Russians today are negotiating against Iran as part of the P5+1 group. Furthermore, the sanctions against Iran, together with US President Barack Obama's promise that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, seem to have convinced many in Israel that when it comes to the Iranian regime, Israel is not alone.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan calling an attack against Iran "the stupidest thing he has ever heard" is another important reason. When Israel's former master spy, who Ariel Sharon described as specializing in "detaching Arabs from their heads," says something like this, Israelis may be forgiven for thinking that that their country is not in danger of imminent destruction by Iran.


December 27, 2012

Stopping Iran's Nuclear Program Won't Stabilize the Mideast

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In the course of yet-another attack on Chuck Hagel, Jonathan Tobin writes that "stopping the Islamist regime in Iran is the prerequisite for stability in the region."

This is a common refrain among those who want to take more aggressive action against Iran. And it's completely wrong. In fact, it's an ironic argument coming from Tobin since he (rightly) dismisses the naive "linkage" argument when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace (i.e. the argument that said peace is the key to ensuring Mideast stability).

First, Iran is not the only, or even the worst, source of instability in the region. Gulf state efforts at containing Iran's influence are fomenting a far greater source of instability in the form of Sunni jihadists. Moreover, U.S. support for the repression of its allies in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan and the U.S. covert war in Yemen are also destabilizing the region. Throw in centuries-old sectarian fault lines, battles over water resources, ethnic separatism and map lines drawn by clueless colonial powers and it's painfully obvious that there are no shortage of powder kegs in the Middle East.

Iran and its support for militant proxies no doubt plays a role in stirring this already turbulent stew, but it's naive at best to think that merely "stopping" them (however that's done) would be sufficient to calm things down.

(AP Photo)

December 17, 2012

Debating Iran: A Countdown to War?

The London School of Economics hosted an interesting panel discussion with, among others, RCW contributor Meir Javedanfar on the prospects for a military confrontation with Iran.

December 10, 2012

What's the Deal with Qatar?

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There's one thing the revolt against Libya's Gaddafi and the revolt against Syria's Assad have in common: weapons have been provisioned to Islamic extremists and al-Qaeda syndicates by the government of Qatar.

It's difficult to tell whether it's due to incompetence (one person quoted by the Times describes weapons being handed out "like candy" without regard for who's getting one) or whether the government is deliberating seeking out Islamists to empower as a means of expanding its regional influence. But either way, Qatar's actions are bolstering people who may present a direct threat to the United States as failed states emerge in both Libya and Syria.

The U.S. is no passive observer: it has an air base in Qatar, is building a missile defense radar installation there and is ostensibly close to the government. While it probably couldn't stop Qatar outright, it seems odd that the Obama administration is doing nothing besides registering token complaints.

Or maybe not so odd: after all, Qatar is a plank in a regional strategy designed to contain Iran. It is, in fact, a perfect example of how such a strategy is going to end up fueling forces far more hostile to the U.S. and its interests -- and far less deterrable -- than Iran.

(AP Photo)

December 5, 2012

A Nuclear-Free Mideast in Israel's Interest?

Sam Roggeveen runs down the scenarios:

My logic is simple. With regard to Iran's nuclear program, Israel faces one of three possible futures:

1. Israel has nuclear weapons but Iran does not.
2. Both Israel and Iran have nuclear weapons.
3. Neither Israel or Iran has nuclear weapons.

Which scenario is better for Israel's security?

Roggeveen concludes that option one is probably unsustainable and option two undesirable, which leaves option three as the best course. Moreover, it would put Israel in a better position because of its superior conventional military.

My guess: we're heading toward option two. No country with an arsenal as well developed as Israel's has ever completely abandoned nuclear weapons, the regional environment isn't exactly reassuring for Israel to do so in the first place and Iran would be foolish (from their own perspective) to live with such a huge conventional imbalance if the nuclear option was within reach.

November 16, 2012

Cost of a War with Iran: $3 Trillion

According to a report from the Federation of American Scientists, a U.S. war against Iran could cost the global economy as much as $3 trillion.

The group based its estimates on a series of escalating steps, from sanctions to a blockade to targeted air strikes to a more comprehensive aerial bombing campaign culminating in a ground invasion to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities and military bases. Each step gets its own estimated price tag: additional sanctions are expected to cost the world $64 billion while a blockade would cost an estimated $325 billion. More aggressive steps cost into the trillions.

Will these costs stay the hands of policy makers in the U.S. and Israel and Europe?

November 12, 2012

Debating Iranian Nuclear Negotiations

Inside Story convened several analysts for a look at the prospects of negotiating an end to the Iranian nuclear standoff.

November 5, 2012

Iran Sanctions Stoke Anti-Americanism

Soraya Lennie reports:

For many Iranians, living somewhere between a state of cynicism and alarm, Obama's comments defending the destruction of their economy are unwelcome to say the least.

Many people have taken on second, even third jobs. They've watched their savings disappear, critical medicines are getting harder to find, inflation is high, factories are closing. Basically, so many people are watching their futures vanish. Then there are the comments about nuclear strikes and US military exercises with Israel. But that's another worry altoghether.

Because of this, there is a surprising change in attitude amongst some parts of society, including some of Iran's traditionally pro-western youth. At Tehran University, students of American studies have noticed it among their peers.

"They are trying to separate people here from the government, to create some kind of internal uprising, but it's going to backfire," Marziyeh, a student in her early twenties, said.

"The more they push, the more it will lead to a rise in anti-Americanism."


Washington is clearly gambling that whatever fallout it provokes from imposing misery on the Iranian people will be offset by concessions on the nuclear program.

It's also more than a bit ironic that those people who champion the Green movement and demand U.S. support for Iranian dissidents are also those urging on 'crushing' sanctions that are immiserating those very same people...

October 26, 2012

The Amazing Power of American Cheerleading

Kiron Skinner recycles a common criticism against the Obama administration:

President Obama came into office urging a policy of "engagement" with the ayatollahs. By showing our good faith and readiness to negotiate, he aimed to sway them from their path of acquiring nuclear weapons. It was the hopes he invested in engagement that led him to one of the most shameful recent episodes in U.S. foreign policy. Thus, in 2009, when protesters took to the streets of Iran's cities to demonstrate against their country's stolen election, the administration remained silent. President Obama said he did not want to "meddle." In short order, the Iranian protesters were crushed. By failing to offer moral support to those seeking peaceful change in Iran, America retreated from our own principles. A chance to weaken or dislodge Iran's vicious Islamic dictatorship was lost, perhaps for a generation. Meanwhile, Iran has accelerated its nuclear program.arms race, raise the specter of nuclear terrorism, and destabilize the region.

"Moral support" and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee - not regime change.

October 23, 2012

Your Choice This November: A War with Iran or a War with Iran

Last night's debate reaffirmed a fact that has been evident for several months now: a U.S. preventative war against Iran is almost inevitable barring a diplomatic breakthrough, no matter which candidate wins next month.

Both President Obama and Governor Romney said in no uncertain terms that Iran will not be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. Romney went further and said that Iran could not have "nuclear capability" - which is untenable since they are signatories to the NPT and are thus legally permitted to have a civilian nuclear program.

Thus we had the bizarre spectacle last night of President Obama hailing the fact that he has unwound two costly wars to focus on "nation building at home" while promising to start a new Middle East war - the costs of which go conveniently unmentioned. Romney, calling himself a man of peace, also indicated that he would start a war if Iran didn't change course, only he set the bar even lower.

At this stage, unless a negotiated settlement is reached or Iran backs down, the U.S. seems to be heading inexorably toward a military confrontation with Iran.

October 12, 2012

Scoring the VP Debate

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Speaking strictly about the foreign policy sections of last night's VP debate (and not about Biden's near-constant harrumphing), I thought the vice president had the edge, but he was not without his shortcomings. To tick off the list:

Libya: Ryan made some of the strongest points of the night on Libya - not ideological points about the wisdom of the intervention - but on the more basic insistence that the consulate was woefully insecure and that the administration's response to the attack was completely inadequate. As Josh Rogin pointed out, Biden completely contradicted the State Department by insisting that the administration had no idea that the consulate had requested more security - digging the administration even deeper into a mess they should have never created in the first place.

Syria: Biden (and the moderator) essentially forced Ryan into conceding that the major thing a Romney administration would do differently in Syria would be to call Assad bad names. Literally, the big difference Ryan was able to elucidate between his ticket and the Obama administration was that when the Syrian revolt started he would not have called Bashar Assad a reformer. It was extremely obvious that there was no substantive difference in policy between the two camps when it came to America's response. (Incidentally, Biden appeared to suggest that the U.S. was actually arming the rebels - did anyone catch that?)

Afghanistan: Here too, Biden exposed the Romney/Ryan position as little more than baseless carping. Ryan agreed with the 2014 withdrawal but said that more U.S. troops should be in Afghanistan currently fighting and dying rather, as Biden noted, than "trained" Afghans. But while Biden sounded emphatic about a U.S. departure in 2014, the actual agreement between Kabul and Washington leaves open the possibility that small numbers of combat troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 for counter-terrorism missions. Biden's strident insistence that we'd be out of there no matter what was either a signal that the U.S. would not seek to keep troops there beyond the deadline or a misrepresentation of the administration's longer-term strategy.

Iran: Both Ryan and Biden fell victim to their own rhetoric on Iran. For his part, Ryan's insistence that the U.S. had to have "credibility" for the Mullahs to knuckle under was exploded, painfully, when Martha Raddatz asked him if he really expected the U.S. to restore this supposedly lost credibility in two months - or by the time Iran is expected to reach the 90 percent enrichment thresh-hold they are moving toward. As with Syria (and reflecting, I think, the over-reliance on neoconservative advisers) it was clear that the the Romney/Ryan position places an amazing amount of faith in bombastic rhetoric to achieve concrete ends.

Ryan's principle Iran argument was that it took the Obama administration too long to enact crushing sanctions - a point I think Biden dealt with by noting that Iran is actually not building a bomb and that time remains on our side. Ryan was also running away from the very clear implication of his rhetoric: that a vote for Romney/Ryan is a vote for another war in the Mideast.

Yet Biden fell into his own trap on Iran. While trying to tamp down the hysteria about an imminent Iranian weapon, Biden also pointedly noted that the U.S. would stop Iran from getting a bomb no matter what and that "this president doesn't bluff." So even as Biden was trying to paint Ryan as eager for another war in the Mideast, he was explicitly promising that the Obama administration would start one itself if Iran didn't change course.

Stepping back, it was rather disheartening to see, as Larison noted, a foreign policy discussion that omitted extremely important issues like China, Asia and the Eurozone crisis. There's more - a lot more - to U.S. foreign policy than the Middle East, but you would never know it listening to the debate.

(AP Photo)

October 8, 2012

Americans Cool to an Israeli Strike on Iran

The Brookings Institution has released some new poll findings (pdf) on U.S. views on the Mideast (summarized neatly in the infographic below). Among the questions asked was American views on a possible Israeli strike on Iran. The response:

A slight majority favors taking a neutral stance toward the possibility of Israel carrying out such a strike, though more favor discouraging than encouraging Israel from this course. Respondents evaluated three arguments for encouraging Israel, staying neutral, or discouraging Israel from attacking Iran.

Interestingly, once again Americans told pollsters that they favored enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria - but not bombing Syria (as Brian Haggerty exhaustively documented, you cannot have a no-fly zone without extensive bombing inside Syria). Hit the jump for details on how Americans feel about aid to Egypt and the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya.

Continue reading "Americans Cool to an Israeli Strike on Iran " »

September 29, 2012

Israel, Iran and Red Lines

Earlier this week, the News Hour hosted an interesting discussion between Robert Satloff and Paul Pillar on the Iranian nuclear program and Israel's "red lines." Enjoy.

September 24, 2012

The Use and Abuse of the "Terrorist" Designation

When the Bush administration sought to tie the regime of Saddam Hussein to terrorism, it pointed to the sheltering of the cult/terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq Organization (MEK) as one of its transgressions. Last week, the Obama administration decided to pull the group from the State Department's list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, despite concerns that they're still in the terrorism business. The ostensible reason the group was removed was because they complied with a U.S. request to depart Iraq, but Paul Pillar notes that it sends an unmistakable signal to Iran:

No good will come out of this subversion of the terrorist-group list with regard to conditions in Iran, the behavior or standing of the Iranian regime, the values with which the United States is associated or anything else. The regime in Tehran will tacitly welcome this move (while publicly denouncing it) because it helps to discredit the political opposition in Iran—a fact not lost on members of the Green Movement, who want nothing to do with the MEK. The MEK certainly is not a credible vehicle for regime change in Iran because it has almost no public support there. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime will read the move as another indication that the United States intends only to use subversion and violence against it rather than reaching any deals with it.

Although the list of foreign terrorist organizations unfortunately has come to be regarded as a kind of general-purpose way of bestowing condemnation or acceptance on a group, we should remember that delisting changes nothing about the character of the MEK. It is still a cult. It still has near-zero popular support in Iran. It still has a despicably violent history.


All nations are entitled to double-standards and hypocrisies - in fact, it would be largely impossible to operate in the world without them - but it's odd that an establishment that prides itself on global norm setting would be so cavalier about advertising their own.

September 4, 2012

Has the Obama Administration Given Israel a Red Line on Iran?

Back in June, I wrote that:

The only conceivable way an Iran strike would boomerang on Israel in the court of U.S. public opinion would be if the U.S. made some kind of very public ultimatum to Israel which the latter flagrantly ignored, followed by Iranian actions that broadly damaged American interests (terrorist attacks and/or spiking the price of oil).

That may have just happened:

In a move that dismayed Israeli ministers, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, told reporters in Britain last week that the United States did not want to be "complicit" in an Israeli attack on Iran.

He also warned that go-it-alone military action risked unraveling an international coalition that has applied progressively stiff sanctions on Iran, which insists that its ambitious nuclear project is purely peaceful.

Dempsey's stark comments made clear to the world that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was isolated and that if he opted for war, he would jeopardize all-important ties with the Jewish state's closest ally.

"Israeli leaders cannot do anything in the face of a very explicit 'no' from the U.S. president. So they are exploring what space they have left to operate," said Giora Eiland, who served as national security adviser from 2003 to 2006.

"Dempsey's announcement changed something. Before, Netanyahu said the United States might not like (an attack), but they will accept it the day after. However, such a public, bold statement meant the situation had to be reassessed."

This may not be enough to stay Israel's hand, but it does appear that the Obama administration has now made the point publicly that a preemptive Israeli attack on Iran over the next few weeks is contrary to U.S. interests. Will it stick?

August 31, 2012

Nuclear Deterrence Has Worked

Charles Krauthammer doesn't think much of deterrence:

There are few foreign-policy positions more silly than the assertion without context that “deterrence works.” It is like saying air power works. Well, it worked for Kosovo; it didn’t work over North Vietnam.

It’s like saying city-bombing works. It worked in Japan 1945 (Tokyo through Nagasaki). It didn’t in the London blitz.

I can think of a lot more silly proclamations than that. Be that as it may, this assertion would make sense if Krauthammer were trying to undermine the concept of "deterrence" in a conventional military sense. But he's not. He's actually using this intro to make that case against nuclear deterrence with respect to Iran. And when it comes to nuclear deterrence we know, rather self-evidently, that it has worked. Indeed, it has a perfect record.

Krauthammer pivots from this disingenuous framing to a sustained argument about why nuclear deterrence's perfect record holds no lessons for Iran should they acquire a nuclear bomb. Since past performance is no guarantee of future results and because the stakes are so high, it's worth exploring this a bit further. Krauthammer essentially bases his argument on the nature of the Iranian leadership. They are, he argues, a novelty in the history of the nuclear age.

Krauthammer argues that because the Iranian regime has underwritten suicide terrorist attacks by its proxies, that it would therefore commit national suicide by launching a nuclear weapon at Israel. That's a gigantic leap. Iran has never used its chemical or biological weapons against anyone. Yet we are supposed to believe that they will, out of the blue, launch a nuclear weapon at someone. Why? This is a state that employs terrorism precisely because it is weak conventionally and doesn't want to risk direct confrontations. That's evidence of ruthless cunning, not suicidal fanaticism.

Then Krauthammer goes one further:

For all its global aspirations, the Soviet Union was intensely nationalist. The Islamic Republic sees itself as an instrument of its own brand of Shiite millenarianism — the messianic return of the “hidden Imam.”

It’s one thing to live in a state of mutual assured destruction with Stalin or Brezhnev, leaders of a philosophically materialist, historically grounded, deeply here-and-now regime. It’s quite another to be in a situation of mutual destruction with apocalyptic clerics who believe in the imminent advent of the Mahdi, the supremacy of the afterlife and holy war as the ultimate avenue to achieving it.

Before the Soviet Union even had a nuclear weapon they had killed millions of people. They conquered and retained huge swaths of territory beyond their borders and refused to let go after World War II, subjugating millions more. The current regime in Iran is certainly no piker when it comes to barbaric human rights absues, but their "Shiite millenarianism" has not been remotely as lethal a vessel for human carnage as the Soviet Union's "intense nationalism."

It's true, as Krauthammer notes, that Israel has a lower margin of error when it comes to judging Iranian intentions than the U.S. They may weigh the evidence, and Iranian rhetoric, and conclude a military strike is necessary. But from a U.S. standpoint, the historical evidence would suggest that a deterrence regime vis-a-vis Iran would work to safeguard the U.S. homeland from an Iranian nuclear strike.

August 24, 2012

The Problem with Threatening Iran with War

Charles Krauthammer thinks Anthony Cordesman has the right idea for dealing with Iran:

“There are times when the best way to prevent war is to clearly communicate that it is possible,” he argues. Today, the threat of a U.S. attack is not taken seriously. Not by the region. Not by Iran. Not by the Israelis, who therefore increasingly feel forced to act before Israel’s more limited munitions — far less powerful and effective than those in the U.S. arsenal — can no longer penetrate Iran’s ever-hardening facilities.

This is a common refrain among analysts - that only a credible threat of war has any chance of making Iran change course. The basic problem, though, is that for the threat to be genuinely credible the U.S. has to be ready to follow through on it. It's a policy that backs both countries - the U.S. and Iran - into a corner. Iran submits or the U.S. starts another war in the Middle East.

To endorse the threat of war against Iran is to endorse the real thing.

August 21, 2012

Israel, Iran and the U.S.: A Study in Negotiation Styles

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One interesting dynamic about the rising fear in Washington that Israel may launch a preemptive attack against Iran is how people propose to dissuade Israel. Most of the arguments hinge on offering Israel a series of carrots: military aid, pledges to strike for them if negotiations fail, even tighter sanctions - essentially doing all they can assuage Israel's concerns.

When it comes to Iran, many of the same analysts do a complete about-face: it's all sticks, threats and the promise of pain if Iran doesn't behave.

Obviously most the difference can be chalked up to the fact that Israel is a very close U.S. ally and Iran is not.

But it's still telling what people think is an effective approach when it comes to dealing with a country that is doing something (or poised to do something) deemed detrimental to U.S. interests. No one thinks that threatening Israel or withdrawing aid (or even sanctioning them) is going to dissuade Netanyahu from attacking Iran if he and his cabinet feels it's in their interest to do so. When it comes to Israel's defense issues, people seem to understand that there's a limit to how far outside powers can influence them and that only positive inducements have a chance of steering their behavior in the desired direction.

Yet somehow this understanding evaporates when it comes to Iran. It's not that positive inducements at this stage in the Iranian nuclear standoff have a chance of succeeding - it's too late for that. But if it's proving challenging to dissuade a close ally with nothing but positive inducements, how much faith can we have that negative inducements will actually convince an adversary?

(AP Photo)

August 20, 2012

Why a War with Iran Is Inevitable

Over the past several weeks, talk of an Israeli strike against Iran has surged forward. Amidst the leaks and counter-leaks, one narrative is emerging among analysts, as explained by former Israeli intel chief Amos Yadlin:

Despite seeing eye to eye on this strategic goal, the United States and Israel disagree on the timeline for possible military action against Iran. Superior U.S. operational capabilities mean that it will be another year or two before Iran’s nuclear sites become “immune” to a U.S.attack. Unlike Israel, therefore, the United States can afford to delay beyond this fall, which is precisely what the Obama administration wants. Leave your planes in their hangars, the president has signaled to Israel.

A long-standing principle of Israeli defense doctrine is that it will never ask the United States to fight for it. That is why Israel’s political leaders have emphasized that when it comes to national security, Israel will ultimately decide and act on its own.

This principle may hold true for certain security threats, but Yadlin makes very clear in his op-ed that the Israeli strategy vis-a-vis Iran is very much to have the United States take on this fight. Indeed, Yadlin's entire op-ed is dedicated to urging President Obama to threaten war with Iran in no uncertain terms to restrain an Israeli strike. Dennis Ross makes a similar point here.

Given that the official line from both Republican and Democratic foreign policy camps is that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" there really is no constituency to push back against Israeli pressure for a strike.

There is an Israeli concern that they will be seen as having goaded the U.S. into an action it would have otherwise not taken, but that ultimately isn't the case. Any U.S. attack cannot be said to be taken on behalf of Israel because U.S. officials have consistently spoken about an Iranian nuclear capability in the most dire terms (when not making glib jokes about attacking them).

Had the Obama administration (or a Republican challenger) argued that U.S. interests do not warrant a war with Iran absent some dramatic casus belli, the dynamic would be different. But there's no real constituency for containment. As Yadlin notes, the crux of the disagreement between the U.S. and Israel isn't over whether military force should be used to stop Iran, it's simply a matter of the timing and which military lands the first blow. Absent a diplomatic breakthrough, a war with Iran appears inevitable.

August 8, 2012

Are Iran Sanctions Doing More Harm Than Good?

Brookings' Djavad Salehi-Isfahani reports from Iran:

Sanctions are slowly transforming Iran from a country with an expanding middle class and a rising private sector into a country with a shrinking middle class and private sector. Financial sanctions have placed private firms at a disadvantage relative to government-owned firms in making global transactions. Where the private sector withdraws, the state is often ready to move in.

More severe sanctions will go beyond hurting the private sector and threaten the living standards of the middle class. As basic services deteriorate, and the shortages and long lines that were common sights during the Iran-Iraq war reappear, the government will once again become not the source but the remedy to their problems.

The sanctions will do much to undermine the belief among Iranians about the benefits of the global economy. Such beliefs are what distinguish India from Pakistan.

It would be grimly ironic, to say nothing of counterproductive, if the sanctions applied against Iran not only failed to stop their acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but wound up entrenching the current regime and turning the population against the United States. But that is what happened in Iraq (absent the nuclear weapons) in the 1990s.

July 25, 2012

On Iran, Romney Pledges to Scuttle Diplomacy

Jonathan Tobin says that Governor Romney has sketched out a different Iran policy than the Obama administration:

In speaking of not allowing Iran any right to refine uranium, Romney also drew a clear distinction between his view and the negotiating position of the P5+1 group that the president has entrusted to negotiate with Iran. The P5+1 alliance led by European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has made it clear to the Iranians that if they will only agree to some sort of deal, their right to go on refining uranium will probably be protected. If Romney is telling us that his administration takes the position that he will not acquiesce to any kind of Iranian nuclear program, he is articulating a clear difference with Obama. That makes good sense because, as past nuclear talks with both North Korea and Iran proved, leaving Tehran any nuclear facilities ensures they will cheat on any deal and ultimately get their weapon.

Romney also probably knows that at this late date in the game, even the most rigidly enforced sanctions are not likely to make enough of a difference. As Romney told the VFW, the ayatollahs are not going to be talked out of their nuclear ambitions. His veiled reference to the use of force in which he said he “will use every means” to protect U.S. security illustrates a greater understanding that this issue is not going to be resolved with more engagement. [Emphasis mine]

So the big difference here boils down to the fact that Romney has pledged not to issue waivers for sanctions that no one - including Romney and his supporters - think will stop Iran if it wants to build a bomb. The other is that Romney will no longer pursue a diplomatic solution to the crisis, since he would essentially be demanding that Iran not abide by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (which gives signatories the right to a civilian nuclear program). Making that demand essentially ends the diplomatic tract full stop, which leaves only two possible avenues - doing nothing, or going to war.

Of course, the Obama administration has promised on numerous occasions to start a war with Iran if the nuclear issue is not resolved to its satisfaction. That leaves the issue down to one of trust (will either man really follow through on their threats or are they posturing?) and timing (Romney has pledged to attack faster than Obama).

July 24, 2012

Who Understands the Iran Threat Better: America or China?

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The news that China imported more oil from Iran in June than it did on average the previous year brought to mind an interesting series of questions.

The Chinese, we're told, are masters of realpolitik - coldly weighing their strategic interests. They're certainly not shy about protecting what they view as core interests, as evidenced by the dust-up over the South China Sea. So why are they not concerned about the potential for a nuclear Iran to "dominate" the Middle East, as so many American strategists are? Do the Chinese have a better read on the consequences than their American counterparts? Are they naive or is Washington alarmist?

A few possible answers come to mind. The first is that China isn't in much of a position to contest Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon (or some form of nuclear capability) outside the generally ineffective mechanisms of sanctions and lecturing, and so they're simply prepared to deal with whatever environment arises when/if Iran eventually goes nuclear. The second possibility is that they believe that the Iran threat is inflated and that an Iran with a nuclear weapon won't ultimately act to endanger the flow of energy through the Mideast. A third possibility is that they think a nuclear Iran would, in effect, balance against U.S. power in the region. In this view, China would apply the same principle to the region that the U.S. does - that no one power should dominate - only directed against America's actual dominance and not Iran's latent potential.

It's not clear which of these possibilities is the operable concept. In all likelihood, it's a delicate balance among several competing priorities. As Richard Weitz noted, China ultimately does not want to see a nuclear-armed Iran, but neither does it want regime change or another war in the Middle East.

(AP Photo)

July 18, 2012

Daily Beast Article on Cyber Attacks in Iran Used for Cyber Attack Against Iran

This is pretty funny:

Researchers have uncovered a major spearphishing attack targeting foreign embassies and critical infrastructure in Iran that spreads via... a forged article from The Daily Beast.

The article in question detailed efforts by the U.S. and Israel to wage "electronic warfare" on Iran. According to virus researchers, the attack isn't all that sophisticated, so it's not likely to be a "Stuxnet 2.0" but more like a malicious prank.

Eli Lake, the author of the original piece, chimes in:

As a journalist, I always wanted my stories to change the world. Delivering payloads and attacking critical infrastructure, though? Not exactly what I had in mind.

July 12, 2012

Can Iran's Nuclear Know-how Be Bombed Away?

Retired General Jack Keane tells Lee Smith that the U.S. military could seriously delay Iran's nuclear quest:

“My judgment tells me that if we did something as devastating as we could do, taking down their major sites, which also means their engineers and scientists, I think the setback would be greater than five years. I don’t like to read too much into people’s motivations, but at times when we don’t want to do something, we build a case in terms of our interpretation that it is too hard or it isn’t worth the payoff.” [Emphasis mine]

What this implies is that to really put time back on the clock - the U.S. would have to hit Iranian facilities en-masse on one day, during the day, so as to maximize the chance that people integral to Iran's nuclear program are killed.

A day-time strike is more risky for the U.S. and increases the number of civilian casualties in any attack - magnifying the potential for a strike to stoke Iranian nationalism.

Then there's this:

“It is inconceivable that the American military would say ‘we can strike but we cannot accomplish our objective.’ The assessment of one to three years assumes one blow but that is not what the reasonable American option is, which calls for repeated attacks if the Iranians restart the program. It is unreasonable to assume that after the strikes the U.S. would sit pat and Iran would rebuild. It’s absolutely imperative that if the U.S. strikes, its posture should be, ‘Dear Iranians, please do not proceed to rebuild the program, or we will strike again.’”

In other words, for a military solution to work, the U.S. has to be prepared to wage open war on Iran indefinitely. In essence, we will embrace a similar containment regime that was applied to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

July 11, 2012

What the U.S. Military Thinks About Iran

From the Pentagon's most recent assessment (pdf):

There has been no change to Iran's strategies over the past year. Iran's grand strategy remains challenging U.S. influence while developing its domestic capabilities to become the dominant power in the Middle East. Iran's security strategy remains focused on deterring an attack, and it continues to support governments and groups that oppose U.S. interests. Diplomacy, economic leverage, and active sponsorship of terrorist and insurgent groups, such as Lebanese Hizballah, Iraqi Shia groups, and the Taliban, are tools Iran uses to increase its regional power. Iran's principles of military strategy remain deterrence, asymmetrical retaliation, and attrition warfare.

July 10, 2012

Would a Nuclear Iran Stabilize the Middle East?

Kenneth Waltz wrote a provocative essay (pay-walled) for Foreign Affairs arguing that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a good thing (or not as bad a thing as most assume). In an interview with the Diplomat, he fleshes out his thoughts, comparing the development with Pakistan's nuclear breakout:

India quite naturally did not want Pakistan to become a nuclear state. A second nuclear state cramps the style of the first. It is hard to imagine one nuclear state acquiescing easily or gracefully to its adversary going nuclear. But certainly in the long run, the nuclear weapons have meant peace on the subcontinent. This is in GREAT contrast to the expectations that most people entertained. Statements abounded by pundits, academics, journalists that suggested that nuclear weapons would mean war on the subcontinent. These experts all denied that the nuclear relationship between India and Pakistan could be like that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. When two countries have nuclear weapons it becomes impossible for either to strike at the manifestly vital interests of the other. It remains very possible, however, for nuclear states to engage in skirmishes, and those can of course be deadly. A historical example is the Soviet-China border disputes (1969), and a more recent one is the Mumbai attacks. But never have any of these skirmishes gotten so out of hand as to escalate to full-scale war.

The comparison with Pakistan is interesting. Pakistan, like Iran, is a state that nurtures alliances with terrorist groups yet never once passed off a bomb to one of these groups. Pakistan is an Islamic state yet never embraced national suicide by attacking their arch-enemy India. So the fact that the U.S and India have thus far lived, albeit very uncomfortably, with a nuclear Pakistan is proof that it could do so with a nuclear Iran. The India-Pakistan rivalry is orders of magnitude more intense than anything between Iran and Israel, and it has not devolved into a nuclear Armageddon.

On the flip side, the Pakistani example also shows why Waltz is being a bit too sanguine. Pakistan's nuclear weapons are source of huge insecurity both for Pakistan's neighbors and for the world - less because of fears that the Pakistani military will launch them, but that the Pakistani state will break down and the military would lose custody of one or more weapons. While a complete state collapse doesn't appear to be a near-term possibility, the country is far from stable. The fact that it has nuclear weapons is an added degree of international heartburn.

Iran doesn't have as much internal instability as Pakistan (a fact which some U.S. lawmakers apparently want to remedy by funding an anti-Iranian regime terrorist group) but it has been challenged recently. Once Iran acquires nuclear weapons (if it ultimately does so), internal instability becomes that much more dangerous. In Waltz' view, the spread of nuclear weapons stabilizes state-to-state relations, but there's the pressing problem of what happens if those nuclear weapons states break down.

Dr. Doom: Global Economy Could Implode in 2013

This won't make your day, but it's worth listening to. Nouriel Roubini explains how the world is heading into a 'perfect storm' of financial disaster in 2013 - including a possible recession in the U.S., a "hard landing" in China, a U.S./Israel-Iran war, a crash of (currently weakening) emerging market economies and, of course, the ongoing implosion of the Eurozone.

To top it off, Roubini notes that the world is also in a much weaker position to deal with the potential calamity now than it was in 2008 when crisis struck. Most of the "policy bullets" such as low interest rates and stimulus have been fired. "Too big to fail" banks are now even bigger.

That said, there's still room for some optimism: a war with Iran is not inevitable and the Chinese and American economies may surprise on the upside. Europe, though, looks in rough shape no matter how you slice it.

July 6, 2012

Unintended Consequences of Iran Sanctions

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A new round of Iran sanctions appear to be putting a real crimp in the Iranian economy. In the Financial Times, Akshay Mathur and Neelam Deo describe how the sanctions are also pushing emerging nations like Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (the "BRICS") to seek an end-run around the U.S.-dominated global financial system:

For decades, [the BRICS] have been successfully co-opted to submit to western-dominated institutions, leaving them with little motivation to build their own. Now, the Brics must urgently organize to build institutions of mutual economic benefit. The June 28 deadline that China faces on complying with Iran sanctions, highlights the urgency of the issue.

The Brics are a larger oil-importing bloc than the European Union. None is in confrontation with Iran, but they are nonetheless hostage to western sanctions because the conduits of international finance, trade and transportation used for crude oil trade are controlled by the West.

The authors go on to highlight ways that the BRICS are slowly circumventing this by building alternative global financial structures. There are limits to this project as long as the dollar is the undisputed global currency, but an internationalizing renminbi would help.

While Iranian sanctions are the immediate driver of this quest to create an alternative financial system that's not dominated by the West, steps in this direction were probably going to happen regardless given the divergent interests of countries like China, Russia and Brazil. But there's the rub: As much as the BRICS may object to Iran sanctions, or having their financial transactions mediated through Western institutions, do they really possess the unity of purpose to agree on and create an alternative architecture?

2012 may be seen as the high water mark of the West's ability to leverage its dominance in finance toward coercive ends, or it may see the BRICS' flirtation with an alternative collapse of its own internal contradictions (or poorer than expected economic performance).

(AP Photo)

June 29, 2012

War Gamers: Window for Iran Strike Open in 2013

David Fulghum took the pulse of several defense professionals about the possibility of a U.S. strike on Iran:

Evidence is mounting that the U.S. defense community and the Obama administration view 2013 as the likely window for a bombing attack on Iran's nuclear and missile facilities.

It could be earlier, timed to use the chaos of the Syrian government's fall to disguise such an attack, or later, if international negotiations with Iran stretch out without failing completely. But there is evidence that Iran's intransigence over shutting down its uranium-enrichment program will not buy it much more time.

Because of these shifting factors, military planners and White House advisers are still debating the advisability of a kinetic attack on Iran even though they say that option is ready.

Elsewhere, Fulghum quotes a former military planner making a very curious remark:

“We would employ a totally stealthy force of F-22s, B-2s and Jassms [joint air-to-surface standoff missiles] that are launched from F-15Es and [Block 40] F-16s,” says the third planning veteran. “We should give Iran advanced warning that we will damage and likely destroy its nuclear facilities. It is not an act of war against Iran, the Iranian people or Islam. It is a pre-emptive attack solely against their nuclear facilities and the military targets protecting them. We will take extraordinary measures to protect against collateral damage.” [Emphasis mine]
Since when is bombing a country's infrastructure not an act of war?

June 19, 2012

Are Israel's Nukes Destabilizing?

Kenneth Waltz makes the case that an Iranian nuclear weapon would actually be a good thing in the Middle East. While I'd agree with some of Waltz's arguments, this struck me as wrong-headed:

Israel's regional nuclear monopoly, which has proved remarkably durable for more than four decades, has long fueled instability in the Middle East. In no other region of the world does a lone, unchecked nuclear state exist. It is Israel's nuclear arsenal, not Iran's desire for one, that has contributed most to the crisis. Power, after all, begs to be balanced.

First, this isn't true. The Western hemisphere has only one nuclear power. Second, it's not clear to me that Israel's nuclear arsenal has contributed to any crisis in the Middle East and certainly not the present one with Iran. If anything, Waltz would have a much better argument by pointing out that the Middle East has lived with a nuclear state for four decades without a rash of proliferation. If states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia didn't go nuclear after Israel, why would they do so after Iran?

June 5, 2012

Israel Wouldn't Lose U.S. Support After an Iran Strike

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The Obama administration and its allies have spent a fair amount of time attempting to persuade Israel not to attack Iran. Barbara Opall-Rome highlights one argument in particular:

Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. deputy national security adviser and coordinator for U.S. policy planning on Iran, also warned Israel of the consequences of a premature strike without support from Washington and key international allies. If, as a result of a precipitous Israeli attack, Iran retaliated with terror attacks on American citizens, Israel would be viewed as dragging the U.S. into a war with Iran.

“If there were attacks on the American homeland, how many Americans might think that Israel dragged us into a war and now shopping malls were being blown up?” Blackwill said in his May 30 INSS address.

I don't think Blackwill's analysis is all that persuasive here. Most Americans aren't paying attention to Iran's nuclear program or the possible consequences of an Israeli military attack. It's likely that in the wake of an Iranian retaliatory strike on U.S. soil, the first and most politically potent reaction would be to take the fight back to Iran - not unpack the events leading up to the attack in an effort to understand why it happened.

Americans have a dim view of Iran and a very high view of Israel. An Iranian attack against America - even if it could be tied directly to an act of war initiated by Israel over American objections - would probably reinforce these views, not change them. There would, of course, be elite frustration at Israel in some quarters, including among U.S. national security officials who had been urging restraint - but that wouldn't really have any material impact on Israel. Indeed, quite the opposite: U.S. aid and intelligence cooperation in the wake of any Israeli strike on Iran would probably be heightened so as to manage the fallout.

The only conceivable way an Iran strike would boomerang on Israel in the court of U.S. public opinion would be if the U.S. made some kind of very public ultimatum to Israel which the latter flagrantly ignored, followed by Iranian actions that broadly damaged American interests (terrorist attacks and/or spiking the price of oil). Again, it's hard to see that happening. All U.S. officials who speak publicly on the matter affirm Israel's inherent, sovereign right to act in their own interest. Israel may have other reasons to hold off on striking Iranian nuclear facilities, but concerns about the U.S. reaction probably isn't one of them.

(AP Photo)

June 4, 2012

Debating Obama's Outstretched Hand to Iran

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There's a certain mythology that's taken hold about President Obama's Iran diplomacy. Nile Gardiner summarizes it well:

As it has done with Russia, the Obama presidency has attempted to “reset” relations with Iran. But with both Moscow and Tehran, Washington has failed. Both hostile powers have grown emboldened and aggressive in the face of American weakness, and Iran’s brazen attempt to kill a foreign diplomat in the capital city of the United States showcases the folly of the White House’s softly-softly approach towards the ruling mullahs.

While Washington dithers, Iran is marching closer and closer to developing a nuclear weapon, which according to some estimates is just six months away.

We now know that President Obama wasn't 'dithering' or naively offering olive branches but instead escalating a covert campaign of cyber-sabotage from the very first days in office. If you think cyber attacks are small potatoes, consider how one unnamed U.S. military official framed the emerging U.S. cyber war doctrine: "If you shut down our power grid, maybe we will put a missile down one of your smokestacks."

This raises the question of just how sincere President Obama's efforts were to engage the regime in Tehran. The Leveretts, pointing to an argument they made in 2009, insist that those efforts were completely insincere and fatally undermined any chances for a negotiated settlement:

If anything, we may have underestimated the degree to which Obama was prepared to let half-baked schemes undermine any chance he might have had, at least in theory, to pursue serious diplomacy with Iran. Obama apologists... want us to believe that the President meant well on engaging Tehran, but that what they describe (with no evidence whatsoever) as the Islamic Republic’s “fraudulent” 2009 presidential election and the resulting “disarray” within the Iranian leadership stymied Obama’s benevolent efforts. This is utterly false.

I'm not sure about this. Negotiating with an adversary while simultaneously fighting them is not all that uncommon in international diplomacy. To take one contemporary example: the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban while both sides trade blows. The U.S. was able to make strategic arms control deals with the Soviet Union while both sides engaged in a global standoff that involved plenty of dirty tricks.

Still, this does underscore the fact that there's really not much more Governor Romney could do to thwart or impede Iran's nuclear progress that President Obama hasn't already tried. There may be one or two arrows left in the quiver short of a military assault, but not many.

(AP Photo)

May 10, 2012

Magic Democracy

Patrick Clawson wants regime change in Iran:

Whether or not diplomacy results in an agreement, the sanctions have already fulfilled the core objective of the Obama administration -- namely, kick-starting negotiations. But that is not the right goal. Given Iran’s poor track record of honoring agreements, negotiations remain a gamble because they may never lead to an agreement, let alone one that can be sustained. Rather than focus on talks that may not produce a deal, then, the United States should place far more emphasis on supporting democracy and human rights in Iran. A democratic Iran would likely drop state support for terrorism and end its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries such as Iraq and Lebanon, improving stability in the Middle East. And although Iran’s strongly nationalist democrats are proud of the country’s nuclear progress, their priority is to rejoin the community of nations, so they will likely agree to peaceful nuclearization in exchange for an end to their country’s isolation. [Emphasis mine.]

Follow the logic: a nuclear-armed, democratic U.S. must interfere in Iran's internal affairs to bring about a democratic revolution in Iran so that once Iran becomes a democracy, it will no longer want nuclear weapons or interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. Because it's a democracy.

Makes sense.

April 26, 2012

So Is Obama Really Bluffing on Iran?

In a speech defending Obama's foreign policy, Vice President Biden is apparently going to invoke the prospect of another war as a knock on Romney:

Electing Romney could again "waste hundreds of billions of dollars and risk thousands of American lives on an unnecessary war," Biden said in a clear reference to the unpopular Iraq war that Obama ended.

This would certainly be a useful contrast to draw, but how well positioned in the Obama administration to make it? I'm assuming here that this "unnecessary war" is against Iran. But here's Biden's boss a few weeks ago:

I think that the Israeli government recognizes that, as president of the United States, I don't bluff. I also don't, as a matter of sound policy, go around advertising exactly what our intentions are. But I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say...

I think it's fair to say that the last three years, I've shown myself pretty clearly willing, when I believe it is in the core national interest of the United States, to direct military actions, even when they entail enormous risks. And obviously, the bin Laden operation is the most dramatic, but al-Qaeda was on its [knees] well before we took out bin Laden because of our activities and my direction.

Now we have Biden running around warning that to elect Romney is to court a war with Iran. Does that mean that President Obama was bluffing and that he actually has no intention of using military force against Iran's nuclear program? Or maybe Obama was being honest and it's Biden who's playing fast-and-loose in an effort to court a war-weary public? Or maybe President Obama has an unbelievably optimistic view of what his diplomacy can achieve? Either way, Biden's line of attack raises some uncomfortable questions.

April 23, 2012

Obama's Solar Trade War

The Obama administration decided last month to slap tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels because, they claim, Chinese subsidies undercut U.S. manufacturers. It's an odd industry for the administration to target - all those Chinese subsidies have made solar roughly price-competitive as an energy source for the first time, something the supposedly environmentally-minded administration would approve of. Now the administration wants to make it more expensive.

Yet as DigiTimes notes, Chinese suppliers may be able to skirt the costs:

China-based solar firms, however, have been finding ways to avoid paying the tariff such as transfering solar cell orders to Taiwan. Taiwan-based solar cell makers have been experiencing rising capacity utilization rates but indicated that orders from China-based firms often have unprofitably low quotes. China does not want to give up on the US market because it is one of the fastest growing solar markets in the world.

Beyond that, it's very odd that the Obama administration would go to such great lengths over Iran, including, potentially, using military force but won't countenance cheap solar panels from China. One policy potentially threatens the lives of American service personnel and runs the risk of a near-term recession if a brief war in the Gulf causes oil prices to soar (among a host of other potentially negative outcomes). Letting cheap Chinese solar panels into the U.S. market, however, hurts the employment prospects of a small industry (unless these panels are somehow dangerous - a case I've not yet heard).

Obviously these two events are not tightly correlated, but they are related. Solar power isn't going to ween the U.S. off of oil as a transport fuel in the short-term (as I understand it, the solar roof experiment on the Prius was a bit of a flop), but the more alternative energy sources go online, the more the overall energy mix will tilt away from oil and the greater the chance that Washington can finally stop obsessing about the Mideast.

April 11, 2012

Arab Middle East Doesn't Fear Iran

A new poll of Arab public opinion (via Patrick Appel) should help to frame the debate over U.S. mideast strategy:

The vast majority of the Arab public does not believe that Iran poses a threat to the "security of the Arab homeland." Only 5 percent of respondents named Iran as a source of threat, versus 22 percent who named the U.S. The first place was reserved for Israel, which 51 percent of respondents named as a threat to Arab national security. Arab societies differed modestly in their answers: The largest percentage viewing Iran as a threat was reported in Lebanon and Jordan (10 percent) and the lowest (1 percent or less) was reported in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and the Sudan. Even when respondents were asked about the state that poses the greatest threat to their particular country, the pattern held: Iran (7 percent), U.S. (14 percent), and Israel (35 percent). Interestingly, while Saudi Arabia is often cited as the primary Arab state in support of belligerence against Iran, the data indicate that this view doesn't seem to extend to its public. In the Saudi Arabian sample, only 8 percent believed that Iran presents a threat -- a lower percentage even than that which viewed the U.S. as a source of threat (13 percent).
Ponder this last finding. Saudi Arabia - a U.S. ally, showered with advanced American weapons, protected in 1991 from Saddam Hussein's approaching army - thinks the U.S. is a bigger threat to it than Iran.

It's little wonder why the region's autocrats want America to do the dirty work of attacking Iran for them. They not only get to hold America's coat, but the outrage from their own publics gets deflected off of them and onto the U.S. The real question is why on Earth Washington would oblige them.

Can Iran Shut Down Its Internet?

Iran has threatened in recent days to shut itself off from the Internet and replace the global network with its own national, government-approached network. But can that actually work? According to David Talbot, Iran could technically shut itself off but censorship expert Hal Roberts thinks they might not want to:

But as China has come to realize (see our feature on the Chinese way of Internet control), their economy has come to depend on the Internet. Business, not just dissidents, need the global connections. And this is true in Iran, too, sanctions notwithstanding. So as Roberts put it: “The much more interesting, important, and difficult question is whether shutting its citizens off from the rest of the Internet for an extended period would be socially, economically, and politically feasible for the Iranian government.”
It would be feasible, if its vision for the future is turning into another North Korean-style Hermit Kingdom.

April 9, 2012

Testing Obama's Iran Hypothesis

It's not clear why the Obama administration wants to leak its "opening position" in the upcoming nuclear negotiations with Iran, but doing so has helped clarify one issue:

Still, Mr. Obama and his allies are gambling that crushing sanctions and the threat of Israeli military action will bolster the arguments of those Iranians who say a negotiated settlement is far preferable to isolation and more financial hardship. Other experts fear the tough conditions being set could instead swing the debate in favor of Iran’s hard-liners.

“We have no idea how the Iranians will react,” one senior administration official said. “We probably won’t know after the first meeting.” But the next round of oil sanctions, he noted, kicks in early this summer.

It could simply be that Iran will not negotiate away the option to develop a nuclear weapon no matter what. In that case, no clever combination of U.S. threats and sanctions will really work (and military force will only delay the inevitable). Unfortunately, no one knows what Iran's true intentions are - and it's possible that the Iranian leadership doesn't know either.

So if obtaining a nuclear weapon is still an active question among Iran's leaders, how does the West dissuade them?

The doves usually insist that only a good-faith negotiation aimed at rapprochement with Iran will yield anything on the nuclear front, while the hawks demand a confrontational approach with threats and promises of regime change.

While its critics will be loathe to admit it, the Obama administration is essentially reading from the hawkish script, betting that Iran will knuckle under to threats and warnings about "last chances."

It would be nice if this is seen as a test of the hawkish hypothesis. If Iran does yield under the combined pressure of sanctions and military threats (and assassinations and sabotage), then the hawks can point to a policy success. But what if this approach fails?

Again, maybe it was destined to fail because Iran simply can't be talked out of a nuclear deterrent. But in a rational world, we'd test the alternative hypothesis before taking costlier steps (and not the "single roll of the dice" diplomacy attempted in the opening weeks of the Obama administration). Unfortunately, this is unlikely to happen both because it may be preempted by an Israeli strike and it runs contrary to logic (i.e. the dovish approach really needed to be explored comprehensively first, not second, when the clock is ticking).

March 27, 2012

The New Conventional Wisdom on Osirak?

One of the interesting facets of the debate over military strikes on Iran is a new understanding about the impact of Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor. The popular take on Osirak is that the Israeli air force sparred the world (and particularly the U.S. in the first Gulf War) from a nuclear-armed Saddam Hussein. The strike proved, moreover, the efficacy of military action as a counter-proliferation tool.

Fast forward to today, however, and a new picture is emerging. Rather than a success that spared the world from a nuclear Iraq, the Osirak strike may have actually spurred Saddam Hussein toward a nuclear weapon:

For a start, Saddam wasn't building a bomb at Osirak. Richard Wilson, a nuclear physicist at Harvard University who inspected the wreckage of the reactor on a visit to Iraq in 1982, noted how it had been "explicitly designed" by French engineers "to be unsuitable for making bombs" and had been subject to regular inspections by both on-site French technicians and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

"The Iraqis couldn't have been developing a nuclear weapon at Osirak," Wilson tells me, three decades on. "I challenge any scientist in the world to show me how they could have done so."

For Wilson, the Israeli raid marked not the end of Saddam's nuclear weapons programme but the beginning of it. Three months later, in September 1981, Saddam – smarting from the Osirak incident and reminded of Iraq's vulnerability to foreign attack – established a fast-paced, well-funded and clandestine nuclear weapons programme outside of the IAEA's purview. Nine years after Osirak, Iraq was on the verge of producing a nuclear bomb.

Wilson's analysis is shared today by leading non-proliferation experts, including Columbia University's Richard Betts ("there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons programme. The attack may actually have accelerated it"); Emory University's Dan Reiter ("the attack may have actually increased Saddam's commitment to acquiring weapons"); and Harvard University's Målfrid Braut-Hegghammer ("it triggered a covert nuclear weapons programme that did not previously exist").

Colin Kohl also cited some additional evidence that the conventional wisdom about Osirak is incorrect:

By demonstrating Iraq’s vulnerability, the attack on Osirak actually increased Hussein’s determination to develop a nuclear deterrent and provided Iraq’s scientists an opportunity to better organize the program. The Iraqi leader devoted significantly more resources toward pursuing nuclear weapons after the Israeli assault. As Reiter notes, “the Iraqi nuclear program increased from a program of 400 scientists and $400 million to one of 7,000 scientists and $10 billion.”

Iraq’s nuclear efforts also went underground. Hussein allowed the IAEA to verify Osirak’s destruction, but then he shifted from a plutonium strategy to a more dispersed and ambitious uranium-enrichment strategy.

You can read a wonkier version of this argument in a paper (PDF) Dan Reiter authored in 2005.

March 23, 2012

Iran Fallacies

Via Larison, Jeffrey Goldberg points to some rather alarming thinking from Israel's prime minister:

A widely held assumption about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is that it would spur Iranian citizens — many of whom appear to despise their rulers — to rally around the regime. But Netanyahu, I’m told, believes a successful raid could unclothe the emperor, emboldening Iran’s citizens to overthrow the regime (as they tried to do, unsuccessfully, in 2009).
As Larison notes, this is dubious reasoning:
When a foreign government or group launches an attack on their home country, people instinctively band together behind their leaders, and it usually makes no difference whether those leaders are elected or just. Even Iranians that don’t support the nuclear program aren’t going to respond favorably to a foreign attack on their country, and most Iranians do support the program. There is no nation in the world that would greet foreign military action against their country as a signal effectively to commit treason en masse in order to facilitate the regime change desired by the attacking government.

The idea that Iranians would cheer on an attack against their country and fellow citizens and use it as excuse to start a revolution sounds like the Iran war's version of "we'll be greeted as liberators."

March 22, 2012

Robert Gates: Iran Attack a 'Catastrophe'

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates offered his thoughts on a possible U.S. war on Iran:

"If you think the war in Iraq was hard, an attack on Iran would, in my opinion, be a catastrophe," he said in a keynote speech to some 400 donors at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's campaign event last week....

Despite the dire assessment, he said, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is also inconceivable. "If the Iranian government refuses to change its policies, and there is no military attack on Iran, we will very likely face a catastrophe of a different sort -- a nuclear-armed Iran with missiles that can reach Israel and eventually reach Europe; an Iran that would likely ignite a nuclear arms race in the most volatile part of the world; an Iran emboldened to behave even more aggressively in Iraq, Afghanistan, against Israel and all across the region."

March 15, 2012

How to Blow Up the Obama Administration's Pivot to Asia

In one simple step:

India has failed to reduce its purchases of Iranian oil, and if it doesn’t do so, President Barack Obama may be forced to impose sanctions on one of Asia’s most important nations, Obama administration officials said yesterday.

A decision to levy penalties under a new U.S. law restricting payments for Iranian oil could come as early as June 28, according to several U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.


I imagine this is going over well in New Delhi.

March 9, 2012

Japan May Send Navy Into the Persian Gulf

According to Japan Security Watch, Japan is considering sending naval forces into the Persian Gulf to escort its tankers in the event things heat up:

This appears to be an expansion of the principles guiding the anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden, and if they were to decide to go ahead with a dispatch, then it is possible that they will allow the vessels of other nations to apply for protection as in the Gulf of Aden. However, this will involve the possibility of Japanese vessels being attacked by another state’s military force, not just a non-state actor such as terrorists or pirates. This in itself seems a major obstacle to the possibility of a deployment and will necessitate neutrality that the Japanese government would be hard to feign given their close ties to the US.

The fact that Japan is debating this step seems to provide further proof that, should the U.S. seek to off-load some of its global policing duties, other nations would indeed step up.

March 7, 2012

Containment Gets a Bad Rap

IranTerritorialChanges_sm.jpg

(Click the picture for a full-sized graphic)

On several occasions now, President Obama has stated that he has no policy to contain Iran and that, like President Bush, he will choose the option of preventative war to address it if need be.

It could be that American politics, in its infinite maturity, has put the word "containment" out of bounds. Or it could be that President Obama really has embraced the Bush Doctrine. Either way, it doesn't seem right to simply cast "containment" out of the conversation, especially when "containing" Iran itself is well within the means of the U.S.

Containing a country implies that it is otherwise expansionary. The Soviet Union had to be "contained" because the Red Army had moved across borders, absorbed new territory and had the military wherewithal to potentially do it again. Similarly, Saddam's Iraq had proven on two different occasions a willingness to use force to acquire territory. Iran, we're told, sees itself as the rightful hegemonic power in the Middle East.

But here's the thing: they aren't.

Even with a nuclear weapon, few people believe they'll be marching Revolutionary Guard divisions into neighboring capitals. Pakistan's nuclear weapons haven't made it the hegemon of South Asia. Israel, with 200 nuclear weapons, is not considered the hegemon of the Middle East. What the U.S. would actually wind up "containing" in the event that Iran went nuclear are its own allies, who might seek nuclear deterrents on their own. That's obviously a challenge but it needs to measured against the costs and risks of starting a fresh war in the Middle East.

(Image via The Gulf/2000 Project)

The Upside Down World of America's Mideast Policy

During his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama made his case for why it was in the U.S. interest to deny Iran a nuclear weapon:

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, I won't name the countries, but there are probably four or five countries in the Middle East who say, "We are going to start a program, and we will have nuclear weapons."

I think he's right, but consider the implications of that for a minute. The biggest danger of a nuclear Iran is... America's own "allies" in the Middle East.

March 6, 2012

Iran's Concrete Strength

The Economist has an interesting piece on how Iran's expertise in ultra high performance concrete is a security concern:

Iran is an earthquake zone, so its engineers have developed some of the toughest building materials in the world. Such materials could also be used to protect hidden nuclear installations from the artificial equivalent of small earthquakes, namely bunker-busting bombs....

A study published by the University of Tehran in 2008 looked at the ability of UHPC to withstand the impact of steel projectiles. These are not normally a problem during earthquakes. This study found that concrete which contained a high proportion of long steel fibres in its structure worked best. Another study, published back in 1995, showed that although the compressive strength of concrete was enhanced only slightly by the addition of polymer fibres, its impact resistance improved sevenfold.

Western countries, too, have been looking at the military uses of UHPC. An Australian study carried out between 2004 and 2006 confirmed that UHPC resists blasts as well as direct hits. The tests, carried out at Woomera (once the British empire’s equivalent of Cape Canaveral), involved a charge equivalent to six tonnes of TNT. This fractured panels made of UHPC, but did not shatter them. Nor did it shake free and throw out fragments, as would have happened had the test been carried out on normal concrete. In a military context, such shards flying around inside a bunker are a definite plus from the attackers’ point of view, but obviously not from the defenders’.

March 5, 2012

Obama Commits to Iran War

Jeffrey Goldberg's big interview with President Obama is drawing a lot of attention, and it's certainly a must-read. I came away with two possible interpretations:

1. Despite claims to the contrary, President Obama is bluffing. It's an election year and Obama wants to guard his flank against Republicans claiming he's insufficiently supportive of Israel. He's talking tough now, but when the chips are down, he'll balk. I personally don't think this is the case, if only because failing to follow through on his promises, while not unusual for a politician, would be rightly viewed wantonly reckless.

2. He means to take the U.S. to war with Iran in his second term. The president's words were emphatic about the potential threat Iran posed to American interests and his determination to stop them, with measures up to and including military force. He laid down rhetorical markers which will be very, very difficult to walk back. He also, pointedly, ruled out containment as an option.

Obama interestingly did stress that military action would not solve the problem - at best, it would delay Iran. At worst, it could drive them to build a weapon they may have otherwise avoided and in a manner which would be harder to detect and harder to destroy. This is what appears to have happened in Iraq after the Israelis hit the Osirik reactor.

But if Obama believes that a military strike would not create the kind of durable solution he's looking for, is he willing to strike a grand bargain with Iran? And is Iran willing to make a deal? The alternative appears obvious - an eventual war between the U.S. and Iran, if Israel doesn't get there first.

February 29, 2012

Comparing Iran & Israel's Military Strength

iranisrael4.jpg

Via Juan Cole.

Israel enjoys a significant lead in almost every category except manpower (not pictured). And, as Cole notes, sheer numbers aren't the whole story, as Israel's equipment is qualitatively far superior to anything Iran would field.

February 28, 2012

Most Americans, Brits and Canadians See Iran Developing Bomb

According to Angus Reid:

People in the Britain, the United States and Canada hold unfavourable views on Iran and believe the country is attempting to develop nuclear weapons, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of representative national samples, 70 per cent of Britons, 77 per cent of Americans and 81 per cent of Canadians say they have an unfavourable opinion of Iran.

More than two thirds of respondents in the three countries (Britain 69%, Canada 72%, United States 79%) believe the Government of Iran is attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

When asked about possible courses of action, 30 per cent of Americans, 35 per cent of Canadians and 43 per cent of Britons say they would prefer to engage in direct diplomatic negotiations with Iran. One-in-four Canadians and Americans (25% each)—and one-in-five Britons (20%)—would impose economic sanctions against Iran.

The option of launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities is endorsed by 15 per cent of Americans, 11 per cent of Canadians and six per cent of Britons. A full-scale invasion of Iran to remove the current government is supported by 10 per cent of Canadians, six per cent of Americans and five per cent of Britons.

February 24, 2012

Obama's Iran Policy - Bringing on a Recession?

It's not clear at this point whether President Obama's strategy will deprive Iran of a nuclear weapon, but it might deliver the U.S. into the grips of another recession.

Put simply, if oil remains as expensive as it currently is, or gets even higher, the U.S. economy will almost certainly fall back into a recession - potentially a nasty one given the already high unemployment.

Now, there are a lot of structural factors beyond the Iran standoff that are driving expensive oil, particularly the growth in demand from Asia. Even if the U.S. were to ease Iranian supply back into the market, oil is likely to be expensive on an ongoing basis (unless we tip back into a recession again). But we're not going to do that. In fact, U.S. strategy right now is to keep as much Iranian oil off the market as possible, making the price higher.

Now, supporters of this strategy claim that Saudi Arabia stood ready to make up for the loss of Iranian crude - but that's not happening. Not because Saudi Arabia doesn't want to pump more, it's because they can't pump more.

Presumably the administration believes that an Iran with nuclear weapons would do worse damage to U.S. interests than a possible second recession (or a prolongation of the Great Recession bequeathed by the Bush administration). Unfortunately, we may be about to test this hypothesis.

February 23, 2012

Bibi & Obama: Beyond Personality

David Makovsky explains how President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu can improve their relationship:

How can Obama and Netanyahu win each other's trust? The two sides should come to a more precise understanding of U.S. thresholds for the Iranian nuclear program and American responses should they be breached, as well as an agreement on a timetable for giving up on sanctions so their Iran clocks are synchronized. In other words, the two sides need to agree on red lines that might trigger action. Israel will probably seek some guarantees from the United States before agreeing to forgo a pre-emptive strike that might not succeed.

It may turn out that such guarantees are impossible, given the mistrust between the two parties and the ever-changing regional circumstances. Whatever the mechanism, there is no doubt that the U.S.-Israel relationship could benefit greatly from a common approach toward the Iran nuclear program at this tumultuous time.

I don't think such guarentees would break down over issues of trust but over issues of threat perception. Ultimately, it's impossible to form a "common approach" when the strategic interests are divergent - as they are in this case. Up to a point, both the U.S. and Israel want Iran to abandon their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability but it's clear that the Israelis feel this way because they believe Iran would pose an existential threat to their security, while the U.S. feels this way because it wants to prevent a regional arms race and blunt any Iranian bid for hegemony. If what senior military and intelligence officials in the U.S. say about Iran is true, then it's clear there's a limit to how far we're willing to go with Iran. Israel, I suspect, has no real limit because it feels the stakes are higher.

Ultimately, the U.S. and Israel can't synchronize their positions because they're different positions - not because Netanyahu and Obama can't get along.

February 22, 2012

Iran & Iraq, Cont

In listing the reasons why the Iran debate is playing out a bit differently than the Iraq war debate, it's also important to highlight the role Israel plays. Via the New York Times:

Another critical difference from the prewar discussion in 2003 is the central role of Israel, which views the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as a threat to its very existence and has warned that Iran’s nuclear facilities may soon be buried too deep for foreign bombers to reach.

Israel’s stance has played out politically in the United States. With the notable exception of Representative Ron Paul of Texas, Republican presidential candidates have kept up a competition in threatening Iran and portraying themselves as protectors of Israel. A bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday released a letter to President Obama saying that new talks could prove a “dangerous distraction,” allowing Iran to buy time to move closer to developing a weapon.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, the U.S. was in the driver's seat regarding policy. If President Bush had had a change of heart, there would have been no invasion. That's not the case with Iran. Israel is (I think) likely to trigger its own war against Iran if the U.S. declines to start one. That war may go well as far as the U.S. is concerned - with little anti-American fallout or retaliatory strikes. Or it may go disastrously - with the U.S. being targeted or called in to re-open the Strait of Hormuz.

But either way, the U.S. simply doesn't have the initiative with respect to Iran as it did with Iraq. This is another reason why advocates of attacking Iran - despite being wrong about the costs and consequences of the Iraq war - are still dominating the public debate. If a war, in some fashion, is inevitable, it makes more sense (in their view) that the U.S. wage it and lead it than get dragged into it after the fact.

February 21, 2012

Why Iran Is Not Like Iraq

Peter Beinert has a question:

How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well?

I'll take a stab at this. First, among the people who were "manifestly, painfully wrong" about Iraq are the current U.S. secretary of state and the vice president. Support for the Iraq war was a largely bi-partisan affair at the time it was launched, and so very few people have an incentive to insist on accountability for that advocacy.

The second reason is that there's always a bias toward activism when it comes to the Washington debate. It would be unheard of for President Obama to stand at a podium, shrug his shoulders and tell the American people that the U.S. will not go to war against Iran because the country poses almost no threat to the United States. Instead, he must defend his program of sanctioning and isolating Iran while insisting that "all options are on the table."

Finally, and most importantly, the situations are just very different. To sell the Iraq war, the Bush administration had to engage in a lot of threat inflation and dubious assertions about Iraqi capabilities and intentions. With Iran, that's not (as much) the case. We know they have a nuclear program and whether they divert it to military uses or not, they are significantly further along the path toward a bomb than Iraq ever was. Ditto with terrorism. There is a much stronger link between Iran and Hezbollah than there ever was between Iraq and al-Qaeda (although thanks to the war, al-Qaeda is now ensconced in Iraq).

February 17, 2012

The Iranian Female Ninja Threat

Is real. You've been warned.

Encouraging Iran

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday that U.S. intelligence shows Iran is enriching uranium in a disputed nuclear program but that Tehran has not made a decision on whether to proceed with development of an atomic bomb. - Associated Press

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said the same thing recently - there is no indication yet that Iran's leaders have decided to go all the way toward a nuclear weapon. Now, U.S. intelligence could be wrong. But if they're not, this also highlights one of the risks of any Iran attack: after Iran rebuilds, which they would, they may no longer be satisfied with getting to the nuclear threshold. An attack would buy time but could also, perversely, encourage the very thing it is attempting to discourage.

We're seeing a similar dynamic with respect to Iran's global terrorism today. It's no coincidence that the Iranians are increasing international attacks against Israeli interests in response to increased pressure and attacks inside Iran. The very behavior we claim to find so troubling about the Iranian regime is getting objectively worse as a result of a policy of pressure and isolation - not improving.

Now it's early still, and perhaps the regime is lashing out now but will meekly slink back as the weeks progress. This could be a "last throes" kind of thing. Patience is needed. But at a certain point in time the results have to speak for themselves. If the goal of policy is to reduce the "threat" from Iran, the incidence of Iran behaving in a threatening manner has to actually decrease.

February 16, 2012

Iran and Selective History

The United States and Iran have been on a collision course since the Iranian revolution in 1979, when elements of the newly proclaimed Islamic Republic took U.S. diplomats and Tehran embassy personnel hostage. U.S. relations with Iran have been bad ever since. - Tod Lindberg

Right. Pay absolutely no attention to U.S.-Iranian relations before 1979, since nothing says "good relations" like fomenting coups.

February 15, 2012

Poll: U.S. Supports Bombing Iran, Staying Neutral With Israel

A new Pew poll has found that most Americans would support taking military action against Iran:

The public supports tough measures – including the possible use of military force – to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Nearly six-in-ten (58%) say it is more important to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if it means taking military action. Just 30% say it is more important to avoid a military conflict with Iran, even if it means that country develops nuclear weapons. These opinions are little changed from October 2009.

However, the U.S. is not as supportive when it comes to helping Israel should they attack:

About half of Americans (51%) say the United States should remain neutral if Israel takes action to stop Iran’s nuclear program, but far more say the U.S. should support (39%) than oppose (5%) an Israeli attack.

An Inevitable War

Thomas P.M. Barnett sees a war against Iran as inevitable:

While the debate over whether Israel will strike Iran ebbs and flows on an almost weekly basis now, a larger collision-course trajectory is undeniably emerging. To put it most succinctly, Iran won't back down, while Israel won't back off, and America will back up its two regional allies -- Israel and Saudi Arabia -- when the shooting finally starts. There are no other credible paths in sight: There will be no diplomatic miracles, and Iran will not be permitted to achieve a genuine nuclear deterrence. But let us also be clear about what this coming war will ultimately target: regime change in Tehran, because that is the only plausible solution.
While I don't know if Israel and the U.S. will reach as far as an attempted regime change, I think Israeli air strikes are almost certainly coming.

February 14, 2012

Is Terrorism OK if Israel Does It?

Ever since it was reported that Israel was sponsoring terrorist attacks against Iranians, we've seen a rather curious turn of affairs: supporters of Israel have come to the defense of terrorism.

Daniel Larison picks up the thread, arguing that the moral approbrium due terrorism should hold no matter what:

Tobin makes the charge that the other critics and I are indulging in such moral relativism for the purpose of “delegitimizing” Israel, but it is Tobin who wants one standard for judging Israeli behavior and a very different one for judging Iranian behavior. What all of us are saying is that there is a moral and legal equivalence between different acts of terrorism, and that the victims of terrorist attacks are equally human. The lives of Iranian civilians have just as much value as the lives of Israeli civilians. The former don’t become more expendable because their government is authoritarian, abusive, and supports Hamas. If it is wrong and illegal for one group or state to commit acts of terrorism, it must be wrong and illegal in all cases. The reasons for the acts shouldn’t matter, and neither should the justifications. Either we reject the amoral logic that the ends justify the means, or we endorse it.

Jonathin Tobin followed up saying:

Above all, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison have a problem with is the entire idea of drawing a moral distinction between Iran and Israel. That is why their entire approach to the question of the legality of Israel’s attacks is morally bankrupt. Underneath their preening about the use of terrorists, what Greenwald, Wright and Larison are aiming at is the delegitimization of the right of Israel — or any democratic state threatened by Islamist terrorists and their state sponsors — to defend itself.

Michael Rubin also weighed in:

Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dismiss those who argue that Israel forfeited its moral standing by allegedly assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists. Rather, the fact that some argue Israel “started it” shows moral blindness and ignorance of context.

The "context" in question appears to be the fact of who is committing the terrorism. When Iran does it, according to Rubin, it's bad. When Israel does it, it's necessary.

Ultimately, the question seems to boil down to whether a state is justified in committing terrorism if it believes the stakes are high enough. By sanctioning Israel's use of terrorism, Israel's supporters are decrying a "moral equivalency" between Israel and her enemies while simultaneously endorsing moral relativism: they imply that any moral judgments about terrorism must begin with an assessment of the state or group employing it.

Personally, I tend to agree with Larison that this is indeed "amoral logic" but I don't necessarily think that Tobin and Rubin are wrong, at least as far as the general principle goes. I don't agree with the Tobin/Rubin argument that the stakes in this specific case are "existential," but I do believe that if the stakes were existential then it's difficult to rule out any tactic, however awful. Indeed, the very bedrock of a "realist" foreign policy seems to hinge on the notion that states must prioritize the lives of their own citizens above the lives of others. That's ugly, no doubt, and I think there's an argument to be made that the U.S. should often behave as if this were not the case (and build a normative atmosphere that rejects, when possible, amoralism). But at the end of the day, there's a limit to how far that project can go.

Update: Rubin takes issue with my characterization of his post:

But that was not the point of the post Sclobete [sic] selectively cites, nor is it even a fair reading of it. Rather, I list a litany of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish terrorism sponsored by Iran during the past two decades and exclaim that pundits who are jumping on the terrorism bandwagon now show their selectivity by having ignored for so long Iranian sponsorship of terrorism against Israel, Israelis, and Jews.

As for assassination, a tactic used to prevent a wider conflict or an existential challenge, I see nothing wrong with it nor, for that matter, does the Obama administration. Assassination does not violate international law; it is not terrorism.

The broader problem, however, is that there is simply no universally accepted definition of terrorism. As I noted in this paper on asymmetric threat concept, as of 1988 there were more than 100 definitions of terrorism in use in Western countries, and that number has only proliferated in the past quarter century.

I can state unequivocally that Rubin is wrong about one thing: the spelling of my last name. Beyond that, I don't know if this is as exculpatory as Rubin thinks - saying another side "started it" or that it's all too rhetorically vague to pass judgment on doesn't suddenly absolve the behavior in question.

I'm not a legal expert on these matters, but I believe the position of the U.S. government since President Ford is that assassination is illegal. When then-U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk was asked his position on Israel's policy of assassinations, he said:

“The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”

Times change and obviously the U.S. government's attitude toward assassinating people has undergone considerable liberalization following 9/11. As I said, I think Rubin and I are actually in agreement that, if push comes to shove, a state must do what it must to defend itself. I do not believe that Iran is building a nuclear weapon to use against anyone, therefore I'm all that receptive to claims that Iranian scientists are willfully crafting a weapon of genocide to use against Israel (or the U.S.) . However, if you earnestly believe that they are, then such tactics have a stronger justification.

February 9, 2012

Can the U.S. Bleed Iran Through Syria?

Dan Trombly thinks it's possible:

Given that rapidly overthrowing Assad without major overt military action from a broad coalition of forces is a pipe dream anyway, the United States should consider contingency plans in which it works through, rather than against, the specter of protracted civil war. To be able to bleed Iran in Syria would, relative to the risks involved, be a far more significant strategic opportunity against Iranian power relative to the investment and risk than would be a major overt campaign to overthrow Assad outright. The more blood and treasure Iran loses in Syria – even if Assad stays in power longer – the weaker Iran will be.

February 6, 2012

Poll: If Israel Attacks Iran, 48% of Americans Want U.S. to Help

That's the headline from the latest Rasmussen poll:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely U.S. Voters shows that 83% believe it is at least somewhat likely Iran will develop a nuclear weapon in the near future, including 50% who say that is Very Likely to happen. Only 11% say it’s Not Very or Not At All Likely Iran will develop a nuclear weapon soon.

Israel & Iran

Daniel Larison thinks I'm wrong to guess that Israel will launch an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities. I think his response conflates a question of efficacy (is it a good idea?) and probability (would they do it?). I tend to agree that a strike is probably on balance a bad idea for many of the reasons highlighted in Larison's post.

But I also think that when push comes to shove Israel is willing to tolerate the risks associated with a strike much more than they are willing to tolerate the risks (as they see them) of not attacking.

Update: Noah Millman offers his take:

I think it’s safe to say that there is, essentially, a near-universal consensus in Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, that such a development would be profoundly threatening, and that Iran is unlikely to change course in response to diplomatic pressure. That doesn’t mean the Israeli consensus is right, but that is the overwhelming consensus. That being the case, the political risks to trying and failing are smaller than they might otherwise appear.

February 3, 2012

Three Reasons Why Israel Will Attack Iran

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According to a number of published sources, Israel is nearing a moment of truth with respect to military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. No one knows, of course, what action Israel will take (neither, I suspect, do most of Israel's leadership, which appears to be openly debating the proposition as well).

The wisdom of such a move aside, I may as well proffer up my own wild guess as to whether Israel will take military action against Iran's nuclear program. As the title of the post suggests, I'm guessing they will. My reasoning:

1. They've done it before: Both Syria and Iraq have seen how jealously Israel guards its regional nuclear monopoly.

2. They don't believe President Obama will do it: Despite copious threats from U.S. officials, a number of reports indicate that Israel's prime minister does not believe that the U.S. will take military action against Iran.

3. The Arab Spring has made the regional environment worse: Israel's security used to rest on the acquiescence of regional dictators like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. As the "Arab Spring" produces governments more representative of their public's attitudes, the regional environment is going to get more hostile to Israel. And while Israel can't do much about those developments, they can take a stab at addressing Iran's nuclear program via a military attack - at least in the short term.

As I said, just a guess really, but I'd be more surprised if 2012 (or 2013) passes without an Israeli attack than if one were to occur. What do you think?

(AP Photo)

February 1, 2012

Iran's Willingness to Attack the U.S.

In congressional testimony, U.S. intelligence officials said that they believed Iran was now willing to launch attacks directly at the U.S. homeland:

U.S. officials said they have seen no intelligence to indicate that Iran is actively plotting attacks on U.S. soil. But Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said the thwarted plot “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”

This is pretty good indicator that, whatever else can be said about the country's rulers, Iran is not driven by suicidal impulses. If Clapper's interpretation is to be believed, Iranian officials haven't been sitting around wondering how to blow up buildings in Boise since coming to power. They have embraced attacks against the U.S. homeland only after the U.S. and its allies have ratcheted up the pressure on them (which, incidentally, does include lethal attacks on Iranian soil).

January 30, 2012

How to Delay Iran's Bomb Without War

David Menashri argues it can be done:

Iran has also been pummeled economically by Security Council sanctions, together with those imposed independently by the U.S. and the European Union. The most recent sanctions threats concerning Iran's oil exports and its banks have raised serious concerns in Tehran. Iran's currency has plunged against the U.S. dollar recently and growing unemployment and inflation are squeezing the Iranian people. Although the riots of 2009 were crushed, many regime rivals killed or jailed, and the main leaders placed under house arrest, under the surface the fire of rebellion still rages. While the regime has been able to suppress dissenting voices, Iran's youth remain the main challenge to the regime and the main source of hope for its rivals.

Most of Asia Rejects Iran Embargo

Last week we posted a chart highlighting where Iran's oil exports go. After Europe, Asia consumes most of Iran's oil and it appears that they're far less concerned about the risks Iran poses to "global" security than they are about the risks of not having Iranian oil to fuel their economic growth:

Several Asian countries are expressing an unwillingness to join the United States and Europe Union in blocking oil imports from Iran in order to pressure Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.

Indian Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said his country cannot do without Iranian oil and will not be cutting its Iranian imports despite other countries' efforts to punish Tehran for its controversial nuclear activities.

South Korea and China have likewise balked at the prospect of curbing Iranian oil consumption.

January 27, 2012

Moral Support < Violent Repression

Senator John McCain passes judgment:

"History will judge this president incredibly harshly, with disdain and scorn for his failure to come to the moral assistance of the 1.5 million Iranians that were demonstrating in the streets of Tehran," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep today. Those demonstrators, McCain said, were "crying out ... literally crying out ... 'Obama, Obama, are you with us?' ... If we had given them some moral support, it might have made some difference."

Unless by "moral support" Senator McCain actually means "communications equipment, intelligence, weapons and allied airstrikes and no-fly zones" this really is a baseless criticism. As we've seen now, rather concretely in both Libya and Syria, "moral support" isn't enough to unseat autocrats who, like the Iranian regime, decide to hold onto power by force.

January 23, 2012

Is Iran an Existential Threat?

Bruce Reidel claims that Iran is not an existential threat to Israel or America:

Iran, in contrast, has no major power providing it with financial help. Its arms relationships with Russia and China have been severed by Security Council Resolution 1929. Its only military ally is Syria, not exactly a powerhouse. And Syria is now in the midst of a civil war, its army dissolving. If President Bashar Assad falls, Iran is the biggest loser in the “Arab Spring.” Hezbollah will be the second largest loser. The deputy secretary general of Hezbollah and one of its founders, Sheikh Naim Qassem, wrote in 2007 that Syria is “the cornerstone” of Hezbollah’s survival in the region. While Syria and Hezbollah have their differences, the relationship is a “necessity” for Hezbollah.

European Sanctions Will Hurt Iran

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The Obama administration has thus far managed to successfully tighten the economic screws on Iran and now they've apparently convinced the Europeans to do the same. Now, based on the chart above via the Wall Street Journal, it's clear that this is a move that will deal another major blow to the Iranian economy. Obviously the next step for the administration is to convince Asian governments to similarly restrict Iranian oil exports, since they are the countries most likely to pick up the slack in European demand. But to do that, the U.S. will have to some plausible alternative to Iranian oil to fuel Asian economies.

Where is that oil going to come from?

January 20, 2012

U.S. Views on a War With Iran

Emily Ekins gives us a look at some new findings from Rasmussen:

Yet despite the cheers the candidates received for taking hawkish foreign policy stances with Iran, a recent Rasmussen poll finds that only 35 percent of Americans favor using military force if sanctions fail to prevent Iran from developing their nuclear capabilities.

This finding is especially interesting given that 81 percent of Americans think it is either somewhat or very likely that Iran will develop a nuclear weapon in the near future, and that 63 percent of Americans do not believe it is very or at all likely that stiff economic sanctions will effectively force Iran to disband its nuclear program.

Although 76 percent of Americans believe that Iran is a serious national security threat to the United States, only 35 percent are ready to favor military intervention. This means that even though most Americans believe it's quite likely Iran will develop a nuclear weapon and that economic sanctions will fail to work, they aren’t willing for Americans to engage in another military intervention.

Too bad it doesn't matter what they think.

January 19, 2012

An Iran Attack Would Succeed, Then What?

Brendan Green makes an interesting case against a war with Iran, claiming that the problem is that it would succeed:

In sum, Tehran would have to reconstruct a program that took decades to build, from technology it could have serious trouble reproducing locally, in expansive facilities buried deep underground, while simultaneously making a major conventional effort to produce an IADS, all out of an economically struggling and generally impoverished resource base. A revived program could meet long delays and might never become viable....

The perception of success could reinforce America’s worst strategic tendencies. American statesmen will have strong incentives to increase the American military presence in the region in order to keep the Iranians from rebuilding their program. What is worse, Washington will have a new case study in the efficacy of American military power, one that appears to vindicate the broader policy of regional hegemony. Though speculative, evidence from the recent past supports the possibility of this sort of reaction.

I think this is close to the mark, but the real issue here is the timing of our judgments on what constitutes success.

I think Green makes a very convincing case that in the short-run, a U.S. military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities could do serious, long-lasting damage to their nuclear program, especially if post-strike pressure and technological embargoes on Iran were maintained. Iran can retaliate, possibly against U.S. civilian targets, but unless they're willing to risk an ever sharper confrontation, they would probably refrain from launching a 9/11-sized massacre on U.S. soil.

So any possible war with Iran would almost certainly be seen, initially, as a huge U.S. success.

But what about the longer term?

There is a very apt observation in David Ignatius' review of James Barr's A Line in the Sand: The Anglo-French Struggle for the Middle East 1914-1948:

The British and French were so eager for short-term advantage that they ignored the long-term problems they were creating.
Anyone familiar with the recent Mideast history appreciates that Britain and France created quite a few long term problems (which, curiously, Washington has taken upon itself to try and fix). This is a spirit that pervades our thinking in the Middle East. To the extent that Iran and its nuclear program posses a threat to U.S. security, it is the same threat that any potential hegemon in the Middle East could pose - using its strategic position to close down the free flow of oil to the outside world.

Seeing as any threat to blockade Hormuz is a double-edged sword, capable of doing more long-term harm to the wielder than the victim, it behooves everyone in the U.S. to take a deep breath and spend less time ruminating about sail barge nuclear attacks against the United States (!) and more about how to improve America's energy security over the long term.

January 18, 2012

Iran a "Mortal" Threat?

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There's a lot that I'm confused about in Mark Helprin's WSJ piece on the "mortal" threat that Iran poses to the U.S., but it doesn't help that it opens with a non-sequitor:

To assume that Iran will not close the Strait of Hormuz is to assume that primitive religious fanatics will perform cost-benefit analyses the way they are done at Wharton. They won't, especially if the oil that is their life's blood is threatened.

So Iran views oil as so important to their economy that in response to sanctions they would take it all off the market? That's ridiculous on its face. If they are indeed primitive religious fanatics, then what does it matter that their "life blood" is threatened? Helprin tries to build his entire argument around the fact that Iran would be immune to threats of retaliation but if that were so, then they wouldn't care about the economic deprivation caused by sanctions.

Helprin goes on to suggest that there is a 1-in-20 chance that Iran would launch a nuclear weapon at the United States without providing a scintilla of evidence or argument why this would be so. No one need think the best of the Islamic Republic to understand that even belligerent, terror-sponsoring states can have an appreciation for limits.

Stepping back, you have to marvel at where we find ourselves. The United States is orders of magnitude more powerful than Iran, has conventional and nuclear military forces that could destroy Iran several hundred times over, devotes more money to its defense every year than the entire GDP of Iran and yet in the up-is-down world of some defense analysts, we are the ones in "mortal danger." You have to wonder why we even bother devoting $500 billion a year to defense if it can't even buy Helprin & company a peaceful night's sleep.

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2012

A Debate Won't Stop War With Iran

As before, we’re letting a bunch of ignorant, sloppy-thinking politicians and politicized foreign-policy experts draw “red line” ultimatums. As before, we’re letting them quick-march us off to war. This time their target is Iran. And heaven knows Iran’s leaders are bad guys capable of doing dangerous things. But if we’ve learned anything, anything at all, from plunging into war in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it is this: we must have a public scrubbing of fighting rhetoric before, not after, the war begins. - Leslie Gelb

You frequently heard from people who opposed the second Iraq war that the war was conducted without any "proper debate." This never struck me as all that convincing - I remember reading nothing else during 2002 and 2003. Rather, it was wishful thinking based on a flawed premise - that had the public been given adequate time and information they would have opposed the war and that that opposition would have stayed the hands of the Bush administration.

Instead, I think Justin Logan has the dynamic right:

The point is that the public may have some inchoate, a priori opinions about foreign policy, but they don’t matter all that much when it comes to influencing foreign policy.
To the extent that an avalanche of op-eds convinces elites and policy-makers that a U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be a bad idea, a "public" debate is mostly irrelevant. Of course, if the Obama administration or its GOP successor were to actually ask Congress to declare war on Iran prior to a U.S. attack we might have some back-and-forth over the issue. But that would never happen.

January 16, 2012

Why Would Iran Commit Genocide Now?

A lot of the debate over whether Israel (presumably) is committing acts of terror in Iran by killing scientists hinges on the question of whether these scientists are actually civilians or not. Commentary's Jonathan Tobin, for instance, argues that it's not terrorism because these scientists were helping Iran build a weapon of genocide:

But you need a particular form of moral myopia not to see that heading off a potential second Holocaust in the form of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel or the nuclear blackmail of the rest of the Middle East is not a form of terrorism. Anyone who believes Iran should be allowed to proceed toward the building of a nuclear bomb has either lost their moral compass or is so steeped in the belief that American and Israeli interests are inherently unjustified they have reversed the moral equation in this case. Rather than the alleged U.S. and Israeli covert operators being called terrorists, it is the Iranian scientists who are the criminals. They must be stopped before they kill.

I think if you accept Tobin's logic, then obviously killing any Iranian, civilian or otherwise, connected to the country's military-industrial apparatus is justified since the alternative is a nuclear attack on Israel that will leave potentially hundreds of thousands of people dead.

But there's ample reason to believe that Tobin's logic isn't all that logical. Consider that Iran is believed to have had weapons of mass destruction since at least the Iran-Iraq war. If Iranian leaders were truly irrational and not concerned about a devastating retaliation, they could have launched a biological or chemical attack against Israel.

January 13, 2012

What Would the British Do?

To be honest, I don't know how huge a deal the revelations are in this Foreign Policy piece (and needless to say, these are allegations, not established facts). The short version - agents from Israel's intelligence service are alleged to have disguised themselves as American CIA agents to hire terrorists to kill people inside Iran.

I think a good way to frame this is to ask: would Britain's intelligence service do something like this? If the answer is yes, then Israel's actions are in keeping with how international spy craft and subversion work among allies. If the answer is no, then the argument that Israel is key strategic asset for the United States becomes a lot less credible.

Update: Larison suggests this isn't the right way to frame the news:

I suppose that agents of any government that wanted to employ foreign terrorists to blow up civilians in another country might be inclined to pretend to be working for a different government, since they wouldn’t want to implicate their government in such crimes, but that doesn’t tell us very much. It’s not just the false flag nature of the operation that is bothersome. If the report is true, this operation involved a terrorist group that blows up civilians in mosques, and the perception that the U.S. was behind the group that did these things invited attacks on Americans. In addition to encouraging atrocities against civilians, the operation made it seem as if the U.S. were complicit in those atrocities.
My point was simply that it's difficult to tell how far over the line Israel's alleged actions were if similar stunts had been pulled by other allied intelligence services in the past. In their own right, these allegations are obviously troubling.

Update II: Evelyn Gordon says there's reason to be skeptical of the charges:

Israel termed the report “absolute nonsense,” explaining that had it been true, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan would have been declared persona non grata in Washington rather than being a welcome visitor. Nor is that idle speculation: Those same two presidents forced the ouster of three other senior Israeli defense officials over other issues; why would they have given Dagan a pass?

Just last year, Uzi Arad was forced to resign as chairman of Israel’s National Security Council due to Washington’s anger over leaked information from U.S.-Israeli talks on nuclear issues. And in 2005, two senior Defense Ministry officials – director general Amos Yaron and chief of security Yehiel Horev – were forced out due to Washington’s anger over Israel’s agreement to upgrade Harpy drones for China, following a year in which the Pentagon boycotted Yaron entirely. Thus, had Dagan committed an offense as egregious as Perry claimed, it’s inconceivable that he would have continued for years to be not only a welcome guest, but even one of Washington’s preferred Israeli interlocutors.

January 5, 2012

Iran and Spiraling Out of Control

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There's a conceit in a lot of the discussion around Washington's Iran policy that heightened tensions over Iran could "spiral out of control" and produce a conflict that no one wants. This is silly, for two reasons. First, many people in the United States do, in fact, want a conflict with Iran. Indeed, they openly pine for one. Multiple articles (and here) have advocated for a war with Iran and two leading contenders for the presidency of the United States are on record about their intention to start one if Iran does not submit. The idea that a conflict would just kind of take on a momentum of its own is absurd - the momentum is being consciously generated by individuals who have expressed their desire for conflict. This holds for Iran as well. There are clearly elements inside Iran that are spoiling for a fight with the U.S.

Second, the Obama administration (and its supporters) has been patting itself on the back about the great job it has done backing Iran up against the wall. But no one has asked the administration what it intends to do if economic coercion fails or what "out" it is giving the Iranians other than a humiliating capitulation (which its leaders would be less likely to accept). The administration is putting the United States into a position where it will itself face a humiliating climb-down if Iran's defiance continues, or a war.

This is, again, done quite consciously. If a war with Iran comes, it won't be by accident.

(AP Photo)

December 29, 2011

Iran's Hormuz Bluff

It's not yet clear if the Obama administration's saber-rattling toward Iran is an elaborate bluff, but we can be fairly confident that Iran's threat to close the Strait of Hormuz is a ruse. In fact, when members of the Iranian government are insisting it's a bluff, you can be pretty sure it's a bluff:

And Iran — which has enjoyed record oil profits over the past five years but is faced with a dwindling number of oil customers — relies on the Hormuz Strait as the departure gate for its biggest client: China.

“We would be committing economical suicide by closing off the Hormuz Strait,” said an Iranian Oil Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “Oil money is our only income, so we would be spectacularly shooting ourselves in the foot by doing that.”

Ahmad Bakhshayesh Ardestani, a political scientist running for parliament from the camp of hard-line clerics and commanders opposing Ahmadinejad, said it is “good politics” for Iran to respond to U.S. threats with threats of its own.

“But our threat will not be realized,” Ardestani said. “We are just responding to the U.S., nothing more.”

There seems to be a good deal of confusion about this point among Washington's Iran hawks. Iran's one true potential for mischief is tampering with the flow of oil from the Gulf into global markets - and it's a threat that is percieved, by Iranians, as being too dangerous to fool around with. An Iran with a crude nuclear weapon, or the latent capacity to assemble one if they wanted to, can't change this basic dynamic.

Does Obama Really Want a War With Iran?

I used to be of the mind that the Obama administration would ultimately not launch a preventative war against Iran's nuclear program, but I'm beginning to change my mind. Over the past few weeks, there have been several unmistakable signals that the Obama administration is serious about starting a war with Iran if the country does not come clean about its nuclear program. First, we had Dennis Ross, formerly of the administration, assuring us in no uncertain terms that President Obama would use military force if need be. Then came the "clarification" of Defense Secretary Panetta's remarks cautioning against such a strike. And now Eli Lake's reporting that the Obama administration is discussing its "red lines" with Israel to assuage their concerns about America's willingness to go to war over Iran's nuclear program.

Finally, and most significantly, is the potential sanctioning of Iranian oil. This is, for all intents and purposes, a declaration of war against Iran as it cuts the country's economic lifeline, leaving Iran little choice but to fight, capitulate or face severe economic deprivation.

So either the administration is engaged in a very high-wire bluff designed to make Iran think an attack is likely or it is actually willing to start a new war in the Middle East. In any event, if I were an Iranian strategist, I would be preparing for the worst.

December 15, 2011

War, the GOP and 2012

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With the exception of Ron Paul, it appears every Republican in the field is quite willing to start a war with Iran.

With unemployment still high and the economy still weak, I doubt foreign policy will figure much in the election, but it's worth considering how the discussion (I won't call it a debate) on Iran would play out between the GOP nominee (assuming it's not Paul) and Barack Obama. GOP Nominee X will declare his or her intention to bomb Iran if it came to it, and President Obama will say that he's definitely open to the possibility.

What's significant in this, I think, is the extent to which the idea of preventative war has been rejuvenated - if it was ever truly discredited. Whatever misgivings the U.S. public had about the Iraq war are fading (alongside, not coincidentally, American attention to what is actually happening inside Iraq) so it is obviously politically safer to muse openly about starting another war.

America's Energy Future and Iran

Iran recently declared that it would practice "shutting down" the Strait of Hormuz - the narrow passageway through which all Persian Gulf energy resources must flow on their way to world markets. The threat reinforced both Iran's potential for mischief and the possible economic costs of starting a war with the country. But how big of a threat is it really?

A recent piece by Daniel Yergin argues that America's energy security is in much better shape than commonly believed:

There are other changes in the world oil supply that can work in our favor. Many Americans have the impression that most U.S. oil imports come from the Persian Gulf region, or from hostile states. And it is true enough that Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, for instance, hardly hides his deep-seated enmity toward the U.S.

But the Persian Gulf represents 16% of our imports, and Venezuela 9%. By far the largest, and growing, source of imports is Canada, which supplies about 25%; Mexico is second, at 11%.

The main reason for Canada's large role is the expansion of output from its oil sands. Canada's oil sands now yield more output than Libya's total exports prior to its civil war. Current plans could double production to three million barrels per day by the beginning of the next decade. That would mean a higher share of our imports coming from our friendly neighbor and largest trading partner.

The point here isn't that a temporary closure of Hormuz wouldn't be a big deal. It would. But from a strategic perspective, America's economic and resource security needs are in a lot better shape than many would have it. The U.S. already has the military capacity to "re-open" the Strait should the need arise. The longer-term policy response to Iran's possible threat to energy resources is not to start a war with the country, but to green-light things like the Keystone Pipeline and boost the efficiency of the U.S. automotive fleet - i.e. things that would further marginalize Iran's potential for economic mischief.

What Can Iran Do With America's Drone?

Seeing as they won't give it back, the BBC investigates what Iran can actually do with America's spy drone:

So how easy is it to extract information from a drone?

It all depends what state the aircraft was in when they recovered it, says Nick Brown, editor-in-chief of Jane's International Defence Review.

"It could have crashed and come apart. The version seen on the video clips could be a reconstruction. But if the aircraft is relatively intact, you could take a fair bit from it."

One thing the Iranians might be doing is testing it with radar in an anechoic chamber, he says, to find its "radar cross-section", which is a measure of how detectable it is. They could also learn from some of the more exotic radar-defeating shaping and materials.

Even if the Iranians aren't up to the challenge of reverse-engineering the drone, the BBC notes that there are reports of Russian and Chinese scientists in Iran interested in taking a peak.

December 14, 2011

Anti-Semitism and the Iran War Debate

I have read many an article making a reasoned case for why the U.S. should, as a last resort, take military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. In all those pieces I admit I have never encountered the argument that David Mamet makes here. To wit: that a failure to take military action against Iran is akin to practicing "human sacrifice" with the state of Israel (and, by the way, is anti-Semitic):

In abandonment of the state of Israel, the West reverts to pagan sacrifice, once again, making a burnt offering not of that which one possesses, but of that which is another's. As Realpolitik, the Liberal West's anti-Semitism can be understood as like Chamberlain's offering of Czechoslovakia to Hitler, a sop thrown to terrorism. On the level of conscience, it is a renewal of the debate on human sacrifice.

This is not the first time the idea has been raised that it is anti-Semitic to warn against the dangers of a war against Iran. Mitchell Bard asserted that there were "disturbing anti-Semitic undertones" in Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's observations that an attack on Iran would have negative consequences.

December 13, 2011

Should Iran Give the U.S. its Drone Back?

The Obama administration wants its spy drone back:

“We submitted a formal request for the return of our lost equipment as we would in any situation to any government around the world,” Clinton told reporters at a State Department news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

“Given Iran’s behavior to date we do not expect them to comply but we are dealing with all of these provocations and concerning actions taken by Iran in close concert with our closest allies and partners,” she said.

I have no problem with the idea that the U.S. is flying drones over Iran to collect intelligence. But it's really silly to pretend that we're the aggrieved party here. The U.S. violated Iranian airspace, we should have no reason to expect the drone back. The administration really should just keep quiet about the whole thing.

December 2, 2011

Is Obama Waging a Preemptive War on Iran?

Jeffrey Goldberg thinks so:

Following a (perhaps not-so-mysterious) explosion on a military base last month that took with it the life of Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam--one of the Iranian missile program's most distinguished OGs--comes news of a second explosion in Isfahan this past Monday, which according to sources "struck the uranium enrichment facility there, despite denials by Tehran."

Of course, accurate news out of Tehran is hard to come by, but if you want to take this a step further, one might consider Tuesday's (perhaps not-so-spontaneous) storming of the British embassy by Iranian "students" to be quite an effective smokescreen in keeping news of this second explosion from making serious waves. If you've had a lot of coffee, it's also worthy to note that on Monday evening, following the explosion in Iran, four missiles fired from southern Lebanon struck Israel--the first such incident in over two years.

Thomas Donnelly slams the Obama administration for not preparing the public for a full-out war:

So this might be a last opportunity to formulate a larger strategy for dealing with Iran, and for defining what would really constitute success. Spooky operations are fine as far as they go, but rarely achieve significant strategic results. The United States is, indeed, in a low-level war with Iran, and no one particularly wants to see it get bigger. On the other hand, wars have a logic of their own, and the presumption that everything is under control – that all repayments will be “in kind” and somehow proportionate – in not the best basis for planning. What is now merely curious might easily become deeply compelling.

We are not well prepared for a larger war. We’re not prepared domestically, diplomatically, or militarily. Even a successful small-scale Iranian attack here would be a profound shock. The British and French may be with us (or in front of us, hence the attack on the British embassy) when it comes to sanctions, but they have little appetite or capability for any next step; China and Russia object to further sanctions. And we’re not only retreating from the region but in the process of a larger defense drawdown.

I think Donnelly raises an important issue - the U.S. is either leading (or following Israel) into a hot war with Iran and Donnelly's right to warn that events could quickly and unexpectedly take on a life of its own. But I don't know what "preparing the public" for war with Iran would accomplish. I suspect that a majority of Americans would oppose such a war, and it's not altogether clear that Obama wants to wage it in a more overt fashion.

I think it's clear the administration does not want a hot war with Iran - an administration hell-bent on conflict would have seized on the plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador - but if the tit-for-tat intensifies it might find its options sharply constrained.

Consider too the implication that Americans would find an Iranian attack against its interests or even the homeland a "profound shock." But how could the Obama administration prepare the public for such a shock without casting its Iran policy in a less-than-favorable light? If President Obama told the public that America was working with Israel to murder Iranian scientists and blow up Iranian buildings and sabotage Iranian infrastructure and that the Iranians might seek to retaliate in kind, it would implicitly cast Iranian motives as rational.

As we saw in the run up to the Iraq war, one of the key arguments advanced against Saddam Hussein was that he would do something irrational (hand over WMD to al-Qaeda) and hence couldn't be trusted. Iranian irrationality and religious fanaticism is also a critical component in the case for taking military action against their nuclear program. A key to sustaining the aura of irrationality is to strip out any of the strategic context of Iranian actions.

November 30, 2011

Uphold Western Civilization Through Collective Punishment

In response to the Iranian takeover of the British embassy, National Review's Charles Cooke thinks it would be a good idea to emulate Lord Palmerston and kill thousands of innocent Iranians until they capitulate:

Having fumed for a while that Tehran was not close enough to water for a quick naval bombardment, Henry John Temple would have sent a blockade to the Caspian Sea and knocked out coastal towns one by one until an apology was forthcoming and a restoration assured.
Very civilized.

November 29, 2011

How Stuxnet Crippled Iran's Nuclear Program

Speaking of secret war, here's an interesting video via Thomas Rid on the Stuxnet Virus.

November 17, 2011

Would Iran Play Coy With Its Nuclear Program?

Jeffrey Lewis passes on some thoughts on Iran's nuclear program that are worth considering:

Why, exactly, is there an insistence that Iran is racing up to some sharply defined point where its adversaries, Israel included, must either strike preventively or accept an uneasy relationship of mutual (nuclear) deterrence? If Iran is racing, so were Achilles and the Tortoise. It’s more like tiptoeing.

Shavit is now the umpty-teenth commentator, Israeli or otherwise, who apparently cannot imagine that nuclear opacity or ambiguity could apply to states other than Israel. Of course, at different times, it has applied to a number of other states: India, Pakistan, Iraq, South Africa, North Korea. Perhaps others as well. So why not Iran?

I wonder if remaining somewhat vague about the nuclear program is helping Iran. They're being harshly sanctioned and are running a serious risk of being attacked by Israel and, possibly, the United States.

November 15, 2011

Why "Osirak" Won't Work on Iran

Via Larison, Paul Pillar provides details here and here why an "Osirak-style" military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is based on an erroneous understanding of what actually happened. After Israel attack, Pillar notes, Iraq really got serious:

The Iraqis instead responded by redoubling their nuclear efforts using an alternative route to the production of fissile material; a decade later they were far closer to having a nuclear weapon than they were in 1981.

Pillar also pointed to recent research that took advantage of documents discovered after the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

One of the articles, by the Norwegian scholar Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, revisits the Israeli attack against the Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, making use of materials unavailable before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Braut-Hegghammer's conclusion is that the Israeli attack was counterproductive, for two sets of reasons. One concerned the state of the Iraqi nuclear program at the time of the attack, which was basically drifting and, although providing some of the technological base that possibly could have been used in the future toward acquiring nuclear weapons, was not geared up to produce such weapons. The political momentum to develop a weapons option was “inconsistent at best.” The Osirak reactor itself was not well designed for purposes of supporting a weapons program. The International Atomic Energy Agency later assessed that visual verification and materials accounting would have detected any diversion to a weapons program. On-site French engineers constituted an additional safeguard. Saddam Hussein had not “secured the basic organizational resources or budget.” Iraqi pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability was “both directionless and disorganized.”

The other set of reasons involved the Iraqi response to the Israeli attack, which was to establish for the first time a nuclear weapons program that not only had direction and organization but also was clandestine and kept away from international scrutiny.

In other words, a military attack galvanized Hussein to proceed with an actual, ambitious nuclear weapons program where before the steps were tentative and ineffectual. Of course, that doesn't mean that the Iranians won't react to a military strike by folding up the nuclear shop and calling it a day, but the evidence doesn't look good.

November 14, 2011

If You Were Khamenei's Adviser...

So Mitt Romney did indeed clarify what he would do against Iran's nuclear program if measures short-of-war failed, saying "of course" he'd take military action against Iran.

So you're an adviser to the supreme leader and you hear American politicians promising to bomb your country. Does this make you: 1. recommend an acceleration of the nuclear program in the hopes of deterring such an attack; 2. recommend shuttering the program in the hopes of avoiding one?

If Israel Bombed Iran...

Jackson Diehl makes the case that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses a different kind of threat to Israel than it does to the United States, then suggests that an Israeli strike is being constrained by concern about America's reaction:

The most interesting calculations of all concern U.S-Israeli relations. The rupture of the U.S.-Israeli alliance arguably would be as large a blow to Israel’s security as Iran completing a bomb — and a unilateral attack might just risk that. The Pentagon might suspend what is now close cooperation; in Congress and in public opinion, Israel might be blamed for any U.S. casualties in Iranian counterattacks. I’ve always supposed that there will be no Israeli attack without a green light from Washington.

Israel, however, has a history of ignoring U.S. opinion at moments like this.

I doubt very much that any of the above would play out like this. Imagine a scenario wherein Israel bombs a number of Iranian nuclear sites and Iran retaliates by blowing up an American civilian airliner. Would the response in the United States be to blame Israel or blame Iran?

I suspect that, to the extent an Israeli attack on Iran does anger Washington, such anger would be localized in the executive branch and wouldn't have any real ripple effects beyond that, even if Iran did respond to such an attack with strikes of its own against American targets.

November 11, 2011

How Far Will Romney Go Against Iran?

Si vis pacem, para bellum. That is a Latin phrase, but the ayatollahs will have no trouble understanding its meaning from a Romney administration: If you want peace, prepare for war.

I want peace. And if I am president, I will begin by imposing a new round of far tougher economic sanctions on Iran. I will do this together with the world if we can, unilaterally if we must. I will speak out forcefully on behalf of Iranian dissidents. I will back up American diplomacy with a very real and very credible military option. I will restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously. I will increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region. These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, acting in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

Only when the ayatollahs no longer have doubts about America's resolve will they abandon their nuclear ambitions. - Mitt Romney

There is some evidence to support the argument that Iran will only change course if it feels legitimately threatened, but consider the evidence: in 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran sent feelers out to the Bush administration to begin talks. In other words, just to get the negotiations rolling, the U.S. had to invade another country. That's a pretty high bar!

This suggests that none of Romney's proposed measures could really do the trick, which begs a critical question: what is he willing to do next? Multiple U.S. administrations have declared that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable, and yet none have been willing to use force against Iran to stop it. Surely Iran's leadership is slowly being conditioned to think that such threats are hollow - whether coming from a Republican or Democrat.

To make Romney's "si vis pacem, para bellum" strategy work, you have to actually be willing to go to war - otherwise, you run the risk of having your bluff called. Is Romney willing to do this? Someone ought to ask him.

November 10, 2011

Obama & Iran

Larison offers some good dissents to my "Five Reasons" piece on Obama's unwillingness to bomb Iran. He specifically takes issue with the idea that America's terrible balance sheet would dissuade the administration:

While an Iranian war would be fairly expensive, and could become even more so if it escalated, there are far fewer fiscal hawks than there are foreign policy hawks. The latter would point to the war with Iran and say, “We can’t possibly reduce military spending in the middle of a major war,” and they would probably insist that the military spending needed to be increased instead. The administration has hardly been eager to make real cuts in military spending as it is, and they will be even less interested in that if they started a new war. Fiscal constraints are not as binding on U.S. action as opponents of an attack would like to think.

November 7, 2011

Why Obama Won't Bomb Iran

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Here's why I don't think it's probable absent some dramatic development: there would be very little international support for the effort. If the lead-up to the Libyan intervention is instructive, it should tell us that the administration values multilateral cover - in the form of a UN Security Council resolutions and the sanction of the Arab League. It is difficult, at least today, to see either of those bodies signing onto a military campaign against Iran. Russia and China are likely to shield Iran in the Security Council and the Arab League is still smarting over Libya.

So yes, as David Rothkopf writes, the administration is not shy about using force, but it has only undertaken large-scale action against another state when the multilateral stars aligned. Picking off the odd pirate and terrorist via drones doesn't really approach the magnitude of starting a major war with Iran.

(AP Photo)

Irrational Iran

Commuting to work in Tehran is never easy, but it is particularly nerve-racking these days for the scientists of Shahid Beheshti University. It was a little less than a year ago when one of them, Majid Shahriari, and his wife were stuck in traffic at 7:40 a.m. and a motorcycle pulled up alongside the car. There was a faint “click” as a magnet attached to the driver’s side door. The huge explosion came a few seconds later, killing him and injuring his wife. - David Sanger

As revelations of Iran's nuclear capabilities mount, we'll increasingly hear assertions to the effect that Iran's rulers are deranged fanatics who would turn their country into a smoldering ruin just to take a shot at Israel. A more sophisticated version of this argument runs that while Iran's upper leadership may be more rational, they may not have full control over the Revolutionary Guard's more adventurous factions. Either way, Iran can't be trusted not to use a nuclear weapon.

But as the Sanger piece notes, it's very likely that Israel (and possibly Washington) is conducting a brazen campaign of assassinations on Iranian soil, and no one thinks that either government is fundamentally irrational. In other words, if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon (as it appears increasingly likely to do), the U.S. will have to deal with a serious conventional and strategic challenge - not an existential one.


October 27, 2011

Iraq and Iran

Reading the various accusations that the Obama administration has surrendered Iraq to Iran, I think it's worth keeping this in mind:

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By nature of religious affinity and geography, Iran was always bound to play an outsized role inside Iraq. As several people have pointed out already, the era when Iranian influence was at its lowest ebb inside Iraq was when a Sunni autocrat ruled the country. Moreover, in a democratic Iraq with a loser political structure, Iran is going to have far more levers of influence inside Iraq. It's unavoidable.

This underscores, I think, a lot of the naivete that drives the "stay in Iraq" policy advocacy. Follow the chain: the U.S. has to knock off a Sunni Arab dictator, and has to install a democratic government in its wake, and has to install a democratic government that is friendly to Washington's strategic priorities, and has to create a political system immune from too much influence from its neighbor, and has to commit tens of thousands of troops and billions of dollars to the effort indefinitely irrespective of America's balance sheet.

It's also worth stating the blindingly obvious: Iran increased its influence inside Iraq under the nose of roughly 50,000 U.S. troops from 2008 on (and over 150,000 before then). The U.S. may have "beaten back" some Iran-affiliated militias during and after the Surge, but it never "defeated" them. Keeping 20,000 to 30,000 U.S. troops in the country to chase Iranian agents and their Iraqi sympathizers around southern Iraq is hardly going to do the trick, and in an era of tighter resources, it's a rather decadent waste of time and money. I do think a Lebanon-style civil war, with Iranian-funded Shiite militias battling Saudi-funded Sunni militia (and Turkey bombing the Kurds in Northern Iraq) is a distinct possibility, which is why the removal of U.S. troops is ultimately a wise choice.

October 20, 2011

After You

Bahrain’s foreign minister has a pointed message for President Obama: You’ve denounced Iran’s plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and warned that Iran “will pay a price.” But what is the U.S. actually going to do about Iran to show that it’s serious?

“We’re asking the U.S. to stand up for its interests and draw the red lines,” Sheikh Khalid Al-Khalifa, the Bahraini foreign minister told me. He referred to Iran-sponsored attacks on American forces in Lebanon and Iraq and asked: “How many times have you lost lives, been subject to terrorist activities and yet we haven’t seen any proper response. This is really serious. It’s coming to your shores now.”

Khalifa’s worries about American power echo what you read these days in the Arab press, and hear privately from Arab officials. But the Bahraini official, who’s in Washington this week talking to U.S. officials, was unusually blunt in the interview at his hotel suite. - David Ignatius

We frequently hear that humiliation is a major problem in the Arab world but the leaders of the Gulf monarchies apparently feel no compunction about hiding behind the United States while goading it to fight their battles.

October 14, 2011

Maybe It Is Too Stupid to Believe

As a counterpoint to my post about the potential for Iran to simply have made a bone-headed miscalculation, Stephen Walt says the plot is so flimsy and ramshackle as to raise serious questions:

But the more I think about it, the less plausible whole thing appears. In particular, blowing up buildings in the United States is an act of war, and history shows that the United States is not exactly restrained when it responds to direct attacks on U.S. soil. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and we eventually firebombed many Japanese cities and dropped two atomic bombs on them. Al Qaeda destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon, and we went out and invaded not one but two countries in response. When it comes to hitting back, in short, we tend to do so with enthusiasm.

Iran's leaders are not stupid, and surely they would have known that a plot like this ran the risk of triggering a very harsh U.S. response. Given that extraordinary risk, is it plausible to believe they would have entrusted such a sensitive mission to a serial bungler like Ababsiar? If you are going to attack a target in the United States, wouldn't you send your A Team, instead of Mr. Magoo?

Fair point. If we accept that this plot was conceived and executed at the highest levels of Iran's government, then it does make you wonder why would they entrust it to this guy.

October 13, 2011

Iran: Not a On a Roll

The Islamic Republic can't seem to do anything right these days:

An attempt by Iran to launch a rocket carrying a live monkey into space in September has met with failure, stalling the country's program to pursue a human spaceflight capability, according to press reports.

The Iranian Space Agency reportedly attempted to launch a Rhesus monkey into space atop a Kavoshgar-5 rocket (Kavoshgar means "Explorer" in Farsi) during the Iranian month of Shahrivar, a period that ran between Aug. 23 and Sept. 22, according to an Agence-France Press report.

"It Makes No Sense"

Hillary Mann Leverett raises a lot of skepticism about the alleged Iranian assassination plot in the interview above. She returns to one theme repeatedly - that it's unlikely Iran was behind the plot because such an attack would make "no sense" from the perspective of Iran's national security interests and strategy. And I agree, on the face it, it sounds nutty. But I don't know how exculpatory this argument really is.

It's a well established fact that governments around the world and throughout history have done things that, on the surface, do not make much sense. To take an example close to home, I would suggest the U.S. government made one such mistake by invading and occupying Iraq. Your mileage may vary, but the point is that even on grave matters of war and peace, errors, misjudgments and miscalculations aren't all that rare. Nor do we have any reason to believe that Iran is uniquely competent in this regard. Iran's government is a human institution, despite its clerical pretenses, and is subject to the same human faults and miscalculation as any other regime.

In this case "doing something stupid" may indeed make perfect sense.

Iranian Motives

Will Inboden:

To be sure, there are also ample reasons to argue against a military response at this time, and the United States must be equally careful about gratuitous escalation and unforeseen consequences. But the severity of this threat is significant enough, particularly in what it reveals about Tehran's new strategic calculations about its latitude to target the United States, that we at least consider a kinetic retaliation among the options. [Emphasis added]

I think this is the nub of the issue and what makes the details of this assassination plot so strange. Several people who know far more about Iran's Quds force than I do have made the point that it's an almost comically amateurish plot. That bolsters the argument that it was a "rogue" element acting beyond its remit. In that case, it's too early to draw any conclusion about Iran's "strategic calculation" much less make a potentially consequential response on the basis of that conclusion. On the other hand, every organization makes mistakes, even catastrophic ones, and so sloppiness shouldn't necessarily foreclose the possibility that this was approved at the highest level.

In that case, the administration does have an urgent priority to restore some measure of deterrence to the U.S.-Iran relationship.

October 12, 2011

America, Iran and Red Lines

Joby Warrick sheds some light on Washington's thinking regarding the Iranian terror plot:

While acknowledging they did not have conclusive proof, the U.S. officials said they were convinced that Quds Force chief Qassem Suleimani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameinei were at least aware of the plot’s general outlines.

“We do not think it was a rogue operation, in any way,” a second official said. But he added: “We don’t have specific knowledge that Suleimani knew about specific” details of the plot.

The officials said American investigators theorized that the operatives’ sloppiness reflected Iran’s inexperience in working in North America, where even the globally networked Quds Force lacks connections and contacts. But they said the oddly brazen nature of the plot may also may have reflected the naivete of the clique of hard-line clerics that has come to dominate Iran’s leadership in recent years.

“These leaders have no Western experience, and they have a great misunderstanding of the United States,” the second official said. “They don’t understand where the red lines are.”

But with four hits in as many years on Iran's nuclear scientists, I dare say the misunderstanding is mutual.

October 11, 2011

Khamenei and His Caporegime

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Michael Rubin explains why Iran's Byzantine power structure may complicate the U.S. response to an alleged plot to kill a Saudi envoy on American soil:

Iran is a dictatorship, but not in the style of Kim Jong-il’s North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Supreme Leader is the ultimate authority, and his word is gold, but he doesn’t simply give his minions orders and expect them to be carried out. Rather, according to experts’ estimates, he presides over an office that includes several hundred, or perhaps a couple of thousand, commissars who are inserted at every level of every bureaucracy, and they stove pipe information back to him. Whenever he disapproves of a debate or a proposed action, he will shut it down. Whatever rises to the surface, however, he implicitly endorses. Because he rules by veto power, however, Western intelligence agencies will never find a smoking gun. This will, in turn, lead to a policy debate about whether the perpetrators of the plot were simply rogue actors.

The DEA and FBI have been building this case since May, so if a "smoking gun" linking Khamenei to the plot were available I think we'd have heard about it by now.

That said, these charges, should they hold up, still raise some serious questions about the Iranian power structure and its motivations even without Khamenei's fingerprints. While Max Fisher and Steve Clemons have been engaging in a smart debate over whether or not such a plot is in Iran's best interest, they neglect to ask another critical question: Who's determining Iran's interests these days?

(AP Photo)

September 15, 2011

Don't Play Ahmadinejad's UN Game

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The 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly convened this week in New York City.

Libya’s ousted Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution Muammar Gaddafi dare not show his face due to an International Criminal Court arrest warrant upon his head for crimes against humanity. Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez cannot attend either because of ongoing chemotherapy. But Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad intends to be there.

We will no longer be entertained and infuriated by scenes of Chavez sarcastically speaking about satanic sulfur in 2006 or Gaddafi disdainfully chucking the UN charter over his shoulder in 2009. Nonetheless, Ahmadinejad plans on yanking the West’s chain yet again. He will distribute a book on alleged atrocities committed against Iran and Iranians by American, British and Soviet forces during World War II, the semi-official Mehr News Agency reports:

Ahmadinejad will go to New York late this week, taking 1000 English copies of Documents on the Occupation of Iran during World War II. Iran’s occupation by the Allies during World War II is an international issue. This book contains many documents referring to the abuses inflicted by the Allies against the Iranian people.

The five-volume work is to be presented as evidence at the UN General Assembly, a parallel story in the Tehran Times notes:

to demand compensation from the Allies for violation of Iran’s neutrality during that world conflict.

So even though his comrades from the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party cannot be there, Iran’s chief executive will do his best to incite American, British and Russian emotions – and he is well accomplished at provoking negative responses. But unlike Alice, officials in Washington, London and Moscow should not respond in anger. Paying no attention to his theatrics will deny Iran’s president the pleasure he seeks.

Let’s not give Ahmadinejad a tale to spin for Chavez when he flys to Caracas after the New York visit.

(AP Photo)

September 14, 2011

What to Do With Iran

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The German Marshal Fund is out with their massive Transatlantic Trends poll, taking the pulse of attitudes on either side of the Atlantic. We'll be bringing you a few snippets from the survey (which can be read in full in pdf form here). First up, views on Iran. In almost every country polled, concern about a nuclear Iran remained high, but is off 2010 levels. GMF also found:

Despite the same level of concern in the United States and the EU, there were differing opinions about how best to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. A plurality of those in the EU (32%) preferred offering economic incentives, while a plurality of Americans (33%) preferred imposing economic sanctions, although the majority of EU and U.S. respondents chose one of these two options and were often fairly divided over which one was preferable. The percentage of Americans who preferred supporting the Iranian opposition dropped from 25% in 2010 to 13% in 2011 — matching EU levels of support (15%) for the same option.

There was also little support in the EU countries polled (6%) or the United States (8%) for simply accepting that Iran could acquire nuclear weapons while other options were on the table. A quarter of Turks, a plurality, said that accepting a nuclear Iran (25%) was the best option.

August 31, 2011

Iran Takes to the Sea

AFP reports:

Iran has dispatched a submarine and a warship to the Red Sea on a patrol mission, navy commander Adm. Habibollah Sayyari said in a report by state media on Aug. 30....

Soon after Sayyari's declaration, the Israeli military said it had deployed two missile boats to the Red Sea.

"The navy has deployed two missile boats to the Red Sea as part of a routine exercise," a military spokeswoman told AFP, refusing to link the move with Iran's deployment.

In July, Iran announced intentions to boost its military presence in international waters, with plans to deploy warships to the Atlantic.

Sayyari said that the flotilla, the 15th mission of its kind to be dispatched to the Red Sea, would also focus on "fighting piracy".

August 10, 2011

Iran Calls on UK to Be Restrained

Apparently this was said with a straight face:

As riots have spread across the UK leading to hundreds of arrests and the death of one 26-year-old man, Iran has called on British police to avoid using violence against rioters and demonstrators, and to show "restraint" when dealing with protesters, Iranian Fars News Agency reported.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast reportedly asked the UK government to open dialogue with "protesters," and has called on human rights groups to investigate the killing of Mark Duggan, 29, which sparked the violent riots that has seen substantial damage and theft.

Deputy Head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Hossein Ebrahimi also told Fars news that he had requested from the British government to allow an Iranian human rights delegation to visit the country, and "study human rights violations."


August 1, 2011

Iran and al-Qaeda

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The Leveretts are skeptical about recent allegations from the Obama administration linking al-Qaeda and Iran:

Not even the George W. Bush Administration was prepared to make concrete accusations that the Islamic Republic was deliberately facilitating al-Qa’ida’s terrorist activities. Now, however, the Obama Administration is advancing specific, on-the-record charges that Iran is helping al-Qa’ida. There is no reason for anyone to have any confidence that official Washington “knows”, in any empirically serious way, that Tehran is cooperating with al-Qa’ida in the ways that are alleged.

Of the six al-Qa’ida operatives sanctioned by the Treasury Department last week, only one is alleged to be physically present in Iran—and, by Treasury’s own account, he is there primarily to get al-Qa’ida prisoners out of Iranian jails. Moreover, the United States apparently has no hard evidence that the Iranian government is supportive of or even knowledgeable about the alleged al-Qa’ida network in the Islamic Republic. In her story, Helene Cooper writes that a “senior Administration official” said “in a conference call for reporters” (which means that the White House wanted everyone to hear this, and Helene did not have to leave her office to hear it), that “our sense is this network is operating through Iranian territory with the knowledge and at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities”. A “sense” that al-Qa’ida is operating in Iran with “at least the acquiescence of Iranian authorities” now apparently amounts to proof of a “secret deal” that can be authoritatively referenced in the announcement of a legally and politically significant action by the Treasury Department.

Without actually knowing what the White House knows, it's really impossible to speculate. While skepticism is always warranted in claims such as these, it's worth asking what the Obama administration would have to gain by fabricating or hyping thin evidence here. I think the Iraq analogy is a bit off base - it's clear that the Obama administration is not itching for a war with Iran. Instead, they used the charges as the basis for sanctions on several Iranian officials. Nor is this the kind of charge that could move the needle in the debate over a residual U.S. troop presence in Iraq.

I suppose it's possible that the Obama administration had no other way to sanction these Iranians without recourse to allegations about al-Qaeda ties, but is that plausible?

(AP Photo)

July 28, 2011

Revolutionary Guard Commander to Head OPEC?

The Guardian reports:

A senior commander of Iran's revolutionary guards, who is subject to comprehensive international sanctions, has been nominated as the country's oil minister, a position that currently includes the presidency of Opec.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, sent a list of four ministers, including Rostam Ghasemi, commander of the revolutionary guards' Khatam al-Anbia military and industrial base, to the parliament for approval, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Should the parliament confirm Ghasemi's nomination next week, the commander, who is targeted by US, EU and Australian sanctions, will be automatically appointed as head of Opec, giving the revolutionary guards access to an influential international platform.

July 11, 2011

Are Iran Sanctions Working?

The Obama administration is toasting its success in putting the economic screws to Iran:

After two years of failed efforts to entice Iran with diplomatic carrots, the Obama administration is quietly toasting successes at using economic sticks. A series of U.S. and international sanctions imposed over the past year have slowly undermined Iran’s ability to conduct trade by targeting the country’s access to international banking, insurers and transportation companies. Like Maersk, some firms voluntarily cut ties with Iranian companies that U.S. officials say are front operations for the Revolutionary Guard.

At the same time, the United States has backed international efforts to lower global petroleum prices, bringing the collateral benefit of stripping Iran of revenue that it has used to offset the economic costs of sanctions.

The measures have not slowed Iran’s race to make the enriched uranium needed to produce a nuclear weapon. But current and former U.S. officials say the sanctions are having unparalleled success in creating significant hardships for key Iranian industries. [Emphasis mine]

Ultimately, if North Korea can see their ramshackle nuclear program through in the teeth of some of the world's toughest sanctions, it's hard to see how sanctions will ultimately stop Iran.

June 1, 2011

Bolivia Invites, Then Disinvites, Accused Iranian Terrorist

Iran, whose embassy in Bolivia is the largest in our hemisphere, recently sent Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi to Bolivia at the Bolivian Defense Ministry's invitation.

While in Bolivia, Vahidi attended a ceremony with President Evo Morales:

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The article does not touch on the nature of Vahidi's visit to the BDM. Argentinian officials apparently protested however, because Bolivia's foreign minister wrote a letter of apology to the Argentinian foreign minister, and Vahidi was sent out of the country. The apology claimed that:

The invitation . . . had been issued by the Bolivian defence ministry which did not know the background to the case and had not co-ordinated with other departments.

Vahidi, who was asked this week to leave the country, is wanted for being behind the 1994 Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) bombing.

Argentina had previously protested Vahidi's appointment as Defense Minister, which Iran carefully ignored.

Vahidi is not the only Iranian accused of being connected to the AMIA bombing who travels to Latin America. As you may recall, Mohsen Rabbani, who is also wanted for the bombings, is believed to be recruiting in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico.

Argentina continues to press the case on the 1994 AMIA and 1992 Israeli embassy bombings.

Cross-posted at Fausta's blog.

(AP Photo)

May 25, 2011

Staying in Iraq

Frederick Kagan has a new report (pdf) out making the case for an extended U.S. presence in Iraq beyond 2012. Here's what's in it for the United States:

A long-term strategic military partnership also benefits the United States. It would deter serious Iranian adventurism in Iraq and help Baghdad resist Iranian pressure to conform to Tehran's policies aimed at excluding the United States and its allies from a region of vital interest to the West.

In other words we must stay in Iraq to ensure that we can stay in Iraq.

While Kagan devotes the majority of the report to arguing why U.S. forces should stay within Iraq, he doesn't devote any space to arguing how the U.S. should go about convincing the Iraqi government. And indeed, Kagan admits that the Maliki government is "of two minds" about letting the U.S. retain a military presence in his country after the Status of Forces Agreement expires. One theme Kagan does stress is that Iraq should allow U.S. troops to stay in the country to keep Iraq free of foreign interference. This, for instance, was apparently written without irony:

If Maliki allows the United States to leave Iraq, he is effectively declaring his intent to fall in line with Tehran’s wishes, to subordinate Iraq’s foreign policy to the Persians, and, possibly, to consolidate his own power as a sort of modern Persian satrap in Baghdad. If Iraq’s leaders allow themselves to be daunted by fear of Maliki or Iran, they will be betraying their people, who have shed so much blood to establish a safe, independent, multiethnic, multisectarian, unitary Iraqi state with representative institutions of government. Maliki and Iraq’s other leaders contemplating such a course should beware the persistent dangers of the Arab Spring to would-be autocrats and those who appear to place control of their countries in the hands of foreigners.

Replace "Persian" with "American" and you can make the exact same argument from the standpoint of Iraqi nationalism. Kagan's entire argument is that Iraq's value to the United States hinges, in great measure, on how it can be used to defenestrate Iran. In other words, both the Americans and the Iranians are attempting to use Iraq in much the same way - as a springboard to enhance their power.

May 14, 2011

The Gulf Cooperation Council Expansion

Suleiman al-Khalidi writes on the emerging anti-Iran bloc in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and what the newly formed club could look like if Jordan and Morocco - two countries which are certainly punching below the weight of GCC members Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar - decide to join in:

Ali Anouzla, editor of independent Moroccan news portal Lakome.com, said: "This looks like an alliance that will be against both geography and strategic common sense."

"Amid the popular revolts demanding democracy, it feels more like a political alliance aimed at preserving the stability and the continuity of Arab monarchies, the majority of which are led by prominent tribes and clans in their respective countries."

Reactions from other corners of the Muslim world were overwhelmingly supportive of the surprising step. Speaking from Riyadh after a meeting with King Abdullah, Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak voiced his support for the steps, particularly focused on Bahrain, saying, "Malaysia fully backs all sovereign decisions taken by Saudi Arabia and GCC states to safeguard the stability and security of the region in these trying times."

The question is just how much of this expansion has to do with safeguarding, and how much of it is reactionary crackdown. Elliott Abrams outlines the consequences for the Arab world of such a step:

An enlarged and well financed GCC can provide real leadership to the Arab world. The members are all countries with good relations with the United States, including in most cases close intelligence and military ties. The trick will be to prevent the GCC from becoming a reactionaries club, trying to avoid “carefully considered reform” and instead to preserve royal roles that make constitutional monarchy and democracy impossible. The legitimizing principle of government in the 21st century is popular sovereignty. The GCC monarchs can adjust to that, as many European monarchs did—or in the end disappear as did many other European kings and princes, ending up living in exile in rented mansions with plenty of time to contemplate what went wrong.

As we move into a new period in the Arab world, whether we answer these questions in a way that allows for less bloodshed and more smooth transitions may be up to the newly expanded GCC.

May 12, 2011

Not Your Ayatollah's Iran

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Addressing the recent political row in Iran, Geneive Abdo suggests that Western observers should stick to the known knowns in the Islamic Republic:

Ahmadinejad and Mashaie, whom the president hopes will succeed him when his term expires in 2013, envision a future Iran devoid of Islamic orthodoxy. This attempt to take Iran in a new direction has prompted accusations from high-ranking clerics that Ahmadinejad and Mashaie are influenced by religious "deviants" who believe in supernatural powers and djinns, or spirits. In fact, in the past Mashaie has said he can interpret for himself the Islamic texts, such as the Quran, and does not need the clergy -- an enormous threat to the clerical establishment's claim to religious sanction for their hold on power. In response, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi told a group of IRGC officers and staff that, "In order to learn the religion, one must go to scholars of the religion and not to exorcists and monks. Which wise person would accept learning the faith from exorcists and monks instead of scholars of the faith?"

Not only would Ahmadinejad and Mashaie's vision lead to the marginalization of Iran's clerics, but it would also make it far less likely that Iran could exert influence in Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon, Palestine and continue to call the shots in Iraq. Without the clerical establishment, Iran would have no religious or moral authority to interfere in these countries, where Iran seeks to extend its political influence in the name of Islam. This is definitely bad news for the United States and other Western governments, which worry that Iran will succeed in extending its influence in the Arab world, particularly after the Arab uprisings.

While this is a downside to Khamenei's triumph in the power struggle, his victory has preserved a system the West might not understand but one that so far remains somewhat predictable. Such is the state of affairs inside Iran's regime that Khamenei and the conservatives the United States once called "hard-liners" are now a safer bet than the wild card that is Ahmadinejad.

I'm on the fence about this, though I believe Abdo makes a compelling case. The only thing worse than doctrinal theocracy might be a kind of lay theocracy done on the fly - there's a predictable awfulness to the current Iranian regime that could potentially worsen were it subject to interpretive awfulness.

Mashaei, on the other hand, has made some relatively encouraging comments about Iran's domestic and international behavior, suggesting that a modern Iran and an Islamic Iran needn't be mutually exclusive.

This, in my mind, is less an ideological rift than a generational one. Iran is a highly dysfunctional and corrupt kleptocracy run, often at very high levels, by clerics with zero business running the day-to-day business of a country. Ahmadinejad has worked to replace these clerics with seemingly more qualified, technocrat-types - he is, keep in mind, an engineer by training - in keeping with what appears to be some kind of 'vision' for a more modern, nationalistic Iran governed by smart, patriotic and pious men with ties to the revolutionary guard (sound like anyone we know?).

Left out of this process, oddly enough, are those most qualified to actually weigh in on Iran's more modern, nationalistic future: the Green Movement. And rather than include the Greens in this national, uh, dialogue, the regime's warring conservatives instead saw past their differences long enough to target and imprison Iran's reformists, lest they get in the way of the important business of reforming Iran. (Welcome to the Byzantine world of Tehranology.)

It's a pity, to paraphrase Henry Kissinger, that both of these conservative factions cannot lose, but I believe that they will, in time - and hopefully at the hands of those whom they've left out of the present in-fight.

(AP photo)

April 27, 2011

Obama Official: We Did Not Want to Side With Iran Protesters

In response to Ryan Lizza's must-read piece on Obama's foreign policy for the inclusion of several jaw-dropping anecdotes, Elliott Abrams offers a series of devastating critiques. One in particular stood out to me:

Many critics have argued that the Obama Administration seemed annoyed when Iranians rose up in June 2009 after the elections there were stolen. It appeared that the President was set on engagement with the ayatollahs, and was not at all pleased to see Iranians demanding freedom. Now we have it from someone who served in the Administration: “The core of it was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.” In the annals of American human rights policy, the phrase “we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters” will hold a special place of dishonor.

This is indeed disturbing. Abrams notes a later quote, where “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’”

It strikes me that if a critic of the President had so described his foreign policy, that critic would be accused of sarcasm and disrespect. But as Lizza writes, that summary “does accurately describe the balance that Obama now seems to be finding.”

This word, "leading" - I do not think it means what you think it means.

April 25, 2011

Cyber Warfare With Iran on the Rise

In 2010, Iran’s atomic program was targeted by the Stuxnet computer worm to slow down uranium enrichment in centrifuges at its Natanz nuclear facility. Earlier this year, the 1000-megawatt Bushehr nuclear power plant was forced offline as well just as it was commencing operation.

Now Iranian officials claim their nation’s defense facilities have been the target of more cyber warfare. According to the Mehr News Agency, which reports in Farsi, Arabic, English, German, Turkish and Urdu, in addition to publishing the Tehran Times:

TEHRAN, April 25 (MNA) -- Iran has been targeted by a new computer worm dubbed Stars, the director of Iran’s Passive Defense Organization announced on Monday. Fortunately the Iranian experts spotted the computer worm and are still studying the malware, Gholam-Reza Jalali told the Mehr News Agency. No final result has been achieved yet, he added. “[However], certain characteristics about the Stars worm have been identified, including that it is compatible with the [targeted] system,” Jalali stated.

In November 2010, Iran’s Basij paramilitia, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, established a 1,500 person “Cyber warriors” unit. Shortly thereafter, in February 2011, the Voice of America website was attacked by pro-Iranian hackers calling themselves the Iranian Cyber Army. Twitter and Google too have experienced electronic intrusions by pro-Iranian or Iran-based hackers.

Cyber warfare between the Iranian government and nations opposed to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and political expansionism seems to be on the upswing. More electronic disruptions are likely on both sides.

April 18, 2011

Saudi-Iran Cold War

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The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend about the "new Cold War" in the Middle East:

There has long been bad blood between the Saudis and Iran. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni Muslim kingdom of ethnic Arabs, Iran a Shiite Islamic republic populated by ethnic Persians. Shiites first broke with Sunnis over the line of succession after the death of the Prophet Mohammed in the year 632; Sunnis have regarded them as a heretical sect ever since. Arabs and Persians, along with many others, have vied for the land and resources of the Middle East for almost as long.

These days, geopolitics also plays a role. The two sides have assembled loosely allied camps. Iran holds in its sway Syria and the militant Arab groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories; in the Saudi sphere are the Sunni Muslim-led Gulf monarchies, Egypt, Morocco and the other main Palestinian faction, Fatah. The Saudi camp is pro-Western and leans toward tolerating the state of Israel. The Iranian grouping thrives on its reputation in the region as a scrappy "resistance" camp, defiantly opposed to the West and Israel.

If you had to venture a guess as to which state was more likely to emerge as a moderately liberalizing, less anti-American force in the Middle East in 10 to 15 years would it be Saudi Arabia or Iran?

I genuinely don't know the answer, but it really doesn't matter because the U.S. is already knee deep in this thing on behalf of the House of Saud.

That said, we need to be clear about the forces we're supporting. Saudi Arabia may be pro-Western in the sense that they've agreed to take American money and have U.S. soldiers fight on their behalf in exchange for doing what they would do no matter who was protecting them (i.e. sell oil), but I don't think there's a natural "pro-Western" constituency in the country outside of the elite. There's also that little matter of Wahhabi proselytizing, which hasn't exactly been a boon to U.S. security. Not too many Iranians flocked to al-Qaeda in the 1990s.

(AP Photo)

April 6, 2011

Dept. of Odd Excuses

Victor Davis Hanson is unhappy with the Obama administration's approach to the Middle East. I agree with Hanson that the approach has been ad-hoc, but this bit jumped out at me:

Obama turned his back on a million protesters in the streets of Tehran, with bizarre promises not to “meddle,” coupled with vague apologies about American behavior more than a half-century ago. A golden opportunity to help topple a vicious anti-American theocracy was turned into a buffoonish effort to appear multiculturally sensitive.

Er, no. What does "multicultural sensitivity" have to do with it? President Obama kept mum because he thought interjecting the U.S. into Iran's uprising would do more harm than good. You can agree or disagree with that reasoning - but it was the reasoning. "Multicultural sensitivity" had nothing to do with it.

April 5, 2011

The U.S. as the Soviet Union

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Gideon Rachman draws a striking analogy:

Like the USSR in 1989, the US chose the honourable option in refusing to let its regional ally stay in power through force. But, like the Russians, the US now has to worry that it will sacrifice power in a traditional sphere of influence. American officials know that they risk losing friends and endangering economic and security interests in an emerging Middle East that they barely understand. After the fall of Mr Mubarak, a senior US official was heard to lament: “But we do everything with Egypt. Who do we work with now?”

I think it's obvious that the U.S. is going to lose some influence in the region as more democratic societies emerge (if they emerge). But that's not necessarily a bad thing - presiding over a status quo in which you're resented as a meddling, imperial power isn't sustainable and in any event isn't really necessary. Oil is sold on an open market and Middle Eastern states don't need to like us to take our money.

But that is not the approach the Obama administration is taking. Instead, according to David Sanger, they're viewing all events in the Middle East through the prism of containing Iran - a country that is a negligible military power already beset by internal fissures. That means that any democratic aspirations in states, like Bahrain, that could enhance Iran's power must be crushed, while those that have only a tenuous connection to Iran, like Libya, can be championed.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence to date that the Obama administration has any finer grasp on Middle East micromanagement than previous U.S. administrations.

(AP Photo)

April 4, 2011

The Obama Administration's Iran Spin

“It shouldn’t be overstated that this was the deciding factor, or even a principal factor” in the decision to intervene in Libya, Benjamin J. Rhodes, a senior aide who joined in the meeting, said last week. But, he added, the effect on Iran was always included in the discussion. In this case, he said, “the ability to apply this kind of force in the region this quickly — even as we deal with other military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan — combined with the nature of this broad coalition sends a very strong message to Iran about our capabilities, militarily and diplomatically.”

That afternoon in the Situation Room vividly demonstrates a rarely stated fact about the administration’s responses to the uprisings sweeping the region: The Obama team holds no illusions about Colonel Qaddafi’s long-term importance. Libya is a sideshow. Containing Iran’s power remains their central goal in the Middle East. Every decision — from Libya to Yemen to Bahrain to Syria — is being examined under the prism of how it will affect what was, until mid-January, the dominating calculus in the Obama administration’s regional strategy: how to slow Iran’s nuclear progress, and speed the arrival of opportunities for a successful uprising there. - David Sanger

There's a lot to say about this, if it indeed reflects the administration's thinking. The first thing to point out is that the idea that America's intervention in Libya is in any way frightening to Tehran strikes me as an enormous stretch.

First, the Obama administration set up a multitude of conditions before it used force: the prospect of an imminent and massive humanitarian catastrophe, strong multilateral backing, NATO in the lead, etc. None of those conditions would likely be met for a preemptive military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Second, the administration has talked tough about removing Gaddafi but has failed to match its military strategy with its rhetoric. Far from fearing the display of American fire power and capabilities, the Supreme Leader & co. would likely conclude (if they haven't already) that American politicians let their mouths run far ahead of their intentions.

Finally, as Doug Bandow pointed out, the administration has actually dealt a massive blow to its hopes of convincing rogue regimes to disarm peacefully. Why on Earth would Iran - watching what's happening to Libya's erstwhile regime - give up a nuclear weapon now and leave itself vulnerable to military action? This is the lesson North Korea has drawn from Libya and it is, from the standpoint of a rogue regime, an utterly correct one.

The administration needs to get their Libya spin straight. On Friday, they're telling David Brooks that they plunged the U.S. into the middle of Libya's civil war with the understanding that it could hamstring the U.S. for years to come; on Sunday they're telling David Sanger that Libya is a "sideshow." Another lesson that Iran, and more charitable observers, is likely to draw from these conflicting signals is that the administration doesn't actually have a coherent strategy - for Libya, for Iran or for the greater Middle East. That's understandable, given the fast-moving unrest and tumult, but it is considerably less forgivable now that they've gone ahead and entangled the U.S. into a deeply problematic civil war.

March 7, 2011

China, Iran & Smart Power

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Via Daniel Drezner, it looks like Secretary Clinton is rethinking that whole "smart power" thing:

As Clinton railed against cuts sought by Republican to the U.S. foreign aid program, she told senators, "We are a competition for influence with China. Let's put aside the humanitarian, do-good side of what we believe in. Let's just talk straight realpolitik. We are in competition with China."

She noted a "huge energy find" in Papua New Guinea by U.S. company Exxon Mobil Corp., which has begun drilling for natural gas there. Clinton said China was jockeying for influence in the region and seeing how it could "come in behind us and come in under us."...

She said foreign assistance was important on humanitarian and moral grounds, but also strategically essential for America's global influence.

"I mean, if anybody thinks that our retreating on these issues is somehow going to be irrelevant to the maintenance of our leadership in a world where we are competing with China, where we are competing with Iran, that is a mistaken notion," Clinton said.

Grouping China and Iran into the same category is wrong for a number of reasons, not least because the nature of the relationships are fundamentally different. China and the U.S. may not be fast friends, but the relationship is considerably better than it is between the U.S. and Iran. Having America's top diplomat lump the two nations together doesn't seem particularly helpful.

Moreover, if the best the administration can do in defense of foreign aid is complain that Exxon Mobile might get the short end of a few Asia Pacific oil deals, they're going to have to up their game.

(AP Photo)

February 24, 2011

Crushing the Green Movement

The failures of defeated presidential candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to convincingly document their assertions of electoral fraud and the Green Movement's pivotal role in the West's progressive demonization of the Islamic Republic since June 2009 have not played well with most Iranians inside Iran. That's why, for example, former President Mohammad Khatami has quietly distanced himself from what is left of the Green Movement -- as has every reformist politician who wants to have a political future in the Islamic Republic. As a result of these highly consequential miscalculations by the opposition's ostensible leaders, those who want to try again to organize a mass movement against the Islamic Republic have a much smaller pool of troops that they might potentially be able to mobilize. This is not a winning hand, even in an era of Facebook and Twitter. - Flynt & Hillary Mann Leverett

The Leveretts have been making the case for some time that the Iranian Green Movement is far less popular in Iran than many in the West believe (or assert). And there is evidence to buttress that claim. But it seems odd to make the case the Leveretts make above and not mention the regime's brutal suppression of the protesters, including a rash of executions. Surely that must play some role in the calculus of the Iranian people and elite as they weigh whether or not to throw their lot in with the Green Movement.

February 21, 2011

Will Israel Strike Iran?

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Not likely, according to David Gordon and Cliff Kupchan:

References to Iran as an existential threat or to the country's nuclear program as raising the specter of another Holocaust have been typical among Israeli officials. But on a recent research trip to Israel, we heard surprisingly little anxiety. No official spoke about a threshold beyond which Iran's program would be unstoppable -- a deadline that in the past was always one year off. And elites across the political spectrum for now favor sanctions and covert action, rather than military force, to deter Iran. As a result, the chance of Israeli strikes in the next eighteen months is very low.

This makes sense - given all the regional unrest, why would Israel want to change the story? And while Iran's regime may not fall in the short term, it's definitely on shaky ground.

(AP Photo)

February 17, 2011

Sanctions and Wrong Lessons

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Benjamin Weinthal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies writes:

Plainly said, the European Union ought to follow Washington's lead and place Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps on the EU terror list. The guard corps helped crush Monday's demonstrations and controls Iran's military-industrial complex.

European partners like Germany must fall into line with U.S. sanction efforts and shut down Iran's main financial conduit in Europe - the Hamburg-based European-Iranian Trade Bank. A group of leading U.S. senators, including Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), issued a strongly worded letter in early February to German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle about Germany's ongoing failure to end the bank's worst practices, if not close it entirely.

In 2009, the Iranian people launched protests that shook the entire Islamic world, creating the first cracks in the dam that ultimately burst with the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Iranian democrats asked during the 2009 protests: "Obama: Are you with us or against us?"

I think, in his rush to link the two uprisings, Weinthal overlooks one key element of the Egyptian revolution: leverage.

What made the Egyptian revolution a success wasn't a speech, nor was it a summit in Washington. Egyptians succeeded where Iranians failed because the latter nation's military operates as a globally ostracized crime syndicate, whereas the former functions more like a beloved Fortune 500 company. Moreover, Egypt's military apparatus stood down, while Iran's opened fire.

American influence obviously shouldn't receive all of the credit for this, but it clearly factored into the Egyptian military's decision to comply with U.S. desires for a peaceful transition sans Mubarak.

This calls into question the efficacy of the Iran sanctions regime altogether. I'm not a fan of counterfactuals, but would the 2009 unrest in Iran have gone any differently had the U.S. more aggressively engaged Tehran in say 2001 or 2003? We'll obviously never know, but it's a question sanctions advocates (like yours truly) should probably take into consideration.

(AP Photo)

February 16, 2011

Was Stuxnet a Bust?

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The Stuxnet computer virus that wreaked havoc on Iran's nuclear facilities may not have had the seismic impact that many thought, at least according to the Yukia Amano, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who was interviewed by the Washington Post:

How badly was Iran's centrifuge program affected by the [Stuxnet cyber] worm from 2009?

Iran is somehow producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent. They are producing it steadily, constantly.

The amount of enriched uranium has not been affected?

The production is very steady.

Obviously, it's difficult to know precisely what Iran's up to, but if we assume they're determined to get a nuclear weapon (or 'break-out' capability) than they'd eventually work their way around a computer virus, no matter how devastating.

(AP Photo)

February 11, 2011

Not Getting It

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Charles Krauthammer lays out a series of principles he believes the U.S. should adhere to in micro-managing supporting freedom in the Middle East. The list itself is rather anodyne but the rationale looks rather problematic:

We are, unwillingly again, parties to a long twilight struggle, this time with Islamism - most notably Iran, its proxies, and its potential allies, Sunni and Shiite. We should be clear-eyed about our preferred outcome - real democracies governed by committed democrats - and develop policies to see this through.

One thing that's important to keep in mind when reading geopolitical advice of this sort is to recognize that during the 1990s, when al-Qaeda was metastasizing, Krauthammer et. al. were more concerned with Saddam Hussein. Having misread the Sunni jihadist threat in favor of a state-based menace, we're now told that Iran represents the head of the Islamist menace. And again, it's wrong.

The signature Islamist threat to the United States does not come from Iran but from Sunni groups aligned with or fighting under the banner of al-Qaeda. Those groups may or may not be helped by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but Iran is neither here nor there. It's the Sunni groups with the demonstrated willingness and capacity to travel into the United States to slaughter innocent people. They're the ones attempting to kill Western civilians with toner cartridge bombs. They're the ones attacking mosques and military bases inside Pakistan. This is not a movement controlled by Iran - it's laughable to even suggest that when Pakistan, the outright sponsors of Sunni terrorism, can't even reign in all of its various tentacles.

Yes, Iran may fund or arm portions of this movement to bloody the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq, but that's a far cry from trying to use them as the tip of a global Islamist spear against the United States. These groups view Iran and Shia Islam in general as apostate, which is why they've gone to great lengths in both Iraq and Pakistan to butcher Shiites.

Iran poses a geopolitical challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda wants to kill you. One can make a solid case that American foreign policy needs to be more concerned with the former, but conflating the two isn't helpful.

(AP Photo)

January 17, 2011

Stuxnet & Cyber War

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It will be years before the full implications of the Stuxnet cyber attack on Iran's nuclear facilities are known and appreciated, but the LA Times reports that cyber security experts are already worried that others will be able to duplicate the worm's code:

Now that Stuxnet is in the public domain, experts are deeply concerned that hackers, criminals or terrorist groups could use some of the vulnerabilities it reveals to attack systems that control power grids, chemical plants and air traffic control.

"The attackers created a weapon that they used in a very specific way, but you can copy the attack technology and use it in a very generic way," said Sebastian Linko, spokesman for Finland's Vacon, whose power control units, which are used in Iran's nuclear program, are sought out by the worm. "This is the most scary part about Stuxnet."

From the long New York Times piece on Stuxnet, it seems very, very unlikely that a terrorist organization the likes of al-Qaeda could deploy Stuxnet. The reason the virus was apparently so effective was because its authors had detailed knowledge of the specifics of Iran's facilities and centrifuge technology - even creating a mock cascade to test the virus on. If al-Qaeda could build a uranium enrichment facility, they wouldn't be testing computer viruses on it.

(AP Photo)

January 16, 2011

Obama's Israel Hatred

The New York Times reports on another egregious example of the Obama administration coddling America's enemies while throwing a close ally under the bus:

By the accounts of a number of computer scientists, nuclear enrichment experts and former officials, the covert race to create Stuxnet was a joint project between the Americans and the Israelis, with some help, knowing or unknowing, from the Germans and the British.

The project’s political origins can be found in the last months of the Bush administration. In January 2009, The New York Times reported that Mr. Bush authorized a covert program to undermine the electrical and computer systems around Natanz, Iran’s major enrichment center. President Obama, first briefed on the program even before taking office, sped it up, according to officials familiar with the administration’s Iran strategy. So did the Israelis, other officials said.

January 12, 2011

Playing the Middle East

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Stephen Kinzer imagines U.S. foreign policy doing a 180:

One could be a "power triangle" linking the US with Turkey and Iran. These two countries make intriguing partners for two reasons. First, their societies have long experience with democracy – although for reasons having to do in part with foreign intervention, Iran has not managed to produce a government worthy of its vibrant society. Second, these two countries share many security interests with the west. Projecting Turkey's example as a counter-balance to Islamic radicalism should be a vital priority. As for Iran, it has unique ability to stabilise Iraq, can also do much to help calm Afghanistan, and is a bitter enemy of radical Sunni movements like al-Qaida and the Taliban. Contrast this alignment of interests to the dubious logic of western partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, so-called allies who also support some of the west's most violent enemies.

I think the point about close ties with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan is well taken. When you look at the trajectory of America's post 9-11 foreign policy, the regimes most directly implicated in that slaughter were (with the exception of the Taliban) embraced by Washington, while those with very little to do with international terrorism of the al-Qaeda variety (Iran and Iraq) were made the object of our ire.

That said, and leaving aside the rather dubious assertion that Iran could stabilize Iraq (aren't they just as likely to destabilize Iraq's Sunni minority?) I think Kinzer is making much the same mistake he's decrying. Trying to play one set of Middle Eastern regimes of another set is a mug's game.

(AP Photo)

January 10, 2011

Defining Success Against Iran

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Now that the Israelis are (again) pushing back their estimates for when Iran will be capable of producing a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration is starting to take some credit:

Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon has been delayed by sanctions, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said here on Monday, the strongest and most public claim by the Obama administration that its pressure campaign is hampering Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

“Iran has had technological problems that have made it slow down its timetable,” Mrs. Clinton said a televised town-hall meeting at a university in this Persian Gulf emirate. “The sanctions are working,” she added. “Their program, from our best estimate, has been slowed down."

To be sure, this isn't chest-thumping bravado, but outside of the administration supporters are also noting Iran's setbacks with approval.

It will be tempting, particularly toward the end of this year, for the administration to increasingly pat itself on the back regarding Iran, but that seems short-sighted. While the sanctions may well be hitting Iran where it hurts, Stuxnet appears to have done most of the heavy lifting - and the smart money is on Israeli paternity for that cyber worm. In a world without Stuxnet, would sanctions really have bumped Iran's program back three or four years? Not likely.

(AP Photo)

December 29, 2010

U.S. Dislikes Iran But Doesn't Want to Bomb

A new poll from Angus Reid (pdf) finds that over two thirds of Americans think Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon but only a quarter of those polled believe military force is warranted to stop them. Not surprisingly, Iran ranks as Americans' "least favorite" country when given a choice of 12 other nations, including Axis of Evil counterpart North Korea. Among the poll's other findings:

Despite these strong negative feelings and suspicions, Americans are still not in favor of any type of military engagement or intervention with Iran. In fact, the most frequent option Americans recommend to deal with Iran is engaging in diplomatic negotiations (30%, up slightly from 26% in January 2010), followed by economic sanctions (20%). Only five per cent of respondents would do nothing, claiming that Iran poses no threat to the world.

Across the country, 16 per cent of Americans would consent to launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, and seven per cent would authorize a full-scale invasion of Iran and removing the current government.

There are some striking differences when party allegiance is taken into consideration. More than half of Democrats would rely on negotiations and sanctions to deal with Iran (56%), while two-in-five Republicans (40%) would prefer to launch strikes or authorize an invasion. Independents are more likely to choose diplomacy and sanctions (52%) than air strikes or an invasion (19%).

December 28, 2010

Obama on the Regime Change Path for Iran?

Reuel Marc Gerecht and Mark Dubowitz think so, arguing that containment is a "regime change" strategy:

Political and economic isolation is designed to nurture Iran’s convulsive internal contradictions, vividly on display after the June 12, 2009, elections. The contentious issue in Iran policy isn’t the goal​—​do we want Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guards to fall? Democrats and Republicans differ on this far less than they did when President George W. Bush saw an “axis of evil.” The issue is timing: Can we put enough pressure on Khamenei and his praetorians to either crack the regime or make the supreme leader believe that the nuclear program actually threatens his rule?

I'm not sure that's correct. Let's say we achieve the second goal - convince the supreme leader that the nuclear program threatens his rule. Presumably that means that he gives the nuclear program up. At that point, American policy is satisfied. Of course, there will be plenty of neoconservatives who won't be happy until American troops liberate Tehran, but for all intents and purposes, convincing Khamenei to verifiably abandon the pursuit of a nuclear weapon would be enough for most people.

December 23, 2010

How Much Damage Did Stuxnet Do?

A new report from the Institute for Science and International Security examines the impact of the Stuxnet computer virus on the centrifuges in Iran's Natanz facility. The authors conclude that there's some ambiguity with respect to just what the virus did, but they issue this warning:

For many years, governments have pursued methods to disrupt Iran’s ability to procure goods illegally overseas for its nuclear programs, particularly its gas centrifuge program. Such overt and covert disruption activities have had significant effect in slowing Iran’s centrifuge program, while causing minimal collateral damage. In contrast to overt military strikes, there is an appeal to cyber attacks aimed at a centrifuge plant built with illegally obtained, foreign equipment, and operating in defiance of United Nations Security Council resolutions. However, Stuxnet appears to have spread unintentionally and well beyond its targets. Part of the reason is in the design of Stuxnet, which needs to spread in order to increase its chance of infecting an industrial control system via a removable drive used with an infected computer. It is important for governments to approach the question of whether using a tool like Stuxnet could open the door to future national security risks or adversely and unintentionally affect U.S. allies. Countries hostile to the United States may feel justified in launching their own attacks against U.S. facilities, perhaps even using a modified Stuxnet code. Such an attack could shut down large portions of national power grids or other critical infrastructure using malware designed to target critical components inside a major system, causing a national emergency.

I think as long as the majority of the damage and havoc caused by Stuxnet is confined to Iran's facilities, the attack should be deemed a success. Putting time back on Iran's nuclear clock without having to court another war in the Middle East is all to the good. However, if the virus winds up causing major damage to other countries' nuclear infrastructure, then obviously the 'collateral damage' issue becomes much more significant.

December 22, 2010

Carter and Pakistan's Nukes

The Times of India reports on America's earlier effort to curtail nuclear proliferation:

Despite a persistent anxiety over its nuclear programme, the Carter administration failed miserably in efforts to pressurise Pakistan away from fuel enrichment and officials were left "scratching their heads" on how to tackle the problem, newly declassified documents have shown.

The recently declassified US government documents from the Jimmy Carter administration, published on the Internet today by the National Security Archive shed light on the critical period in the late 1970s when US first became aware of Pakistan's nuclear intentions.

The documents show that Pakistani nuclear weapons programme had been a source of anxiety for American policymakers ever since the late 1970s when Washington discovered that metallurgist A Q Khan had stolen blueprints for a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility.

Washington will probably prove equally ineffectual when it comes to stopping Iran's nuclear program.

December 16, 2010

Is the U.S. Behind Iranian Terror?

Reza Aslan wonders if the U.S. isn't playing a role in terror attacks inside Iran:

In 2007, ABC News cited U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources as saying American officials had been secretly advising and encouraging Jundullah militants to carry out attacks against targets inside Iran. The following year, in 2008, Seymour Hersh’s shocking New Yorker investigation revealed that the Bush administration had been funding covert operations inside Iran designed to destabilize the country’s leadership since 2005. According to Hersh, these covert activities included support for Baluchi groups such as Jundullah. That same year, Pakistan's former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Baig, claimed to have firsthand knowledge that the United States was providing training facilities to Jundullah militants in Pakistan and southeastern Iran, specifically to sow unrest between the two neighboring countries.
Obviously the U.S. is no stranger to this kind of stuff (see Afghanistan circa 1980) but two caveats are in order. First, the sources quoted above are the long and short of Aslan's evidence that the U.S. is behind these attacks. Second, I'd like to think - really, really would like to think - that American policy makers wouldn't be so short-sighted as to fund a Sunni militant group in Pakistan (!) simply to knock off a few Revolutionary Guardsmen.

Update: This 2007 Daily Telegraph article reports that it's not a well-kept secret that the U.S. is using the group to stir up trouble in Iran:

Funding for their separatist causes comes directly from the CIA's classified budget but is now "no great secret", according to one former high-ranking CIA official in Washington who spoke anonymously to The Sunday Telegraph.

His claims were backed by Fred Burton, a former US state department counter-terrorism agent, who said: "The latest attacks inside Iran fall in line with US efforts to supply and train Iran's ethnic minorities to destabilise the Iranian regime."

Again, skepticism is warranted, but still you'd have to marvel at the incredible absurdity of such a policy, should it exist.

(AP Photo)

December 10, 2010

Taking on Iran's Supreme Leader

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The war of words and deeds is heating up even further between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s secular Chief of Staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, who is rumored to be a presidential hopeful in 2013, and the mullahs wishing to sustain velayat-e faqih, or guardianship by the clerics, as the sole form of government in Iran.

Previously, Mashaei had criticized the clerics as incompetent politicians and tyrannical administrators who are out of touch with most Iranians. His website even called for their ouster. The mullahs in turn have labeled him a heretic and vowed to block his political ambitions.

Now Mashaei is taking on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei directly.

Lately the Supreme Leader has been denouncing music – both Persian and Western – as unsuitable for the Islamic Republic:

"Teaching and encouraging music is not compatible with the highest values of the sacred system of the Islamic Republic."

Khamenei reportedly prefers prayer and revolutionary chants.

However, Iran’s increasingly independent youth are turning amass to music as a form of rebellion against the Islamic regime and embracing globalization.

The 50-year old Mashaei, who has increasingly been positioning himself as the champion of younger Iranians, ridiculed the Supreme Leader’s anti-music stance while addressing a gathering of artists in the city of Arak (Sultanabad):

When I speak frankly, they [the mullahs] call me a blasphemer. But many of them don’t understand music and so they claim music is religiously unacceptable. They pray so much … that they have become unaware of God. They see not God but an illusion … for they pray facing the wrong Kaaba [in the Grand mosque at Mecca] and so don't understand music either. They are incapable of comprehending the world of poetry and arts which is the pinnacle [of civilization]. Unlike them I am an engineer; consequently I understand the seabed of the arts.

Mashaei is already on record as claiming that those Iranians who focus on religion rather than science will never see heaven.

So despite Supreme Leader Khamenei's attempts at reconciliation between the warring factions of Iran’s ruling class, to preserve his own authority, the breakup continues apace at his expense.

(AP Photo)

Polling Iran

A new survey finds of Iranian opinion has a little something for everyone:

The majority of Iranians are in favor of their country having nuclear weapons, despite the fact that they are worried about international sanctions, according to a poll carried out by US-based Charney Research for the International Peace Institute.

The poll found that 71 percent of Iranians want the country to have atomic weapons, a number that stood on only 52 percent in 2007. Forty-seven percent of respondents believed international sanctions on the Islamic Republic were having a major impact.

Also:

The poll found that, by a three-to-one majority, Iranians want closer ties to the West, not reduced links. They also support Western criticism of Iranian human rights violations and aid to Iranian nongovernmental organizations.

There's something in the poll to confirm that even a democratic Iran might not give up its nuclear weapons ambition and evidence that Iranians would welcome some Western assistance (although not to overthrow the current regime).

December 9, 2010

Turkey's Growing Role in Baghdad

Ibrahim al-Sumaidaie explains:

"With the rising pressure of the international community and increase of sanctions and hints of military actions against Iran, the near future will witness a rise for the Turkish role," he said.

"The Turkish role has the blessing of the international community and is backed by Arab countries. It has not met any Iraqi objection, as happened with the Saudis, who faced objections from the Shi'ites, or with the Iranians, who faced objections from the Sunnis," he said.

Iranian Missiles in Venezuela?

I have been posting about the close ties between Iran and Venezuela for years now, and last month Welt Online published this report,
"Achse Caracas–Teheran
Iran plant Bau einer Raketenstellung in Venezuela"
("Caracas-Tehran Axis: Iran plans to build a missile base in Venezuela." You can read the Google translation here).

The article refers to an agreement signed on October 19 this year:

According to information received by Welt on Line, Iran's Supreme Security Council had proposed a joint military facility on Venezuelan soil to increase the deterrent power of Iran against the West. The cooperation would be a way for Iran to build a strategic base in South American - in the backyard of the United States.

Barack Obama, coincidentally, has already stated that a nuclear-powered Venezuela is fine by him.

Anna Mahjar-Barducci at Hudson New York has more on the Iran-Venezuela missile agreement,
Iran Placing Medium-Range Missiles in Venezuela; Can Reach the U.S.:

At a moment when NATO members found an agreement, in the recent Lisbon summit (19-20 November 2010), to develop a Missile Defence capability to protect NATO's populations and territories in Europe against ballistic missile attacks from the East (namely, Iran), Iran's counter-move consists in establishing a strategic base in the South American continent - in the United States's soft underbelly.

According to Die Welt, Venezuela has agreed to allow Iran to establish a military base manned by Iranian missile officers, soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Venezuelan missile officers. In addition, Iran has given permission for the missiles to be used in case of an "emergency". In return, the agreement states that Venezuela can use these facilities for "national needs" – radically increasing the threat to neighbors like Colombia. The German daily claims that according to the agreement, Iranian Shahab 3 (range 1300-1500 km), Scud-B (285-330 km) and Scud-C (300, 500 and 700 km) will be deployed in the proposed base. It says that Iran also pledged to help Venezuela in rocket technology expertise, including intensive training of officers.

Of course, considering the flights between Iran and Venezuela, Iranian personnel may be manning the technology in Venezuela.

Continue reading "Iranian Missiles in Venezuela?" »

November 30, 2010

Does WikiLeaks Confirm Linkage?

There's many in U.S. foreign policy circles who believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is the key to making America's life a lot easier - both in the Middle East and with the broader war on terror. Since the conflict is "linked" to the region's ills and to the broader threat of terrorism, it's imperative for the U.S. to try and solve it. Jennifer Rubin thinks the WikiLeak cables prove that "linkage" theory is bunk:

Recall that the Obama team over and over again has made the argument that progress on the Palestinian conflict was essential to obtaining the help of the Arab states in confronting Iran’s nuclear threat. We know that this is simply and completely false.

The documents show that the Arab states were hounding the administration to take action against Iran. The King of Bahrain urged Obama to rec0gnize that the danger of letting the Iranian nuclear program come to fruition was worse than the fallout from stopping it....

In short, there is zero evidence that the Palestinian non-peace talks were essential to obtaining the assistance of the Arab states on Iran.

Matt Duss argues that the case for linkage is more modest than Rubin claims, highlighting this quote from Dennis Ross as being the crux of the "real" linkage argument:

Pursuing peace is not a substitute for dealing with the other challenges… It is also not a panacea. But especially as it relates to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, if one could do that, it would deny state and non-state actors a tool they use to exploit anger and grievances.

He then notes several cables showing how Arab states, aside from asking for military action against Iran, were also privately urging on peace talks and arguing that a resolution to the conflict would help them and help stabilize the Middle East.

Much of this debate hinges on what you think the real linkage argument consists of - the more sweeping one that Rubin thinks is debunked by the cables, or the more modest one that Duss believes is bolstered by them.

But even accepting that the "modest" linkage argument is the real one, I'm not sure how this helps the administration. Bringing an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems like an awful lot of work for such a small payout.

November 29, 2010

Why Obama's Iran Engagement "Worked"

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The New York Times unearths some insights, via WikiLeaks, on how the Obama administration set in motion its Iran policy:

When Mr. Obama took office, many allies feared that his offers of engagement would make him appear weak to the Iranians. But the cables show how Mr. Obama’s aides quickly countered those worries by rolling out a plan to encircle Iran with economic sanctions and antimissile defenses. In essence, the administration expected its outreach to fail, but believed that it had to make a bona fide attempt in order to build support for tougher measures.

Matt Duss draws a lesson:

That last point is key, as some have tried to argue that Obama only turned to the pressure track after the engagement track failed. The truth about Obama’s Iran policy, and this is something Obama was quite clear about even during the presidential campaign, is that not only do engagement and pressure work together, engagement itself can be a form of pressure, as it has been with Iran.

There's two things to note about this. The first is that it disproves a widely circulated talking point about the Obama administration's Iran policy - that it was some kind of naive foray, all carrot and no stick. Second, and relatedly, it also confirms the point that the Leveretts have been making about Iran - that the Obama administration's engagement was a lot less than met the eye and was clearly connected to punitive measures. Mind you, I don't believe, as the Leveretts do, that some kind of break-through was there for the taking if the Obama administration had simply approached Iran in a spirit of good faith. But Iran's behavior toward the Obama administration's attempts at engagement makes a little more sense when it's understood that Obama's "open hand" was clasping a pair of poorly concealed brass knuckles.

(AP Photo)

November 28, 2010

WikiLeaks and American Leadership in the Middle East

We've heard a lot in recent months how "American leadership" in the Middle East has been called into question. David Ignatius put the conventional wisdom best when he wrote that "U.S. power in the region is perceived to be weakening." Senator Joseph Lieberman devoted an entire speech to the subject.

To understand what this actually means, it's useful to review some recently disclosed information:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has repeatedly urged the United States to attack Iran to destroy its nuclear programme, according to leaked US diplomatic cables that describe how other Arab allies have secretly agitated for military action against Tehran.

The revelations, in secret memos from US embassies across the Middle East, expose behind-the-scenes pressures in the scramble to contain the Islamic Republic, which the US, Arab states and Israel suspect is close to acquiring nuclear weapons. Bombing Iranian nuclear facilities has hitherto been viewed as a desperate last resort that could ignite a far wider war....

Leaders in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt referred to Iran as "evil", an "existential threat" and a power that "is going to take us to war".

Now, we learn something else from these cables, namely:

Saudi donors remain the chief financiers of Sunni militant groups like Al Qaeda, and the tiny Persian Gulf state of Qatar, a generous host to the American military for years, was the “worst in the region” in counterterrorism efforts, according to a State Department cable last December. Qatar’s security service was “hesitant to act against known terrorists out of concern for appearing to be aligned with the U.S. and provoking reprisals,” the cable said.

There may be good reasons for the U.S. to use force to delay Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but to do so because the chief financiers of al-Qaeda asked us seems like a pretty lousy one to me. So the next time you hear some pundit or politician moan about American power or leadership in the Middle East, or how our "allies" are doubting our resolve, this is what it's about: having American men and women die on behalf of decadent monarchs and presidents-for-life who are unwilling to fight their own battles.

November 19, 2010

Iran's Rap Sheet

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A consistent criticism of the Obama administration is that they has failed to robustly support Iran's pro-democracy dissidents. It's a charge voiced by, among others, Senator John McCain and scores of pundits and analysts.

Implicit in this condemnation is the notion that should Iran's Green Movement come to power, it would shift the country's nuclear policy in a direction amenable to the United States. This outcome seems to hinge on two assumptions. First, that any Green movement regime would be better than the current leadership and two, that U.S. support for Iranian dissidents wouldn't reduce their domestic credibility or backfire in any other unforeseen way, as previous American attempts to steer Iran's internal politics have.

To understand, however, the scope of what any putative Green movement regime would have to do to satisfy Washington's demands, it's useful to read this piece from Michael Singh. In it, Singh catalogs a laundry list of Iranian malfeasance, such as pervasive weapons smuggling and support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Singh concludes:

And it calls for realism, because it demonstrates that even a resolution of the nuclear issue would only begin to address the far broader concerns about the regime and its activities, making a true U.S.-Iran reconciliation far away indeed.

So for any Green-movement figure to come to power, they would not only have to make substantial changes to the country's nuclear program but reverse considerable swaths of the country's foreign policy to satisfy the demands of the United States. Is that realistic?

(AP Photo)

November 15, 2010

Helsinki, Human Rights and the Green Movement

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Ray Takeyh believes it's high the West linked human rights to Iranian nuclear negotiations:

As part of any negotiations with the West, the Islamic Republic should be asked to amend not just its nuclear infractions but also its human rights abuses. This entails releasing political prisoners, lifting the restrictions on civil society groups and allowing publication of banned newspapers. Unless Tehran accedes to such measures, it must continue to confront economic pressure and political isolation. Should the United States take such an unequivocal stand as part of its diplomatic outreach, it can further stimulate domestic dissent in Iran. In the meantime, an isolated, weakened regime faced with economic decline, political ferment and international ostracism maybe tempted to offer important concessions to escape its predicament. The path to disarmament and democracy lies in making common cause with the Green Movement and making Iran's behavior toward its citizens a precondition to its reintegration in the community of nations.

This is all well and good, but how exactly - assuming the Green Movement is indeed as viable and organized as Takeyh asserts - do you get profligate human rights abusers such as China to go along with such preconditions? Sanctions will only work so long as Tehran runs out of markets to run to, and China will have to play a big part in the enforcement of such restrictions. (Getting Beijing to play ball on this has already proven difficult, and that's without the human rights language proposed by Mr. Takeyh.)

He goes on to cite the 1975 Helsinki Accords as an historical example of human rights-linked diplomacy, but I fail to see the parallel. Iran, needless to say, is not the Soviet Union, nor does it present the same imperative threat to the Western world as did the Soviets. The Helsinki Accords were a multilateral effort to prevent a world war over borders and sovereignty; a cartographic crisis plan, of sorts.

The situation in Iran simply isn't the same, and I don't know that leaders in Beijing, Moscow or even Brussels feel the same sense of urgency and danger as the key players in Helsinki once did.

(AP Photo)

November 11, 2010

Saudi Arabia: Bastion of Women's Rights

It really is hard to take the UN very seriously, isn't it:


Iran failed yesterday to secure a seat on the board running the new UN super agency for women in the face of a fierce diplomatic onslaught against its rights record.

But Saudi Arabia, criticized for refusing even to let women drive, got an automatic seat and rights groups said they will now seek to throw the spotlight on the kingdom's record.


November 7, 2010

Foreign Policy After the Midterms, Ctd.

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Senator Lindsey Graham gets the ball rolling:

If President Barack Obama "decides to be tough with Iran beyond sanctions, I think he is going to feel a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapon," he told the Halifax International Security Forum.

"The last thing America wants is another military conflict, but the last thing the world needs is a nuclear-armed Iran... Containment is off the table."

The South Carolina Republican saw the United States going to war with the Islamic republic "not to just neutralize their nuclear program, but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime."

And it's quite possible that were the current administration to heed Graham's advice and deliver a comprehensive bombing campaign against multiple Iranian targets beyond the country's nuclear weapon program, that they would "neuter" the country's capacity to wage a conventional war. Then what?

November 4, 2010

The U.S. and Israel

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Andrew Sullivan has an extensive post on how the U.S. should push Israel to make a settlement with the Palestinians to head-off the threat from Iran and to safe-guard U.S. interests, which Sullivan argues are endangered by the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I'm skeptical about this "linkage" argument and think that even if there was a kind of comprehensive peace settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians, al-Qaeda-style terrorism would remain a potent threat and the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq would continue to bedevil the United States.

But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you accept, as Sullivan does, that linkage exists. Here's his proposed solution:

My own view is that, under these circumstances, if Israel continues to refuse to budge on the West Bank, US interests are affected enough to lay out its own preferred final status boundaries and conditions for a Palestinian state, and press forward on those lines at the UN, regardless of the position of the Israeli government. At some point, the U.S. has to stand up for itself and its own interests if an ally refuses to be reasonable in lending a hand.

Isn't this a bit circuitous? The basic problem here isn't that the U.S. has a huge stake in who lives where in the West Bank. It doesn't. The problem seems to be that American interests are endangered by Israeli behavior. But America is only implicated in Israel's behavior because of its generous financial, military and diplomatic support for the country. If you insist that this behavior is endangering American interests, and previous efforts to stop that behavior have failed, why not cease subsidizing it?

It's easier (in theory, at least) for the United States to change its own policies than to have the United States try to change another country's policy.

Again, I'm not saying I endorse cutting off aid, but just that this seems to be the logical denouement of Sullivan's argument.

(AP Photo)

Georgia's Drift?

We're used to a lot of hand-wringing regarding Turkey's outreach to Iran and how such moves are indicative of Turkey's march away from the West. So it will be interesting to see what reaction, if any, this news garners among Turkey-bashers:

Georgia and Iran on Wednesday hailed deepening economic ties as pro-Western Tbilisi cultivates its relationship with Tehran despite its close links with Washington.

On the first day of a two-day visit to the ex-Soviet republic, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said the two countries were restoring "historic traditions" of close ties, including by signing a deal to lift visa requirements on both sides.

October 28, 2010

An Offer Iran Can Refuse

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David Sanger reports that President Obama is going to make Iran a less generous nuclear deal than the one they've already turned down. The theory seems to be that the pinch of the new sanctions regime is sharpening minds in Tehran and that any successive offer from the West would be even worse, so they'd better get while the getting's good.

I suspect this approach isn't going to work - and it sounds like the Obama administration is already gearing up for it to fail. According to Sanger:

Two years into office, Mr. Obama has organized an impressive sanctions regime and managed to combine diplomacy and pressure better than many experts had predicted. But so far he has little to show for it, which has prompted a discussion inside the White House about whether it would be helpful, or counterproductive, to have him talk more openly about military options.

I'm skeptical that they'll actually use force, but it would monumentally ill-advised to begin threatening it without an internal agreement in the administration to follow through. Repeatedly invoking the threat of military force without the intention to use it will make the administration appear feckless if Iran - as is widely expected - refuses to knuckle under.

It will also be interesting to see whether in this, our era of supposed Constitutional revival, those preaching an affinity for the U.S. Constitution demand that President Obama seek a Congressional declaration of war against Iran before any bombing runs commence.

(AP Photo)

October 27, 2010

Obama's Iran Attack Calculation

George Friedman speculates that Obama may launch an attack on Iran following a drubbing at the polls next week:

Iran is the one issue on which the president could galvanize public opinion. The Republicans have portrayed Obama as weak on combating militant Islamism. Many of the Democrats see Iran as a repressive violator of human rights, particularly after the crackdown on the Green Movement. The Arabian Peninsula, particularly Saudi Arabia, is afraid of Iran and wants the United States to do something more than provide $60 billion-worth of weapons over the next 10 years. The Israelis, obviously, are hostile. The Europeans are hostile to Iran but want to avoid escalation, unless it ends quickly and successfully and without a disruption of oil supplies. The Russians like the Iranians are a thorn in the American side, as are the Chinese, but neither would have much choice should the United States deal with Iran quickly and effectively. Moreover, the situation in Iraq would improve if Iran were to be neutralized, and the psychology in Afghanistan could also shift.

If Obama were to use foreign policy to enhance his political standing through decisive action, and achieve some positive results in relations with foreign governments, the one place he could do it would be Iran. The issue is what he might have to do and what the risks would be. Nothing could, after all, hurt him more than an aggressive stance against Iran that failed to achieve its goals or turned into a military disaster for the United States.

Friedman does an able job running down the costs and benefits of such an attack. One of the reasons I think it's unlikely is the same one Friedman notes at the start of his piece: Obama is a domestic president and the economy's health (or lack thereof) is his paramount concern. A prolonged spike in oil prices following large scale hostilities in the Persian Gulf is not exactly what a fragile economic recovery needs.

It's also hard to square the idea of President Obama agreeing to a strike on Iran when it's clear he is eager to unwind America's conflicts in the region.

October 21, 2010

Saudi Arms Sale

On September 11, 2001, 15 Saudis, one Egyptian, one Lebanese and two citizens of the United Arab Emirates crashed hijacked airliners into American targets, murdering close to 3,000 people. All 19 were Sunni Muslims, followers of a puritanical strain of Islam developed in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The ideology of jihad that lures recruits from the suburbs of London to the hinterlands of Waziristan is promulgated by Sunni Imams and financed overwhelmingly (if indirectly) by the Persian Gulf monarchies.

The two architects of 9/11 and the masterminds of the global jihadist movement - Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri - are Saudi and Egyptian, respectively. The captured "enemy combatants" that were locked away in Guantanamo Bay hail from Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria and even Australia. There is not a single Iranian among them. Nor have there been any Iranians implicated in the recent terrorist plots uncovered in Europe and the U.S.

If there is going to be a terrorist attack inside the U.S. it will almost certainly originate either from Pakistan or the Persian Gulf. It will almost certainly not be sponsored or perpetrated by the government of Iran.

So naturally, we need to help defend Saudi Arabia.

And look, it's preferable to starting a war with Iran, but the trajectory of America's relationships with the countries that had the most direct role in incubating and fomenting the terrorism that slaughtered thousands of Americans and continues to threaten the West is an enduring curiosity. To put it mildly.

October 12, 2010

Was Stuxnet a Chinese Attack on India?

Stuxnet, the computer virus that wrecked havoc with Iran's nuclear facilities, may have been a Chinese virus cooked up to attack India:


The deadly Stuxnet internet worm, which was thought to be targeting Iran's nuclear programme, might actually have been aimed at India by none other than China.

Providing a fresh twist in the tale, well-known American cyber warfare expert Jeffrey Carr, who specialises in investigations of cyber attacks against government, told TOI that China, more than any other country, was likely to have written the worm which has terrorised the world since June.

While Chinese hackers are known to target Indian government websites, the scale and sophistication of Stuxnet suggests that only a government no less than that of countries like US, Israel or China could have done it. "I think it's more likely that China is behind Stuxnet than any other country," Carr told TOI, adding that he would provide more details at the upcoming NASSCOM DSCI Security Conclave in Chennai in December.

This is the first I've heard of such accusations and there doesn't appear to be any other experts making similar claims. But still, an intriguing twist.

October 11, 2010

The West's Ahmadinejad Problem

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Roger Cohen is over the Iranian president:

Not surprisingly, in Fareed Zakaria’s “post-American world,” he has an audience. He’s adept enough, with a touch of Tony Curtis in “The Boston Strangler,” switching personalities with eerie ease.

Throw in some headline-grabbing lunacy — 9/11 as self-inflicted, or the Holocaust as invention, or “Iran is the freest country in the world” — and you have a post-modern media star and villain.

And what do all his words amount to? I’d say not a whole lot beyond unnecessary misery for 71 million isolated Iranians. This guy is all hat and no cattle.

Ahmadinejad is odious but I don’t think he’s dangerous. Some people do of course find him dangerous, especially in the Israel he gratuitously insults and threatens, and yet others — many more I’d say — find it convenient to find him dangerous. [Emphasis mine. - KS]

Much of this is due to Iran's truly Byzantine powers structure - the most powerful figure in the country, Ayatollah Khamenei, is a virtual recluse on the world stage, while the regime's lesser-executive, Ahmadinejad, is a loudmouthed, egotistical and antisemitic iconoclast. He is a polarizing figure not only in his own country, but abroad as well.

However, in its quest to inflate the Islamic Republic into an imminent and existential threat, the West bears a chunk of the blame for Ahmadinejad. Absurd comparisons to Nazi Germany and whatnot have no doubt fueled his own inflated sense of global relevance, while at the same time solidifying factions within Iran's halls of power both for and against him. To his supporters, Ahmadinejad irritates and antagonizes all of the right people; to his detractors, he has only further isolated and embarrassed a once proud nation.

And here's the sad twist: There's good reason to believe - be it out of self-preservation or pure ego - that Ahmadinejad wanted a nuclear deal with the West.

While such a deal isn't beyond the realm of possibility, it would seem far less likely in post-2009 Iran. Any deal brokered during Ahmadinejad's remaining time in office would likely be wed to the embattled president, making it a difficult pill to swallow for Iranian pragmatists and reformers. It would lend his administration credibility; a credibility which has been rapidly deteriorating due to the 2009 election and his mismanagement of the economy.

In short, the chances of a nuclear agreement, while not entirely affected by American behavior, have ebbed and flowed with Mr. Ahmadinejad's own political standing both at home and abroad.

But nonproliferation needn't hinge on the unhinged if Western leaders and analysts would only attempt a radical new tactic in dealing with this controversial figure: Ignore him.

(AP Photo)

Iranian Infighting Continues

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Political rivalries are intensifying between Iran’s fundamentalist ayatollahs and officeholders. It’s a clash between those who wish to hold on to theocracy and those who seek secular, but perhaps no less authoritarian, governance.

Here’s what Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi had to say recently about Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, chief of staff to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Mashaei is seeking to prepare the groundwork for his own presidency after Ahmadinejad by spending huge amounts of money in the provincial cities to court people. Mashaei thinks he can become president by drawing on his wealth and position. But if Mashaei runs for office, the first group that will oppose his presidency is the Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom. We won’t let Mashaei become president at any price.

Ayatollah Yazdi is Deputy Chairman of the Assembly of Experts. This conservative Shiite cleric also serves on the 12-member Guardian Council, regularly leads Friday prayer at the capital city of Tehran and directs the influential Society of Seminary Teachers of Qom. He led Iran’s judiciary from 1989 to 1999. Yazdi is a close ally of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as well.

In response the executive branch’s supporters in Iran’s government have been championing nationalism, blocking websites belonging to Yazdi and other fundamentalist ayatollahs, mocking the administrative and political skills of mullahs in general, and labeling the clergy-led crackdown on public behavior as ineffective and unworkable.

So the fragmentation of Iran’s revolutionary government continues apace.

U.S. Views on Israel, Iran

McLaughlin and Associates conducted a poll (pdf) for the Emergency Committee for Israel to measure U.S. sentiment toward Israel. Some findings:

* 51 percent of respondents believe that President Obama has been "less friendly" to Israel than previous presidents;

* 50.8 percent approve of the president's handling of defense and foreign policy matters;

* 44 percent disapproved of the president's handling of U.S.-Israeli relations;

* 50.9 percent believe that Israel's enemies are America's enemies;

* 50.6 percent of respondents agree with the statement: “The Israeli-Arab conflict is the key to improving America's standing and interests in the region."

* 81 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: "Enemies of America use the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an excuse to create anti-American sentiment. Even if the dispute is settled, they would find another way to justify their hostility toward America."

* 52 percent disagree with this statement: “I am strongly opposed to the use of military force by Israel or the United States to attack Iran.”

* 75 percent said the U.S. cannot be safe with a nuclear Iran

* 85 percent said Iran would provide a nuclear weapon to a terrorist organization;

* 59 percent of respondents would approve of military action against Iran's nuclear facilities if sanctions did not work.

October 4, 2010

American Views on Iran War

A new 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair poll asks Americans for what they would view as grounds for a war with Iraq Iran:


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That's via Matt Duss who writes:

It’s an oddly phrased question, but one which nevertheless indicates pretty strongly that Americans are not in favor of a U.S. war with Iran. I suspect that those who are in favor of a war with Iran understand this, which is why they like to talk exclusively about “air strikes,” “military strikes,” or my favorite, “surgical strikes.”...

As Ali Gharib astutely observed the other day, talk of “air strikes” are for Iran what “cakewalk” was for Iraq — the false idea that, through large-scale preventive military action, the U.S. can accomplish its goals with a minimum of fuss. It was a fantasy then, and it’s a fantasy now.

I think that's right and it's worth unpacking the implications of that a bit. Because, in fact, those predicting that the Iraq war would be a cakewalk were right - the initial invasion was swift and, by historical standards, a low casualty affair. The problem was that no one had a clear idea what to do when the dust settled on our military victory in Baghdad. War advocates - inside and outside the administration - had spent so much time pounding the table for war that they neglected to do any serious contingency planning for its aftermath.

An attack against Iran wouldn't be completely analogous, as it's highly unlikely that the U.S. would march into Tehran. But a similar dynamic exists whereby proponents of a maximalist policy of air strikes devote almost all their time demanding military action and almost none explaining what comes next. And as we learned in Iraq, military defeats are relatively easy for the U.S. military to dish out. Political wins are much harder.

A Cairo-Tehran Thaw?

From the BBC:

Following talks in Egypt, officials said 28 weekly flights would resume between Cairo and Tehran, but did not specify when they would begin.

Ties broke down in 1980 in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Egypt's recognition of Israel.

For the past three decades, the two regional powers - one predominantly Shia Muslim and the other mainly Sunni - have competed for influence in the Middle East and maintained only interest sections, rather than embassies, in each other's capitals, the BBC's Yolande Knell reports from Cairo.

While there have been few recent signs of improving relations, Iran's semi-official Fars news agency has suggested the visit of an Iranian delegation to discuss air travel and tourism - could be the prelude to the resumption of diplomatic ties.

Meanwhile, the Islamic Republic appears to be courting its other Sunni rival.

October 1, 2010

Stuxnet and Collateral Damage

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When I first heard of the Stuxnet worm disrupting Iran's nuclear infrastructure I thought it was rather clever: why bomb their sites, with all the attendant risks and geopolitical fallout, when you can foul it up in cyberspace (also assuming that either Israel or the U.S. or a similarly concerned party was the culprit). It seemed like a relatively clean operation with little collateral damage. But NPR's Tom Gjelten quotes cyber-security analyst Stephen Spoonamore to the contrary:

The Stuxnet story raises the question of what the consequences of using a cyberweapon might be. Maybe Pandora's box has been opened — this weapon, or one modeled after it, could soon come back in even more dangerous form. Security experts call this "blowback."

Some experts are convinced the Israeli government developed and used the Stuxnet worm as a weapon, to disable a nuclear plant in Iran.

After all, hitting the nuclear plant with a 500-pound bomb would have produced far more collateral damage than attacking it with a cyberweapon, right?

Spoonamore is not so sure. "Compared to releasing code that controls most of the world's hydroelectric dams or many of the world's nuclear plants or many of the world's electrical switching stations? I can think of very few stupider blowback decisions," he says.

In this light, Philip Maxon at Arms Control Wonk offers related questions:

In moving forward with discussions on the Iranian nuclear program, the Stuxnet virus may provide analysts another variable in calculating possible deterrence and containment with Iran. If it is a cyber attack weapon, what are its implication on military strategy? On diplomatic strategy? Is an attack fully untraceable, or can Iran attribute an attacker? How would Iran respond to a cyber attack on its nuclear facilities? Would Iran immediately assume Israel or the U.S. launched an attack even if both did not launch the virus? All are interesting questions looking forward.

Indeed. At a minimum, it seems to me that any nation that engages in offensive cyber warfare should be equally diligent about preparing for payback in kind.

(AP Photo)

September 29, 2010

Lieberman on Iran

Some have suggested that we should simply learn to live with a nuclear Iran. In my judgment, that would be a grave mistake. And as one Arab leader I recently spoke with pointed out, how could anyone count on the United States to go to war to defend them against a nuclear-armed Iran, if we were unwilling to go to war to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran? - Sen. Joe Lieberman

I honestly could not think of a worse argument on behalf of bombing Iran than the idea that it must be done on behalf of the various despots of the Arab world who are too afraid or weak or corrupted to do it themselves.

September 23, 2010

The GOP Pledge and Iran

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Picking up on Greg's post, it seems as though the GOP's "Pledge to America" is rather slim on foreign policy altogether. As an American voter, I actually find this appealing; domestic politics should be the focus of the 2010 elections, and kudos to the Republicans - if this leaked version of the party's 2010 electoral strategy is accurate - for making those issues their central focus.

That said, the foreign policy news junkie in me is somewhat disappointed in the dearth of red meat offered in this plan. It also begs a question: with all of the huffing and puffing we have heard - and indeed continue to hear - from conservatives about Obama's "appeasement" of Iran, are these same critics thus satisfied by a short and simple pledge to enforce "tough sanctions against Iran"?

I believe this demonstrates just how easy it is to be one of the two main political parties on the outs in the United States. Ideological rigidity, or, in the specific case of Iran, radical statements about preparing for a regime change, make for good soundbites and exchanges on the Sunday morning shows, but they don't resemble, as far as I can tell, the actual Republican plan for governance regarding the Islamic Republic - and that's a good thing.

All this could change, of course, in 2012 . . .

(AP Photo)

September 20, 2010

Linkage, Containment and the 'Shia Crescent'

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Linkage - the idea that there is a direct correlation between the Mideast peace process and the successful isolation of the Islamic Republic - has been the source of much debate in recent months in pundit and policy making circles, especially as Iran has eclipsed Israel's other security concerns in the Middle East.

Arab sheikdoms and autocrats, or so the argument goes, would naturally fall in line behind any U.S.-Israeli security regime in the region, as most of these actors - once pressed on the matter behind closed doors - would readily list Iran as their top regional concern, much as the Israelis already do. There's plenty of reason to believe that such a model for isolating Iran might emerge, evidenced more recently by the goody bags of weapons systems being doled out throughout the region.

But one of the pitfalls in creating such a regional dynamic, whereby the United States essentially guarantees the security and stability of the surrounding autocrats and monarchs, is what we're witnessing this week in Bahrain and Kuwait. When America's top diplomat calls Iran an emerging Junta, and the West repeatedly calls Tehran a regional threat, it gives the region's other not-democracies - you know, the friendly ones - carte blanche to suppress and discriminate against their Shia minorities and, in the case of Bahrain, majorities.

This certainly isn't breaking news, and Iran is by no means innocent of fanning the flames of sectarian division; and Secretary Clinton is, by the way, probably correct in her assessment of the Iranian leadership. But I question whether or not pandering to what are very old ethnic and religious differences is the best way to foster a 'cold' containment in the Middle East, or if it will only backfire and solidify Iran's place as champion of the global anti-American.

(AP Photo)

September 17, 2010

What the Arab World Thinks of Iran

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Ever since Shibley Telhami's poll was released showing Arab support for Iran's nuclear program, analysts have been scratching their head trying to reconcile that with the conventional wisdom that the Arab world is deeply worried by an ascendant Tehran. David Pollock dives into the polling:

But since last autumn, when Obama reached a public compromise with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the hot-button issue of Israeli settlements, a number of different polls have measured Arab attitudes toward Iran. In every case but one, these surveys have consistently demonstrated heavily negative views of Iran, its nuclear program, and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The mistake of Telhami, and other analysts, is to rely on a single 2010 Zogby poll to make their judgement, rather than considering the full range of polling on the issue.

(AP Photo)

September 16, 2010

The End of Obama's Iran Diplomacy

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My first thought when I saw that the Obama administration was readying a sale of F-35s to Israel on top of the multi-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Araiba, was that Obama had finally found an economic stimulus plan that would work - another world war.

Kidding aside, I think this does mark the close of the Obama administration's "carrot" phase of Iranian diplomacy, such as it was. It's impossible now for the United States to convince Iran that it doesn't need a nuclear weapon when the U.S. is helping to massively boost other militaries in the region. From an Iranian perspective, U.S. arms sales will only reinforce the notion that they need a nuclear weapon to offset the large and growing imbalance of conventional military power in the Middle East.

The good news is that the balance of power in the Gulf is stacked overwhelmingly against the Iranian regime. It will be hard to take claims of Iranian "hegemony" seriously if more and more countries in the region belly up to the U.S. arms bar.

(AP Photo)

Al-Qaeda vs. Iran

The United States seems on the verge of okaying the biggest arms deal in American history to the country that provided 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers, much of the critical funding for al Qaeda and was home to Osama bin Laden. This is a sign of something more than just the passage of time or our acceptance of the manifold official statements that there was no linkage between the terrorists and the Saudi government. (After all, such arguments hardly seem necessary as we know that the hijackers were backed both by elements of the Pakistani secret service and the Taliban and these days we seem willing enough to cut deals with them or, the case of "good" Taliban, at least contemplate it.)

No, the reason that the U.S. government -- that would not have done a deal like this in the years right after 9/11 -- is willing and even a little eager to move ahead with the deal now is that the War on Terror is being overtaken among top U.S. concerns by the advent of a nuclear Iran....

So while we might describe this new era a "smaller" version of the face-off with the Soviets, a Mideast Cold War or Containment 2.0, it could well be much more complex and present new challenges. In any event, it will certainly be even more dangerous than the "War on Terror" era that it is following and that -- due to the misplaced priorities it provoked from leaders like Blair and Bush -- helped contribute to this new and worrisome period of escalating risks. - David Rothkopf

It's a good point but it's worth raising the question of which is the bigger danger to Americans: al-Qaeda or a nuclear Iran. If we accept the premise that Iran is not going to launch a nuclear attack against the United States (a premise I think is fairly sound), who has the more pronounced tendency to kill American civilians? Clearly al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda cannot pose a strategic threat to the United States while Iran could, potentially, cause the price of oil to rise.

Expensive oil could seriously impair the U.S. economy, with all the attendant human costs associated with that. But as Rothkopf suggests, containing the threat of a nuclear Iran is going to mean empowering the very regimes and reinforcing the very dynamic (U.S. support for Gulf autocrats) that help propel al-Qaeda into a global menace in the first place.

Alex Massie has a worthwhile take:

More problematically still, this kind of support for the Saudis ensures that different strands of American policy are working at cross-purposes to the point, perhaps, where different American objectives become mutually exclusive. Washington would like a totally transformed middle east; deep down it suspects this isn't possible and, anyway, nothing is so terrifying as instability and change guarantees instability so change is not a Good Thing.

Admittedly, the Obama administration has dialled-back on the human rights and liberty agenda that was, at least fitfully, a part of the Bush administration's long-term, optimistic, vision for the wider Middle East. Nevertheless, Washington continues to talk a lot about values (while forgetting that the rest of the world can hear this) and then demonstrates the worth of those values by buttressing and arming disgusting regimes whose repressive policies help produce extremism and, in the end, anti-Americanism.

The US isn't simply meddling in the middle east, it supports the very people it acknowledges (at least sometimes) are a large part of the problem.

Is there a way to break this cycle?

September 7, 2010

A Very Bad (and Possibly Foretelling) 72-Hours for Iran

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Consider the headlines from the past 72-hours or so:

1. The IAEA released a rather scathing report condemning the regime's intransigence and secrecy on its nuclear program;

2. Rumors circulated that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian woman currently awaiting sentencing for the spurious and arcane charges of adultery, has already suffered 99 lashes for a separate (and equally absurd) charge involving un-Islamic exposure in a photograph; a photography which, incidentally, turned out not to be of her;

3. The Sunday Times reported that "at least five Iranian companies in Afghanistan's capital are using their offices covertly to finance Taliban militants in provinces near Kabul," and that the regime is divvying out "$1,000 for killing an American soldier and $6,000 for destroying a U.S. military vehicle.";

4. The Bahraini government continued to "hint" at Iranian involvement in a plot to overthrow the Sunni-dominated government there (such accusations are nothing new from Bahrain and may prove meaningless, but the PR damage is done.);

5. In an interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Fidel Castro - yes, that Fidel Castro - condemned Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his antisemitic rhetoric.

Much of this, so the theory goes, is part of a concerted effort by the Iranian regime to portray itself as a defiant and independent actor in the face of Western (i.e., American) imperialism and encroachment in the Middle East. The problem with strategic miscalculations such as these is that they leave Iran increasingly isolated, subject to scrutiny and vulnerable to legitimate (and some not so legitimate) accusations about the regime's future intentions.

Put another way: if you support a preemptive bombing campaign against Iran, then the regime is making your work easy this week.

(AP Photo)

September 2, 2010

Tony Blair's Bad Bomb Iran Argument

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Tony Blair tells the BBC he thinks another Middle East war is the way to go:

The west should use force against Iran if it "continues to develop nuclear weapons", Tony Blair said today, aligning himself with US hawks who have called for strikes against Iranian nuclear sites.

The former prime minister made his comments in a BBC interview to publicise his memoirs, A Journey, which are published today.

Blair said it was "wholly unacceptable" for Tehran to seek a nuclear weapons capability and insisted there could be "no alternative" to military force "if they continue to develop nuclear weapons"....

In his exclusive interview with the Guardian, Blair elaborates on why it is unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons, linking this to the 9/11 attacks on the US. The former prime minister wishes he had seen earlier that 9/11 had "far deeper roots" than he thought at the time.

"The reason for that, let me explain it, is that in my view what was shocking about September 11 was that it was 3,000 people killed in one day but it would have been 300,000 if they could have done it," Blair said, appearing to equate al-Qaida with Iran. "That's the point ... I decided at that point that you cannot take a risk on this. This is why I am afraid, in relation to Iran, that I would not take a risk of them getting nuclear weapons capability. I wouldn't take it."

This makes absolutely no sense. There is a much, much, much greater chance that al-Qaeda would get a nuclear weapon from Pakistan, or even North Korea, than Iran. Should we attack them as well? The argument that we can't attack them because they already have nuclear weapons is irrelevant - Blair bases his case for an attack on the grounds that we "cannot take a risk" of al-Qaeda getting their hands on a nuclear weapon. If that's the criteria, then Iran shouldn't be anything close to a top priority.

(AP Photo)

August 30, 2010

When Is "Realism" Bad?

James Kirchick thinks I'm missing the point by highlighting what I took to be his somewhat inconsistent views on when public opinion should be heeded and when it shouldn't:

But Scoblete is mixing unrelated points, akin to comparing watermelons (a staple of Kyrgyzstan) and pistachios (for which Iran is famous). In his view, you either follow the dictates of “global publics” — an approach to which Scoblete seems to subscribe — or ignore them in the pursuit of some wicked, unilateralist, neocon agenda.

A brief examination of the substantive issues being polled would be useful. With respect to Kyrgyzstan, the US policy of near limitless support for Bakiyev directly harmed American national interests. In the aftermath of his ouster, we are left with a country led by former opposition figures rightly wary of American intentions, because America did little as they were being persecuted by a kleptocratic regime. Never mind the immorality of propping up a loathsome autocrat; the five years of American support for Bakiyev will redound harshly against “hard” American interests like bashing rights.

As for Arab public opinion on the Iranian nuclear program, there is widespread consensus, across the political spectrum in America (and the rest of the free world), that Iran should not have one.

A few points. First, Kirchick is right that these issues should be examined and judged on their specific merits and not necessarily on the basis of any general principle. I'd also agree that on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, we shouldn't be overly solicitous of Arab views, but that's also because I suspect no one in the non-elite swath of the Arab world cares much about it one way or another and certainly not as much as their own lack of political liberty and economic opportunity at home.

But I wonder then why Kirchick insists (frequently) on criticizing "realism" (the word typically accompanied by derisive quotations) when it appears that he's comfortable with its various Faustian bargains when it comes to U.S. policy in the Arab world.

And I should clarify that I don't think U.S. policy should be crafted by the "dictates of global publics" but on the basis of national interest. And on those grounds, it's difficult to see why currying favor with the autocratic rulers of Kyrgyzstan to secure continued use of the Manas airbase constitutes a grave blow to U.S. interests (we haven't lost basing permission) while the practice of coddling Arab dictators and monarchs to maintain America's defense posture in the Middle East isn't. Maybe Kirchick believes that both practices are indefensible and should be scraped, although it's hard for me to see how you formulate any robust plan to deal with Iran's nuclear program that doesn't involve coddling Middle Eastern autocrats.

Either way, I'd say that until the disaffected citizens of Kyrgyzstan form a transnational terrorist organization dedicated to killing Americans on U.S. soil and driving them out of Kyrgyzstan, I'll maintain that the coddling of Arab dictators is doing more harm to American security interests than our (admittedly morally dubious) policy of coddling whatever autocrat currently lords over Bishkek.

August 19, 2010

Americans Would Aid Israel in Iran Attack

According to Rasmussen:

Fifty-one percent (51%) of U.S. voters believe the United States should help Israel if it attacks Iran.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 35% say the United States should do nothing in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran, and two percent (2%) think America should help the Iranians.

Support for helping Israel is up nine points from two years ago when just 42% believed the United States should help the Jewish state if it launched an attack on Iran.

It's unclear, when looking at the question Rasmussen posed, what people take "help" to mean - is it intelligence cooperation, diplomatic cover or an actual joint military operation to strike Iran's nuclear facilities? I would assume it's the last one. A joint Israeli-U.S. military operation against Iran would certainly send many hearts aflutter in Washington, and enrage many in the Middle East. I'd have to think, absent an act of direct Iranian aggression against Israel (of the conventional military kind), such an outcome is all but impossible. It's more likely that the if the U.S. or Israel were to strike Iran, they will do so alone.

August 17, 2010

The Iran Threat

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In the course of arguing that we shouldn't be surprised if President Obama starts a war with Iran, Elliott Abrams writes:

So if the president means what he has repeatedly said about world affairs, what is at stake is whether he leaves a legacy of disaster -- again, in his own eyes. In my eyes, he would be right in so concluding: the real issue in the Middle East today is whether we, the United States, will remain "top country" in the region or will allow Iran to claim some form of hegemony.

This is a useful reminder that for most of Washington - even in its most alarmist corners - the real threat from Iran is not nuclear bombs going off in Western cities, the wiping of Israel off the map or anything close to that. It's the possible threat Iran poses to America's "top country" status in the Middle East.

Wars have frequently been waged for balance-of-power concerns, but in this case, how significant would the balance of power shift out of America's favor? Pakistan has nuclear weapons and is not the top country on the subcontinent - it can barely curtail its own home grown insurgency and it was threatened/cajoled by the U.S. to allow us to bomb portions of the country almost at will. North Korea has nuclear weapons and you'd be laughed out of a room if you suggested they had anything resembling "hegemony" in Asia.

Iran with a crude nuclear weapon would still be poor, weak and surrounded by unfriendly states. The U.S., by contrast, would not be.

UPDATE: Karim Sadjadpour looks at the politics of Abrams' argument (that an attack would benefit Obama domestically) and finds it wanting:

On the basis of this information, I would conclude that, whereas Iran now has a seemingly negligible impact on daily American life, an attack on Iran -- which would cause oil prices to skyrocket to unprecedented levels (perhaps $200 barrel) -- would have a significantly adverse impact on the daily lives of Americans.

At a time when the unemployment rate is above 10 percent and economic recovery is tenuous, I can't image that $5-per-gallon gasoline would auger well for Obama and the Democrats.

If I were Plouffe or Axelrod, my sense of urgency about taking action against Iran would be further tempered by the facts that: a) the centerpiece of Obama's foreign policy has been an effort to stabilize Afghanistan and draw down troops in Iraq, and bombing Iran would make both tasks doubly difficult; b) one of the reasons why Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the primaries was his opposition to, and her support for, the Iraq war, and bombing Iran would alienate, rather than energize, the Democratic base; and c) by all accounts, Iran does not have the wherewithal to develop and test a nuclear bomb before November 2012 (assuming that it wants to).

(AP Photo)

August 16, 2010

How Tough Are Iran Sanctions?

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Not very, says Jerry Guo:

In reality, multinationals with American ties are now forbidden from making investments of more than $20 million, down from $40 million, hardly a game changer. The same bill retains a loophole that gives Obama the right to issue waivers for companies from allied countries.

It’s doubtful Washington will enforce the new sanctions. An administration official recently admitted he didn’t know what punishment, if any, had been meted out to seven foreign companies—including Danish shipping giant Maersk—that hold $1 billion in U.S. government contracts alongside investments in the Iranian energy sector. Sanctions approved by the EU in July do not even cover energy, and firms like Germany’s Thyssen-Krupp and Linde Group continue to service Iran’s natural-gas and refinery projects.

(AP Photo)

August 13, 2010

How a War with Iran Would Diminish American Power

Jennifer Rubin wants a war with Iran:

But the emphasis on the existential threat to Israel ignores a more basic issue for Americans to ponder: a nuclear-armed Iran represents a dagger at the heart of America and an existential threat to our status as a superpower and guarantor of the West’s security. As to the former, Iran is pressing ahead with its long-range ballistic missile program. First the Middle East and Eastern Europe, then all of Europe and, within a matter of years, the U.S. will be within range of Iranian missiles. If those are nuclear and not conventional, what then? We’re not talking about whether Iran is going to be “merely” a destabilizing factor in the Middle East or whether it will set off an arms race with its neighbors or imperil Israel’s existence. We’re talking about whether America will then be at risk (and lacking sufficient missile-defense capabilities if we continue to hack away at our defense budget). The argument about whether mutual assured destruction can really work against Islamic fundamentalists who have an apocalyptic vision becomes not about Israel’s ability to deter an attack but about ours. Those who oppose American military action have an obligation to explain why America should place itself in that predicament.

I would argue that any obligation to present an explanation lies with those whose disastrous policy prescriptions with respect to Iraq lead America into the worst strategic blunder in the country's recent history. That aside, note the blind faith in the power of the military to actually achieve its ends. The recent history in Lebanon is instructive on this point: Israel attacked Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006 with an eye toward seriously degrading the group's ability to endanger Israel. And it worked - for a bit. Now, in 2010, Hezbollah is reportedly even better armed than before the war began. And this is a group that relies on outside aid crossing international borders to resupply itself. It can't call on vast oil reserves or the full resources that a state can muster.

Now imagine bombing Iran's nuclear facilities. At best, as with Hezbollah in Lebanon, a wide-ranging attack on Iran would delay its acquisition of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. But it would surely impress upon Iran the need to redouble its efforts to seek those weapons. When those are rebuilt - as they would be - there would be almost no question that Iran would seek to actually "weaponize" its nuclear program and not merely have the ability to do so when it wants. What's more, any hope that Iran's citizens would look approvingly at the West when they eventually slough off the clerical regime would presumably take a severe hit. We would deal America's long-term prospects with Iran and the Iranian people a damaging blow and still have failed to achieve the ends we desired.

But Rubin makes a more sweeping point, that the U.S. must fight a war to maintain its imperial vanity:

And then there is the broader issue of America’s standing as the sole superpower and the defender of the Free World. Should the “unacceptable” become reality, the notion that America stands between free peoples and despots and provides an umbrella of security for itself and its allies will vanish, just as surely as will the Zionist ideal.

I can't speak for the Zionist ideal, but the concern about America's standing as a sole superpower strikes me as a terrible casus belli. First, it's simply wrong. China, India and Pakistan went nuclear, and America didn't tumble from its superpower perch. Whether or not Iran has one or two crude nuclear bombs has next to no bearing on America's superpower status relative to questions about the health of the American economy.

The second, more fundamental, problem with Rubin's analysis is that a war with Iran would actually accelerate America's fall from super power status. The war with Iraq dealt American power and strategic position a huge blow, with costs that vastly outstripped the gains, but a war with Iran could potentially deal an even greater jolt.

The major failure of the war against Iraq was the inability to articulate - let alone achieve - specific political goals for the post-war environment. We knew we wanted Saddam gone but we didn't know what would take his place or how we'd get from point A to B in post war Iraq. So it is with Iran. Commentary has devoted a lot of time to explaining why we should bomb Iran but has devoted almost no attention to the question what we do after we've attacked them. As with Iraq, concern for any post-war phase in Iran is simply glossed over, if it's dealt with at all. In theory, one should be expected to learn from their mistakes, not ignore them.

The U.S. military may know how to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities, but it has demonstrated in two successive military conflicts that it cannot manage the post-war aftermath, let alone put in place political institutions that will serve America's needs (this is no knock on the military, this stuff is almost impossible to do). Neither can Washington's civilian bureaucracy, which can barely staff itself in Iraq. It beggars belief that Washington could cope with the aftermath of a war against Iran.

To insist that this is not relative to any conflict with Iran because we'd simply bomb them from afar implies that the aftermath of such a conflict is knowable or that the threat from Iran is so urgent and so imminent that it overwhelms our capacity for reasonable planning.

Neither of those positions strike me as true.

August 12, 2010

Contain What?

Indeed, I would argue that because Sunni Arabs from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt perpetrated the attacks of September 11, 2001, and because Sunni hostility to American and Israeli interests remains a conspicuous problem, the United States should theoretically welcome a strengthened Shiite role in the Middle East, were Iran to go through an even partial political transformation. And demographic, cultural, and other indicators all point to a positive ideological and philosophical shift in Iran in the medium to long term. Given this prognosis, and the high cost and poor chances for success of any military effort to eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, I believe that containment of a nuclear Iran is the most sensible policy for the United States.

The success of containment will depend on a host of regional factors. But its sine qua non will be the ability of the United States to underline any policy toward a nuclear-armed Iran with the credible threat of military action. As Kissinger told me, “I want America to sustain whatever measures it takes about Iran.” As he writes in Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, “Deterrence … is achieved when one side’s readiness to run risks in relation to the other is high; it is least effective when the willingness to run risks is low, however powerful the military capability.” - Robert Kaplan

I think Kaplan has it right in the first graf, but I'm not so sure about the second (even if he does invoke the Godfather of Realism himself). The fundamental problem with any containment analogy and Iran is the question of what we're supposed to contain. With the Soviet Union it was clear enough: we were checking Russia's expansion and blocking the spread of communist governments worldwide.

It's unlikely that Iran is going to physically invade any of its neighbors - with or without a nuclear weapon. Iran can achieve some measure of regional power through the use of its proxies, but that's something it's been doing for years now. It's not clear to me what containment has to do with that (or how, frankly, it could stop it). So what are we containing?

August 11, 2010

The Other Weak Case for Attacking Iran

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Jeffrey Goldberg's article on the chances of an Israeli attack on Iran is worth reading, as is Flynt & Hillary Leverett's rejoinder:

In other words, Israeli elites want the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program -- with the potentially negative repercussions that Goldberg acknowledges -- so that Israel will not experience "a dilution of quality" or "an accelerated brain drain." Sneh argues that "if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a ‘natural safe haven', then its raison d'être will have been subverted."

To be sure, the United States has an abiding commitment to Israel's security. But, just as surely, preventing "dilution of quality" or bolstering Israelis' perceptions regarding their country's raison d'être can never give an American president a just or strategically sound cause for initiating war. And make no mistake: Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would mean war.

None of this means that Israel shouldn't (or won't) attack, but it is a reminder that the U.S. and Israel have significantly different exposure to the Iranian nuclear threat (should it evolve).

This reminds me of another terrible argument for a U.S. attack on Iran: that the Arab states in the region are too scared to do it themselves. This is the upshot of the leaks issuing forth from the region that the Arab world would quietly cheer a U.S. attack. We're told it would be a sign of renewed "American leadership" which usually, in this context, means that other states reap the benefit while the U.S. taxpayer reaps the blowback.

(AP Photo)

August 5, 2010

Arab World Down on Obama, Up on Iran's Nukes

The Brookings Institution is releasing a new survey of Arab public opinion today. Some of the findings (pdf):


Early in the Obama Administration, in April and May 2009, 51% of the respondents in the six countries expressed optimism about American policy in the Middle East. In the 2010 poll, only 16% were hopeful, while a majority - 63% - was discouraged.

On Iran's potential nuclear weapons status, results show another dramatic shift in public opinion. While the results vary from country to country, the weighted average across the six countries is telling: in 2009, only 29% of those polled said that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be "positive" for the Middle East; in 2010, 57% of those polled indicate that such an outcome would be "positive" for the Middle East.

That's a pretty large swing on the Iran nuke question. Could it be that as more and more Arab leaders come out publicly against Iran's nuclear program, more of their citizens start to support it?

August 2, 2010

Suckers at the Great Game

This double game goes back to 9/11. That terrorist attack was basically planned, executed and funded by radical Pakistanis and Saudis. And we responded by invading Iraq and Afghanistan. Why? The short answer is because Pakistan has nukes that we fear and Saudi Arabia has oil that we crave....

Is there another a way? Yes. If we can’t just walk away, we should at least reduce our bets. We should limit our presence and goals in Afghanistan to the bare minimum required to make sure that turmoil there doesn’t spill over into Pakistan or allow Al Qaeda to return. And we should diminish our dependence on oil so we are less impacted by what happens in Saudi Arabia, so we shrink the funds going to people who hate us and we make economic and political reform a necessity for them, not a hobby.

Alas, we don’t have the money, manpower or time required to fully transform the most troubled states of this region. It will only happen when they want it to. We do, though, have the technology, necessity and innovators to protect ourselves from them — and to increase the pressure on them to want to change — by developing alternatives to oil. It is time we started that surge. - Thomas Friedman

Here's a question: are the Chinese offering security guarantees to the various countries they buy oil or natural resources from? Yes, they sometime run interference for states like Sudan or Iran at the UN, but is China as heavily invested in the security of any foreign regime from which it has energy deals as the U.S. is in the Gulf? Why not take a page out of their play book?

July 30, 2010

A Mystery in Hormuz

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Earlier this week, a Japanese oil tanker suffered mysterious damage to its hull while transiting through the Strait of Hormuz - the critical Persian Gulf waterway through which roughly 20 percent of the world's daily oil shipments pass. There is no firm word on just what happened - some say a freak wave, others pirates or possibly an Iranian attack . For their part, the crew said they saw an explosion.

According to this report, the incident has naturally led everyone in the region into a state of high alert:

According to our sources in Washington and Tehran, while waiting for evidence, both speculate that the perpetrators may be either pirates in the pay of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula or even a rogue element in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which is bent on settling scores for the latest UN, US and European sanctions against their country.

Tehran has repeatedly warned it will fight back if sanctions hurt its economy and energy supplies.

The attack on the Japanese supertanker intensified Saudi and the Gulf emirates' concerns over a possible threat to their oil exporting routes. Wednesday night, fearing an unidentified assailant may also go for their oil ports and shore installations, Persian Gulf navies, the Fifth Fleet Bahrain-based headquarters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards naval installations at Bandar Abbas went on a high alert.

Our military sources report some 100 warships of different navies are currently present in the Persian Gulf.

Good times.

(AP Photo)

July 29, 2010

Ahmadinejad's Dislikes

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The Daily Telegraph runs down Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's various dislikes. The list has one rather huge omission, I think.

(AP Photo)

July 26, 2010

Pakistan, Iran and the Limits of American Power

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As Laura Rozen notes, there doesn't appear to be much in the WikiLeaks document dump that should surprise people who have been keeping up with the news on the Afghan war. Nevertheless, it serves to further confirm what the London School of Economics Study alleged earlier this year: that Pakistan is complicit in the Taliban insurgency and is actively undermining American goals in Afghanistan even while it receives billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

The revelations about Pakistan are interesting insofar as they highlight the contrast with U.S. policy on Iran. Both countries are supporting terrorist groups that have killed Americans. I would argue that Pakistan's support for terrorism is significantly more serious than Iran's because: 1. Pakistan's terror affiliates have the proven capacity and intention of striking the American homeland and killing American civilians; 2. Pakistan is facilitating the protection of the lead architects of 9/11. Nevertheless, Iran is no slouch when it comes to funding or arming terror groups.

Yet as the U.S. showers Pakistan with money and military hardware, it seeks to sanction and isolate Iran. And here's the rub: neither approach has been very effective. This is bad news for those who seek to engage Iran: the engagement with Pakistan has not convinced important constituencies in that country to cut ties with the Taliban or surrender their vision of Afghanistan as "strategic depth." It's also bad news for those who seek to get tough with Pakistan: getting tough with Iran hasn't changed Iranian behavior either.

I think a case can be made that engagement has moved Pakistan further toward U.S. goals than isolation, sanctions and belligerent threats have worked to move Iran toward U.S. goals. But the lack of progress on both fronts should serve as a reminder that there is a great distance to travel between being powerful and getting your way.

(AP Photo)

July 21, 2010

Unintended Consequences

The former director of MI5 testified at Britain's Chilcot Committee investigating the Iraq war:

“Our involvement in Iraq, for want of a better word, radicalized a whole generation of young people — not a whole generation, a few among a generation — who saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam,” said the former official, Baroness Manningham-Buller.

Whether the Iraq war radicalized Western Muslims who would otherwise have avoided terrorism or whether it simply served as a useful cause celeb isn't clear, what is clear is that the war turned Iraq itself into a huge training ground for terrorists where before it was not. The U.S. waged war ostensibly on the grounds of safeguarding itself against terror but instead inadvertently created a serious terror enclave in the heart of the Middle East. It took an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure to patch that self-inflicted wound and it's still not clear if that wound is completely closed yet.

This record of unintended consequences is worth considering in light of the continued arguments for a new U.S. war in the Middle East. We have a decidedly poor track record in this regard. I'm not sure why the third time would be the charm.

July 20, 2010

The (Odd) Wilsonian Case for Bombing Iran

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Walter Russell Mead believes that President Obama's Wilsonian streak will lead him to attack Iran:

If solemn treaties, sacred oaths and decades of patient diplomatic effort can’t stop the spread of nuclear weapons, what can international law really accomplish? What is the Security Council except an exalted talking shop if it can’t summon the unity and the resolve to act effectively in the face of a naked challenge to one of the foundations of international order? If global institutions can’t solve this problem, how can such weak and unpredictable organizations be trusted with any urgent and vital problem? If the treaty on non-proliferation is essentially a dead letter, what treaties still command respect? If countries only obey treaties as long as they want to, and the international system can take no effective action against those who break its most important laws, what becomes of the Wilsonian dream?

I'm trying hard to understand if Mead thinks it's a bad idea to fight a war on behalf of this starry-eyed Wilsonianism, or whether he thinks it's a good one. And in any event, this argument strikes me as rather unpersuasive. Barring a fairly dramatic turn of events, a U.S. war on Iran would not occur under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council and would not be seen by anyone around the world as an effort to uphold the strictures of the Non Proliferation Treaty. You can't have a war to uphold international law if the war itself is in violation of international law or is otherwise not sanctioned or legitimized by international bodies.

Mead is right that international legal regimes cannot prevent Iran from going nuclear. The United Nations Security Council is toothless. But unilateral military action doesn't suddenly bolster the UN or the NPT, it only emphasizes their irrelevance. Did the Iraq war suddenly breath new life into the Security Council or Non Proliferation Treaty? No. Were Obama to rest his case for a strike against Iran on the necessity of saving these various international treaties and institutions - when few other countries that are a party to them would sign on - he would look ridiculous (that's not to say he won't do it, if Wilsonianism has proven good for anything, it's for dressing up a flimsy case for war).

(AP Photo)

Should Israel Bomb Iran?

Reuel Marc Gerecht says yes, reprising the 2002-era "what me worry" neoconservative approach toward initiating a war with another country that served us so well in the recent past. That said, I do think Gerecht makes a fair point, and one I've not heard often, about the dangers of an Iranian nuclear weapon:


It’s entirely possible that even with Khamenei in control, an Iranian atomic stockpile could lose nukes to dissenting voices within the Guards who have their own ideological agendas. Now imagine the ailing Khamenei is dead, the Guard Corps has several dozen nuclear devices in its “possession,” and the country is in some political chaos as power centers, within the clergy and the Corps, start competing against each other. The Green Movement, too, will probably rise in force. The whole political structure could collapse or the most radical could fight their way to the top—all parties trying to get their hands on the nukes. Since there is no longer a politburo in Iran to keep control (Khamenei gutted it when he downed his peers and competitors), this could get messy quickly.

We face a similar, and vastly more dire, risk of this occurring in Pakistan but nevertheless, adding a second somewhat unstable country to the nuclear club is clearly dangerous. And unlike Pakistan, where the U.S. has reportedly worked with the government on nuclear chain of custody technology, we could have no such guarantee that a new and chaotic Iranian revolution wouldn't see some forces make a grab at a nuke.

One other point that Gerecht makes is less tenable - that the Khamenei regime would collapse after a strike. Matt Duss dissects:

You’ll also notice that in dismissing the conventional wisdom that a strike on Iran would Iran’s democracy movement, he doesn’t bother to include any quotes from actual Iranian democrats to this effect. That’s probably because he hasn’t been able to find any. At a recent conference on Iran in Europe, I had a chance to talk to a number of Iranian democracy activists, many of them who very recently exited Iran, and I thought it was notable that, even though there were a range of views on how best to deal with the current Iranian government, there was complete agreement among them that a strike by either the U.S. or Israel would be a death blow to their movement, and that those who support war with Iran not be allowed to pose as friends of Iranian democracy.
Israel is much more threatened by a nuclear Iran than the United States is, so they have to weigh the costs and benefits differently than we do. I don't think the Israelis care much about dashing the Green Movement's hopes if they could score a serious blow against Iran's nuclear program. The larger worry, I would guess, would be that they could not destroy enough of the program to fundamentally derail it or set it back a decade. Then, they'll have the prospect of sustained terrorist reprisals and a redoubled Iranian commitment to acquiring a nuclear weapon without the benefit of a lot of extra breathing room.

July 16, 2010

More Amiri

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The story of Iranian nuclear not-a-scientist Shahram Amiri gets stranger:

The Iranian scientist who American officials say defected to the United States, only to return to Tehran on Thursday, had been an informant for the Central Intelligence Agency inside Iran for several years, providing information about the country’s nuclear program, according to United States officials.

The scientist, Shahram Amiri, described to American intelligence officers details of how a university in Tehran became the covert headquarters for the country’s nuclear efforts, the officials confirmed. While still in Iran, he was also one of the sources for a much-disputed National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s suspected weapons program, published in 2007, the officials said. For several years, Mr. Amiri provided what one official described as “significant, original” information about secret aspects of his country’s nuclear program, according to the Americans.

I can understand some bitterness from the CIA and other U.S. officials who invested time and resources in this guy, but throwing Amiri completely under the bus like this doesn't seem to benefit anyone. If the purpose of such a "Brain Drain" scheme is to attract high-level defections from Iran, then the U.S. isn't making a great sales pitch here: Tell us what you know for money; get homesick and we'll basically sign your death certificate.

And the Iranians appear to be connecting the dots:

On Thursday, even as Mr. Amiri was publicly greeted at home by his 7-year-old son and held a news conference, Iran’s foreign minister gave the first official hints of Iranian doubts about his story. “We first have to see what has happened in these two years and then we will determine if he’s a hero or not,” the BBC quoted the foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, as saying to a French news agency. “Iran must determine if his claims about being kidnapped were correct or not.”

Perhaps someone more knowledgeable about intelligence operations of this nature can explain to me the harm in allowing Amiri to say America kidnapped him. He seemingly became homesick, was worried about his family and decided to split. It's certainly embarrassing for someone, or several someones in Washington, but their attempt at C.Y.A. could cost this guy his life.

The CIA allegedly got years of intelligence out of him, and at a relatively low cost (and as Spencer Ackerman notes, Amiri, rather admirably I'd say, left that money on the table to go back). Why not let him return home to a heroes welcome and keep mum about it to the Post and Times?

(AP Photo)

July 14, 2010

What a U.S.-Iran Detente Might Look like

I honestly don't know what the deal is with Shahram Amiri, but this Economist analysis of the Iranian nuclear scientist's strange quasi-defection/kidnapping/repatriation grabbed my attention:

How did Mr Amiri turn up at Pakistan's embassy, then? It seems unlikely that the 32-year-old physicist escaped from the CIA. This leaves the possibility that America is seeking some kind of swap. Perhaps having extracted as much as was feasible from Mr Amiri, they are allowing him to claim that he was kidnapped in order to protect his family back in Iran. If he is allowed to leave the country, America might seek the return of three American hikers Iran has been holding for a year. Iran says they are spies.

If some kind of swap takes place, the truth may never emerge. Typically, both countries involved stick resolutely with their story: that they are kindly releasing foreign spies in exchange for their innocent citizens held abroad. But if there is no talk of a swap in the works, an awkward stand-off lies ahead. Mr Amiri cannot leave Pakistan's embassy and American territory without American permission. That would further heighten the tensions between America and Iran. The case of Mr Amiri, like the recent exchange of Russian and American alleged spies, would make for great spy fiction, but the dangerous impasse between the West and Iran over the nuclear issue is all too real.

Take this a step further: anyone still holding out hope for a "Nixon goes to China" moment on Iran better not hold their breath. The Islamic Republic's very rationale for existence hinges, at least in part, on anti-Americanism. It may be too difficult for the regime to dial that back and retain its legitimacy; especially as it faces various challenges to its authority.

Thus, progress mightn't be a photo-op, but small, quiet concessions.

And the West has always talked, traded and done business with this regime in such a fashion - it's hypocritical and cynical, for sure, but it just might be what U.S.-Iranian rapprochement could look like, if ever such a thing were to happen.

UPDATE: The Post has a good summary of this odd story.

July 13, 2010

And if They Call Your Bluff?