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Monday, August 4, 2008

Behind the Scenes at Geneva Iran Talks

Call it coincidence, but on the very day that the two-week ultimatum for Iran to respond to the P5+1's "freeze for freeze" offer runs out, Le Monde got its hands on detailed minutes of the Geneva meeting between Javier Solana and Saeed Jalili, attended by William Burns, two weeks ago in Geneva. And not surprisingly, the account isn't very flattering for Jalili. Apparently he managed to completely ignore Burns, seated only two chairs away from Solana, who spoke only to say the following:

I'm happy to be here to transmit a simple message: the United States are serious in their support of the offer [of cooperation] and of the Way Forward [freeze for freeze]. We are serious in the search for a diplomatic solution. Relations between our two countries have been based on a profound mistrust for thirty years. I hope my presence today is a step in the right direction, and that you will seize this opportunity. (Translated from the French translation of the original English.)

An opportunity described as "precious" by the Chinese, British and German envoys.

Jalili for his part spoke about a "strategic" cooperation to address the questions of "security, terrorism and energy security," and asked:

In what quality are we approaching these negotiations: as partners, friends, rivals, or hostile parties? (Translated from the French translation of the original Farsi.)

Jalili refused to address the P5+1's two pointed offers, namely the freeze for freeze and a six week period of prenegotiations, during the meeting itself. But Solana, after a private lunch with Jalili, reported that the Iranian negotiator had refused both. According to Le Monde:

. . .Jalili's presentation shows that Iran feels it is in a position of strength in the Middle East, with its diverse leverage points in the region's crises (Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian dossier), as well as on energy issues, and  that it doesn't feel any urgent need to cede anything to facilitate a negotiated settlement of the nuclear standoff. (Translated from the French.)

When offered with the two week "ultimatum" along with the threat of additional sanctions in the event of a negative response, Jalili replied that Iran's position is "strong" and that, citing the Ayatollah Khamenei, "We won't talk in an environment of threats."

The article notes that diplomats involved in the dossier believe a diplomatic breakthrough is unlikely before the American presidential election, but also because of Iranian President Ahmadinejad's weakened domestic political position. Unlike President Bush, Ahmadinejad isn't a lame duck, and will have to face his electorate in the event of what might be seen by others as courageous concessions, but would be protrayed by the John Boltons of Iran as capitulation.

Again, I don't think there's any coincidence that this got leaked on the very day that the news cycle will be dominated by Iran's likely refusal to accept the two-week ultimatum, and the West's likely pursuit of renewed sanctions. I also think the latest P5+1 offer, when combined with the presence of William Burns, is compelling and indeed a "precious" opportunity.

But as I pointed out here, it's important to listen to what the Iranians are saying, and as Flynt and Sarah Mann Leverett point out here, we should at least consider whether what they're offering isn't also a "precious opportunity." As for the obvious questions about whether or not the Iranians can be trusted, from what Jalili is saying, the Iranians are asking themselves the same questions about us.

What's needed is a real game-changing action (not signal, but action), to prove good faith. The Iranians could provide one by allowing unfettered IAEA access to their nuclear program. The U.S. could offer more than just William Burns' attendance at a meeting. But neither side is likely to do that so long as they both feel like it would be a sign of weakness, rather than strength.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Update: I mistakenly referred to William Burns as Nicholas in the original post. Thanks to Laura Rozen over at War and Piece for catching the oversight, which I have since corrected.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why the Rush with Iran?

If you'd like an alternative take on the latest round of Iran nuclear talks, try Flynt Leverett's and Hillary Mann Leverett's corrective in the National Interest. They condemn the rush to impose what they call an artificial deadline on Iran to accept our pre-conditions, even if those are more generously defined. Instead, they put the negotiations in the context of consistent Iranian efforts to use issue-specific cooperation as a way to engage a "comprehensive diplomatic agenda," efforts consistently disappointed by this and previous American administrations. The Leverett's suggest that recent shifts in American posture have created a receptive climate in Iran to once again try to arrive at some sort of grand bargain. But that opportunity will be lost if we once again reduce the negotiating track to a deadline-enforced single-issue track.

There's a danger, in the Leverett's argument, of getting lulled into the kind of longterm, potentially fruitless negotiations that in essence give the Iranians time to proceed with their technological advances in the nuclear fuel cycle. But there's also the chance that by treating the roots, the leaves take care of themselves.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Negotiating with Iran

Last night, Iran's less than satisfying response to the P5+1's latest offer on the nuclear standoff was leaked to the press by a European source. Today, the Bush administration leaked the news to both the Times and the AP that William J. Burns, the third ranking State Dept. official, will attend this weekend's meeting between the EU's Javier Solana and Iran's nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. It's the highest-level contact between the two countries, but there are a number of caveats:

The officials emphasized that Mr. Burnsís participation was a one-time decision, that he would not meet one-on-one with Mr. Jalili and that he would reiterate the administrationís demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment.

I'd be curious to know who leaked the story, and what faction in the internal administration wrangling over Iran that Burns belongs to. His Congressional testimony on Iran from just last week (.pdf) is an equal dose of firmness and openness to dialogue, therefore hard to decipher. The Times article frames the decision to send Burns as a response to some background noise coming out of Iran that ". . .led the administration to conclude that there could be more chance of a diplomatic resolution than some Iranian declarations and a battery of missile tests last week suggested."†

But Burns' presence remains ambiguous, in that it signals what amounts to a reversal in the American position of no discussions without a freeze in Iran's uranium enrichment program, at the same time that the message he's being sent to deliver communicates the exact opposite. In combination with last night's leak, it plays to the court of public opinion to create the perception of an American willingness to negotiate, thereby effectively raising pressure on Iran to come up with something substantive at the meeting. The question is whether the Iranians will perceive it in the same way.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Iranian Threat

I found this Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation chart via Matthew Yglesias last night. As you can see, it uses a side by side comparison of U.S. and Iranian military capacity to effectively debunk the idea that Iran poses any kind of existential threat to the United States. Yglesias acknowledges the risk to regional stability represented by Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capacity, but says that's "a far cry from saying that Iran is, as such, any kind of serious military threat."

My first thought last night was that this line of argument is convincing because it blurs the distinction between existential threat and military threat. In particular, it ignores the fact that Iran is aggressively pursuing a ballistic missile capacity which will soon put it in the position of striking Israeli targets, and eventually put European capitals within range. My first thought this morning was that had I posted that thought last night, the news that Iran just test launched a Shahab 3 missile capable of reaching Tel Aviv would have made me look like a genius.†

The fact is that for over twenty years now, Iran has been a hostile nation that has exercised a destabilizing influence in the region and demonstrated a willingness to use force -- including terrorist attacks carried out by proxies and state agents -- to further its interests. They are not the only nation that fits that description, but they are the most prominent among the group. The fact that American policy towards Iran over that time might not have been ideally formulated to modulate that posture is an exacerbating factor, but not a causal one, and it doesn't make Iran's posture any less real.

For a variety of reasons, it would be counterproductive to try to achieve our strategic objectives vis ŗ vis Iran through military means. That means we need to engage them diplomatically, which entails allowing for a realistic recalculation of Iran's regional status, to our detriment. But we need to do that clearsightedly, which means recognizing both the difficulties of negotiating with Tehran (the response to the P5+1's latest offer on the nuclear dossier is an example), and also the threat a hostile Iranian state poses to our interests and those of our allies.

The case against a military approach to Iran can be made without minimizing or ignoring the military threat Iran poses. It is far from being existential, either to the U.S. or to our allies. But it exists.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Syber War

The new Sy Hersh piece is up at the New Yorker and -- with the caveat that it might be time to coin a term along the lines of a "Friedman Unit" to describe Hersh's Iran reporting -- to the extent that his account of the Bush administration's covert operations against Iran is accurate, the operations are misguided for all the obvious reasons. Hersh identifies most of them, but leaves unmentioned the fact that encouraging ethno-sectarian faultlines as a means of undermining the Iranian regime is logically inconsistent with the Western strategic consensus that identifies the effects of ethno-sectarian conflict as one of the principle threats to regional and global stability, and repairing them as the emerging justification and goal of military intervention. It's reassuring to note that Vali Nasr, in the piece, dismisses the effectiveness of applying such a tactic to Iran due to the country's well-established national identity, but I remember hearing the same logic used to explain why Iraq's Shiite community would be resistant to Iranian influence in Iraqi internal politics.

Another point that Hersh treats obliquely is that the groups we're supporting covertly, in particular PJAK but to a lesser degree Jundullah, represent threats to our friends as well as to Iran. Hersh mentions the tension this might cause us with Turkey and Afghanistan respectively, but it's worth noting that, as Turkey's security cooperation with Iran regarding Kurdish guerillas in northern Iraq illustrates, our covert Iran policy is also working at cross purposes with our overt Iran policy, namely to isolate Tehran from its neighbors.

But to my mind, the greatest risk of these covert operations is not so much the threat they pose to our Middle East policy, so much as the threat they pose to the health and integrity of our domestic political institutions. The degree of secrecy in which the current administration's covert operations are shrouded is all the more worrying given the Bush administration's willingness, according to Hersh, to keep not only Congress but to a large degree the uniformed military chain of command in the dark about covert operations as well.

That takes on added significance in the context of the upcoming presidential transition. Most of the discusion of that transition has focused on the conduct of the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the need for institutional and operational continuity. But with so much of the Bush administration's counterterror and now Middle East policy taking place off the books and being arguably illegal, there's reason to worry about whether or not we'll ever really track all of it down. And that raises the very real risk of these operations becoming rogue operations directed by a private chain of command, if they're directed at all.

A lot of this has to do with executive overreach, and both Barack Obama and John McCain have discussed ways in which they would return the executive branch to the Constitutional framework largely ignored by President Bush. But the guiding logic of all of the operations discussed by Hersh is the War on Terror, which the Bush administration has used to justify the Commander-in-Chief override of the oversight process. The next president should declare the War on Terror over in a legal sense, even while pursuing it operationally. It would send the right message to Americans, to American agents and to the region that we're ready to shine some light into the shadows, instead of operating in them.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iran   

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Engagement vs. Provocation

Diplomatic engagement with Iran is inevitable, not because they're "ten feet tall and on a roll," as this WaPo article (via Laura Rozen) puts it, or even because they're "dangerous, and clever, and good at asymmetric warfare." Diplomatic engagement is inevitable because it's the only official means of communication between nations besides war, and war is in neither Iran's nor our interest. On the other hand, I don't think that diplomatic engagement should be organized under a logic of "[T]hey have a lot of vulnerabilities -- and. . .we can exploit them." At this point, too, how to manage the second most thorny strategic challenge facing the country (I put Russia first) is a question best left to the incoming administration. The opening of a State Department interests section in Tehran during the last six months of a Bush administration comes across as yet another provocation. The opening of a State Department interests section in Tehran during the first six months of a new administration comes across as an initial feeler. So it's a good idea, but for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Iran Proposal Signals American Shift

In case you haven't seen it yet, ISIS (via Laura Rozen) has posted an English-language version (.pdf) of the EU3+3 Iran proposal I referred to yesterday. And in comparing it to the last concrete offer made in June 2006, it's very clear that the major difference is in the political incentives added to sweeten the deal. Here's the political component, circa 2006:

Support for a new conference to promote dialogue and cooperation on regional security issues.

Here's the same section from this week's offer:

-Improving the six countries' and the EU's relations with Iran and building up mutual trust.
-Encouragement of direct contact and dialogue with Iran.
-Support Iran in playing an important and constructive role in international affairs.
-Promotion of dialogue and cooperation on non-proliferation, regional security and stabilisation issues.
-Work with Iran and others in the region to encourage confidence-building measures and regional security.
-Establishment of appropriate consultation and cooperation mechanisms.
-Support for a conference on regional security issues.
-Reaffirmation that a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue would contribute to non-proliferation efforts and to relaizing the objective of a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction, including their means of delivery.
-Reaffirmation of the obligation under the UN Charter to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state or in any other manner inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations.
-Cooperation on Afghnaistan, including on intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking; support for programmes on the return of Afghan refugees to Afghanistan; cooperation on reconstruction of Afghanistan; cooperation on guarding the Iran-Afghan border.

I was a little lazy last night about tracking down the 2006 offer, which explains why I called the above a cosmetic change. My bad. There's obviously no guarantee that the negotiations will bear fruit, and the uranium freeze (Iran's red line) is still a pre-condition. But keep in mind that the above paragraph bears Condoleezza Rice's signature on behalf of the United States. That, to me, constitutes at least the suggestion of a pretty broad engagement.

That might explain why Iran has declared that it will examine the proposal carefully. Given that the Ayatollah Khamenei, who will ultimately mae the decision, has already expressed that any engagement with the U.S. would have to wait for the next administration, it's very possible that they'll either play for time or flat out reject it. But this is a pretty big shift, even if it is only one on paper for the time being.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't Get M.A.D. at Iran

Sam Roggeveen at The Interpeter (another new addition to the blogroll) makes some good points about Iran's nuclear weaponization program. (Although the only time there was a "D" in Grunstein was back when I was playing pickup ball in NY. No harm, no foul, Sam.) As Sam rightly notes, as important as Iran's intentions (which we can neither prove nor disprove, and which are subject to change) is the fact that any possible weapons capacity is significantly delayed by freezing the weaponization component of their program. That's what's known as a window of opportunity, no matter how slight the opening, and we would be very foolish if we didn't explore every possibility it offers with the utmost seriousness of purpose.

I mentioned the reasons why, even if Iran is deterrable (and I believe it is), an Iranian bomb would be a disaster. But I've always been surprised by how flippant so many people are to the idea of nuclear deterrance as an acceptable outcome of this crisis. My generation is the last to have grown up through young adulthood under the weight of M.A.D., and I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Indeed, one of the most exciting promises that grew out of the fall of the Soviet Union was the idea that it would finally be relegated to the dustbin of history. Noah Shachtman at Danger Room reminds us of why.

Instead, M.A.D. has found a new home in South Asia, with all the alarming scenarios that represents. The Middle East makes for an even more worrisome threat environment. In the absence of the necessary trust, President Bush's declarations that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable sound like bellicose threats. That doesn't make them less true. Hopefully the next American president can establish the kind of dialogue necessary to convince the Iranians of that as well.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Iran's Nuclear Intentions

Adam Blickstein is right in arguing that restoring the intelligence community's credibility will be essential to the ability of any future presidential administration to mobilize public opinion for a necessary intervention. Whether or not that's possible in an age of "all info ops, all the time" remains to be seen. There will always be both known and unknown gaps in our intelligence, and how they are used to drive policy is often an essentially political decision. Jeffrey Lewis, in a post I flagged yesterday, called attention to the different ways in which the Clinton and Bush administrations assessed a known gap in intelligence on North Korea. The divergence in their conclusions has as much to do with political considerations as with the longterm strategic cost-benefit analysis.

A good place to start, though, would be in not purposely distorting the known intelligence, for instance, about Iran's nuclear program, as Matthew Yglesias points out in an entertaining post here. That said, it's important to be precise about what the NIE said and didn't say (.pdf), and what we can and can't know about Iran's intentions. The NIE said that Iran has halted the weaponization component of its nuclear program. Most opponents of a war with Iran in particular and the Bush administration's disastrous Iran policy in general latched onto that to argue that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons.

There are two problems with that argument, despite its apparent tautology. To begin with, the production of a deployable nuclear weapon depends on a number of components: weapons grade fissile material, a delivery system, and the actual implosion device necessary to set off the atomic reaction, among others. The NIE basically stated that Iran decided to freeze the last component, probably in response to heightened international concern and pressure. But Iran is still developing the first two components, and they are still just as applicable to any eventual nuclear design. It's the equivalent of building a car frame, refining gasoline, and discontinuing the program that was developing the internal combustion engine.

From everything I've read, the actual weaponization device is not the most arduous part of the process. The uranium enrichment is. Which means that while Iran is no longer developing nuclear weapons, the question of whether it is still pursuing them boils down to its intentions. The fact that it had a weaponization program to begin with leaves little doubt as to its initial intentions. But here's what the NIE had to say about Iran's current intentions:

. . .we also assess with moderate-to-high confidence that Tehran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons.

There's also this:

Iranian entities are continuing to develop a range of technical capabilities that could be applied to producing nuclear weapons, if a decision is made to do so. For example, Iranís civilian uranium enrichment program is continuing. We also assess with high confidence that since fall 2003, Iran has been conducting research and development projects with commercial and conventional military applicationsósome of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

Finally there's this:

We assess with moderate confidence that convincing the Iranian leadership to forgo the eventual development of nuclear weapons will be difficult given the linkage many within the leadership probably see between nuclear weapons development and Iranís key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iranís considerable effort from at least the late 1980s to 2003 to develop such weapons. In our judgment, only an Iranian political decision to abandon a nuclear weapons objective would plausibly keep Iran from eventually producing nuclear weaponsóand such a decision is inherently reversible.

It's important to push back against any distortions of the intelligence, but it's counterproductive to push back to the point of distorting to the opposite extreme. I advocate engaging Iran, because I think that whatever eventual concessions we might mutually make would be strategically less costly than an armed intervention. But we shouldn't be naive. We're dealing with a hostile country harboring adversarial regional ambitions that has been opaque in developing its nuclear program and has a history of nuclear weapons intentions. There are also a variety of regional stability concerns and broader non-proliferation principles that would be jeopardized by an eventual Iranian nuclear weapons capacity, even if Iran itself is deterrable.†

That makes for a much more complicated strategic problem to resolve in just about every possible way. But reality usually does.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, May 23, 2008

The Iran Fallacy

In case you haven't noticed the front page, WPR has got a pretty solid one-two punch of must read articles today. The first, by Charles Crain, discusses the ways in which the Obama-McCain dust up over negotiating with enemies like Iran is divorced from the reality that we already are negotiating with enemies like Iran. The second, by Brian Burton, dissects the ways in which the consensus view of Iran as the source of all the Middle East's problems is divorced from the reality that the Middle East is the source of all the Middle East's problems.

I'd been meaning to make Crain's point for the last few days, so I'm glad he saved me the trouble. And I've been guilty of what Burton is talking about, using the shorthand of "symptom" when referring to Hamas, Hizbollah and Syria and "disease" to refer to Iran. There is the not insignificant detail of Iranian funding, supplies and training, but Burton is spot on in his argument that Hamas and Hizbollah -- and the popular discontent they represent -- would exist independently of Iranian influence. Burton's policy correctives read almost like a diplomatic version of the U.S. Army's new COIN tactics writ large:

The best way to counter expanding extremism and Iranian influence is not through more conventional state-to-state military action or diplomacy. It is by beating Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Sadrists at their own game: Standing up for repressed populations of the region, addressing their local grievances, demonstrating care for their concerns, offering aid and a clear vision of a better future. Extremist groups like these will not fade away until their constituencies have a more attractive alternative, and America should be ashamed if it cannot do a better job than Iran at providing that alternative.

You might remember the discussion we had here on the blog a few weeks back about Barack Obama's foreign policy "crusade." I think that underneath Obama's transformational rhetoric is really just an ambition to put what Burton describes into practice.

My point at the time was that presenting the case in transformational terms risks raising expectations too high. Hamas and Hizbollah didn't just suddenly appear as their constituencies' best hope to get their political grievances redressed. They are the product of over forty years of failed policy, and in many ways their rise reflects a level of desperation which will be difficult to move past. But regardless of whether we actually do end up transforming the Middle East or the world, what Burton (and Obama) is proposing is the right thing to do.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Trade-offs, Good Deal

Apparently, House Committee on Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman didn't get the memo that U.S.-Russia relations are no longer based on trade-offs. More seriously, as the Richard Weitz article I flagged yesterday points out, nuclear cooperation with the U.S. provides Russia with lucrative alternatives to its relatively modest (and at times unpaid) commerce with Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Business Never Personal

A few weeks back, I wrote that the real danger of Gen. Petraeus being promoted to CENTCOM is not so much that his regional strategy might be weighted towards Iraq to the detriment of Afghanistan, although that's certainly a risk. The real problem is that Gen. Petraeus' view of the Iranians is colored by the fact that he's been engaged in a low-level proxy war with them for the past year and a half.

But as this Dr. iRack post over at Abu Muqawama demonstrates, Petraeus isn't alone. Here's the good doctor discussing one possible reason why American policy-makers dismissed Iranian overtures for broad, regional negotiations following the recent fighting in Basra:

In recent weeks, Dr. iRack has been at a number of events with very senior U.S. officials discussing Iran's lethal involvement in Iraq. To a man, these officials have, over the past month, been rocketed by weapons made in Iran (although direct links to the regime remain murky). Dr. iRack is no psychologist, but key U.S. figures on the ground in Baghdad just don't seem to be in the mood to talk to folks with American blood an their hands while they're being shelled.

This, of course, is why it's not a good idea to put people who have been deeply engaged in-theater in broader regional policy positions. Again, the point is not that the Iranians are angels, or that their overture was necessarily credible. The point is that sometimes negotiating with the bad guys gets you a better result than fighting them, and personal animosities have a way of interfering with the judgment necessarily to make that sort of call.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, May 2, 2008

Middle Power Mojo

I got some pushback via email on this post about Turkey, and the idea of formulating American foreign policy to take advantage of the leverage offered by regional "Middle Powers." In particular, the question was raised whether having the same policy as Turkey vis ŗ vis Iran is more important than preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and more generally whether harmonizing policy with our regional allies should trump our own policy goals. The short answer is no.

The longer answer is that the Turkey-Iran example is complicated by the fact that I think we're trying to impose a flawed tactic (sanctions), in order to achieve an unrealistic strategic goal (containment). And the result is that countries like Turkey, India, and Pakistan, to say nothing about China and Russia, are lukewarm at best. Now, I'm not at all naive about the Iranian regime, and I think that it would be a strategic disaster if it acquired a nuclear weapons capacity. Not for any existential threat it posed to Israel, and much less to us (because I think that Tehran is susceptible to strategic deterrence), but for the destabilizing impact it would have on regional and global non-proliferation. More importantly, it's a safe bet that the Turks have no burning desire to see a nuclear-armed Iran. For that matter, neither do the Russians.

So, to walk the whole thing back a bit, I'm suggesting two things. First, and this was the central argument of my post, we should focus on enlisting the key regional leverage points, which I called the "Middle Powers," to do the heavy lifting for us in terms of regional policy, because for a whole host of reasons, the lighter our footprint right now, the better. Second, to do that, we need to start by finding the common policy goals with our regional allies, and use that as the starting point for formulating policy. In the case of Iran, that would be preventing the spread of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, but not necessarily containment. America is no longer in a position where it can impose unpopular policies on its regional allies, so we need to find ways to achieve our goals through generating consensus, not twisting arms.

A third point, but one that is more difficult to standardize, involves identifying regional players who have got their mojo (for lack of a better word) working and piggy back on their momentum. Turkey, for instance, has demonstrated a very impressive ability to achieve its foreign policy goals over the past several years. France under Sarkozy has shown a knack for picking winners. It would be foolish to let pride keep us from taking advantage of our friends' lucky streaks.

It goes against years of instinct and habit, but until we restore both our soft and hard power, American influence might be best applied by enlisting savvy and sympathetic Middle Powers, and then following their lead.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Turkey   

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

Iran's Iraq Policy Mirrors Our Own

Yesterday's post about recent U.S. and Iranian restraint opening the door to possible engagement might have been premature to the extent that it downplayed the rhetoric now coming out of Washington about Iran's involvement with Iraqi militias. In particular, the events in Basra are now being used to demonstrate the amount of material and training Iran has supplied to the Sadrist militia, both "special" (ie. rogue) factions and those loyal to Moqtada. Future conflicts will certainly bring to light the operational links that Iran has established with other Shiite militias as well, including those that are integrated into Iraq's national security apparatus.

The Bush administration is portraying this influence as "malign", and insomuch as it works in opposition to our stated goals (solidifying Iraqi sovereignty) and our unstated goals (liquidating the most prominent Iraqi figure -- al-Sadr -- that isn't willing to reach a working arrangement with us), it is. But it's important to remember how arbitrary (or subjective) our definition of terms really is: we've identified the incarnation of Iraqi sovereignty as those willing to cooperate with us, from which it necessarily follows that al-Sadr -- who might very well be the most nationalist of Shiites -- and the support Tehran provides him become part of the problem. Food for thought for the next phase of intra-Shiite power consolidation: if we defined anyone who received support from Tehran as an enemy, we'd have no Shiite allies left.

What's also significant is the degree to which our Sunni policy perfectly mirrors Iran's Shiite policy, both in practice (supplying non-state militias fighting against foreign forces) and effect (undermining the government's monopoly on the legitimate use of force). For the time being, Sunnis have identified al-Qaida Iraq as their principle foreign enemy. But with AQI's strength dwindling, it's only a matter of time before they turn their attention to another foreign power with a significant presence in Iraq.

When that time comes, the Sunnis will have a choice between the two foreign powers left in Iraq: the U.S. and Iran. In the first case, we'll find the second front re-opened, in the second we'll find ourselves on the field as the full-scale Iraqi civil war breaks out. In either case, the role of guarantor of Iraqi sovereignty seems almost certain to be even less attractive than it is now.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Iran in Iraq

Since the Senate Foreign Relations committee seems to be giving Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker a pretty tough time regarding Iran's influence in Iraq and how reasonable it is to believe we can eliminate it, now might be a good time to point out that former Iraqi Prime Minister and head of PM Noori Miliki's Dawa Party, Ibrahim Jafari, was in Tehran on Sunday, where he met with Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani:

Jafari. . .highlighted the Islamic Republic of Iran’s role in solving his country’s problems and said, "Iran seeks to establish peace, security and stability in the region."

Maybe the timing's just a coincidence. Or maybe it has to do with ironing out the wrinkles in the Basra deal. Still, it's hard to believe that Jafari and Maliki don't understand the importance of the Petraeus Report. The appearances of this are radioactive, but I wonder if anyone in Washington noticed.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Update: After reading this from Kevin Drum, it looks like this meeting could be another sign that Iran is increasingly taking Maliki's side in his standoff with al-Sadr. As for how Moqtada's doing, as the title of Kevin's post wonders, I'd just point out that every time someone counts al-Sadr out, he manages to get back up from the canvas in better shape than before.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Cheney in Ankara

You'll recall that last month I mentioned an increase in Turkey's troop commitment in Afghanistan and a more active Turkish role in pushing back against Iran's nuclear program as likely chits for the U.S. signing off on its weeklong incursion into northern Iraq. Well, it seems that Dick cheney flew into Ankara today and met with Turkey's president, prime minister and the Army chief of staff to collect on both accounts. And in a further sign of America's diminished standing in the region, he left more or less empty-handed. (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan did issue a pro forma declaration urging Tehran to cooperate more fully with the IAEA.)

Now if this were a mob movie, some capo would be busy explaining to the Don in a husky whisper why someone had to get knee-capped, and quick, to keep people in the neighborhood from thinking we'd gone soft. Thing is, if this were a mob movie, chances are Cheney would be the capo sent to do the knee-capping.

So I'll be keeping my eye on this one. Ankara isn't too keen on appearing like Washington's errand boy, so there might just be a short delay for appearance's sake. The NATO summit two weeks from now, for instance, would make a nice, headline-grabbing forum for an Afghanistan announcement.

But if 'No' in this case really means 'No,' that's a pretty big setback for American regional strategy.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iran   Turkey   

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nabucco in Jeopardy, Again

Turkish President Abdullah Gul met with Turkmenistan President Gurbanguli Berdymukhamedov yesterday, and while both leaders expressed their ". . .mutual will for improving bilateral economic and commercial relations between the two countries," no agreement was announced on whether or not Turkmeni gas will feed the proposed Nabucco pipeline that would make Turkey a gas hub connecting Central Asia with Southern and Central Europe. For Today's Zaman (Turkey), that meant the two countries "agree to boost economic cooperation." For RIA Novosti, citing a Turkish-language paper, that meant "Nabucco trans-Caspian gas pipeline in jeopardy."

WPR contributing editor John Rosenthal recently wrote about the fact that the logic of the Nabucco pipeline, designed to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian gas, doesn't stand up without Iranian reserves feeding it. Which makes the U.S. State Dept's sudden support for the project surprising, and its criticism of other countries for signing energy deals with Iran somewhat hypocritical.

I suppose it could be argued that participation in Nabucco could function as a carrot to try to lure Iran into adopting a more responsible regional posture. But the thing about offering carrots is that they work best when you're not absilutely dependent on the other party to accept them.

I suppose it's also worth noting that Iraq's Oil Ministry has just announced a tender for a pipeline to Iran, designed to transport Iraqi crude to Iran and Iranian refined products back into Iraq. Something to think about the next time someone argues we invaded for the oil.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Iran Standoff: Running Out of Time

Most Iran-watchers agree that the recent parliamentary elections represent a mild setback for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Pragmatists led by Hashemi Rafsanjani and Ali Larijani roughly split the conservative vote, and even reform candidates, who were suppressed from the ballots in large numbers, managed to pick up some seats. The resulting tension has immediately made itself felt in the standoff that has galvanized world attention and divided the Iranian leadership: the decision on whether or not to pursue Tehran's controversial policy of implementing Daylight Savings Time:

Iran will again use daylight saving time this year despite earlier opposition from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government.

Iran stopped putting the clocks forward in spring 2006 because, although it aims to save electricity by lengthening evening daylight by an hour, the government said there was no evidence to show it cut energy use.

The government said it still opposed using daylight saving time, although parliament voted to reinstate the practice last year.

"The government will be implementing (parliament's) legislation regarding the change in the country's official timing," Government Spokesman Gholam Hossein Elham said.

On a more serious note, an earthquake registering 4.1 on the Richter scale hit roughly 50 miles south of the main uranium conversion facility at Isfahan. No reports yet on damage or casualties.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Voter Suppression, Tehran Edition

In other election news, Iranians voted for parliament yesterday, although how many actually voted seems to be the first spin battle over the election's significance. Here's how the AP saw it:

Only a handful of voters showed up at many polling stations in Tehran on Friday in Iran's parliament elections, a sign of frustration with a vote that hard-liners allied with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are expected to dominate. . .

Iran's reformist movement, which seeks democratic changes at home and better ties with the West, was largely sidelined in the race after most of its candidates were barred from running by Iran's clerical leadership.

Here's how IRNA, one of Iran's official press organ, saw it:

Iranians responded to the United Nations Security Council's anti-Iran Resolution 1803 by their massive turnout at the parliamentary election on March 14, Interior Minister Mostafa Pour-Mohammadi said on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters, he said the Iranian people showed to the world that the resolution which was adopted by the UN Security Council against Iran's peaceful nuclear program had no impact on their national will.

PressTV, a semi-official press organ, put turnout at 65%. I'm leaning towards the AP's version, but that might just reflect my Western bias. Actual results should be available over the next few days.

The big story for the Western press has been the exclusion of the reformists from the balloting. But it's important to remeber that Iran pursued its clandestine nuclear program while the reformists were in power. As for the more pragmatic conservatives like Hashemi Rafsanjani, there's not a whole lot of daylight between his negotiating position and that of Ahmadinejad. In a sermon yesterday, Rafsanjani reiterated the standard Iranian position of negotiations with no pre-conditions (ie. no uranium enrichment freeze). So while the exclusion of the reformists is significant for what it reveals about Tehran's general orientation, I'm not sure it will have a major impact on the particular issue of the nuclear standoff.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fallon's Gone

Wow. That was quick. The question now is, What just happened? More specifically, what game was Fallon playing? He ostensibly quit because of the implication of a disconnect between him and the White House on Iran, which created an untenable situation. At the same time, given Fallon's past comments and known position on Iran (Bob Gates called the 'resignation' "...a cumulative kind of thing"), there's a lot of reason to believe that this was inevitable and that the Esquire article just forced the White House's hand. Fallon immediately distanced himself from the article, but the article's author, Thomas Barnett, suggested just after the piece appeared that that was disingenuous:

Writing a piece that pretended there was no tension, when it exists in spades, would have been dishonest. Not preparing the American public for the possibility that Fallon's stance may cost him much like it did MacArthur would also have been poor journalism... Finally, it would have been wholly not raise the issue that what Fallon's doing here is exactly what so many young officers in the military now say wasn't done before Iraq: providing strategic context to the debate about whether or not this country goes to war again...

But let me be clear here regarding any impression garnered from the admiral's "rejection" of the piece: I approached the admiral expressly on the issue of his ongoing stance on Iran, informing him that Esquire was interested in exploring the man and the vision attached to this stance. The subject constituted a major portion of my first interview with him and later ones following the trip.

There's just so many different levels on which to speculate here that it's hard to know where to start. Is this an NIE-type maneuver, broadcasting a tell (ie. Fallon gone = war with Iran) in order to mobilize resistance to the outcome? Is it a ploy to put the fear of Cheney into the Iranians' hearts, in the hopes that they might become more cooperative if they know the countdown clock's been re-started? Is he signalling to the officer corps' that it's now or never to push back against an ill-conceived attack on Iran?

One thing is sure. When a strategic genius like Fallon gives the kind of access he granted to Barnett, he knows what he's doing and he has a plan. I'm not a strategic genius, so it will take me a while to figure out what that plan is.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Fallon Gets Bashful

Apparently Centcom commander Admiral William Fallon has distanced himself from Thomas Barnett's glowing Esquire profile. Too bad, because Fallon really does seem to have a folk wisdom about how to handle some of the region's trouble spots that in its simplicity offers more substance than some of the more soaring diplomatic initiatives I've seen proposed elsewhere. Here he is on Iran:

"Tehran's feeling pretty cocky right now because they've been able to inflict pain on us in Iraq and Afghanistan." So the trick, in Fallon's mind, is "to try to figure out what it is they really want and then, maybe--not that we're going to play Santa Claus here or the Good Humor Man--but the fact is that everyone needs something in this world, and so most countries that are functional and are contributing to the world have found a way to trade off their strengths for other strengths to help them out. These guys are trying to go it alone in this respect, and it's a bad gene pool right now. It's not one with much longevity. So they play that card pretty regularly, and at some point you just kind of run out of games, it seems to me. You've got to play a real card."

Compare that view of engagement with this one offered by former ambassador (and former Iran hostage) John Limbert, or this one by Thomas Pickering & Co. and you'll see what I mean.

Fallon has been widely portrayed as pushing back against elements in the Bush administration who are itching for war with Tehran, and the article locates his appointment as part of a broader Bob Gates effort to that effect. But his strategic cost-to-benefit analysis shouldn't be confused with being afraid of the Iranians:

And if it comes to war?

"Get serious," the admiral says. "These guys are ants. When the time comes, you crush them."

If there's one thing that startled me about the piece, it was the extent to which American diplomacy seems to be conducted out of the DoD these days. The article describes Fallon as meeting with heads of state in Pakistan, Egypt, the 'Stans and elsewhere, and basically coordinating a diplomatic initiative that seems like a macro regional version of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan. But given that his strategic vision for the region seems more dialed in than that of the diplomats, maybe that shouldn't be so surprising.

Via FP Passport. Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Monday, March 3, 2008

IAEA: Revenge Of The Nerds

There's been a lot of reaction to yesterday's WaPo article about a technical presention to diplomatic representatives of IAEA member states that followed up on the IAEA's Iran report. Some have interpreted the presentation, which revealed documentary evidence of Iranian weaponization efforts up to and slightly after 2003, as a vindication of IAEA Director Mohamed ElBaradei, who had previously been accused of carrying Tehran's water.

So I thought I'd point out that last week, a well-informed source I spoke to following the delivery of the report flagged the presentation -- which significantly was given by Olli Heinonen, the IAEA's head of safeguards -- as evidence of the internal tension between the technical wing of the IAEA (ie. the inspectors on the ground) and the political wing (ie. ElBaradei and his circle). According to my source, Heinonen's presentation grew out of the sentiment among the inspection teams that their "work is not faithfully reflected in ElBaradei's statements." He didn't say it explicitly, but the clear implication was that the followup presentation was an attempt to end run ElBaradei, who presents the IAEA's reports to the Board of Governors, and get the incriminating evidence directly into the record.

He directed my attention to an article in Le Monde from two weeks previous. Here's the key graf:

Within the IAEA, very strong pressures have appeared. . .

According to a source within the Agency, who requested anonymity, the heads of the inspections teams are "unhappy" and privately express their "incomprehension" of what they perceive as Mr. ElBaradei's intention to give Tehran a free hand. "He wants to close the file," the official regretted, "despite incoherences that persist in the explanations furnished by the Iranians, and despite the fact that the information that they've delivered isn't complete." Translated from the French.)

I didn't emphasize the point because I thought the allegation was already a matter of public record. But the reaction to yesterday's WaPo story seems to warrant a re-visit.

A word, too, about the NIE, because there's also been something of a dismissive attitude towards people who worried that it might have an adverse impact on international resolve to maintain pressure on Iran. I'd point out that the overwhelming popular reaction to the NIE was to ridicule the Bush administration's hawkish posture and absolve the Iranian program of any weaponization intentions. The problem wasn't with the former, but the latter which, by conflating a suspension of weaponization programs with the renunciation of a desire for weapons, amounted to a significant misreading of the report's implications.

Moreover, with regards to the IAEA and verification of NPT compliance, the previous existence of the weaponization program as well as Iran's refusal to be forthcoming about it amount to major violations of its NPT obligations. So if the third round of sanctions is back on track, I'd argue that it's because of an intense lobbying effort that included flooding the zone with intelligence to refocus attention on the very serious violations that were obscured by the impact (if not the actual content) of the NIE.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Gaza Outsourcing

To get a sense of what's going on in Gaza right now, just go read Laura Rozen. She's got all the essential links and analysis. One thing, though, that I haven't seen mentioned yet among all the talk of possible local brushfires (Gaza, West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, etc.) is the impact Hamas-Israel and Hezbollah-Israel conflicts might have on Iran's activity in Iraq. The Iranians have already demonstrated how much they can contribute to improving the security situation there. A three-front war between Israel, Hamas, Fatah and Hezbollah would seem like the kind of scenario they would use to demonstrate how much they can contribute to worsening it.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Turkey, The Kurds, And Iran

Over at WPR, I spoke with a well-informed European official about the IAEA's Iran report. On a hunch, I asked him what kind of strategic impact Turkey -- which has really stayed on the sidelines of this issue -- could make by actively siding with the West's position. Without hesitation he said it would make a huge difference. In addition to the obvious reasons (Islamic country, regional power, etc.), he explained that Turkey is one of the countries in the region he would be most worried about seeking a nuclear weapons capacity should Iran aquire a nuclear bomb. Although he did not explicitly connect the dots, I interpreted that to mean that by coming down firmly on the side of containing the Iranian program, Turkey would send a strong signal to the rest of the region of their own intentions. That in turn would shore up Western efforts to enlist other regional players to contain, rather than compete with, the Iranian program.

That's important to keep in mind for putting Turkey's Iraq incursion into context. American military commanders emphasized the difference yesterday between the U.S. receiving advance notice of the incursion and the U.S. approving the incursion. But that's a distinction very few people will find convincing, least of all the Kurds, who reminded the U.S. (in the form of a resolution by the Kurdish Regional Parliament) of its obligation to defend the territorial integrity of Iraq. (The resolution also notably called for the closure of Turkish Forward Operating Bases in Iraqi Kurdistan that date back to the 1990's.)

My source categorically refused to speculate on a potential quid pro quo. But should Turkey adopt a more vocal position in opposition to Iran's nuclear program, it would to my mind suggest a priority shift in American strategic calculations in the region, and reflect the extent to which Washington considers the Iranian program a very serious threat.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The IAEA Iran Report

I just posted a background interview with a well-informed European official on the impact of Friday's IAEA Iran report over on the World Politics Review blog. It's worth a read, so click through.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Softer Side Of McCain

There's been a lot of speculation about what a John McCain presidency would mean in terms of America's military adventurism. But anyone worried about McCain's hawkish declarations regarding a 100-year occupation of Iraq should find this video, courtesy of the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, reassuring. McCain, it seems, has accepted the limits of American military influence, and once President would focus more on "culture-building" and "velvet revolution" operations funded by his friend and co-conspirator, "Jewish tycoon" George Soros.

I should note that the idea that America is trying to gather intelligence through recruiting a sympathetic network of influential and well-placed Iranian elites is not at all farfetched. But when the motivations behind that campaign get boiled down to a basement cabal funded by "Jewish tycoons", it gets pretty pathetic. This stuff reminds me of the kind of rumors being circulated about Barack Obama, with the difference being that the Obama slime is being funded by private interest whackjobs, and this is the product of an Iranian government ministry.

Big hat tip to Small Wars Journal for catching this priceless reminder of just what kind of government we're dealing with in Tehran.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Politics   

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

The IAEA Report: Ad Out For Iran

Via Laura Rozen at MoJo, who has an excellent post on the subject, comes this .pdf file of the IAEA's Iran report. Laura has some analysis from Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), and Arms Control Wonk has more worth reading here and here. A quick comparison of this report with the last one released just prior to the NIE indicates that while Iran has shed more light on various elements of the program, the sheer weight of the new allegations raised (thanks to American intelligence sharing) make the bottom line a net loss for Tehran.

This is reflected in the two reports' key findings summary, which are more or less "copy & paste" replicas of each other, with the exception of certain weathervane sentences which almost uniformly adopt a more severe tone this time around. So for instance, whereas last November's report spoke of Iran's "need to restore confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme", Friday's report refers more bluntly to "the confidence deficit created as a result" of Iran's decades-long clandestine procurement program.

The one exception is the IAEA's assessment of the general progression of its relative understanding of the Iranian program. Last November's report complained that, despite recent Iranian cooperation, "the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current nuclear programme is diminishing" due to the previous information blackout dating back to early 2006.

This Friday's report is comparatively, if guardedly, more generous:

The Agency has recently received from Iran additional information similar to that which Iran had previously provided pursuant to the Additional Protocol, as well as updated design information. As a result, the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current declared nuclear programme has become clearer.

Nevertheless, the passage is directly followed by this less enthusiastic note:

However, this information has been provided on an ad hoc basis and not in a consistent and complete manner. The Director General has continued to urge Iran to implement the Additional Protocol at the earliest possible date and as an important confidence building measure requested by the Board of Governors and affirmed by the Security Council.

Andy Grotto of Arms Control Wonk offered this assessment, which I think sums things up well:

There is a clear pattern here. For activities that have a colorable civilian rationale, Iran is suddenly happy to offer one. Since the IAEA is not in the business of second-guessing the sincerity of its member states in the absence of a technical rationale, it must accept these explanations unless and until new data comes along that calls the original rationale into question. And for activities that only have a weapons purpose, Iran plays the “How can you trust the Americans?’ card and simply refuses to engage the evidence.

From the analysis I've seen so far, every indication is that the new report does nothing to undermine the third round of UN sanctions being considered by the Security Council, and actually adds some credibility to the case for them. That's not to say they'll go through. The current makeup of the UNSC (Libya occupying the rotating presidency and South Africa's expressed reticence) presents structural challenges, and there's the possibility that Russia, stung by the handling of Kosovo independence, might not be in the mood to strike a deal. But this report, which just last week was being touted as a whitewash, looks instead like it might re-invigorate the effort to keep the pressure on Iran.

That leaves the question of just where the "diplomatic track" should be headed. I'll try to come up with some thoughts on that for later.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Putting Time On The Clock

There's been a lot of speculation about just how far the latest IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program would go towards letting Tehran off the hook. The fact that the U.S. turned over longheld intelligence to the IAEA and that France ratcheted up the rhetoric significantly is a measure of just how anxious Washington and Paris were about the possibility.

The report was just distributed to the IAEA Board of Governors yesterday and bits and pieces are starting to leak out, including portions that confirm increased Iranian cooperation with various outstanding issues, some of which the IAEA felt comfortable enough with to close. Not surprisingly Iran is claiming that everyone from Mohamed ElBaradei to Ban Ki-Moon have vindicated their claims of a peaceful program, and is repeating its demands to return the dossier from the UN Security Council's jurisdiction back to the IAEA. (Significantly, there are no direct quotes of these officials in the Iranian press.)

But this statement by Mohamed ElBaradei today is about the strongest language I've seen him use with regard to the three outstanding issues that Iran still refuses to cooperate on: explaining evidence of past weaponization programs, implementing the Additional Protocol of intrusive inspections, and suspending its uranium enrichment program as ordered by the Security Council. On the question of the Additional Protocol, ElBaradei was particularly adamant:

In addition to our work to clarify Iran's past nuclear activities, we have to make sure, naturally, that Iran's current activities are also exclusively for peace purposes and for that we have been asking Iran to conclude the so called Additional Protocol, which gives us the additional authority to visit places, additional authority to have additional documents, to be able to provide assurance, not only that Iran's declared activities are for peaceful purposes but that there are no undeclared nuclear activities. On that score, Iran in the last few months has provided us with visits to many places, that enable us to have a clearer picture of Iran's current programme. However, that is not, in my view, sufficient. We need Iran to implement the Additional Protocol. We need to have that authority as a matter of law. That, I think, is a key for us to start being able to build progress in providing assurance that Iran's past and current programmes are exclusively for peaceful purposes. (All emphasis added.)

The extent to which ElBaradei has couched his criticisms of Iranian obstruction in the past is one of the principal reasons -- along with the misreading of the NIE findings -- that Iran has managed to drag this standoff out for as long as it has. While the report has yet to be released and in all likelihood is written in the same diplo-speak as its predecessors, if it at all reflects the kind of impatience ElBaradei seemed to convey in his statement, it just might salvage the efforts to maintain international pressure on Tehran.

If so, it could possibly mark a turning point in this crisis. Iran had a real opportunity in the aftermath of the NIE report to deep six the U.S./EU negotiating stance. If they had just handed the keys of their program over to the IAEA, this case would have been closed by now. Instead they've taken piecemeal confidence-building measures that are more like two baby-steps forward (program documentation and explaining traces of highly-enriched uranium on centrifuges) followed by one giant leap back (revealing a next-gen centrifuge program), all while refusing to freeze enrichment or allow intrusive acccess to IAEA inspectors.

In many ways, the NIE left the U.S./EU playing for time. Above all, the challenge was to maintain the credibility of continued pressure long enough for the NIE report to lose some of its urgency. By highlighting Tehran's continued obstruction, this latest IAEA report just might do the trick.

Cross-posted to World Politics Review.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Russian Roulette

I've seen a couple of posts and articles around the web today flagging Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments condemning Iran's missile and uranium enrichment programs. From the BBC via Andy Grotto over at Arms Control Wonk, here's the oft-cited money quote:

We don't approve of Iran's permanent demonstration of its intentions to develop its rocket sector and continue to enrich uranium.

It seems to square with a recent change in tone coming out of Moscow. But if you take a closer look at Lavrov's full comments, this time from ITAR-TASS, there's definitely some room for skepticism as to just how full circle the Russians have come in their stance on the Iranian nuclear program:

However, international law does not prohibit these actions...

...[T]here is a certain positive moment in this problem. This moment is related to Iranís cooperation to close the issues, which emerged earlier due to its nuclear activity. At present, these problems are being solved satisfactorily and weíll wait for the IAEA director-generalís report.

The ITAR-TASS translation is a bit mangled, but Lavrov was basically calling for both sides to calm down and quit engaging in provocative behavior. For the Iranians, that means avoiding missile launches and freezing its uranium enrichment until the IAEA closes its file. For the US and EU3, that means avoiding accusations that the Iranians are steps away from developing a nuclear bomb that they'll then unleash on the world. In other words, while Lavrov's remarks are definitely reasonable, they're only reassuring if you believe the Iranian program is inherently peaceful in nature.

I'm increasingly of the belief that the Iranians have nuclear weapons ambitions, even if they're willing to be extremely patient to attain them. After all, their current program is the fruit of twenty years of painstaking clandestine efforts, and is constructed in such a way as to superficially mask the military component, even while the underlying structure seems transparently revealing. So if the Russians really have come around, I'd like to see them say so in more unambiguous terms than those used by Mr. Lavrov.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Friday, February 8, 2008

Iran Endgame?

If this Asia Times Online article by MK Bhadrakumar is correct, a tectonic shift in the Iran nuclear standoff took place last week which garnered almost no media attention at all. Last Sunday, I flagged remarks made by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak that signalled what seemed like a hardening of tone towards the Iranian regime.

According to Bhadrakumar, to understand Kislyak's remarks and their significance, one need only look to the agreement signed three days before between US Commerce Secretary Carlos Guttierez and Sergei Kiriyenko, the director of Russia's state nuclear agency, Rosatom. The deal cleared the way for Russia to directly supply American nuclear power plants with reactor fuel derived from the reverse processing of its weapons-grade uranium. Previously, the deals had to be routed through an American intermediary agency that applied a 100% tariff, effectively keeping Russian fuel out of the lucrative American market. Kiriyenko estimated the deal's value at $5-6 billion over the next ten years.

Bhadrakumar adds some further dots (America's tacit approval of Russian nuclear fuel deliveries to Iran's Bushehr reactor, and its support for the Russian-sponsored uranium-enrichment bank as the foundation of a reinvigorated non-proliferation regime) before connecting them by suggesting that America has agreed to a de facto US-Russian nuclear energy cartel in return for a tougher Russian line on the Iranian nuclear program.

If so, the good news would be that, in answer to The Economist's top story this week, no, Iran has not won. The bad news being that Russia has. This would signal an enormous legitimation of Russia as a balance-tipping power that can leverage its troublemaking capacity for serious commercial and strategic concessions. And yet another validation of the idea that the long-announced multi-polar world is indeed upon us.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Russia, France & Iran

In what can only be considered very encouraging news, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak defended the sanctions against Tehran agreed upon by the "P5+1" and now being considered by the UN Security Council:

"When this document is made public, you will see that it contains serious signals for Iran and envisions a certain expansion of the earlier sanctions", Kislyak said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax...

"Iran should fully cooperate with the IAEA's Board of Governors, and, among other things, get back to the implementation of the additional protocol on control, freeze uranium enrichment and take some other measures pending the work to untangle all difficult problems", he said.

He added that the matter remained one of political will, presumably in Tehran. But China's political will is essential to any resolution of this crisis as well, so it's reassuring to see that Chinese banks have cut back their operations in Iran and with Iranian businesses, albeit reluctantly, due to pressure from America's banking sanctions.

Meanwhile, relations between Tehran and Paris continue to deteriorate. Both countries summoned each others' ambassadors, France to protest President Ahmadinejad's comments about the imminent demise of the State of Israel, and Iran in a tit-for-tat response. The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman also pointedly criticized France's plans to establish a permanent military base in the UAE, explaining that Tehran was opposed to any increased foreign military presence in the region.

The French role in the Iranian crisis can't be understated. Both London and Berlin have expressed only tepid support for America's unilateral sanctions, and the likelihood of either of them signing on with their own was remote even before the NIE. Now, America's credibility has been effectively torpedoed. The Bush administration's overly aggressive posture when it was actually in a position to impact the crisis was bad enough. But the brutal aftermath of the NIE report combined with the Bush administration's lameduck status are a fatal cocktail.

France, on the other hand, has maintained a credible and consistently firm opposition to the Iranian enrichment program, and if there is a third round of UN sanctions, it will be largely due to France's very aggressive lobbying for it. Likewise for EU or EU3 sanctions. In fact, it's safe to say that France's resolve has prevented a complete unraveling of the US/EU position in the aftermath of the NIE and the anticipation of a new administration in Washington. So it's no surprise that Paris has to some extent replaced Washington as public enemy no. 1 in Tehran.

I've criticized Nicolas Sarkozy in the past for being a very opportunistic politician who carefully picks his battles. Usually what he looks for before investing any of his political capital in trying to resolve a standoff is a situation where everyone knows the solution, but for lack of a face-saving way to reach it, no one is willing to compromise. His m.o. is to then lean on the right pressure points to generate the political will necessary to get everyone to sign on the dotted line, and then take the credit for saving the day.

That hasn't been the case at all with the Iran crisis. Last summer, he very vocally implicated France in the heart of the crisis at a time when many were concerned about the militarist tone coming out of Washington. Some interpreted his comments as indicating his support for a military strike, but my own sense was that by reassuring Washington about how serious he took the threat, he was actually attempting to walk the Bush administration back towards a negotiated settlement. In the meantime, the NIE effectively left him out on a precipice, very noticeably alone. But to his credit, he has not backed away one inch (or 2.54 centimeters) from the very precarious ledge he found himself on. And if the West does manage to stand Tehran down on its uranium enrichment program, it will be in large part due to the enormous political risk he has taken.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   Russia   

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Friday, February 1, 2008

Revenge Of The Crazies

This backgrounder from The Economist is about as cogent a presentation of where things stand in the Iran nuclear crisis as I've read so far. They reference all the significant developments, both foreign and domestic, to illustrate why anyone who takes the threat of the Iranian program seriously should be very, very discouraged right now.

Last week it seemed like a third round of UN sanctions might happen in spite of the NIE, but already there are signs (this time from South Africa, which holds a non-permanent seat on the Security Council) that international opinion is far from galvanized on the urgency of the measures. Even a watered-down third round would be significant, because it would offer multi-lateral cover for more unilateral American or EU sanctions that might pressure Iran to take a more flexible negotiating position.

But the fact is that there aren't that many promising options left. Iran has a number of pots on the nuclear stove -- mastering the nuclear fuel cycle, experimental labs that the IAEA has yet to inspect, a heavy-water reactor under construction -- all of which could eventually be plugged into a jumpstarted weapons component that has been frozen but not dismantled.

Of course, none of that would happen overnight, and it's not certain that any of it would actually happen at all. But anyone who has taken a close look at this issue and read the NIE carefully has to concede that it's possible. And even if it's true that a nuclear Iran could be deterred, that's still a huge existential burden to place on an already volatile region. It's also an assumption based on a binary theory of deterrence. If the entire region goes nuclear, on the other hand, the calculations become exponentially more complex. And with such short delivery times, the margin for error or miscalculation grows even slimmer.

I'm not sure what the answer is, because there's no way to put the NIE genie back in the bottle. As Bush's recent sabre-rattling tour of the Middle East demonstrated, no one's really taking this administration seriously anymore. Condoleeza Rice has been reduced to basically begging the Iranians to accept our pre-conditions so we can negotiate directly, but really, at this point they've got no incentive to, and have as much as said that they'll wait to see what a new administration offers.

If there's any hope, it's in a third round of UN sanctions, and even that would just be for what it would offer in terms of US and EU sanctions. But it looks like in our zeal to restrain the crazies in Washington, we've unleashed the crazies in Tehran. And now we'll have to live with the consequences.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, January 25, 2008


Remember how removing the threat of an American military strike was supposed to allow the political faultlines in Tehran to resurface, enabling Iranian moderates to push back against Ahmadinejad's brand of radicalism? Not happening. In fact, according to the LA Times, so many of the reform candidates for Iran's parliamentary elections have been barred from running that they're threatening to boycott the elections entirely should Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei reject their appeal.

On the other hand, a more credible threat is being mounted from Ahmadinejad's right by former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani. As negotiator, Larijani was able to balance an appearance of flexibility with a refusal to compromise. So he represents more of a change in tone than policy from Ahmadinejad.

In any event, I'm increasingly of the opinion that, in the final analysis, the actual consequences of the Iran NIE will bear no resemblance to what people predicted at the time of its release.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

The New Black Gold

As if all the soap opera-like drama of the past couple weeks involving pipeline shutdowns and jockeying for supply routes through Eurasia and the Balkans weren't enough, now comes news that Iran and Russia are spearheading an effort to bring the long-rumored "natural gas OPEC" to fruition. A draft drawn up by Iran last year and tweaked by Russia will be presented this June to the members of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum. The group's member nation's control 73% of the world's gas reserves and 42% of its production.

Needless to say, such a cartel poses a strategic problem for the US and EU. But there are plenty of faultlines that they could take advantage of to create a wedge between Iran and Russia. In particular, Iran is in desperate need of foreign investment to develop its natural gas capacity. The fatal flaw of current American policy is that by continuing to drive Iran and Russia together in a tactical arrangement, eventually we'll have helped them form the basis of a strategic alliance.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Third Round Of Iran Sanctions

I didn't notice much discussion of them, but there were a couple of major developments on the Iran nuclear dossier yesterday. To begin with, representatives of the 5+1 (the permanent UNSC members and Germany) who met in Berlin announced that they'd agreed on a text for a third round of UN sanctions against Iran. The new sanctions themselves are largely watered down from what the US and the EU 3 had been hoping for before the release of the NIE in December. But the fact that despite the NIE's findings, Russia and China were willing to keep the matter before the Security Council -- instead of referring it back to the IAEA as Iran has demanded -- sends a signal to Tehran that there's a price to pay, albeit a symbolic one, for its strategy of confrontation (with the EU) and delay (with the IAEA). It also strengthens the credibility of an American/EU sanctions threat by providing multi-lateral cover to the assertion that Iran is still not in compliance with its NPT obligations.

Meanwhile, for the first time Iran allowed IAEA inspectors to visit its advanced centrifuge laboratory, where it is developing a new generation of more dependable enrichment technology. The visit is the first of a series of outstanding compliance issues that Iran has promised to resolve with the IAEA within the next four weeks. In the past Tehran has used Security Council sanctions as an excuse to cease cooperating with the IAEA. Should it adopt the same approach this time, look for a strong push from Washington (with a major assist from Paris) for a US-EU round of sanctions. That could be determinant, since the actual sanctions to be included in the UN resolution will have little coercive effect. The risk is that such a push could threaten the fragile support of Russia and China at the UN.

Ironically, Iran has been using the NIE as proof of the civilian nature of its program, instead of fully satisfying the IAEA's inspection regime and thereby removing the legal basis for sanctions. Given that the West was able to get this round of sanctions in spite of the NIE, that strategy might prove to be shortsighted.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Pipeline Faultlines

In the latest development in the ongoing pipeline diplomacy roiling the Middle East and Europe, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, announced that Iran was willing to supply gas for the EU's Nabucco pipeline project. Most significant about the announcement, which comes on the heels of two major Russian gas deals that strengthened Moscow's grip on European supply routes, is that Mottaki made specific mention of Europe's desire to diversify its gas sources.

Obviously, the offer must be understood principally in the context of the ongoing nuclear standoff, as an Iranian attempt to weaken European opposition to its uranium enrichment program and create a wedge between Washington and its European allies. In light of today's announcement about the agreement reached over a third round of UN sanctions, that's unlikely to happen. Even if the sanctions were watered down to bring Russia and China on board, they are symbolically extremely significant.

But the offer also coincides with Tehran's lingering and increasingly bitter dispute over a gas delivery contract with Turkmenistan. Turkmenistan has shut down its pipeline to Iran citing technical problems, but most observers believe the move, coming in the midst of a particularly cold Iranian winter, is a bareknuckled attempt to renegotiate the contract to reflect the higher price (roughly double) that Moscow recently agreed to pay for Turkmenistan's supplies.

If the Iranian offer signals a potential faultline in the Iran-Russian tactical alliance, it's one worth pursuing. While sitting on the second largest known natural gas reserves (after Russia), Iran would need enormous investment to develop its extraction and delivery capacities, which explains its vulnerability to Turkmenistan's tactics.

So far, the Russians have continued to supply the nuclear fuel to the Bushehr reactor, and their reticence has contributed to watering down the latest round of UN sanctions. But Moscow did sign on, and its efforts to solidify its energy position have come at the expense of Iran's domestic supplies. In response, Iran seems to be signalling that its allegiance is not set in stone, and that for the time being all its alignments are tactical rather than strategic in nature.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   International Relations   Iran   

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Process vs. Method

The GAO basically confirmed what I'd suggested last night. The impact of unilateral American sanctions against Iran is questionable at best. Meanwhile Iran has racked up $20 billion in energy contracts with foreign firms since 2003. You do the math.

The reason Iran is maintaining such an intransigent posture on uranium enrichment is that they're convinced they can get away with it. And that's a direct consequence of the Iran NIE report. Take that report away and Tehran's recurring delay tactics with the IAEA, combined with its confrontational negotiating stance with the EU, would almost certainly have provoked a third round of UN sanctions, and perhaps even meaningful ones at that.

There's a lot of good to be said about the Iran NIE, not least of which being that it was an accurate reflection of the US intelligence community's thinking on Iran's nuclear program, as opposed to a cooked up report meant to support an already decided upon policy. That does not necessarily make it the truth, but it is a victory of process over cynicism.

But as recent comments by President Bush made clear, it's done nothing to change the Bush administration's opinion of the Iranian nuclear program, and had only a minor impact on the tone of American rhetoric. By torpedoeing any hopes for further UN sanctions, it's also made it more likely that one or both of the worst case scenarios (as Nicolas Sarkozy put it, an Iranian bomb or the bombardment of Iran) will wind up occurring.

Process is good. But sometimes a bit of method helps, too.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Strait Skinny, Redux

To follow up on a post from yesterday, I found this comment regarding transit passage and the UNCLOS at Eagle Speak:

When I used to teach this to surface officers in the pre-command course (PCO) the points I stressed were "...continuous and expeditious transit..." and "...normal modes..." of operations. Under the later condition radars and sonars may be operated. Moreover, since warships as extensions of US territory have the inherent right of self defense in accordance with the UN Charter guns may be manned and "destructive fire" can be justified if under attack. As for the helicopter it was always my practice to have one airborne during transits of crowded waterways like the SOH as an extension of my shipboard sensors and to provide for safe navigation. The only restriction is that it must be launched and recovered in international waters (except in cases of emergency) and that its passage must be continuous and expeditious as well.

Dr. Arasbiabi has a poor understanding of both naval operations and American history. The Iranians certainly have a right to identify warships passing through the SOH (his term "inspect" connotes something entirely different to me) but they may not impede their passage. "Freedom of the seas" has been a bedrock principle of American foreign policy since our Republic's earliest days.

So maybe we are back to provocative episodes with a CB prankster grafted on top.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sanctions vs. Incentives

In the process of digging around for something to tie a few Iran-based stories together, I actually got around to reading the UN sanctions resolution to see just what kinds of economic activities had been prohibited. Not much, it turns out. Anything relating to uranium enrichment is off the table, as are Iranian arms exports. A handful of nuclear-related organizations got blacklisted and had their foreign assets frozen, and a number of high-ranking officials involved with the nuclear program were forbidden to travel abroad. (There's a summary of the sanctions here.) But besides that, it's hard to see how they're supposed to put the squeeze on Tehran.

So it's no wonder that the Bush administration has resorted to unilateral sanctions (most notably a banking blacklist that's gotten some results but is gradually being weakened), as well as exerting bi-lateral pressure in order to isolate Tehran economically. It's also no wonder, given Iran's enormous gas and oil reserves, that for every one step forward on the isolation front, there's three steps back. (Step one, step two, step three.)

The biggest surprise I got from reading the UN resolution, in fact, is the pretty generous package of incentives codified into the resolution's 2nd Annex titled "Elements of a long-term agreement" (scroll about halfway down the link), all in return for Iran quite simply suspending its uranium enrichment activity, submitting to the Additonal Protocol it has already signed with the IAEA, and satisfying all of the IAEA's outstanding concerns about the history of its program (which allows the IAEA to account for material and verify that nothing's been diverted towards military uses).

It's a pretty comprehensive incentive package, which makes Iran's adamant refusal to suspend its enrichment program while at the same time refusing to comply with its obligations under the NPT (which would legitimize its right to the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle) all the more incomprehensible. One of the reasons for their high-risk posture is obviously that they feel pretty confident they can get away with it. But if the goal is really just to increase its domestic energy supply (despite its massive reserves, Iran has an underdeveloped domestic energy sector), it seems like a less confrontational stance would accomplish the goal more quickly and with more longterm stability.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Strait Skinny

Kaveh Afrasiabi makes the claim that far from being a case of Iranian provocation, the recent incident in the Strait of Hormuz was actually a case of the American vessels invoking the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on the one hand, while violating it on the other:

According to Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgiff, the US ships were "five kilometers outside Iranian territorial waters". Yet, this is disputed by another dispatch from the US ships that states, "I am engaged in transit passage in accordance with international law."

Given that the approximately three-kilometer-wide inbound traffic lane in the Strait of Hormuz is within Iran's territorial water, the US Navy's invocation of "transit passage" harking back to the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, (UNCLOS) is hardly surprising.

Among the subsequent violations that Afrasiabi identifies, the videotape released by the Pentagon showed an American helicopter hovering over the convoy, despite the fact that the launching of aircraft is expressly forbidden during transit passage. The US has also been engaged in sonar soundings in the Strait, which under the terms of the Convention requires the consent of the states bordering the passage. Furthermore, the use of force against the states bordering the passage is also forbidden, making the firing of warning shots against Iranian vessels technically illegal as well, especially if the Iranian vessels are engaged in enforcing Tehran's sovereign rights within its territorial waters under the terms of the Convention.

Now the US is technically not a signatory to the UNCLOS. But if what Afrasiabi is maintaining is true, what the US Navy has described as a pattern of provocation on the part of Iran is in fact an American attempt to enjoy the protections of the Convention while not respecting its obligations. And the Iranian response becomes more understandable.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Back In The Red Zone

There's a trifecta of stories today featuring Iran. Any one of them would strike me as pretty alarming. But the three together seems like a very clear indication that we've entered something of a critical moment in this long-simmering stand-off.

For starters, IAEA chief Mohamed ELBaradei wrapped up his visit to Tehran where he met with President Ahmadinejad, but also with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who rarely meets with heads of multi-lateral organizations. The significance of the talks boils down to two principle announcements. First, while reaffirming their defiance of American pressure, the Iranians have agreed to fill in the missing elements of the history of their covert nuclear procurement program within the coming month. Second, they've also revealed a program to develop sophisticated centrifuges capable of a must faster uranium enrichment capacity. Both announcements are very bad news.

The first is troubling because it will almost certainly be spun as evidence of Iran's increased cooperation with the IAEA and therefore reason for reducing the urgency of diplomatic pressure on Tehran. But this is misleading, because Iran has already demonstrated its willingness to clarify the history of its procurement program. Where it has proven less cooperative is in allowing unannounced and intrusive access to all of its nuclear program's sites to IAEA inspectors (the so-called Additional Protocol). This intrusive inspection regime is the real safeguard against military applications of the nuclear program, and yesterday's talks produced no concrete progress on that score.

What's more, the revelation of a cutting-edge centrifuge development program is sure to set off red flags in Washington and Jerusalem, for two reasons. First, if successful, it would greatly reduce the amount of time necessary to enrich the needed uranium for military use. And second, the work is being carried out in an installation to which Iran has denied access to IAEA inspectors, reinforcing fears that Tehran is basically using cooperation on known components of its program to shield progress in unknown components.

In other news out of Iraq, the Sunday Times of London reports that the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari, secretly visited the Green Zone last month to press Tehran's demands that the fate of Iranian diplomats (read: Revolutionary Guard agents) detained by US forces be included on the agenda of upcoming US-Iran ambassadorial talks on the Iraq security situation. The story's wording leaves ambiguous whether the General, who is on Washington's "most wanted" list, met with American or Iraqi officials while in Baghdad.

The visit, if true, would seem to increase the significance of both the recent naval incidents reported in the Strait of Hormuz, as well as a statement made by Gen. Petraeus to the effect that there's been an increase this month in the use of bombs typically credited to Iranian agents in Iraq. One possibility is that the US is using trumped up claims to ratchet up its rhetoric towards Tehran. But another is that the Revolutionary Guards are raising the heat with provocative gestures designed to demonstrate just how much damage they can do to American interests should they not get their "diplomats" released.

In effect, Iran has doubled down on its posture vis-a-vis the US: no concessions on the nuclear front and a very aggressive position in Iraq and the Strait of Hormuz. What makes it so alarming is that it demonstrates not only a willingness to play with fire, but also a refusal to provide any face-saving position for the US, which will have to weigh its response very carefully. I'd been wondering about the Pentagon's decision to go public with the naval incidents last week, and now I think I understand why they did. In the past, publicly pointing the finger at Tehran, for instance in Iraq, seems to have gotten results, indicating that Tehran was concerned about protecting its image. We'll soon see whether the same approach works, post-NIE.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Pipeline Diplomacy

Contrary to what an article I cited yesterday claimed, The New Anatolian reports that Russia did in fact increase its gas deliveries to Turkey to make up for the shortfall resulting from the shutdown of its Iranian pipeline. It also reported that following discussions between Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Iranian President Ahamdinejad, Iran's deliveries should be back to normal come Monday.

Still, there are a lot of reasons to think this whole episode had more to do with regional jockeying than with the weather, although as always with pipeline diplomacy, that served as an excuse. Not much mention was made in the American press of the American proposal that Turkey serve as a regional energy hub for Iraqi and Eurasian energy traffic, but I think it's a huge development, central to the way the Bush administration envisions the short-term strategic alignment in the region: using a combination of energy-poor Turkey and energy-rich Iraq and Azerbaijan to counter Russia's influence in Eurasian energy markets and Iran's expansion in the Middle East.

The sticking point had been the PKK, but the Kurds are above all else businessmen. And since Turkey is already the largest investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, they've got a lot of incentive to let Turkey and the US take care of the PKK, so that afterwards they can all take care of business.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   Russia   Turkey   

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sending It Down The Line

Just before New Year's, Turkmenistan shut down the gas pipeline supplying Iran with 5% of its domestic consumption. The reason was ostensibly technical malfunctions, but the malfunctions have oddly enough not yet been repaired. As the shutdown coincides with a fierce cold front that has gripped the region and sent temperatures plummeting, Iran in turn all but shut down the pipeline that supplies Turkey with roughly the same amount of Iranian gas that Iran imports from Turkmenistan. Russia, which has in the past made up Turkey's gas shortfalls, in this case not only refused, but suggested it would be forced to reduce its deliveries as well, due to a supply shortage.

The entire episode demonstrates either, a) the ways in which weather can impact on international relations; or b) the complex energy calculus underlying, and at times working at cross-purposes to, some of the strategic re-alignments in the region. And for a number of reasons, not least of which being that this is not a weather forecasting site, I'm going to go with "b".

For a little background, Russia recently secured a contract with Turkmenistan for its gas reserves. The deal was considered a serious blow to American and Western European hopes for securing Turkmenistan's gas supplies independently of Russia. It was also part of what some suggested was a broader cartel strategy by which Russia and Iran would carve up the gas market: Western Europe for Russia; Asia for Iran. Tehran's imminent pipeline and purchase deal with Pakistan, as well as its negotiations with China and India to develop domestic gas and oil fields can be understood in this context.

But the same deal between Russia and Turkmenistan is also the source of this week's rolling pipeline shutdown, because Russia agreed to pay twice the price that Turkmenistan gets from Iran, and the "technical malfunctions" notwithstanding, it's no secret that Turkmenistan is looking to renegotiate with Tehran.

As for Turkey, it's also no secret that both Iran and Russia were counting on taking advantage of recent tension between Ankara and Washington to forge closer relations with Turkey. Both Iran's decision to pass the gas shortage down the line and Russia's decision to sit on its hands coincide with the recent rapprochement between Ankara and Washington, culminated by President Bush's warm reception of Turkish President Abdullah Gul two days ago at the White House. The visit was the occasion not only to reaffirm America's strategic relationship with Turkey, but also to roll out a very ambitious role for Turkey as a regional energy hub for both Iraqi and Eurasian gas and oil reserves.

As the episode demonstrates, none of these tactical alliances are stable. The entire region is in a flux, and it's not at all clear how things will settle in the long run. The uncertainty, while volatile and unfamiliar, can also be used to our advantage, should we adopt an intelligent and flexible strategic approach. Our enemies and rivals of today might turn out to be, if not our friends of tomorrow, at least useful leverage points.

One thing is certain. There's a bunch of Greeks freezing their souvlakis off who had nothing to do with this whole mess.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   Turkey   

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Dead Man Walking, Tehran Edition

According to this IHT article, now that the Iran NIE report has essentially removed the possibility of an American attack, the previously muted political faultlines in Tehran have begun to re-emerge. Specifically, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who previously emphasized national unity in the face of the threat of attack, has conspicuously refrained from protecting President Ahmadinejad from his critics. The article also refers to a parallel diplomatic track that Khamenei has conducted using Ali Larijani, the former nuclear negotiator that Ahmadinejad replaced with hardliner Saeed Jalili.

I'm not sure exactly how this piece squares with a few items I flagged last week, in particular Khamenei's very harsh language to describe critics of Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear standoff. In addition to Khamenei's major foreign policy pronouncement (in which he also rejected any immediate engagement with the US), Saeed Jalili recently reshuffled the nuclear negotiating team to add more hardliners, and the Iranian navy nearly provoked a shooting incident in the Strait of Hormuz. And all of that in the week leading up to President Bush's visit to the Middle East. So if Tehran is a house divided, it doesn't seem to be reflected in its posture either towards the nuclear standoff in particular, or the US in general.

Update: As noted here, the "previously muted political faultlines in Tehran" were not really that muted. Which makes the IHT piece pretty curious any way you look at it.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

No, Coming At You

The Iranian press has got a couple of Iranian responses now regarding the reported incident in the Strait of Hormuz. According to the Foreign Ministry, the episode was misrepresented and was in fact simply a case of normal identification procedures. Meanwhile an unnamed Revolutionary Guards official claimed that it was in fact the American vessels that approached the Iranian boats to warn them out of a "Red Zone", after which the Iranian vessels radioed requests for identification.

It's just a gut feeling, but the timing on this one -- coming just before President Bush's visit to the Middle East that's been accompanied by pre-arrival anti-Iran rhetoric -- smells fishy to me. Worth keeping an eye on.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, January 7, 2008

Coming At You

The Pentagon reported today that Iranian navy fastboats, possibly operated by the Revolutionary Guards, engaged in threatening high-speed runs towards American navy vessels, dropping boxes in the water ahead of the US ships and radio-ing threatening messages. According to an unnamed official, the Iranian boats pulled off at the very instant the American ships were preparing to open fire in self-defense:

The official said he didn't have the precise transcript of communications that passed between the two forces, but said the Iranians radioed something like "we're coming at you and you'll explode in a couple minutes."

There are four possibilities here. The first is that the boats were testing American rules of engagement to gather intelligence in the event of unannounced hostilities. The second is that the Iranians were intentionally trying to provoke an incident. The third is that this was a group of rogue Revolutionary Guardsmen engaged in a hazing ritual to welcome a new crewmember on board. And the fourth is that Dick Cheney is not the craziest person on either side of this conflict.

In any event, episodes like this one really show the wisdom of opening up channels of communication with Tehran. As a French foreign policy eminence who I interviewed for an upcoming article put it, foreign policy was invented to deal with enemies as much as friends. We managed to maintain diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union not just despite the fact that they were our sworn enemies and had thousands of warheads aimed at us for forty-plus years, but because of it. The same seems valid for Iran, which poses nothing close to that kind of threat.

But since fullscale diplomatic relations can't be rushed, the least we should have in place is an "incident at sea" agreement, as Kaveh Afrasiabi pointed out a few weeks ago. The Strait of Hormuz and the Persian Gulf are high-traffic waterways, where accidents and misunderstandings can easily take place even in the absence of hotheaded crazies playing games of chicken with their speedboats. Some sort of naval hotline could help to defuse or limit such an incident in the future, which could mean the difference between an incident and a war.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, January 4, 2008

Iran Digs In

As opaque and multi-polar as the Iranian regime is, what's often revealing is not just what gets said, but who says it. So this is pretty discouraging:

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday that Iran sees "no benefit" in resuming ties with the United States at the moment but does not rule out a resumption of relations in the future.

In his most significant speech on foreign policy in several months, Khamenei also vowed that Iran would not halt sensitive work on its controversial nuclear programme as demanded by the West.

That would be bad enough for anyone hoping that Iran might decide to forego its uranium enrichment program as part of a negotiated settlement to the crisis. But it gets worse.

While it's important to remember that Iran's nuclear program was aggressively pursued under the rule of the moderates, it's also true that they have been increasingly critical of Ahmadinejad's antagonistic negotiating stance, which they claim has unnecessarily isolated Iran. As Supreme Leader, Khamenei functions as the final arbiter of such policy disputes, and it looks like he just arbited:

He angrily lashed out at moderates inside Iran who had cautiously suggested that the country should consider suspending enrichment to de-escalate the nuclear crisis.

"Some people challenge the system and the government over this and, in line with the enemy, seek to create disappointment. The nation should be watchful of such infiltrations."

Ahmadinejad has already had one of the outspoken critics of his nuclear policy -- a member of the nuclear negotiating team under Larijani -- arrested on charges of spying for England. And his parliamentary supporters have compared such criticism, which they call shadow diplomacy, to treachery. So it strikes me as noteworthy to see that sort of language turn up in Khamenei's speech.

Add this to the news I flagged the other day that Saeed Jalili -- Ahmadinejad's handpicked replacement of Larijani as head of the Iranian nuclear negotiating team -- just reshuffled the rest of the team to include even more hardliners, and it looks like the Iranian reaction to the NIE report has become increasingly clear.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Musical Chairs

I make it a habit, during media-dominating events like the Iowa caucuses or the Bhutto assassination, to keep an eye on some of last month's crises, like the Turkey-PKK conflict or the Iranian nuclear standoff. The idea being that some interesting things occur when the world's attention is diverted. And sure enough, today it was reported that Saeed Jalili, the man Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appointed to head Iran's nuclear negotiating team last month, just reshuffled the rest of the team to include two Ahmadinejad loyalists. The move is sure to harden the Iranian negotiating position in future rounds of talks.

In other news out of that part of the world, a region-wide game of musical chairs has broken out, only instead of chairs, they're playing for gas supplies. Apparently Turkmenistan closed off the pipelines ensuring Iran's domestic supply, which led Iran to severely limit its exports to Turkey to cover the shortfall. Turkmenistan blamed the shutdown on technical complications, but the entire episode brings into stark focus Iran's curious status as an energy importing country, despite sitting on oceans of gas and oil reserves.

Both developments play out against the backdrop of the "pipeline wars" going on in the region. Russia just sealed a deal for a pipeline linking Turkmenistan's gas supply to Europe, while China and India are busy lobbying for the right to develop Iranian gas and oil fields. Throw in Iran's recent pipeline deal with Pakistan and you've got the guiding logic behind the tactical alliance between Russia and Iran: the European gas market for Russia, the Asian market for Iran, even if both countries are in need of renewed investment to fully exploit their reserves.

But if their energy alliance incarnates the threat posed by the emerging multi-polar world to America's interests, it also represents the opportunities presented. In the same way that the end of the bi-polar world order removes the necessity of aligning with the United States, it also removes the necessity of aligning against us. In the context of an aggressive American posture, Russia and Iran seem like natural bosom buddies. But a shift in American policy towards either could just as easily provoke their latent rivalry.

Perhaps the biggest foreign policy mistake committed by the Bush administration, besides the Iraq War, is believing that we could afford to contain both Russia and Iran at the same time. One or the other, or one then the other. But not both at once.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Let's You And Him Fight

In an Asia Times Online article, M K Bhadrakumar argues that Russia's tactical alliance with Iran must principally be understood in the context of the rivalry between Washington and Moscow for Eurasian energy supplies and transit points. Specifically, Europe's growing dependence on gas that either comes from or travels through Russia runs the risk of splintering the strategic interests of the Atlantic alliance. That's why Washington has been intent on encircling and containing Russia's resurgence, and Moscow on tightening its grip on gas fields and pipelines leading to Europe.

Iran represents a potential wedge, since by directing their gas supplies to the European market they weaken Russia's leverage. Russia's cooperative line with Tehran on bi-lateral energy policy is designed to divide the pie (Russian gas to Europe, Iranian gas to Asia) in such a way to maximize both countries' influence and triangulate America's strategic alliances.

But nothing about the Russian-Iranian tactical arrangement gives the impression that it's an indelible longterm alignment. So strategically, it seems intuitively obvious that Washington's got to decide on one of two options: either a broad deal with Russia, or a broad deal with Iran. But to ratchet up the pressure on both of them simultaneously will surely result in driving them even further into each other's arms.

Which leads me to wonder if American strategic thinking isn't at a natural disadvantage compared to countries where instead of a two-party system in domestic politics, there are multi-party parliamentary coalitions that make a political calculus of "You're either with us or against us" inconceivable.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Putin's Grand Bargain

I've been sitting with this one all day, pondering what to make of it. And the more I go over it, the more I'm of the belief that Vladimir Putin really does deserve his Time magazine cover.

Iran's Bushehr reactor, whose construction has been suspended pending a dispute over payments (or so the story goes), was supposed to go online six months after the first shipment of nuclear fuel. Russia just delivered that first batch of nuclear fuel, under IAEA seal, a few days ago. But today the head of the company constructing the reactor just announced that it wouldn't go online before the end of 2008.

Along with its veto on the UN Security Council, the Bushehr reactor is Russia's trump card in the Iran nuclear stand-off. Now that the NIE report has dramatically reduced the urgency of the crisis -- ie. extended the timeframe of a resolution -- Russia has every incentive to hold onto the leverage the reactor provides for as long as possible.

But why deliver the fuel this week, and put the reactor online in January 2009? Well, one possible explanation is that this week coincides with a deadlock in the Security Council negotiations over Kosovo, and January 2009 coincides with the remainder of the Bush administration's term in office. By this reading, Russia is sending a signal that, a) it takes the Kosovo crisis very seriously; and, b) if there's a grand bargain to be made (missile defense, CFE, Eurasian bases, Kosovo), it wants to make it with the Bush administration, and not its successor.

Of course, Putin is poised to leave office but retain power. The same, thankfully, can't be said for President Bush. Just about all of his probable successors are likely to adopt a policy of increased engagement with Iran, a policy that weakens Putin's leverage in the standoff. On the other hand, President Bush has every reason to try to push for a final year of accomplishments in order to not leave office in disgrace. And a deal with Russia that not only defused Russian-American tension but also contained Iran's nuclear ambitions would be quite an accomplishment.

It's a cagey move on Putin's part. Keep your eye on the Kosovo negotiations. Should they somehow get sent back to the Security Council for one final attempt at a breakthrough, don't be surprised to see some more advances on other sticking points in Russian-American relations follow shortly thereafter. On the other hand, should the US and EU follow through and guarantee Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence, don't be surprised to see the Bushehr timetable miraculously shorten.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Son Of Tonkin

With tensions between America and Iran as high as they are, Kaveh Afrasiabi makes the very astute observation that, while a grand bargain might be too much to hope for right now, the very least we ought to consider is an "incidents at sea" agreement. Both countries' navies are operating in the Persian Gulf where, as the British can attest, maritime boundaries between Iran and Iraq remain somewhat murky.

With the NIE report effectively removing the "imminent threat" card from the Crazies' hand, the sane folks in Washington might want to try to limit the risk of them playing the "Tonkin Gulf" instant conflagration wild card before it's too late.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Table

Laura Rozen's new Mother Jones article on the impact of the NIE report lends credence to what I pointed out here, namely that a diplomatic resolution to this stand-off depended on the Iranian threat being taken seriously. By reducing the sense of urgency of the threat, the NIE's immediate effect is to remove the military option from the table. But by reducing the urgency of the threat, it also undermines the diplomatic track. Which ultimately means that if a non-NPT compliant, nuclear-capable Iran really is as unacceptable as everyone says (a claim I agree with), the only way to prevent it from happening will be the military option.

The problem is that the Bush administration never made the effort to actually educate people about what the actual threat is. So perhaps the intelligence community thought it was doing us a favor by releasing a document that forced it to be more honest. But as Matthew Yglesias seems to be catching on, the report itself has made a third round of UN sanctions unlikely or ineffective. It has also thrown France, which was holding a very tough line compared to Germany's reticence, for a loop. As Matthew put it, Bad news.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Special Delivery

The news that Russia has delivered a first batch of nuclear fuel to the Iranian reactor at Bushehr is significant more for what it says about the state of play on the third round of UN sanctions than for any impact it has on Iran's potential weapons capacity. Previous announcements put the timing of the reactor going operational at six months following the fuel delivery. The fuel remains under IAEA jurisdiction, and Iran has signed agreements to return the spent fuel rods to Russia. So the only way for this to change the threat level is if the Iranians go completely berserk, kick the IAEA out of the country and start reneging on their deal with their major protector on the UN Security Council. And even then, there will be plenty of time to organize some sort of multi-lateral intervention.

On the other hand, the Russians' willingness to ship the fuel suggests that in the aftermath of the NIE report, they are significantly downgrading their willingness to consider the Iranian nuclear program a multi-lateral security threat. It also provides an element of legitimacy to the Iranian government at a time when its bargaining position with the EU has become more intransigent. The Russian foreign ministry also stated that the delivery eliminates any actual need for an Iranian domestic enrichment capacity, but that hasn't stopped the Iranians from declaring their adamance about continuing the program.

It might be true that the NIE has provided more time to resolve the issue through negotiations, as the German Foreign Minister suggested. It might also be true that the negotiations won't achieve anything. But the clock is definitely still running and so far I haven't really come across any convincing arguments to stop worrying about this.

Update: The NY Times adds some interesting details that I should have caught but didn't. First, in justifying the need to continue its domestic enrichment program, Iran made reference to a second nuclear reactor under construction. Second, they claimed that the second reactor would necessitate 50,000 enrichment centrifuges as opposed to the 3,000 currently online. Now there's already a good deal of skepticism about the efficiency of Iran's existing centrifuge cascades, and I don't even know whether Iran is capable of putting 50,000 of them online. But if they did, that would seriously shorten the timeline of when they'd be able to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. In other words, kiss all that time the NIE supposedly gave us to calmly resolve this standoff goodbye. You can bet Dick Cheney is thanking the Good Lord for Ahmadinejad in his prayers tonight.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

Who Is Rattling The Sabre?

When Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Kouchner made comments a few months back that were portrayed as suggesting that France would support a war to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capacity, Sarkozy was accused of aligning himself with the hawkish elements of the Bush administration. My own feeling is that the remarks were misrepresented, and were made merely to correct any lasting misperception of France's position -- which has consistently been in very firm opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapons capacity -- that may have been caused by Jacques Chirac's off-the-cuff statement last spring that a nuclear Iran could be deterred. So it's interesting to see Sarkozy, in an interview with the Nouvel Obs, give his version of what was really at stake:

Everyone agrees that what the Iranians are doing has no civilian explanation. The only debate is whether they'll achieve a military capacity in one year or five years. The problem for us isn't so much the risk that the Americans launch a military intervention, but rather that the Israelis consider their security to be truly threatened. The danger of a war exists. If Iran lets the IAEA conduct its inspections, I'll be willing to go to Tehran and explore a civilian nuclear cooperation. I've got the trust of the Israelis and the Americans on this question. The Americans aren't, in this case, warmongers. (Translated from the French.)

Something tells me we're going to be hearing more about that Israeli strike on a Syrian "nuclear" facility in the very near future. I've already seen some speculation linking the strike to the same intelligence source that allowed for updating the Iran NIE. Call it a Debka Files moment, but I've got a gut feeling that whatever threat was targeted in that strike, whether real or fabricated, has still got a role to play in the Iran debate.

(Via French Politics.)

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Thursday, December 13, 2007

India, Pakistan And The Limits Of Deterrence

According to this article in The Middle East Times, India's intelligence service is in the spotlight these days for what some say is a massive failure last month to predict the State of Emergency in neighboring Pakistan. Given the nuclear status of both nations, that's the kind of lapse that could potentially have global implications. It also adds some context to the duelling announcements this week of the test-firing of a 700km-range, nuclear capable Pakistani cruise missile, and a 6000km-range, nuclear capable Indian missile that's now in the works for next year. The range of India's missile would put it out of striking range for "most capable missiles in Pakistan's arsenal..." according to the Times of India.

In addition to being alarming in and of itself, the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff demonstrates the potential risks of a nuclearized Middle East, especially one where the nuclear equation is not bi-lateral but multi-lateral. The argument that a nuclear Iran can be deterred is, to my mind, defensible. But the image of deterrence that is often invoked is based on the relatively stable version eventually arrived at by two mature and stable superpowers. The Middle East bears no resemblance to that kind of arrangement, and even less so should Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt all join Israel as nuclear weapons states. A situation where every missile test launch evokes existential alerts adds an unacceptable level of tension to an already volatile region.

It's also interesting to see American progressives suddenly become proponents of nuclear deterrence, even if in theory it could apply to Iran. As I recall as a thirteen year-old marching in the 1981 No Nukes rally, a defense posture that ultimately depends on a willingness to obliterate hundreds of thousands of lives was a very high burden to bear. Its relegation to the dustbin of history was one of the supposed benefits of the end of the Cold War. While it's reassuring to see the principle of deterrence enjoy something of a revival in lunatic neocon circles, I'd like to see progressives to come up with proposals that represent, well, progress.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Pakistan   

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

NIE: Final Thoughts

A couple news cycles have gone by, and the reaction to the NIE will soon be taking definitive shape in policy-making circles and public opinion. Having read through a wide range of analysis, I'm struck most by how the report's principle impact -- a reduction in the perceived threat level posed by the program -- is the source of both its most positive and negative effects.

The most positive consequence of this changed perception is that it has removed the threat of a unilateral American military strike against Iran, with all its potentially catastrophic consequences and no particular guarantee of success. The most negative consequence of the changed threat perception is that it has potentially undermined political and diplomatic resolve to pressure Iran to comply with its NPT obligations. Significantly, while the sense of urgency now attached to the issue has been dramatically reduced, the actual threats posed by the Iranian nuclear program have not changed. That they were never as dramatic as what the Bush administration was claiming does not mean they were never serious.

This reduced sense of urgency, while perhaps mistaken, does present some opportunities. To begin with, it has opened a window of opportunity for a period of reflection on all sides of the issue (ie. the 3+3: France, England, Germany and the US, Russia, China). For the US, that primarily means deciding how far we're willing to go in normalizing relations with Iran, which in turn means deciding how much we're willing to concede Iran a strategic role in regional affairs.

However desirable a broader diplomatic resolution to the issue as a longterm goal might be, though, any bi-lateral "grand bargain" between the US and Iran would be for the time being premature. For such an agreement to be durable, it needs to be negotiated by governments that enjoy more broadly based support than either the Bush administration (with its divisive character and lame duck status) or the Ahmadinejad administration (with its factional infighting and institutional opaqueness) can now claim.

For the Europeans, the NIE report certainly signals the deathknell of the Bush administration's already diminished relevance. That it came so unexpectedly only magnifies the degree to which it renders the Bush administration an unreliable partner, unable as it is to even guarantee the coherence of its own political line. The irony of course being that, for all the anxiety it was causing in America, the Bush administration's hardline rhetoric masked a significant recalibration of its actual negotiating position, which in combination with the European strategy of engagement was on the verge of isolating Iran from its principle support on the Security Council (Russia and China). The potential for a breakthrough round of sanctions was only increased by Iran's latest negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana, which was universally considered to be disastrously confrontational.

A third round of sanctions is still possible, but its impact will almost certainly be limited. Which means the clock will continue to run out, and contrary to the impression people have taken from the NIE, there are many ways in which that aggravates the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear program.

One thing no one has yet mentioned: The NIE gives an outside threat estimate for a nuclear Iran of 8 years, which is more than enough time to at least identify and introduce a sane domestic energy policy, one that diminishes our dependence on the strategic security of the Persian Gulf in particular and Middle East in general. Take all the unknown variables of the Iran nuclear program, then consider what happens when you multiply them by the three to six countries capable of pursuing similar programs in the next ten to twenty years and you'll get a sense of just how important such a policy really is.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Son Of NIE

Egypt, which announced in October that it would dust off plans to build several civilian nuclear reactors, just announced that it would sign no further agreements to expand its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. What that means is that it will not submit to intrusive, short-notice IAEA inspections under a voluntary Additional Protocol even after it has mastered the nuclear fuel-enrichment cycle. These inspections remain the principle means to ensure that a country is not secretly developing a weapons component with dual-use technology, by allowing the IAEA to inspect not only declared nuclear activity, but to verify there is no undeclared activity going on as well.

Now the title of this post is perhaps a bit inflammatory, but I don't think the timing of Egypt's announcement is a coincidence. And it won't be the last announcement of its kind should Iran be allowed to backslide across the nuclear finish line without ever fully complying with its NPT obligations (including an Additional Protocol that it signed). Remember, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Libya are already queued up and waiting for clearance on the nuclear runway, with others sure to follow.

As for Kevin Drum's and Matthew Yglesias' speculation that the third round of UN sanctions might have been facilitated by the release of the NIE, in the course of researching an article today I spoke with someone in a position to know who left no doubt that whatever watered-down sanctions they manage to wrangle out of the Russians and Chinese, it will be very much in spite of, and not thanks to, the NIE. China, for instance, just came up with two billion reasons to be less than enthusiastic about putting any more trade restrictions on Iran, so the case for sanctions was already a tough one to make before the NIE significantly downgraded the threat level.

Once more, I'll reiterate my belief that a unilateral strike against Iran would have been disastrous. While the NIE seems to have ruled out such a disaster, it has made another one -- a non-NPT-compliant nuclear Iran and the impact it will have on the region -- more difficult to head off.

On the other hand, one thing the NIE does do is give everyone some time to really think through their options. After all, Iran's nuclear program can still be brought into compliance, and Egypt's is at least 15-20 years off. What's more, given the lame duck status of the Bush administration and the need for clarification in Tehran's internal factional divisions, for any resolution to be durable it will have to be reached in the early years of the next Presidential term. It's essential to take advantage of that window of opportunity to develop a coherent and unifying approach, not just to Iran's nuclear ambitions, but to those of the entire region.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

New & Improved

It's funny. Every six months or so, there comes a moment when, thinking about the situation in Iraq, I say to myself, 'We haven't heard much about Moqtada al-Sadr lately. I wonder if this time he's really out of the game for good.' Systematically, no sooner do I get done formulating the thought than an article immediately appears explaining that Moqtada al-Sadr is busy gearing up to get back into the game. And wouldn't you know it, this time is no different:

Away from public view, however, Sadr's top aides say the anti-American cleric is anything but idle. Instead, he is orchestrating a revival among his army of loyalists entrenched in Baghdad and Shiite enclaves to the south -- from the religious centers of Karbala and Najaf to the economic hub of Basra. What is in the making, they say, is a better-trained and leaner force free of rogue elements accused of atrocities and crimes during the height of the sectarian war last year.

Many analysts say what may reemerge is an Iraqi version of Lebanon's Hizbullah -- a state within a state that embraces politics while maintaining a separate military and social structure that holds powerful sway at home and in the region.

Now, obviously, claims about a "new & improved" Mahdi Army that come from Sadr's top aides should be taken with a grain of salt. As an analyst quoted in the article points out, "The Mahdi Army is far from being the organized fighting machine like Hizbullah." What's more, according to a DoD intelligence analyst based in Baghdad, Sadr's recent unilateral ceasefire has served him well and is in no danger of unraveling.

More significant is what the article says about Iran, namely that it's been hedging its bets by supporting various rival Shiite militias in Iraq, including the Mahdi Army. Which means that when the dust clears in Basra, Tehran stands to gain an ally no matter who comes out on top.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Saturday, December 8, 2007

Mutually Assured Dysfunction

I'll preface this post by saying that Matthew Yglesias' recent critical line on Hillary Clinton's foreign policy approach (as well as the team she's already assembled to advise her campaign) has been eagle-eyed in its analysis. He's really managed to weed out the obfuscations (tough with Clinton) and nail down the principle issue at hand: unilateral pre-emption as a plank of non-proliferation policy. In so doing, he's helped me bring my own thoughts on the matter more into focus. And while I think his conclusion that Democrats should categorically renounce unilateral pre-emption is admirable in principle, I think there are reasons why in the practice of foreign policy, it's not advisable.

To begin with, a minor clarification of terms. What Yglesias is in fact referring to is not pre-emptive intervention, which is a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or already launched attack recognized in international law as a legitimate act of self-defense, but rather preventive intervention, a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power. Clearly, though, his point of reference is the Iraq War. And while he's right to conclude that the catastrophic results of the war weigh strongly in favor of abandoning preventive intervention, he's wrong to call for a public renunciation.

The decision to launch the Iraq War was a watermark for post-Cold War geopolitics because it demonstrated both the limits of American unilateral intervention and the limits of the multi-lateral deterrent on American power. In other words, it showed that while we can't accomplish anything alone, the world can't stop us from trying. While immediate analysis has focused on the destabilizing impact the episode has had on the global order, I'm convinced that in time it will be regarded as a useful failure. Everyone knows what happens now when the multi-lateral order breaks down, which means that everyone has a clear incentive to make sure it functions better next time around. For that to happen, everyone's got to take a step back towards the middle.

The obvious comparison would be the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which helped ensure that nuclear weapons were never again used, even though the logic of nuclear deterrence demanded that they continue to be stockpiled. In the same way, the Iraq War makes another American unilateral intervention unlikely, but only if the rest of the world has a disincentive to keep them from blocking our interests in mulit-lateral bodies. And that disincentive is paradoxically the possibility of another American unilateral intervention. By taking it off the table, we actually make it more likely, which is why the Iran NIE, contrary to what people are assuming, does not entirely eliminate the possibility of a preventive strike on Iran.

What's more important than a blanket policy renunciation (which wouldn't be worth the paper it would never be written on) is a clear strategic calculus for how we assess imminent, likely and potential threats, and a commitment to addressing them in the context of the multi-lateral order. Nurturing our frayed multi-lateral and bi-lateral alliances would also go a long way towards ensuring we don't go it alone again. Gradually, as we rehabilitate our international standing, the question will recede of its own accord. But in the meantime, any rush to restabilize the multi-lateral order by removing a necessary counterweight might only wind up further destabilizing it.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

The Counterintuitive Implications Of The NIE

This Kaveh Afrasiabi piece, as usual, is a very informative analysis of the impact of the Iran NIE. I take exception with the premise that it demonstrates the "invented" nature of an Iranian threat, for reasons that I detailed here. But it is an alternate take on the idea that the NIE puts the EU three (France, Great Britain and Germany) in the driver's seat:

But, too bad for Europe, the net result of the NIE is that, in effect, it makes Europe redundant in the nuclear diplomacy, by depriving it of the stick of US hard power that has constantly lurked in the background every time European officials met with the Iranians and pressed their (unreasonable) nuclear demands. These were that Iran should forever forego its right to peaceful nuclear technology simply because of unfounded allegations and hyped-up fears.

This is, indeed, the nub of the paradox of the new situation as a result of the NIE: it has raised Iran's expectations for a more proactive European role precisely when Europe is now deprived of the necessary muscle to deal with Iran, hitherto provided by the US's credible threat of military action. With the latter jettisoned from the equation for now, Europe's cards for dealing with Iran have diminished considerably. All the attention has been deflected from Vienna and other European capitals to Washington, which until now has "outsourced" its Iran nuclear diplomacy to Europe.

Again, I reject the premise that a clandestine nuclear program including a (most probably) frozen weapons component is a hyped-up fear, as I do the claim that holding Iran to its obligations under the NPT (to which it is a signatory) is an unreasonable demand. More interesting, though, is Afrasiabi's reading of the state of play on the diplomatic front.

He points out that the threat of military force has not been taken off the table, so much as the nuclear standoff removed from the list of possible pretexts. (That list still includes any number of conceivable incidents in Iraq.) But the larger context of his argument, that the NIE reduces the Iran nuclear program to a non-issue, is an example of how by undermining the gathering diplomatic pressure on Tehran, the NIE might actually serve to lock in a military outcome.

In the absence of a credible EU negotiating position, the logic of a diplomatic resolution to this crisis is based on the Bush administration embracing a grand bargain with Tehran. Two things mitigate against this happening. First, Tehran had already begun to harden its negotiating position with the EU's Javier Solana even before the release of the NIE. Second, the Bush administration has long made it clear that opening the discussions for any grand bargain would depend on regaining the leverage it has lost through the Iraq fiasco.

The combination of the improved security situation in Iraq (even if it is due to Iranian cooperation) and the looming threat of a third round of sanctions seemed to have offered just such leverage. Now, with the EU's negotiating position eviscerated, the prospect of such a grand bargain, even if it follows from the logic of the NIE itself, looks more remote.

As I said, there's a counterintuitive element to this NIE that seems to be getting lost in translation. By reducing the imminent threat level of the Iranian nuclear program, it has removed the justification for a military strike, and rightly so. But it has also very clearly, if unjustifiably, undermined the diplomatic track. And by undermining the diplomatic track, it reduces the likelihood of a negotiated resolution to the crisis, which very much increases the likelihood of a military strike.

It's twisted logic, I know. But don't be surprised to find the military option, with even more catastrophic consequences because even more unilateral, very much back on the table should a third round of sanctions fail.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

Pen Pals

Could it be that President Bush is considering using Pyongyang for a Nixonian "Peking Moment" before the end of his term? There's a lot of row left to hoe, but that's the direction that South Korea would like to see things go in. And the announcement that Bush had sent a personal note to "Chairman" Kim via Chris Hill has led to a certain amount of speculation.

...The US still wants to know about North Korea's program for developing warheads with highly enriched uranium, separately and secretly from the plutonium that everyone knows about at Yongbyon, and also wants to know what North Korea has been doing to "proliferate" its nuclear expertise elsewhere, notably to Syria and Iran.

The rewards for North Korea, as far as the Americans are concerned, are completely clear. If only Kim Jong-il will come through as desired, the US will surely remove the North from its list of countries sponsoring terrorism, will take away the embargo on most forms of trade with North Korea, will even normalize diplomatic relations and asset to a peace treaty.

The easy criticism to make is that the Bush administration, once again, has gotten its priorities mixed up in terms of nuclear non-proliferation. By fully engaging with a nuclearized North Korea, even in return for total transparency, it will only reinforce the idea that nuclear weapons capacity is the only guarantee against the interventionist doctrine of regime change. Obviously Tehran will be paying close attention to how things evolve.

But I think the more productive analysis is that engagement in this case is the lesser of two evils and the best hope for a stable outcome. After initially exacerbating the already challenging North Korean nuclear standoff, the Bush administration has managed to correct course and arrive at the cusp of a satisfactory resolution. A lot depends on how committed Kim Jong-il is to actually arriving at and respecting a final agreement. But if the promise of normalized diplomatic ties proves to be determinant, the argument for a broad diplomatic intitiative towards Tehran is only strengthened.

Again, there's a lot of row left to hoe. If the Annapolis summit caused Dick Cheney's pacemaker to sputter and blink, a Pyongyang summit between Bush and Kim would make it light up like a pinball machine. And Bush's notoriously bad judgment about foreign leaders' souls immediately de-legitimizes even his most promising foreign policy initiatives. But just like it took Nixon to go to Peking, it would be hard to roll back a Bush administration imprimatur on a lasting engagement with North Korea. And even harder to deny the logic of applying the same approach to Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   Iran   

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Friday, December 7, 2007

France, Lebanon & The NIE

Last week it seemed like all sides in Beirut had found a way out of the Lebanese presidential impasse: change the constitution to allow the head of the Lebanese army, Michel Suleiman, to hold the office. This week, things don't look that certain anymore. Everyone still agrees that Suleiman is the man for the job. But the Lebanese minority, which includes pro-Syrian factions and Hezbollah, is insisting on altering government power-sharing formulas as a pre-condition to clearing the way for Suleiman's election. As Le Monde put it:

The silence and drawn features of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, said it all...about the impasse in his mediation of the negotiations...

If the crisis remains unresolved, it will have been a pretty tough week for French foreign policy. Lebanon is supposed to be one of the cards that France delivers in the Middle East. So a failure to do so weakens its offer in any sort of regional bargaining going on with the Bush administration.

At the same time, this week's Iran NIE report poses some problems for Nicolas Sarkozy. Rightly or wrongly, his recent stance on the Iran nuclear standoff was interpreted by many to signal that he'd been tipped off to an eventual American military intervention and was positioning himself to be on the right side of the Bush administration when it went down. According to this view, the report itself leaves him out in the cold with his good friend George, throwing a war to which no one shows up.

I'm not sure I agree with that interpretation. For me, Sarkozy's and Kouchner's recent declarations were, a) more a corrective to Jacques Chirac's slip of the tongue downplaying the significance of an Iranian bomb this past spring than a change in policy, and b) wildly distorted to sound more bellicose than they actually were. (Admittedly, using the word "war" in the same sentence as Iran, even without actually advocating for it, was clearly provocative.)

As for the underlying strategy, I felt it was a way to make the hardliners in the Bush administration more comfortable with the EU negotiation track by convincing them that he, too, understood how high the stakes were. But he was determined to bring the hawks back to the negotiation track because the very stakes involved demand that any resolution to the crisis be legitimized by a multi-lateral approach. The NIE itself, as Jeffrey Laurenti of the Century Foundation points out, validates the EU approach and firmly places the initiative in the engagement camp. The danger now being that the wildly exagerrated rhetoric out of Washington has de-legitimized any sense of alarm about the underlying crisis and reduced Russia and China's willingness to go along with sanctions.

That would be unfortunate, because it seemed like the latest round of diplomatic wrangling was clearly moving towards sanctions designed to raise the pressure on Iran to fully comply with its NPT obligations. Which makes the timing of the NIE's release all the more curious. Counterintuitively, if the NIE ends up derailing what looked like promising diplomatic initiatives to a negotiated resolution of the conflict, it might end up making the military option that much more likely.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Hold The NIE Euphoria

A lot of the reactions to the NIE are understandably focusing on the discrepancy between the Bush administration's alarmist characterization of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program and the intelligence community's finding that Iran froze the weapons component in 2003. And to be sure, the NIE is reassuring, especially in that it discredits the claim that any sort of military option, whether unilateral or multi-lateral, is urgently necessary.

It's important not to overlook, though, the fact that Iran's entire nuclear program is the result of a decades-long clandestine procurement effort that was in direct violation of their legal obligations under the NPT, that at no time since the program was revealed has Iran ever been in full compliance with its obligations under the NPT, and that they have repeatedly backtracked on promised concessions both to the IAEA and EU. It's also worth noting that while Iran has recently been more transparent with regards to its declared nuclear activity, the one area where they still have been obstructive is in giving the IAEA more intrusive access to its program sites in order to verify that no un-declared activity is taking place.

On a theoretical level, one may be willing to minimize the danger of a nuclear-armed Iran due to Israel's and America's deterrent power, and willing to accept Iran's regional influence under the protection of a nuclear umbrella. I think there are reasonable arguments in defense of both propositions.

But on a very practical level, there are three reasons why Iran's mastering of the nuclear fuel enrichment cycle while remaining non-compliant with the NPT poses real threats to regional and global stability. To begin with, it further de-legitimzes the NPT at a time when it has already been severely destabilized. (Yes, the US-India deal contributes to this process.) Second, it has already caused a rush on the nuclear bank, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Morocco and Libya already declaring their intentions to go nuclear within the next 15-20 years. (Keep a close watch on Turkey, which for the time being has had trouble finding a seismically safe location for its declared nuclear ambitions.) That process could be reversed with a NPT-based resolution to the Iran standoff. It's unstoppable in the absence of one. Third, it will likely push Israel to shed even more of its posture of nuclear ambiguity than what Ehud Olmert revealed in apparently off the cuff remarks earlier this year, which would only accelerate the aforementioned regional race for nuclear capacities.

In other words, it's a good thing that Cheney and his gang's nonsense have been revealed for the Iraq redux they are. But that doesn't diminish the need to deal very carefully with the very real dangers presented by an Iranian nuclear program outside the auspices of the NPT. One of the strongest arguments often made against the Iraq War, both in the run up and the aftermath, was that it was a needless distraction from North Korea and Iran, two countries whose nuclear ambitions were further advanced and more determined. Nothing about the catastrophic nature of the Iraq War diminishes the argument, as demonstrated by North Korea's newfound nuclear status. The NIE confirms that Iran has proven more cautious than North Korea, but it doesn't say anything about what happens next.

There's no question that the Bush administration's approach to the standoff has been needlessly bellicose, and remarkably uncreative, given the openings for a broader kind of bargain that seemed possible in 2003. As Matthew Yglesias puts it, Sometimes you have to be willing to take yes for an answer. But in the rush to celebrate Cheney's defeat, we shouldn't treat Iran with kid gloves. My thoughts have evolved on this question over time, it's true, primarily due to getting pretty deep into the weeds on the issue. A unilateral strike would be disastrous. But so would a nuclear-armed Iran outside the NPT. Of the two, the second would probably be more manageable, and therefore less undesirable. But it's by no means a benign option.

Again, the key is to keep the pressure on, but to make sure it's multi-lateral pressure. In addition to pressure, some sort of opening has to be offered to Iran, and given that Europe already has pretty strong commercial and diplomatic ties with Iran, that opening can only come from us. But Iran has to be held accountable for its commitments under the NPT. Otherwise they'll have bluffed their way into normalized relations, without ever revealing just what cards they're holding.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Whose Estimate?

One quick afterthought about the NIE finding on Iran's nuclear weapons program. Two weeks ago, Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher made the following remarks:

"Iran is deadly dangerous. They have been isolated from us for a very, very long time, and we don't have very good intelligence. I am glad we use a lot of international intelligence, especially the French and (the U.K.'s) MI6," she told reporters.

Asked if the U.S. administration's warnings about Iran's alleged secret nuclear weapons program should be believed, Tauscher said, "You shouldn't, you should believe the French."

So if the US depends on France for its Iran intel, what does France have to say about Iran's weapons program? Well, it just so happens that Herve Morin, France's Defense Minister, made the following remarks in Abu Dhabi in late October:

Our intelligence, corroborated by that of other countries, gives us the opposite impression... If Baradei is right, there is no reason for Iran not to allow the IAEA to carry out its inspections...

The impression he was referring to was Mohamed ElBaradei's announcement that no proof exists of a military component for Iran's nuclear program. So far I haven't seen a French response to the NIE. But it wouldn't surprise me if they don't call too much attention to the discrepancy, seeing as France is increasingly becoming the fulcrum of the diplomatic effort to bring Iran back to the negotiating table.

From what I can tell, Israel is the only country to challenge the American NIE.

Update: I just found an excerpt of the French Foreign Ministry's statement:

"It appears that Iran is not respecting its international obligations. We must keep up the pressure on Iran ... we will continue to work on the introduction of restrictive measures in the framework of the United Nations."

Not terribly upbeat. But the French position has always been pretty tough on Iran. 

[Note: I flagged both of these stories at the time, here and here, where you can find the links. But it seemed worthwhile re-posting the comments.]

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, December 3, 2007

Evolving Without Escalating

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad addressed the Gulf Cooperation Council today, which in itsef is significant, given that the Council was established in 1980 in part to counter the spread of Iran's influence and its revolutionary brand of theocracy. But Ahmadinejad's appearance, in which he proposed a regional Islamic security pact and declared once again Tehran's willingness to share its nuclear expertise with other Gulf states, was far from just symbolic.

This is a very cagey Iranian gambit to reconfigure the balance of power in the standoff over its nuclear program. It comes in the aftermath of this Saturday's meeting of the "3+3" (US, Russia, China + Great Britain, Germany, France) in Paris, which reportedly succeeded in moving all concerned (and in particular China) one step closer to a third round of UN Security Council sanctions.

Should Russia and China acquiesce to even watered down sanctions, it would seriously isolate Iran, and put the burden of responsibility on Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment program. Ahmadinejad's proposal is clearly an effort to create a fallback option -- and what's more, one that reinforces the image of a clash of civilizations -- in the event it finds itself isolated on the international stage.

Meanwhile, the new NIE concluding that Iran has frozen the weapons component of its nuclear program is reassuring for three reasons. First, it shows that the current approach of sanctions and negotiations by proxy has so far been effective at discouraging Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons capacity. Second, it provides more confirmation that Iran cares about being perceived as a responsible power, which is a powerful leverage point in continuing negotiations. And third, it suggests that time is not necessarily working in Tehran's favor. Yes, they're continuing to master the fuel enrichment cycle, which is the pre-requisite for a weapons capacity. But if the red line were putting centrifuge cascades online, we'd have already bombed the labs. It's not. The red line is a weapons capacity. And the current approach has forestalled that.

All in all, despite some major structural weaknesses in the EU/US negotiating position, some real obstinacy on both sides of the conflict, and some opportunistic manipulativeness on the part of the Russians, this crisis has somehow managed to evolve without escalating. Ahmadinejad's latest proposal might be the next phase in its evolution, one that, were it to be pursued, borders on a genetic mutation. But given the level of suspicion and alarm Gulf Arab states harbor towards Iran, that's unlikely.

There's no telling what direction the Iranian leadership will choose to take should an international consensus develop against them. Their most recent negotiating position in their talks with Javier Solana of the EU was apparently a disaster. But an alternative line in Tehran has already been articulated by Ahmadinejad's opposition. A hardening of international opprobrium might be the necessary catalyst to undermine Ahmadinejad's internal support.

Regardless of Tehran's position, the determining factor for the EU/US is to build a multilateral consensus that legitimizes its position. That looks more and more like what is happening.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Gloves Are Off

There's the makings of what looks like a serious power struggle, both factional and institutional, going on in Tehran right now. The battle pits President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's hardline supporters against Hashemi Rafsanjani's reformists, as well as the executive branch against the judiciary, all in the context of the run-up to next spring's Parliamentary elections that are shaping up to be hotly contested.

Those of you who read through all of my detailed (read: obsessive) posting on Iran will remember Hossein Mousavian, a former spokesman for Iran's nuclear negotiator under reformist President Khatami. Mousavian was arrested and released in May, only to be re-charged two weeks ago with passing classified nuclear information along to the British embassy in Tehran.

On Tuesday, an investigating magistrate dismissed the espionage charges, handing down only a suspended sentence for a lesser charge of "propaganda against the system". Yesterday, Ahmadinejad pushed back, threatening to release tapes of Mousavian's conversations with British diplomats, and demanding that the case be re-opened.

Mousavian has received support not only from his reformist allies, but also from a close advisor to the Ayatollah Khameini. More significantly, conservatives within Ahmadinejad's faction have also spoken out in his defense, signalling a possible erosion in the President's support.

I'll be watching this one as it unfolds, since it should provide a pretty good glimpse of the state of play in Tehran. Given the reformists' vocal criticism of Ahmadinejad's handling of the nuclear crisis, any sign that they've retaken the pole position in Iranian domestic political jockeying could be a very significant development.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, November 29, 2007

Made In Iran

This week, Iran announced that it had built a new homegrown missile with a range of 1250 miles. Then yesterday it followed that up by announcing the launch of a first-in-its-class domestically produced submarine. Now my understanding based on what I've read in the military press is that it pays to take these sorts of announcements from Tehran with a grain of salt, as the technological expertise usually leaves something to be desired. On the other hand, what is significant here is that, a) Iran feels the need to publicize what amounts to second-strike capabilities; and b) that it is emphasizing its domestic production. (Iran already has three Russian-built subs patrolling the Persian Gulf.)

The first demonstrates that, for all the apparent ratcheting down of rhetoric recently, Tehran still feels very acutely under threat of an attack. We already saw the counterintuitive ways such a mindset can play out in Saddam Hussein's decision-making process before the Iraq War. So it's important to take that into account as we dial in our policy from here on out.

The second gets to the heart of what's at stake, I think, for Tehran in its standoff with the Bush administration. Psychologically speaking, this is a regime that desperately wants to be taken seriously. I think it also offers the possibility of an effective political line of approach: If you want to be taken seriously, you must integrate into the global order responsibly.

What we neglect by adopting an overly hostile worldview is that the emergence of new poles of power presents enormous opportunities as well as various risks. Influence and legitimacy bring with them obligations of responsibility. You can already begin to see the impact of China's emerging influence on its role in the global order. The same is true of India.

It's time we started taking advantage of this principle with regards to Iran as well.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Emerging World

It's old hat by now to talk about the Iraq War unlocking Iran's regional influence, creating the threat of a "Shiite Crescent" across the Middle East. What's getting less attention is the way in which Iran is engaged in a diplomatic effort to develop both bi-lateral and multi-lateral global alliances, in particular in Asia and South America. The goal of the effort, according to Benedetta Berti at PINR, is twofold. First, to consolidate China's support as an added Security Council rampart against sanctions. Second, to create a viable network of economic and strategic alliances so as to improve its position in the event of failed negotiations on the nuclear front leading to increased sanctions on the part of the US and EU.

It's important not to get too alarmist about Iran's ability to court countries like Venezuela and North Korea. The fact that it's successfully sealing energy deals with Pakistan (and most likely India), on the other hand, and pressuring the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to upgrade it from observer to active member merit more attention. Not because Iran threatens to become anything more than a well-connected, oil-rich minor power. But because it demonstrates the ways in which the post-post-9/11 world is increasingly taking shape.

In retrospect, 9/11 did not, in fact, change everything. Neither did our reaction to it. Combined, though, they managed to accelerate the development of the multi-polar world that inevitably must arise to counterbalance America's disproportionate power and influence. The run-up to the Iraq War demonstrated the limits of the multi-polar world's (as it was then constituted) deterrent power vis a vis an America bent on acting unilaterally. The aftermath of the war, on the other hand, has demonstrated the limits of America's ability to accomplish its strategic objectives when it goes it alone.

It seems intuitively obvious that while America's ability to wield its power unilaterally is destined to further decline, the influence wielded by alternative poles of power in the world is almost certain to grow. Iran's strategy of developing a broad network of alliances with emerging powers is one example of how that trend might take shape.

There needn't be anything defeatist or fatalistic about this view. An intelligent foreign policy would attempt to position America at the forefront of influencing the emerging poles' integration into the global order. Instead, the Bush administration has taken an enormous global reserve of sympathy and solidarity with the United States, in particular after the attacks of 9/11, and squandered it, much like it squandered the Clinton budget surplus.

I'm convinced there's still time to reverse course and rehabilitate America's image around the world. It will take a lot work, patience and humility, but it can be done. Perhaps most importantly, it will demand changing our habits. Instead of commanding, we'll have to start leading. And instead of talking, we should be doing a good deal more listening.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, November 23, 2007

The Witching Hour

At midnight tonight, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office will come to an end, and barring a miracle, the country will enter into a constitutional crisis, as no one has been selected to succeed him. The possible consequences of the standoff range from destabilizing to catastrophic, and the Lebanese military is already in a state of alert in the capital.

Besides Lebanon itself, the big loser in the entire affair is France, which has been engaging in a diplomatic effort since July to encourage all the parties to reach a compromise solution. In the past few weeks, President Nicolas Sarkozy has dispatched top advisors to Damascus to offer a broad deal to the Syrians (a progressive normalization of diplomatic relations with the West in return for facilitating a compromise), and yesterday placed a direct call to Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the impasse. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been in Beirut all week trying unsuccessfully to hammer out a deal. Here's how Le Figaro assesses the failure of Sarkozy's diplomatic intitiative:

A happy ending would have...marked the success of Elysee's strategy to reposition France in the region.

The cancellation of the presidential election, on the other hand, is a humiliating blow, even if Paris only played the role of facilitator in this affair. It will also, to some degree, be interpreted abroad as a sign of the powerlessness of French diplomacy which, despite all its efforts, was unable to weigh in on the events in Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where she is still supposed to exercise a strong influence.

Lebanon has long been a chessboard on which regional powers play out their strategic rivalries, and the current constitutional impasse is no exception. Specifically, it sheds some light on some recent evolutions in France's regional diplomacy, and in particular its increasingly hard line on Iran. As Le Fig points out, Lebanon is supposed to be France's hole card in Middle Eastern politics. But an increasingly influential Iran, through its support of Hizbollah, diminishes France's ability to deliver the goods, as seen by today's failure.

What's more, should the situation in Lebanon result in violence or longterm instability, the heat on Iran, who will almost surely be scapegoated for it, will likely go up a few notches.

Update: According to Nouvel Obs, the parliamentary session to elect the president has been postponed until next Friday. Nevertheless, President Lahoud is still expected to leave office at midnight tonight, leaving the country with no one exercising the consitutional responsibilities of president for a week.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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Thursday, November 22, 2007

Iran's Parallel Nuclear Track

The other day I flagged a story about Iran's ambassador to Syria offering Iran's assistance in developing a civil nuclear program, mainly because the remark seemed comically ill-timed. But today I ran across another story in the Iranian press reporting that Iran has offered its assistance to Egypt in the aftermath of Cairo's announcement that it would be seeking to develop a civil nuclear program. And yesterday, also, Saeed Jalili, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and head of its National Security Council, formulated an Iranian nuclear cooperation policy based on "...opposition to weapons of mass destruction, preventing proliferation of nuclear weapons as well as peaceful use of nuclear energy..."

If these articles are any indication, Iran is actually serious about becoming a regional supplier of civil nuclear technology. This would be a significant and destabilizing development, and not just because Iran's own civil program is not in compliance with the NPT according to the IAEA's latest report. As things stand, a country needs to be a member of the 44-nation Nuclear Suppliers Group in order to share nuclear material and technology under the auspices of the nuclear non-proliferation regime. And the chances of the US allowing Iran to accede to the group are somewhere between none and zero.

Which suggests that Tehran is testing the waters for introducing a parallel nuclear non-proliferation regime. It's actually a pretty cagey move. By offering to help the rest of the region develop nuclear capability, it assuages the fears that the Iranian program has raised among its rivals. And by presenting the image of a self-sufficient Muslim nuclear cooperation network, it appeals to regional pride.

I'm speculating as to Iran's intentions, and what's more, I don't think it's very probable that anything will come of its proposals. But the scenario raises the question of how to keep the nuclear non-proliferation dam from breaking should the psychological barriers to dual use nuclear proliferation fail. Already, three of the four nuclear states that remain outside the NPT (Pakistan, Israel and N. Korea) have at one time or another engaged in covert proliferation. As India emerges as a global power, it's only natural that it will begin to feel unfairly constrained by its nuclear pariah status, especially as the fierce industrial competition for civil nuclear contracts heats up.

Eventually, the constraining logic of the NPT will be called into question by enough states so as to challenge its legitimacy. And if we want to have any hope of keeping the nuclear genie in the lamp for the next half-century, we'd better have a revamped system that takes into account the changed realities of the nuclear landscape before that happens.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ready To Go Nuclear

This strikes me as pretty poor timing:

On November 19, Iran voiced its readiness to cooperate with Syria in the field of peaceful nuclear activities should Syria be interested, Iranian Ambassador to Syria Mohammad Hassan Akhtari said. During a press conference in the Iranian Embassy in Damascus, he explained that such cooperation does not exist at the present time...

"Our relations with Syria are significant and special. If Syria is ready to go nuclear, we are ready to cooperate with her," said Akhtari.

I don't think those are the kinds of gestures Mohamed ElBaradei had in mind when he called on Iran to show some confidence-building measures in his IAEA report earlier this week. On the other hand, as long as Israel is going to the trouble of bombing Syria's nuclear sites, the least the Iranians can do is make sure they're really nuclear.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Woman's Worth

Another women's rights advocate has been arrested in Iran. Maryam Hosseinkhah, a journalist who has been active in the campaign to change discriminatory laws against women, was jailed when she was unable to come up with bail. Here's the web site, Change For Equality, that got her in trouble with the authorities. Here's a video that they put together to highlight their cause. (I'll try to get it embedded here on the site to make it easier to share.) And here's a list of the laws they're trying to change, which include:

  • rewriting marriage and divorce laws to include women's right to self-determination;
  • raising the age of legal responsibility for girls from 9 years old (the age for boys is 14);
  • granting women the same legal "worth" as men in both liability and inheritance law (they're currently valued at half a man's worth).

The heart of the mobilization is an effort to gather One Million Signatures in support of their demands, a door to door campaign that also allows them to educate people around the issues. You can sign the online version of the petition here.

I don't want to get too sanctimonious, and I don't know what kind of impact we can have on their struggle. But I did want to call attention to these women. They're pretty damn courageous. Take a look at the video and you'll see what I mean.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Fogged Goggles Of War

I understand why Kevin Drum needed a drink after reading this Anne Applebaum column about the collateral damage of Iraq. Applebaum begins by correctly describing the impact of the Iraq War on our credibility, and as I wrote yesterday, Congressional Democrats would do well to pay attention to the way she frames her assessment of the good news out of Iraq (short version: don't get too excited about it).

But after acknowledging the difficulty of convincing people to take anything we say seriously when they basically no longer take anything we say seriously, Applebaum goes on to lament that in such a climate of distrust, we'll never be able to convince our European allies of the need for a military strike. Which effectively leaves us with a policy of crossing our fingers and hoping that Iran either doesn't end up with a bomb, or remains deterrable if it does.

Now, as things stand, I think a unilateral strike on Iran would be disastrous, so to see this kind of stuff on the WaPo editorially page definitely makes me want to reach for a drink, too. I'm also not convinced that the chances of the crossed fingers approach resulting in acceptable outcomes are zero, although that doesn't make it a very attractive policy option.

But having said that, I think that on a broader level, the Iran standoff illustrates the way in which the Iraq War has fogged our own (meaning war opponents) goggles a bit as well. Take for instance Matthew Yglesias' use of a Richard Holbrooke quote about Saddam Hussein and Iraq from back in January 2001 to illustrate the risks of a hawkish Hillary Clinton presidency. As Kevin Drum later pointed out, a hard line on Saddam Hussein was perfectly reasonable in January 2001.

As for Iran's nuclear program, I think that in the absence of the Iraq fiasco, a hard and even bellicose line would be widely regarded as reasonable today as well. In fact, were it not for the aftermath of the Iraq War, there probably would be broad domestic support for a unilateral strike -- or at least the credible threat of the use of force -- and probably tacit support in both Europe and the Middle East as well.

Now that's not to say that such a consensus would have been any more correct today than it was in the run-up to the Iraq War, either on the facts or on the strategic consequences of such a strike. But if in the absence of the Iraq War, the Iran nuclear standoff would have risen to the level of liberal hawks' threat threshhold (which I think is the case), the question becomes, What has the Iraq War changed? Are we simply adjusting our foreign policy to the realities on the ground, or have we re-considered the underlying principles that led to the mistakes in the first place? I think it's a discussion that's worth having, if only to find out whether we're being pragmatic or wise.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Yes, But...

Kaveh Afrasiabi makes some good points as usual in his Asia Times Online piece about the IAEA's Iran report (which I finally tracked down here). Yes, Iran has made "substantial progress" in cooperating with the IAEA, especially on providing a paper trail documenting its declared nuclear activities. Yes, all the declared nuclear material is present and accounted for. Yes, more information is on the way, consistent with Iran's obligations under the working agreement it signed in August. Yes, in light of Iran's cooperation, the UN Security Council's demand that Iran suspend uranium enrichment -- especially with no attached timeframe -- and the resulting sanctions regime is on tenuous ground under the NPT. Yes, Iran's intransigence about possessing its own nuclear fuel cycle is a result of twenty years of frustrated above-board attempts to strike deals for a civilian nuclear program, demonstrated once again in the difficulty it is having in getting Russia to ship the nuclear fuel necessary to get the Bushehr reactor online.

Yes, but...

The major sticking point in the report is not Iran's increased cooperation with monitoring its declared activity. It is its refusal to provide more transparency to verify that there is no undeclared activity taking place as well. That is extremely significant in this case because for twenty years Iran clandestinely pursued a nuclear enrichment capacity, and acquired materials and technology on the nuclear black market, in contravention of the NPT to which it was a signatory. It might very well be that the resulting program is a strictly civilian one. But it was nonetheless developed secretly.

Now granted, it's impossible to prove that something does not exist. Iraq War supporters' obstinate refusal to acknowledge that there were no Iraqi WMD's is a case in point. But the IAEA report clearly states that Iran could do considerably more to alleviate any suspicions. Which makes the report, contrary to what Afrasiabi maintains, a mixed bag.

A mixed bag is ostensibly a win for Iran, because it makes a third round of UN sanctions very unlikely. I'm convinced that whether or not a third round of sanctions is just or even necessary, a report that facilitated the realistic threat of a third round of sanctions (ie. a report that brought the Russians and Chinese on board) would have served as a major catalyst for defusing this standoff through diplomatic means. And that would have been a win for everyone.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, November 16, 2007

Smoke For The Fire

I haven't seen this mentioned in any Western press coverage of the IAEA report on Iran, which I'm still trying to locate. But the Iranian press has pointed out that it includes a reference to the fuel for the Russian-built Bushehr reactor:

Gholam-Reza Aqazadeh noted that another point which is eye-catching in ElBaradei's report is the fact that the IAEA has coordinated with Russia for the transfer of the required fuel for the Bushehr nuclear plant and this will be achieved in the near future.

ITAR-TASS has also picked up the story. This is a significant angle to watch since it will signal the depth of Russia's support for the Iranian nuclear program. Should Russia oppose a third round of sanctions but also delay shipping the fuel, there's room for a deal with Moscow. On the other hand, if the Russians oppose sanctions and go ahead and ship the fuel to Bushehr, things could get bumpy.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Friday, November 16, 2007

ElBaradei's Failure Of Nerve

Here's a rundown of the IAEA's report on Iran's nuclear program, and despite the language I cited in a previous post, both sides have found spin room. I've been impressed with Mohamed ElBaradei in the past, but not this time. He has unapologetically assumed a political -- as opposed to a strictly technical -- role on handling this crisis, and his stated goal is to avoid a military outcome. Given the politicization on all sides of the issue, there's nothing inherently wrong with that.

But in being overly cautious with this report, he's exacerbated the diplomatic impasse that stands in the way of a peaceful resolution. Given his animosity to the Bush administration (frankly, who hasn't been burned by them?), it's understandable that he'd be loathe to deliver a report that plays into their hands. But the clear threat of a third round of sanctions, supported by both Russia and China, would have put Ahmadinejad on the spot at a time when he's facing increasing domestic criticism for his hardline stance. In such a scenario, it's hard to imagine the Iranians resisting concessions, whether on transparency, freezing uranium enrichment, or both.

Instead ElBaradei has given a nod to both camps, citing increased uranium enrichment and continued non-compliance with regards to investigating undeclared nuclear activity, but at the same time emphasizing increased cooperation in piecing together the document trail establishing just how Iran procured their nuclear equipment as well as continued access to declared activity. In other words, he's delivered an even-handed technical report at the very moment that a political one was called for. Should his decision scuttle more UN sanctions, the possibility of unilateral American sanctions -- even supported by England and France -- will play into Ahmadinejad's hands, allowing him to continue his domestic crackdown in the name of presenting a united front. It will also inreasingly reduce the room for diplomatic maneuver, making the logic of war seem inevitable. And ElBaradei the politician will only have ElBaradei the technocrat to blame.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Round Three

The IAEA has announced that Mohamed ElBaradei has circulated his report on the Iran uranium enrichment program to the IAEA's Borad of Governors, and McClatchy is reporting that they've gotten hold of a leaked copy. The report states that Iran has provided some answers about past nuclear activity and accounted for declared nuclear material, but still hasn't provided "full transparency" about its current activities and is still enriching uranium in defiance of previous Security Council resolutions. Here's the money graf:

"The agency is not in a position to provide credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran," says the confidential report, obtained by McClatchy Newspapers.

Translation: Iran still hasn't provided IAEA inspectors unfettered access to carry out "intrusive inspections" of the kind called for under the Additional Protocol of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that Iran agreed to in 2003 but has stopped complying with since early 2006.

This strikes me as pretty good news, seeing as the very same kind of report led to a second round of sanctions this spring. Compare the operative clause from that document:

The Agency is able to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material in Iran. The Agency remains unable, however, to make further progress in its efforts to verify fully the past development of Iran’s nuclear programme and certain aspects relevant to its scope and nature. Hence, the Agency is unable to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran unless Iran addresses the long outstanding verification issues through the implementation of the Additional Protocol (which it signed on 18 December 2003, but has not yet brought into force) and the required transparency measures. (My emphasis.)

Reports in May and August came to the same conclusion, and the only thing that forestalled the third round of sanctions in September was a cooperative framework agreed to by Iran for providing more assurances of the civilian nature of its program. Clearly, they haven't gone very far in that direction.

It could very well be that the Russians and Chinese still refuse to sign on, but frankly, this round goes to the Bush administration. Iran had ten weeks to win friends and influence people, and they've done neither.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Half-Full Or Half-Empty?

The IAEA is due to release an report today on Iran's compliance with inspection regimes of their uranium enrichment program. The eagerly awaited assessment will determine to a large degree whether or not Russia and China will go along with a third round of UN Security Council sanctions. The run-up consensus is that the report is a mixed bag of partial but inconclusive progress, one that won't do much to move opinion one way or the other. A lot will depend on whose spin proves more influential, but that in and of itself seems to make it less likely the Russians and Chinese will come on board for sanctions.

Not to get too far ahead of the news cycle, but a strong report condemning Iran would most likely have been a tipping point in solidifying support for the American position. One that showed a remarkable turnaround in Iranian cooperation, on the other, would have made a convincing case for restraint. A report that simply extends the status quo for another three months seems like the worst possible outcome, if only because the Bush administration has made it clear it will end-run the UN and pursue unilateral sanctions if necessary.

That will put a lot of pressure on Germany, which is very reluctant to operate outside the auspices of the UN, and also alienate Russia, which is counting on using its leverage with Tehran to exact some concessions from the US on European force structures. It also threatens to make Sarkozy put up or shut up in his support of the American line, creating a significant precedent for France's historically multi-lateral foreign policy doctrine.

Meanwhile it's worth noting, in light of recent reassuring reports on the crisis, that Iran's former nuclear negotiator under Mohamed Khatami, Hossein Mousavian, has been charged with sharing classified information with the British. Moussavian, who has expressed criticism of Ahmadinejad's negotiating strategy, had initially been arrested this past May. Ahmadinejad and his proxies have previously accused critics of his nuclear policy of undermining Iran's diplomatic position. The charges against Mousavian would seem to indicate that Tehran's recent crackdown on journalistic, labor and civic dissent has extended into the political sphere.

Finally, Le Figaro reports from Riyad that the Saudis are increasingly convinced that a unilateral American strike against Iran is inevitable. Like everyone, they seem to be putting their hopes in Russia's leverage with the Iranians to avert a military outcome. Significantly, the diplomatic contacts the Saudis had been pursuing with Tehran had been passing through Ali Larijani. Perhaps another reason for Larijani's ouster last month.

I'll keep an eye out for the IAEA's report, but for the time being the optimism I'd been feeling the last week or so has been a bit tempered.

Update: No report yet, but it looks like China's still sitting on the fence.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Putin And The Mullahs, Crawford Edition

This seemed worth pointing out, from NSC Advisor Stephen Hadley's press briefing on President Bush's meeting with Angela Merkel:

One of the things I guess people need to understand is that Russia has been pretty good on the issue of Iran. They understand the problem, they have been active in the diplomacy. You may remember nine months to a year ago, they had a very active engagement going on with Iran, trying to get Iran to accept the notion of suspending an enrichment program and being willing to participate with Russia in an international consortium in Russia that would ensure an adequate fuel supply for their civil nuclear power.

President Putin was recently in Tehran, and he gave a very good message, very consistent with what we've said, the Germans, and others have said, about Iran needing to recognize that it's isolating itself internationally, and needs to give up these programs, and particularly suspend the enrichment, so we can come to the negotiating table.

I think the issues with respect to Russia are tactical issues: at what point do you look at a third resolution; exactly how tough that resolution should be, so that you are both pressing Iran, but also leaving the door open for some solution? And this is, I think, a tactical issue between the two.

The Cheney Gang might very well end up manufacturing a war with Iran. But I get the impression that one of the reasons that they're increasingly looking for bones to pick in Iraq is because the uranium enrichment standoff might actually go our way. Just a few weeks ago, the tone coming out of Moscow was agressive enough to lead some folks here to suggest that Putin might actually give the Iranians nukes. But these kind of conciliatory remarks (coming from one of the vulcans, no less) seem to lend even more support to the idea that some sort of deal has been struck with the Russians. If that's the case, that leaves the China as the odd man out, a position that's much more difficult to sustain than one backed up by Russian cover.

If there's one sticking point, it's the demand for a unilateral enrichment freeze before proceeding with overarching negotiations, something the Iranians claim infringes on their sovereignty. But if the framework of the negotiations were expanded to include a "grand bargain", ie. if the rewards for an Iranian freeze were multiplied, some sort of face-saving arrangement could probably be worked out.

It would take courage and boldness, something this administration lacks when it comes to anything other than appropriating extra-Constitutional authority. It's too bad, because the pay off for America's image around the globe would be enormous, contrary to what the fearmongers would have people believe. Far from being a demonstration of weakness, it would show America's strength. The kind that allows you to distinguish a minor annoyance from a major threat.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sincerity Test

The recent meeting between President Bush and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was eagerly anticipated, since it was expected to determine whether or not Turkey would launch a cross-border incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan. As usual with such eagerly anticipated meetings, the outcome was largely anti-climactic, producing pretty much the exact same "carefully worded statements" afterwards that both sides had been issuing for the week or two leading up to the meeting.

In this case, that amounted to Erdogan demanding concrete American steps to address the PKK problem and refusing to renounce Turkey's right to defend itself against the hybrid terrorist-guerilla organization, and Bush providing his assurances that America was taking concrete steps to address the problem and firmly repeating his conviction that invading Iraq to prosecute a Global War on Terror would almost certainly drag the entire region into violent upheaval.

So it should come as no surprise that the Turkish military was somewhat underwhelmed by what the meeting actually accomplished and is adopting a wait and see attitude towards the promises Bush made, what they call a "test of sincerity":

The military leaders want to see first and for all (sic) sincerity from the Americans on intelligence sharing... The quality of the intelligence to be given to Turkey will show the sincerity of Washington, they stress. They said such instant intelligence should allow the Turkish forces to utilize the information for operational purposes...

Among other gestures that would prove Bush's sincerity, the Turkish military would like to see four or five PKK leaders (included on a wanted list shared with the US in the past) actually turned over. Now this would seem to be a problem, seeing as how Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one of the more moderate Kurdish leaders, recently declared that he wouldn't even hand over a Kurdish cat to Turkey. Interestingly enough, though, American forces just liberated nine Iranian prisoners held in Iraq, among them Iranians who had been captured while on a diplomatic visit to Iraqi Kurdistan. In addition, Iran just re-opened its consulates in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah (where some of the prisoners had been captured).

Now the two developments might be entirely unrelated. Or, given the fact that the Kurds loudly protested the detentions when they took place and have long enjoyed fruitful relations with Iran, the moves might be part of a larger deal to defuse the PKK issue. If four or five PKK leaders just happen to turn up in Turkish hands in the next week or two, with only symbolic protests from the Iraqi Kurds, I'd wager on the latter.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Friends Like That

Lost amid all the attention given to the declaration of martial law is the news that Pakistan and Iran just finalized a deal to build a multi-billion dollar gas pipeline between the two countries. The Bush administration had been strongly opposed to the project, since it undermines its attempts to isolate Tehran.

Good thing Musharraf's on our payroll. I'd hate to see what he'd be up to if we hadn't given him $9 billion over the past six years.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Pakistan   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

One More Year

How long do assets have to be frozen before they can just be considered confiscated?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Three Years, Ten Lashes

To follow up on a post from a few days back, Amnesty International and six other human rights groups have now called on Iran to set aside Delaram Ali's sentence of three years in prison and ten lashes. She's the young woman who was violently arrested last year, suffering a broken arm, during a protest for women's rights. According to the BBC, her sentence is part of a larger crackdown on dissent:

It comes as the Iranian Writers Association has talked of the increasing suppression of the press - with writers, journalists, academics, labour and social activists being arrested and newspapers closed down one after another.

One of Iran's most outspoken human rights activists, Emadeddin Baghi, was arrested last month and there has been no news of him since.

He was a man who tirelessly campaigned for the rights of political prisoners - only to become one himself, our correspondent says.

Courts have also recently upheld jail sentences for the leaders of Iran's bus drivers' union and teachers' organisations after protests over low pay.

I remember after the first student protest against Ahamdinejad earlier this year, when they burned him in effigy during one of his speeches, there was some suggestion that Iran is less totalitarian than it's portrayed to be. This seems to put that idea to rest.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iran   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Missed this yesterday, too:

Nine Iranians held in Iraq on suspicion of aiding insurgents were freed by the American military in Baghdad Friday, amid growing signs that both the US and Iran are seeking to ease tensions over Iraq.

Eleven other Iranians were kept in custody. But it looks like there's been a subtle shift in dynamics in the past week or so, ever since Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made a surprise visit to Tehran. I think it's clear this standoff is going in our direction if the IAEA reports Iran to the Security Council this week. The big question now, of course, is what happens if the IAEA reports satisfactory progress?

On a related note, these remarks by Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher caught my eye in light of the French Defense Minister Herve Morin's comments a few weeks back that France had intelligence demonstrating Iran's nuclear ambitions were military:

"Iran is deadly dangerous. They have been isolated from us for a very, very long time, and we don't have very good intelligence. I am glad we use a lot of international intelligence, especially the French and (the U.K.'s) MI6," she told reporters.

Asked if the U.S. administration's warnings about Iran's alleged secret nuclear weapons program should be believed, Tauscher said, "You shouldn't, you should believe the French."

The lawmaker added that Wednesday, after meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, French "President (Nicolas) Sarkozy was totally unambiguous about Iran, and (said) that there was reason to be concerned about (its) ambitions."

In his comments two weeks ago, Morin said that France's intelligence was confirmed by that of "other countries". I'd assumed that one of those "other countries" was the US (the other being Israel, who's Prime Minister recently visited Paris). But if, as Tauscher claims, the US depends on France for its Iran intelligence (as well as Great Britain), that couldn't be the case.

Her remarks did bring to mind the famous Niger yellowcake documents, which formed the basis for Plamegate. Those documents, which were later shown to be obvious forgeries, were funneled into the intelligence pipeline via the Italian intelligence service and then picked up by MI6. Which was how President Bush was able to refer to British intelligence about Iraq seeking to purchase yellowcake from Niger, even though the CIA had already decided there was nothing to the story.

In other words, we're depending on French intelligence. But are we also feeding it to them?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Back At The Ranch

Frankly, I'm surprised to see Angela Merkel reach the Crawford Ranch before Nicolas Sarkozy. All the honor and glory of addressing Congress notwithstanding, I'm betting he's green with envy right about now. Especially given that the EU rumor mill has it that Angie and Nico don't exactly... get along?

After a tour of the property and a round of hamburgers, Merkel expressed support for a third round of UN sanctions if the IAEA reports Iran to the Security Council next week, as well as a very tepid agreement to possibly consider limited unilateral sanctions if absolutely nothing else imaginable shows even the slightest chance of getting Iran to... Well, you get the picture.

Be that as it may, Le Monde fills in some backstory on the visit, and the behind the scenes policy divergences, from the German and European perspective. Specifically, while Washington might be a little impatient with Merkel's reluctance to go along with unilateral sanctions (ie. those not imposed by the UN) as well as her restrained rhetoric, the Germans are convinced their approach is the most effective. As one of Merkel's parliamentary coalition members put it:

Everyone is criticising us for showing signs of weakness, especially in the United States. Meanwhile we're trying to keep the Russians and Chinese on board. (Translated from the French.)

Of course, the fact that Germany remains Iran's primary trading partner might have something to do with their reluctance to impose sanctions as well.

Meanwhile, Sarkozy, with his muscular rhetoric and willingness to go along with unilateral sanctions, has clearly become Bush's go to EU ally on Iran. His stance on unilateral sanctions is especially significant, as Hubert Vedrine pointed out in an article for Telos in September, since it would represent a major shift in French foreign policy doctrine, which until now has relied on multi-lateral and coalition-based consensus to legitimize all interventionist policies, which includes sanctions.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Iran   

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Police Blotter, Tehran Edition

A lot of people, myself included, were impressed by the Iranian student protests last month that publicly humiliated President Ahmadinejad. The Iranian regime, it seems, was less impressed and has been gradually arresting the student leaders.

Also, an Iranian appeals court upheld a sentence of three years in prison against Delaram Ali, a young woman who took part in a demonstration for women's rights last year. (The ten lashes that had been included in her sentence were dropped.) The demonstration was violently broken up by Iranian police and Ali suffered a broken arm at the time. Five other women involved in the protest have also been sentenced to prison terms. The women had been organizing a petition drive, called One Million Signatures, designed to pressure the Iranian government to change laws that discriminate against women.

The two stories highlight a recurring thought I've been having, that all the crises we're now facing in the Middle East are really just longterm repercussions of the region's (incomplete) post-colonial transition to modernism. Of course, secular education and equal civil rights for women are two cornerstones of any such transition. So the condition of students and women is a barometer of a country's modernism, as much if not more so than their technical expertise or military hardware.

On the other hand, relations between (post-)modern and semi-modern states have greatly changed since the post-colonial era, due mainly to the widespread diffusion of technical expertise and military hardware to semi-modern states. Modernism can no longer be imposed from without at the hands of an occupying power, nor from within at the hands of a crusading national liberator. And with the exception of Turkey, wherever it still manages to resist the reactionary backlash of fundamentalism (Syria and Egypt come to mind), it is through the brutal methods of authoritarian dictators.

Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to offer much hope for Iran's students and women. Or for finding longterm solutions, consistent with the ideals of democracy and equal rights, to the region's conflicts. Pessimistic, I know. But twenty-four year old women getting tossed in jail for demanding a fair shake does that to me.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Tuesday, November 6, 2007

A Way Out

I'm not sure how much of a shift in rhetoric this is, but both the Iranian Foreign Minister and the Deputy Security of the National Security Council seemed to suggest this weekend that Iran would consider a third-country enrichment plan of the type recently proposed by Russia, as long as the plan secured Iran's "nuclear rights". I take that to mean that as long as any freeze of their uranium enrichment program was voluntary and not imposed, they'd consider foregoing domestic enrichment in favor of a guaranteed third-country source.

The declarations follow closely on the heels of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's surprise visit to Tehran last week, a visit that one Russian analyst interpreted as signalling a possible shift in Russia's stance on the issue following American overtures on missile defense and the CFE treaty:

Most likely the prospect of multiple concessions (on missile defense and CFE) prompted Moscow to try to persuade Teheran to announce a moratorium on all uranium enrichment. But what can Russia offer in exchange? Teheran is unlikely to be moved by the mere readiness of Washington to sit down at the negotiating table or even resume direct bilateral contacts.

The more likely explanation lies elsewhere. Teheran has long wanted to position itself as Russia's "strategic ally". So, there is no reason why Moscow should not make use of partnership relations. It could well act as a guarantor of the peaceful character of the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for the U.S. renunciation of military actions. Russia, of course, has something to offer Iran. And judging from the reception accorded in the Iranian capital to Sergei Lavrov, Teheran finds these proposals interesting.

I've been extremely critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iranian nuclear stand-off. But this would seem to be a satisfactory resolution of it. The Russians do come out looking like the big winners, but at this point that might be a lesser of many evils.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Four Hundred Forty-Four Days

In case you missed it, Iran celebrated the "National Day of Struggle Against Global Arrogance" yesterday, which is what they call the anniversary (this year marks the 28th) of the storming of the US embassy in Tehran and the taking of the 53 American diplomats and guards as hostages.

I was eleven at the time, and I still remember the odd mix of fear and derision those effigy-burning mobs of angry religious revolutionaries inspired in me. The odd mix of sadness and anger I felt as the days dragged on and Walter Cronkite's solemn count climbed each night at the end of his evening news broadcast. The odd mix of pride and shame I felt each time I looked at the small American flag sticker -- Free The Hostages! -- which for some reason I stuck in the middle of my white formica desk.

I remember when they were finally released, the urgency with which I scrawled on that sticker "Free! 444 Days Of Captivity". As if to make sure that it no longer represented an open wound, but a scar ready to fade. As the sticker, which I couldn't bring myself to remove, eventually did.

Liberals (and conservatives) have a tendency to trace the Democratic Party's loss of the national security mantle to opposition to the Vietnam War, but if you ask me, those 444 days had a far greater impact on America's sense of who, between the left and the right, was more likely to keep us safe. The Vietnamese had fought to get us out of their country, but when we did end up leaving, it was of our own resolve. The Iranians were herding our men and women through the streets, chanting "Death to America", and we could do nothing to stop them. And while it might not be very politically correct to admit it, the fact that there were beards, turbans and militant religious zealots to boot made the whole experience somehow indelibly traumatic.

It's ironic that today we find ourselves at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of our ability to project our force, if not our will, abroad. And yet there before us, once again, are the Iranians. They, too, find themselves at the opposite end of their own national narrative, a country no longer picking itself off the ground after years of humiliation, but one now demanding the respect it feels it deserves. A country no longer reduced to desperate and squalid gestures, but able to protect and project its interests across the region. We'd do well to reflect on how our two nations' narratives have once again brought us face to face. And how what transpired before still effects what we see when we look out upon one another.

I've taken the position on this site that it would be strategically disastrous for the US to unilaterally attack Iran. I've argued instead for the use of diplomatic engagement with Iran, coupled with coalition-building with our allies. Not because I have any naive illusions about the Iranian regime. But because I have an abiding confidence in America's strength when we're driven by our highest ideals and principles, instead of by our darkest fears.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, November 5, 2007

Iraq Exodus, PKK Edition

Alexander Cockburn reports that the PKK is moving some of its fighters across the border into Iran due to the threat of a Turkish incursion. It's apparently a tactic the PKK have used in the past, taking advantage of the Kurd diaspora across four nations (Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria) to get off the anvil before the hammer strikes.

According to the brother of jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the move also represents an escalation of the PKK's "war against Iran". If true, the entire problem posed by the PKK will have been displaced from a friendly but recalcitrant neighborhood to an extremely hostile one. The resulting complications of transposing Iran for Turkey in the current standoff are obvious, especially in light of Sy Hersh's report that the Cheney gang is waiting for an Iranian incident to serve as an excuse for military strikes against Iran.

If it also turns out that facilitating the exodus (ie. "exporting" a listed terrorist organization) was part of the American response to Turkish pressure, the fallout -- on both a regional and global level -- would be disastrous.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, November 2, 2007

From My Blog To Obama's Ears?

Either great minds think alike, or Headline Junky has got readers in high places. A few days ago, I posted a piece on Iran, suggesting the following:

With that in mind, I'd love to see one of the Democratic candidates formulate a list of concrete steps Iran could take, independent of the nuclear dossier, in order to establish diplomatic relations with the US, as well as areas of co-operation that we might develop. There's been so much discussion of what sort of stick to wield against Tehran, and too little about what sort of carrots we can offer.

Via Kevin Drum, comes this passage from an interview Barack Obama gave yesterday to the NY Times:

Making clear that he planned to talk to Iran without preconditions, Mr. Obama emphasized further that "changes in behavior" by Iran could possibly be rewarded with membership in the World Trade Organization, other economic benefits and security guarantees.

"We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith," he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. "I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hellbent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior."

As long as you're listening, Senator, you can run a solid, issues-based campaign without searching America's soul. Drop the charismatic healer routine. You'd get my vote in a second.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   Politics   

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Putting Iran In Context

Russian media recently reported that China has agreed to sell twenty-four J-10's, China's fourth generation fighter jet, to Iran. Not so fast, says Defense News; so far there's been no confirmation of any agreement. Nevertheless, the reactions to the reports of the deal are in some ways as revealing as the deal itself:

"At a minimum, this small number of J-10s could provide the escort necessary to allow one nuclear-weapon-armed Iranian F-4, F-14 or Su-24 to reach an Israeli target," said Richard Fisher, vice president of the Washington-based International Assessment and Strategy Center...

But another China-watcher said there may actually be no J-10 deal, only rumors started by Beijing to persuade Washington to deny F-16s to Taiwan.

One rumor, two spins. The first serves to reinforce the meme that Tehran is desperately seeking the means to deliver its nuclear payload to Tel Aviv. The second, more relevant, reminds us that the Iran standoff is not playing out in a vacuum.

If both China and Russia have determined that it serves their interests to counterbalance the Bush administration's efforts to isolate Iran, it's not because they're eager to see a nuclear-armed Iranian regime. It's because America under the Bush administration has decided to aggressively contest these two country's historic spheres of influence. The message behind Russian and Chinese resistance to stronger UN sanctions on Tehran is that a successful diplomatic resolution to the Iran standoff will involve American concessions on missile defense and military bases in Eastern Europe, and on arming Taiwan in Asia. You want your sanctions, you've got to play ball.

But neocons don't play ball. They'll rewrite the rulebook and replace the umpires. They'll even eminent domain the playing field. But they won't play ball. That's why the broader context for understanding the Iran nuclear standoff is the neocon vision for American national security strategy, whose goal is to prevent the rise of rival powers. Contrast that with the reality of the limits of our power and it becomes obvious that something's got to give.

So far, the pushback against the neocon vision has been limited to piecemeal proposals designed to address particular crises. And in some ways, a realist approach to foreign policy is limited to this method by the value it places on pragmatism. But at a certain point, the effort to contain the damage done by the Bush administration suffers from the lack of a broad strategic vision for reconciling American national security with the need to co-exist with rival powers in the evolving geo-political landscape.

The neocons have their strategy, and it has the advantage of being reassuringly familiar to anyone who's played "king of the hill" as a seven-year old. We've got... What? Diplomacy? Negotiations? Those are tactics, not strategies. It's something we've often accused the Bush administration of confusing in its approach to foreign policy. It's time we took our own medicine.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Above The Melee

Women's rugby in Iran. Who'd a thunk it? Problems include the uniform:

All women must cover their heads and bodily contours in Iran. The rugby field is no exception.

The players dart around the pitch wearing the maghnaeh, a garment that fully covers the head, shoulders, and neck, as well as a loose blue waistcoat, long-sleeved dark T-shirts, and loose tracksuit trousers.

As well as the male coach:

Advising the team on how to tackle, he keeps a decent distance away from the women, and then instructs one of the players to demonstrate how to grab an opponent rather than carrying out the move himself.

According to Iran's Islamic rules, members of the opposite sex cannot touch each other unless they are married couples or immediate members of a family.

But the sport -- as well as women's athletics in general, introduced during the reformist 90's -- is catching on.

It strikes me as intuitively obvious that the more freedoms women gain in a country like Iran, the more likely it is we'll find common ground. So our policies towards Tehran really should be geared towards facilitating the Iranian moderates' return to power. Unfortunately, the gist of the current debate on Iran is limited to the nuclear standoff, instead of considering the larger context of how our two countries can co-exist.

With that in mind, I'd love to see one of the Democratic candidates formulate a list of concrete steps Iran could take, independent of the nuclear dossier, in order to establish diplomatic relations with the US, as well as areas of co-operation that we might develop. There's been so much discussion of what sort of stick to wield against Tehran, and too little about what sort of carrots we can offer.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Artificial Intelligence?

At a press conference in Abu Dhabi, French Defense Minister Hervť Morin directly contradicted IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei's assertion that he's found no evidence to suggest Iran's nuclear program has military aims:

Our intelligence, corroborated by that of other countries, gives us the opposite impression... If Baradei is right, there is no reason for Iran not to allow the IAEA to carry out its inspections... (Translated from the French.)

Now it's true that generally speaking, France has got solid intelligence throughout the Arab world. So maybe they've uncovered some incriminating evidence of a hidden military component to the Iranian nuclear program. But it's hard to believe that Sarkozy knows something that Chirac didn't, so the sudden shift in tone seems hard to explain.

Which leads us to the "other countries" who -- I think it's obvious -- are most likely Israel and the US. And if that's who the French are comparing notes with, then it's not surprising that they've suddenly given this dossier a greater urgency than the other EU negotiating partners.†

Morin went on to make clear [note: English language article] that France is opposed to war with Iran, and reiterated French support for stiffer sanctions, even though they would harm French economic interests in Iran. But the newfound stridency in tone coming out of Paris is going to take some getting used to.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Turkey And The Mullahs

A short while ago, in a post about the damage we've done to our strategic alliance with Turkey, I made the mistake of suggesting that one of the dangers of alienating Turkey might be to see that country slide into theocracy. A reader left a comment to the effect that there's little likelihood of that happening. This Dissent interview with Seyla Benhabib, a Turkish political scientist, confirms that analysis:

...I don’t think that the AK Party wants a theocracy. They are carrying out an incredible experiment and it is unusual for some one who is a democratic socialist like myself to be supporting, and watching very carefully, a party like them. But we are all watching carefully because they also represent a kind of pluralism in civil society which is absolutely essential for Turkey.

So I don’t fear an Islamic theocracy in Turkey. I don’t think that the Turkish people want an Islamic theocracy and I don’t think that the AK party wants an Islamic theocracy. There have always been some elements who may have dreamed of this but I can’t see it happening...

Benhabib also briefly addresses the extent to which Turkey might serve as a model for other Arab Islamic states. Remember that the failure of the secular Arab nationalist movement, of which Turkey was an early example, directly led to the emergence of the Iranian-style Islamic revolution throughout the Arab world. And it's against the backdrop of this latter movement's inability to free the Middle East of Western influence that Osama Bin Laden's brand of Qutbism has taken root.

So inasmuch as Turkey -- as a healthy, secular democracy with a modernized economy -- represents the alternative to what the jihadists offer, the question is an important one. Benhabib is optimistic, specifically as regards Syria, whose improved relations with Turkey could serve as an incentive for Bashir Assad to open his country up a bit to the world.

In other words, while Andrew Sullivan is correct that a Turkey-Iran-Syria re-alignment would certainly deal a blow to American regional interests, it wouldn't necessarily result in a three-headed theocratic hydra. In fact, the opposite assumtion, that Turkey could function as a moderating influence on both Syria and Iran, is entirely plausible.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   Turkey   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

EF Putin

This article from Asia Times Online's Kaveh Afrasiabi on the recent shuffling in Iran's nuclear negotiating team raised my spirits a bit:

Various commentators, especially in Europe and the United States, have been quick in interpreting Larijani's resignation as a "bad omen" reflecting a triumph for hardliners led by Ahmadinejad. But that is simplistic and ignores a more complex reality in the Iran's state affairs (sic). The quest for greater centralization of nuclear decision-making has met a contradictory response in, on the one hand, the move for more direct input by Khamenei, and, on the other hand, a parallel effort by Ahmadinejad to gain greater control of decision-making.

Afrasiabi explains that Iran's factional infighting on the nuclear dossier threatens to seriously weaken its negotiating posture by creating confusion and paralysis. It's not all good news, because derailed or frozen negotiations can lead to a lose-lose outcome on the actual conflict. It is reassuring, though, to hear that there are weaknesses in the Iranian position in light of how clumsy our own handling of the crisis has been. But that's not all:

According to veteran political analyst Davood Hermidas Bavand, the real reason for Larijani's resignation can be found in the failure of the government's "eastern approach" that naively banked on support from China and Russia in the nuclear row, despite Moscow and Beijing's role in supporting sanctions resolutions at the UN Security Council. "Larijani's resignation is his objection to the strategy laid out by the government of Mahmud Ahmadinejad," Bavand insists.

If Bavand is correct, Larijani is skeptical that Iran can count on Russian and Chinese support when the chips are down, an analysis seconded by Steve Clemons in this post on The Washington Note:

There has been a lot of movement in recent days on Iran's nuclear program. Days after Defense Secretary Bob Gates met with Vladimir Putin, Putin is in Tehran meeting with Khamenei. And in the midst of these meetings, Gates states that a new course in Iran's nuclear plans that might move its nuclear reprocessing requirements into Russia would curtail the need, possibly, for the US to deploy intermediate range missiles is Europe.

There has been fragile but real deal making going on -- and it is progress on this front that Larijani wanted to have the government announce -- but Ahmadinejad refused.

Toss in Olmert's lightning visit to Moscow and it looks like there's a lot of behind the scenes maneuvering taking place. The kind of maneuvering that makes Iran seem more like a prop being used by the big kids on the block to hammer out their arrangement than a tipping point in global power alignments.

One thing the past week does demonstrate very clearly, though, is that when Vladimir Putin gets pissed, people pay attention.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Monday, October 22, 2007

What's Good For The Goose

The point Matthew Yglesias is making here takes on added significance in light of recent suggestions that the pretext for an eventual attack on Iran might end up being a fabricated or provoked "hot incident" involving US and Iranian forces on the Iraq-Iran border. Having expressed his hope for a diplomatic resolution to the PKK problem, Yglesias drops this nugget:

That said, I do wonder what the apostles of "toughness" and willpower on the right will say about this. Don't they think that the Turks must cross the border in force and show the Kurds what's what? Won't weakness only invite further aggression?

Not according to Condoleeza Rice, who told Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdogan that "we do not believe unilateral cross-border operations are the best way to address this issue."

There are obvious differences between the PKK, which is not an official organ of the Kurdistan Regional Government, and Iran's Revolutionary Guards (although by some accounts the latter do operate with a certain autonomy vis a vis the Iranian government). Even so, it will be useful to recall our response to Turkey's anger and frustration should such an event take place.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Lonely American

I spent the evening going through some IAEA reports, UN Security Council resolutions and a timeline of Iran's uranium enrichment program to get a better sense of why I'm feeling so pessimistic about the direction the deepening US-Iran standoff is taking. The good news is that the reading helped me locate the source of my pessimism. The bad news is that it did nothing to alleviate it. The problem is that the actual uranium enrichment conflict, as significant as it is, is really functioning as a pretext for underlying strategic faultlines, both regional and global, that have far wider implications. Any diplomatic resolution of the crisis will depend on taking these faultlines into account, which doesn't seem like a very realistic possibility these days. And any non-diplomatic resolution of the crisis (ie. unilateral military strikes) will only exacerbate them, regardless of whether or not it successfully eliminates Iran's enrichment capacity.

To get a better sense of just what those underlying faultlines are, it helps to examine the Bush administration's two-track approach to the issue. The first track is essentially a political/legal remedy to the difficulties involved in enforcing nuclear non-proliferation, namely that there's nothing inherently illegal about developing nuclear weapons. The only response is to build a diplomatic coalition capable of defining the terms under which the Iranian program is non-compliant with existing treaties and agreements. This was accomplished through the UN Security Council resolution of July 2006 which, as a result of Iran's failure to allow IAEA inspectors more intrusive access to its nuclear facilities (the so-called Additional Protocol that Iran voluntarily signed in December 2003), demanded that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment activity. When the IAEA later reported neither inspections progress nor enrichment suspension in its reports of August 2006 and November 2006, the US and its EU allies had what they needed to secure the two UNSC resolutions that first imposed and then strengthened sanctions.

The limitations of this political/legal remedy are that, a) sanctions might not suffice to persuade Iran to renounce its nuclear program; b) the Bush administration has not demonstrated the necessary diplomatic savvy to assemble a strong coalition capable of really tightening the screws on Iran; and c) Iran has shown increasing willingness to comply with the IAEA's Additional Protocol, as demonstrated by the relatively upbeat report the Agency issued in August 2007. If the Iranians do, in fact, end up cooperating with the intrusive inspection regime, the legal foundation of the Bush administration's approach (ie. crippling UN sanctions) crumbles, while Iran's ability to eventually build nuclear weapons stays intact.

Which brings us to the second track of the Bush administration's approach, which is exemplified by the President's recent "World War Three" remarks and can best be described as an extra-legal approach to the nuclear non-proliferation regime. The Bush argument essentially boils down to a subjective and unilateral determination of just who will and who will not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. And it's this argument that brings into focus the strategic faultlines that spread out beneath the surface of this conflict in just about every direction. Because it's an argument that alienates small-to-middling regional powers who, whether they entertain nuclear ambitions or not, will identify with Iran's efforts to expand its sphere of influence. And it insults the sensibilities of major powers who have an interest in establishing these middling powers as their client states.

Take the Russians, for instance, who have got plenty of reasons ($1.2 million of them in the case of Iran's Bushehr reactor, to be exact) to refuse to grant the US an effective veto power over who they can and can't do business with. By increasingly aligning himself with Iran in this standoff, Putin is sending the message that he can and will make things difficult for Washington if it refuses to take Russia's interests into consideration. Behind the Russians, and basically echoing their annoyance, are the Chinese, and to a lesser extent, some of our EU allies. For the time being, Russia's posturing is mainly symbolic. They have yet to deliver the uranium fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor, and probably won't until Iran offers more oversight concessions to the international community. But that could change if the American position hardens into an even more obnoxious expression of the unilateralism that has already alienated so much of the world to date.

What's remarkable about the American position is that it's managed to crystallize so much international support for a prospect -- a nuclear Iran -- that otherwise doesn't play very well outside of Tehran. The reason being that given the choice between an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon and an America bingeing on unilateral military interventions, a significant portion of the globe would feel more comfortable with the former. We don't really know what the global balance of power will look like once a majority of nations identify their self-interest with opposing American interests. But we're sure to find out if we continue to strong-arm the Iran conflict towards a unilateral military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Clear Victories, Clear Defeats

I don't really know the inner workings of Iranian politics well enough to know whether Ali Larijani's resignation as chief nuclear negotiator is as bad as it seems. John Bolton called it "a clear victory for Ahmadinejad", which is reason enough for me to withhold judgment. Larijani always struck me as a tough and shrewd negotiator, almost more dangerous than Ahmadinejad in his ability to make the Iranian bargaining position sound very reasonable. (Of course, if you take away the assumption that the Iranians will use their nuclear fuel enrichment technology to achieve nuclear weapons capacity, as well as the assumption that the Iranians armed with a nuclear weapon will be an uncontainable menace to the regional and global balance of power, the Iranian bargaining position is pretty reasonable.)

Larijani's resignation will inevitably effect the negotiations, if only to slow them down for the time it takes for the new principals to feel out and take their measure of each other. And that, I'm afraid, is bad news. I'm increasingly pessimistic about where this standoff is heading. While Iran has skillfully built tactical partnerships to strengthen its position, the Bush administration's approach has alienated us from the international support we need to exert the kind of pressure that might make a difference in Iran's decision-making circles. It also appears to be hardening the opinions of Iran's decision-making circles.

Even worse, having painted itself into a corner with bellicose language and aggressive posturing, I don't see how the Bush administration can conceivably walk its negotiating line back without in effect losing face and appearing weak. That they were able to do it with North Korea is mainly due to the cover provided by the Six Party talks and the unified position of the Chinese and Russians. That isn't the case with Iran, and the stakes in that part of the world don't really allow for signs of weakness.

Which leaves us moving in one direction, the worst possible one in my opinion. I hope something changes to throw the switch. Unfortunately, I think time's running out for that to happen.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Astute Diplomatic Efforts

To get a sense of just why we urgently need to rethink our approach to dealing with Iran in general and its uranium enrichment program in particular, read Kaveh Afrasiabi 's two articles over at Asia Times Online: this one, which discusses the internal divisions within Iran on their uranium enrichment policy, and this one, which discusses this week's Caspian Sea regional summit. Here's a clip from the first article quoting Hassan Rowhani, Iran's former chief negotiator on the nuclear dossier:

Today in the international sphere we are confronted with more threats than ever before. A country's diplomacy is successful when it does not allow the enemy to bind to itself other countries against the national interests of that country ... We should not create opportunities for the expansion of enemies ... Unfortunately, our enemies are increasing. Yesterday, England was standing next to America, but today, France has heatedly joined the United States.

The problem, as Afrasiabi points out, is that Iran isn't actually doing that badly in the diplomatic arena:

...Rowhani's blistering criticisms coincided with a two-day visit by a high-ranking delegation from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), led by the Deputy Director-General, Olli Heinonen, who met with the Iranian officials and fine tuned the recent Iran-IAEA agreement pertaining to nuclear transparency and the timetable to resolve "outstanding questions" regarding the chronology of Iran's centrifuges.

Pointing to this agreement as well as the UN Security Council's inability to impose further sanctions in light of opposition by Russia and China, and Putin's much-anticipated planned visit to Tehran next week irrespective of the loud American objections to such a visit, Ahmadinejad's supporters have questioned the wisdom, let alone timing, of Rowhani's criticisms.

Now members of Ahmadinejad's parliamentary majority are calling for legal action against opposition members practicing "parallel diplomacy". In other words, Iran's diplomatic successes are making it easier to target opponents of Ahmadinejad's belligerent approach. And that was before this week's Caspian Region summit meeting, whose most significant outcome was a strengthening of the Russian-Iranian strategic re-alignment:

How did this summit come about? The answer is, first and foremost, by astute diplomatic efforts on Iran's part and, equally, by a strategic evolution of Russia's foreign policy that is no longer self-handicapped by prioritizing tactical or conjunctural interests above strategic ones.

Having reached this level, Moscow is now poised to enter into a new strategic relationship with Iran that will serve the geostrategic, security, and other shared interests of both nations...

A major achievement for Iran's diplomacy and particularly for Amadinejad's embattled foreign policy team, the "good news" summit will likely serve as the hinge that opens new breathing space for Iran's diplomacy, and not just toward the Caspian, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Iran's Persian Gulf policy is also bound to benefit from the improved image of Iran in the Middle East, making more attractive Iran's role as a corridor to Central Asia which the Arab world in general and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states in particular can take advantage of in their external trade and energy policies...

To summarize Afrasiabi's main points, there's been a pretty dramatic shift in momentum over the past few weeks on the Iranian nuclear standoff. France's adoption of the American hardline position backfired, alienating both Russia and China. Now Putin is pretty clearly throwing his weight behind Iran. He'll need to show that he can get some concessions from Tehran, ie. a reasonable bargaining position with the IAEA. But Iran has already shown signs of moving in that direction.

The big question now is whether American diplomacy can prove itself as shrewd and adaptive as Iranian diplomacy. And if you're wondering, no, I never thought I'd see the day where that question wasn't the punchline to a Monty Python sketch either. Worse still, having boxed itself into a militaristic corner, the Bush administration doesn't exactly inspire optimism on the answer.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putin & The Mullahs Redux

Matthew Yglesias is correct to argue that we ought to take Russia's relationship with Iran -- and its interest in deterring any strike on Iran's Russian-built nuclear energy program -- very seriously. But I'm not sure about his suggestion that Putin would just hand over the plans for a bomb or two in a fit of post-strike diplomatic pique. In fact, Russia's got plenty of reasons to consider the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran with something less than enthusiasm.

To begin with, while the Bush administration's claims that Iran might develop a missile capacity to reach the American mainland are preposterous, Russia could one day very conceivably find itself threatened by an Iranian nuclear weapon. More immediately, an Iranian bomb would likely set off a regional nuclear arms race. Given Russia's history with Islamic insurgents in Chechnya, the idea of widespread proliferation in the Muslim world is not a particularly comforting one.

So while Russia, and a good part of the world, will very likely be majorly ticked off should we go ahead and unilaterally bomb Iran's nuclear program, I don't think that will play out as the nuclear weapons equivalent of a food drive for Tehran. On the other hand, it will make cobbling together a longterm containment and deterrent strategy significantly more difficult.

Update: Both Josh Marshall and Andrew Sullivan have now signed on to Yglesias' interpretation of Putin's declaration. Odd. There are plenty of sound arguments against a unilateral strike against Iran. But to suggest that the Russians will hand over a nuclear weapon to Tehran in response to such an attack doesn't seem like one of them. The reason we did not have to disarm a nuclear Poland, Romania, Hungary, East Germany, etc. is because the Russians did not share their nuclear weapons technology with them. And those countries formed a regional strategic military alliance at the heart of Russian national defense doctrine for more than forty years. By contrast, Russia's bonds with Iran are based on short-term tactical considerations and economic interest, hardly the basis for a nuclear kiss. Putin's threat is a combination of posturing and a warning that he can make things difficult for us. That alone is plenty.

Update 2: Ezra Klein has now added some water to the Kool Aid before tossing it back. Guys, nobody just gives away nuclear weapons. Desperately isolated states (ie. North Korea) sell them, as do desperately greedy individuals (ie. AQ Khan). A uni-lateral strike against Iran will certainly make it more difficult to use diplomacy to stave off an eventual Iranian second push for nuclear capacity, thereby locking us into a cycle of military intervention. But no one's going to just hand over the atomic goody bag to Tehran just to get back at us.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Putin & The Mullahs

Next time you hear about Iran belonging to a global movement intent on "collapsing" western powers and installing a worldwide Islamic caliphate, keep this in mind. Putin's Russia, remember, is not only a secular regional power. It has also brutally suppressed an Islamic insurgency in Chechnya for the past decade. Yet that hasn't stopped him from establishing a pretty solid working relationship with the "irresponsible" and "unreliable" mullahs in Tehran.

America's conflict with Iran has everything to do with regional strategic interests, and very little to do with Islamic fanaticism. It's just easier (for both sides) to use the latter to mobilize the base.

Update: Click "Publish", find related article. From The Economist:

What did Iranís leaders see when they looked into Vladimir Putinís eyes? Apparently somebody to do business with. As outsiders watched carefully for signs of Russiaís intentions regarding Iranís nuclear programme, Mr Putin arrived in Tehran, Iranís capital, and appeared to show support for the countryís nuclear efforts. ďThe Iranians are co-operating with Russian nuclear agencies and the main objectives are peaceful objectivesĒ, he said.

The article goes on to identify Russia's reasons for not wanting to see a nuclear-armed Iran. But the takeaway is that twenty years after the revolution, the Iranians are businessmen at heart. The only thing that sustains the firebrands is a bellicose rival threatening their sovereignty.

Negotiating is only a sign of weakness if you are indeed weak (ie. Chamberlain in Munich). Not only does it do no harm to talk things over when you've got the strength to stand by your bargaining position. It also undermines the position of diehards on the other side of the table, whose power depends on demonizing you to their base.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Politics   Russia   

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

And Iran, Iran So Far Away?

Kevin Drum links to another NY Times story "clarifying" the Israeli airstrike against Syria last month. According to the emerging consensus on intelligence reports (or the latest leaker's agenda, take your pick), the target was an unfinished nuclear reactor resembling one used by North Korea in its weapons program. Questions remain as to whether the North Koreans were involved in either providing the plans or directing the construction. Opinion on how to respond was divided within the Bush administration, with the usual suspects (Rice, Gates) against an airstrike and the world's most feared quail hunter in favor of one. Kevin goes on to add:

The Times' sources also confirmed that the Syrian reactor was several years away from completion. The raid, according to one Israeli official, was meant primarily to "re-establish the credibility of our deterrent power."

Think about that for a second. A regional power whose image of military invincibility has recently taken a hit suggests bombing a nuclear program several years from completion in order to re-establish the credibility of its deterrent power. Cheney argues for, Rice & Gates argue against. Cheney wins. The bombs drop.

Sound like a dress rehearsal for anything?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Turkey's Options

Here's a pretty solid rundown of Turkey's options in response to PKK attacks. In a nutshell, the most effective leverage Turkey has over the Iraqi Kurds is economic, including electricity exports and crucial border crossings. The only military option with any hope of success would involve a closely coordinated effort between Turkey and Iran, and if possible the Iraqi Kurds.

Turkey is already conducting hot pursuit incursions into Iraqi territory with the tacit approval of the Iraqi Kurds, and the two recently signed a cooperation agreement to deal with the PKK problem. So there might be some more water left in that well. If not, don't be surprised to see this wedge issue drive Turkey into a tactical alliance with Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Turkey   

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Monday, October 8, 2007

Little Man On Campus

Back in high school, I had the privilege and good fortune to have taken two classes from the legendary New York social studies teacher and department head, E. Ira Marienhoff. Mr. Marienhoff was loved (and feared) by generations of NY high school students for his high standards, his disdain for intellectual laziness, and his aphorisms, of which he seemed to have both an endless supply and an endless capacity for repetition.

There was, of course, his beloved equine paradox, which noted that there are always more horse's asses than horses. And then there was his observation that even in the Soviet Union, everyone was guaranteed freedom of speech... once.

I thought of Mr. Marienhoff when I saw this NY Times article about university students protesting a speech by Iranian President Ahmadinejad. This is the second time the guy's been humiliated by students protesting his appointment of a cleric as head of the university, and for his repression of student dissidents.

That's not the kind of guy you bomb. It's the kind of guy you wait out.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Die Hard

Back in March 2003, while the Bush administration and most of the country was busy preparing for war with Iraq, Stanley Kurtz had the foresight to consider the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea. Here's what he predicted in a piece for The National Review Online:

...Once North Korea processes weapons-grade plutonium and removes it from Yongbyon, that plutonium will be effectively hidden from spy satellites, inspectors, and military strikes. At that point, North Korea will be free, not only to construct more nuclear weapons, but to sell weapons-grade nuclear material to al Qaeda, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and anyone else who will pay for it.

Continuation of this situation will be catastrophic for the United States. In the short term, North Korean sales of plutonium would lead to dirty bombs in American cities, rendering sections of Washington or New York uninhabitable for generations. In the medium term, plutonium sales will doubtless lead to full-scale nuclear blasts, set off by terrorists, in American cities. These will kill hundreds of thousands, even millions of Americans. Full-scale nuclear arms proliferation to rogue nations will also lead to yet more nuclear blackmail, of the type being practiced by Korea right now. In effect, America's conventional military might will be neutralized, and Saddam-like regional adventurers will become a constant threat. In short, if we overthrow Saddam, while still letting North Korea turn itself into a worldwide engine of nuclear proliferation, then we will have lost the war on terror.

Of course, North Korea proceeded to not only process its plutonium and remove it from the plant, but to successfully test a nuclear device. With the most catastrophic consequence (from the NRO's perspective, that is) being that negotiations over the shuttering of the Yongbyon plant have apparently progressed to the point that North Korea will soon be removed from official membership in the Axis of Evil (ie. the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism).

Now does this demonstrate that nuclear proliferation among rogue states is desirable? I suppose that depends on which side of the negotiating table you find yourself on. I, for one, am not too thrilled by the idea of a nuclear North Korea. Ditto for a nuclear Iran or Syria. (Same goes for Israel, the US, Russia, China, India, Pakistan et al, though I wouldn't put them in the same category, and I think their track records as nuclear powers demonstrate proven restraint in the face of provocations.) The North Koreans, of course, would probably see things differently.

What this does demonstrate, though, is that the assumption that possessing a nuclear weapon will automatically render hostile, rogue regimes recklessly and aggressively belligerent is unfounded. For all the caricatures of Kim Il-Jong as an erratic, laughable munchkin, the guy has played his hand skillfully to obtain exactly what he wanted. Which, it turns out, is not to dominate the world, or even Southeast Asia, but to simply secure his survival.

There's a lesson to be learned here, most obviously with regard to Iran, but also for re-inventing our nuclear non-proliferation strategy for the geopolitical landscape of the 21st century. Hollywood doomsday scenarios sell tickets at the box office. But solid diplomacy gets the job done in the real world.

Posted by Judah in:  Dear Leader   International Relations   Iran   

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Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Peacemakers

Here's a thought-provoking passage I found while surfing through the Time Magazine archives. It's from a March 1969 article describing Spiro Agnew's charm campaign to improve his image as a bumbling moron:

He told the Gridiron Club dinner that Nixon had urged him to get on TV interview shows, and had the White House staff schedule appearances. Said Agnew: "I'll be on Meet the Press, opposite the Army-Navy game; on Face the Nation opposite General de Gaulle's arrival at the White House; and on Issues and Answers opposite live coverage of Julie and David's surprise party for Ted Kennedy ó at the ranch." But Nixon also promised him, he said, "that when he's ready to recognize Red China, he'll let me announce it." (Emphasis added.)

The self-deprecating gag being that in March of 1969, the idea that Richard Nixon might one day recognize Red China was so farfetched that he could safely promise the announcement to his incompetent veep. Of course, in hindsight, the irony is that reality is sometimes more optimistic than our assumptions about it.

I don't know why, but I've recently had a recurring vision of President Bush touching down in Tehran, firmly, proudly, courageously. Talk about stealing Ahmadinejad's propaganda thunder. I've also wondered what the history of the last four years might look like if he had flown into Baghdad to confront Saddam Hussein personally, instead of sending in a hail of cruise missiles to do it for him.

The argument goes that meeting with our enemies legitimizes them, and demonstrates weakness. But has anyone ever looked at the pictures of Nixon in China without marvelling at the sheer improbability of it all? Or seen the images of Sadat in Jerusalem without a chill running down their spine?

In this moment when the collective imagination seems to be preoccupied with rumors of another ill-conceived war, I'd like to think that reality still has the capacity to outstrip our lowered expectations. It's been said that President Bush is obsessed with leaving his mark on history. He'd do well to consider that while history certainly remembers the men who wage war, it cherishes the peacemakers.

A dream? Maybe. But as the man said, "If you don't have dreams, Bagel, you got nightmares." Here's hoping.

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Nothing From Nothing

So two days after complaining that the sexy story (Iran) has been distracting folks from a perhaps more significant one (Turkey), I've spent most of the morning chewing over some of the talking points bouncing around out there about... Iran. I know. Sue me.

Specifically I've been thinking about the question of whether we could live with a nuclear-armed Iran. And one of the major arguments given for why we can't is that a nuclear-armed Iran would become emboldened to use its conventionally-armed proxies to advance its regional interests. In other words, we might be able to deter Iran's nuclear threat (a point former French President Jacques Chirac made this past spring, before hastily retracting the comment the following day). But we would no longer be able to deter Iran's conventional threat.

The problem is, we're already unable to deter Iran's conventional threat. I don't think anyone can accuse the Israelis of having held back last summer in their response to Hizbollah's provocation. And yet it did nothing to weaken Iran's support of Hizbollah, which began re-arming almost immediately upon the cessation of hostilities.

As we speak, we've got 160,000 troops on one side of Iran, 20,000 on another, and two carrier groups on a third, all of them backed up with a not-so-very-subtle threat to bomb Iran back into the stone age unless it renounces its uranium enrichment program. And Iran's response, if you believe the Bush administration, has been to play an even more active role in supporting the Iraqi insurgency.

Don't get me wrong. A nuclear-armed Iran presents a whole host of complications, not least of which is the risk of nuclear proliferation throughout the Middle East. I just don't see how it really changes the conventional balance of power, except insofar as it makes the US-Israeli worse-case option (ie. regime change) unacceptably costly.

If we were steadily rolling back Iranian influence throughout the region, this would strike me as a compelling argument. But until then, the danger is that we'll lose something we don't actually have.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Dog, Old Tricks

Ezra Klein links to a Rick Perlstein piece describing Ike's reception of Nikita Krushchev in September 1959. The conclusion they both draw is that this week's controversy over how to receive Iran's President Ahmadinejad reveals a diminished America, lacking confidence in its ability to defeat its adversaries on the merits.

While Krushchev's regal tour (which was more than anything else an elaborate stage production) certainly stands in contrast with the treatment Ahamdinejad received this week, there is another distinction to be made between the two. Krushchev represented a country that, in addition to being a sworn enemy with the capacity to annihilate us, we recognized diplomatically. And he was on an official state visit. Ahmadinejad, on the other hand, represents a country that we do not formally recognize. And he was on a visit to the UN.

Fortunately, there is a better comparison to be made from 1959, when a young, charismatic leader hostile to American interests (though posing no existential threat) also visited the United States. His name? Fidel Castro:

Fidel's first trip to the United States (on April 15, 1959) demonstrated his intelligence. He neither requested nor accepted the classical official invitation; rather, he had himself invited by the press, the Press Club...

...He never lost his temper, always kept his good humor. And he visited progressive universities, liberal organizations, the zoo, Yankee Stadium; he ate hot dogs and hamburgers, and tried to make a media splash.

...Fidel was a hit.

...And in Washington the prevailing atmosphere was pure disdain. One incident typifies the entire scene. Someone came into the room where the delegation was waiting and was announced as "Mister So-and-so, in charge of Cuban affairs." To this Fidel could only reply, "And I thought I was in charge of Cuban affairs."

Now, granted, the United States and Cuba didn't formally end diplomatic ties until January 1961. But I still think this is the more appropriate comparison. The controversy over Ahmadinejad's visit reflects not so much a novel failure of American nerve as it does a traditional failure of American diplomacy. Namely, to enhance the status of petty goons by treating them as mortal threats, while at the same time proving unable to defeat them in the war of images.

Ahmadinejad is the latest in a long line of inflated nemeses (one that includes Saddam Hussein and Hugo Chavez, but not Nikita Krushchev). The answer isn't to roll out the red carpet for these guys. It's to reveal them for the frauds they are. I think Ezra and I are probably in agreement that the best way to do that is to engage and challenge them. I just wouldn't exagerrate the psychological significance of our failure to do so.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Canary In The Mine

This post isn't really inspired by any single major news item as much as by a whole slew of smaller ones. The thought was triggered by a blurb about Turkey opening its yearly fall offensive against the PKK a month earlier than normal this year, gathered steam with the news that Blackwater (or two of its employees) are the subject of an FBI investigation for illegally smuggling weapons to the PKK in Iraq, and culminated in an article about the US urging Turkey to find alternatives sources of natural gas instead of developing Iranian reserves as planned.

And the thought is that somehow, in pursuing a generation-defining war against Islamic extremism, we've managed to push the one democratic, secular, dependable Islamic ally we have in the region into the arms of our worst enemies.

Iran is a sexy story right now, and rightfully so. But when the dust of history settles on the Iraq War, I'm not sure that the unleashing of Iran will rate as its most significant adverse outcome. That honor might very well go to the deterioration of the American-Turkish strategic alliance. Because unlike Iraq or Iran, which we never really stood a chance of winning over, Turkey was already on our side. And we're in the process of losing it, at the very moment when religious Muslims have begun to dominate the Turkish political scene.

For the time being, the Turkish military and cultural elites serve as guarantors of secularism. But if Turkey ever does wind up sliding into theocracy, it will be a major strategic setback for American regional interests. And it will be in many ways traceable to bi-lateral tensions caused by our intervention in Iraq.

Iran is important. But the future of Turkey, it seems to me, will determine the future of the region.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Silence Is Deafening

The web's been abuzz with speculation about what actually happened in Syria last week. So far, what's actually known is that Syria announced that it had fired on Israeli warplanes that had violated its airspace. Turkey later announced that it had recovered fuel tanks of the type Israeli fighter jets use on its border with Syria, and very mildly protested about the Israeli violation of its airspace.

The rest is really speculation, because Israel has neither denied or confirmed the raid, and the only people who have commented on it have been "unnamed American officials" who at first suggested the target had been Iranian arms shipments transiting Syria for delivery to Hezbollah, and later tried to grow legs on a Syrian-Korean nuclear link story. The latter angle was picked up by the so-called "responsible" press, suddenly unable to resist a sensational story.

But this story's significance, as Ilene Prusher of the CS Monitor points out, lies not in what happened, but in what didn't happen. Namely, a rousing condemnation of the Israeli provocation. Not only has no one forcefully reprimanded them (aside from the Syrians), there's almost been a tacit sigh of relief.

My initial reaction to the story last week, before the Syrian nuclear installation got tagged onto it, was that the Israelis were conducting a dry run to smoke out Syrian air defences for an eventual raid on Iran's uranium enrichment facilities. And this map that accompanies the CSM article seems to bear out that hypothesis. Continue along that trajectory and before long you're in Isfahan and Natanz. In other words, the heart of the Iranian nuclear program.

Whether or not that's the case, though, I think Prusher's spot on in her conclusion. Israel sent the entire region, but especially the Iranians, a message, and it was willing to jeopardize any chance of peace talks with the Syrians to do so. The message? It can do what it pleases. And it can do it with impunity.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   The Middle East   

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Thursday, September 6, 2007

Dry Run?

The Syrian state news agency is reporting that Israeli warplanes penetrated into Syrian airspace, "...coming from the Mediterranean heading towards the eastern-northern region (sic)..." The planes were allegedly chased off by Syrian air defenses. Israel has refused comment on the matter.

Now if you look at this map (links removed) of the Middle East, and this map of Iranian nuclear facilities, it's clear that northeastern Syria is the quickest way for Israeli planes to reach potential targets in Iran (assuming that for political reasons, Jordan would refuse a flight path over its territory).

Is it that far a stretch to wonder if the Israeli airforce was trying to smoke out the Syrian air defenses to better plan an eventual bombing run? Or at least that they'd like the Iranians to think that?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   The Middle East   

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Bully Pulpit

Another thing that occured to me while reading Getting to YES, the basic primer on negotiation, was the Bush administration's emphasis on what Fisher and Ury call positional negotiation. This is where one side locks itself into a firm position and either refuses to budge or is willing to do so only incrementally. The classic example is a buyer and seller haggling over a price, with the buyer starting low and the seller starting high. Either they meet somewhere in the middle or not at all. But the entire process essentially becomes a battle of wills.

They contrast that with principled negotiation, by which they mean not only determining one's negotiating position as a function of one's interests, but trying to understand the other party's interests in order to find creative ways to sweeten the deal for them. This could take the form of a buyer offering a lower price, but agreeing to forego delivery. Or a seller asking for a higher price, but guaranteeing the product. When interests determine bargaining positions, instead of a battle of wills, the negotiation becomes a cooperative effort to find the most mutually beneficial deal.

I think it's fairly obvious that the Bush administration's negotiating style is a pretty hard-nosed game of positional bargaining with a strong emphasis on "take-it-or-leave it" as their opening offer. And this whether they're dealing with the Kyoto Accords, Saddam Hussein, the Iranians, or Congressional Democrats. With the exception of the N. Korean settlement, the Bush administration has made it clear that they like their chances in the event that negotiations fail (what the authors call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). Which is to say, they're willing to duke it out if they don't get what they want, be it in the courts or on the battlefield.

It's essentially an intimidation tactic designed to weaken the will of the folks across the table from them. And according to Fisher and Ury, both experts on negotiation and conflict resolution, it's not as efficient a negotiating method as one based on identifying interests and developing new options for advancing them. Why? Because it often results in "leaving money on the table", negotiators' jargon for mutual benefits that would have come at no cost to either party but which don't make it into the final agreement.

Now just to be clear, there are cases where I think in retrospect that the Bush administration correctly walked away from negotiations. Those with the Taliban preceding the invasion of Afghanistan, for example, where the non-negotiated outcome (had we not prematurely redeployed our resources to Iraq) would have left us in a better position than anything we might have come up with at the negotiating table. [Although it's important to remember that at the time, it appeared to many as if the administration was not paying enough attention to the Russians' Afghan adventure in its contingency planning. In other words, that it was over-estimating its BATNA.]

The Iraq War, as I said yesterday, is not one of those cases. Because while it's clear that Saddam Hussein paid a pretty high price for over-estimating his BATNA, it's equally clear that we did, too. I think the same can be said for walking away from the Kyoto Accords which, while it might not get a lot of domestic play, caused a great deal of resentment abroad. Resentment that, after a brief moment of post-9/11 solidarity, was quick to resurface during the run-up to the Iraq War. The applause that greeted Dominique de Villepin's UN Security Council speech did not occur in a historical vacuum, in other words. And that primed pump of anti-Americanism was one of the uncalculated costs of our previous positional approach.

As I also said yesterday, it looks like the Bush administration has every intention of repeating the same error in its approach to the Iranian dossier. Pre-conditions, threats and public finger-pointing are all hallmarks of rigid positional negotiations. In the case of Iran, which must feel pretty secure in its own BATNA right now, they are also ways of ensuring that no progress will be made.

I'll work up what I think an interest-based, principled negotiation framework between Iran and the US might look like tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Best Alternative

Iíve just finished reading Roger Fisherís and William Uryís classic on the art of negotiating, Getting To YES. Originally published in 1981, with a second edition released in 1991 (Iím sure there have been other editions since, but thatís the one I picked off my Dadís shelf in New York), itís as relevant today as it was then.

What I found particularly timely was the discussion of whether to negotiate with terrorists or tyrants. According to the authors, it depends on what they call the BATNA, or Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. Thatís the best possible scenario you could come up with if negotiations either fail or donít take place:

Even with someone like Hitler or Stalin, we should negotiate if negotiation holds the promise of achieving an outcome that, all things considered, meets our interests better than our BATNA. When a war does occur, in many cases it is a move within a negotiation. The violence is intended to change the other sideís BATNA, or their perception of it, so that they will more readily agree to our terms for peace.

Then thereís this :

Governments often make the mistake of assuming that they have a better BATNA than they do Ė for example, when they imply that if "political" and "economic" means fail in a given situation, then there is always the "military option." There is not always a viable military optionÖ

Donít assume you have a BATNA better than negotiating, or that you donít. Think it through. Then decide whether negotiating makes sense. (Emphasis in original.)

I think that captures in a nutshell the mistakes made by the Bush administration, both in invading Iraq and in refusing to negotiate with Iran: It has consistently over-estimated its (our) BATNA.

Experience has shown that the threat of military force to reach a negotiated inspection regime would have been a far more efficient means of containing Saddam Husseinís weapons program (in terms of cost in blood, treasure and regional influence) than the actual use of it has been.

So why didnít we do some last-minute negotiating when our forces were massed on the Kuwait border? Partly because Saddam Hussein had a track record of being an unreliable negotiating partner. But mainly because the Bush administration wildly over-estimated our BATNA. Not in forecasting a quick and decisive military victory (which I donít think anyone doubted), but in ignoring the ease with which our various well-wishers in the area could (and would) spoil the party afterwards.

All of this takes on even more relevance in light of the Bush administrationís refusal to negotiate directly with the Iranians over their uranium enrichment program (the authors consider that setting pre-conditions to negotiations, such as freezing the uranium enrichment process, is tantamount to refusing to negotiate), as well as its refusal to ďtake the military option off the tableĒ.

Both of these tactics are designed to make the Iranians re-consider (ie. downgrade) their BATNA, thereby making negotiations more attractive and concessions more palatable. But they also reflect the Bush administrationís current best thinking on our own. Namely, that in the absence of the Iranians completely caving in on what they correctly consider to be a sovereign right (which is an exceedingly remote possibility, to say the least), we stand a better chance of containing Iranís regional influence (because thatís what this boils down to) through military means than through negotiations.

On the face of it, that seems like a pretty obvious miscalculation. To begin with, the chances of completely crippling the Iranian enrichment program, as the Israelis did to Saddam Hussein's Osiraq reactor in 1981, are pretty slim. At best, we can set it back a bit, but that seems likely to provoke a wider conflict and possibly even all-out war. Again, the danger isn't a defeat at the hands of the Iranian army but the aftermath: A longterm, low-intensity bloodletting with periodic flare-ups that will require an American military commitment for the foreseeable future. Cue the draft, followed not long after by an angry American public and an eventual withdrawal. Like it or not, America is not ancient Sparta, and outside of Hollywood blockbusters, Americans don't have a taste for blood. Contrary to what Dick Cheney thinks, that's a good thing.

Which leaves us with engagement and mutual accomodation. Because despite the neocon tactic of equating any negotiations at all with the Munich Accords (ie. appeasement), effective negotiations allow both sides to maximize benefits and minimize costs. The obvious shortcoming of the Munich comparison is that it assumes that all of our regional rivals/enemies will be negotiating in as bad faith as Hitler was, and that we will be negotiating from as weak a position as Chamberlain was. But the Iranians have actually proven to be pretty reliable negotiating partners, and we're nowhere near as hamstrung as Chamberlain was in 1936, even if the Iraq fiasco has greatly weakened our bargaining position.

Iíll have more on the Bush administrationís emphasis on positional, as opposed to principled, negotiation -- and how this, too, has contributed to its sterling foreign policy record -- tomorrow.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Inventing New Options

I already popped this into the "Must Read" link-box, but I can't over-emphasize how much it really deserves a look. And not just because it basically arrives at the same conclusion I did seven months ago. It's about the clearest strategic analysis of what's now at stake in Iraq that I've seen to date. It also does a good job of identifying the weaknesses of the three major proposals now on the table in order to come up with a viable fourth option. Give it a look. And drop any comments you have here. I'm curious to hear what people think of this.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Options On The Table

With the Bush administration planning to declare the Iranian Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization, and with the US military increasingly singling out Iran as the principle troublemaker in Iraq, it would be easy to mistake the US-Iran conflict for a one-on-one affair. Of course, that would be to ignore the other players involved, most immediately Israel and the Arab states of the Middle East, all of whom have vested interests in the containment of Iran's regional ambitions.

But there are wider, non-regional interests at stake, and it should come as no surprise that these hinge upon energy considerations. Take, for example, the recent deal signed between Iran and Turkey to construct a pipeline to provide natural gas to the European market. At a time when the US is desperately trying to isolate Iran, American strategic goals run headlong into those of our allies. Namely, the need for the EU to diversify its energy suppliers, thereby reducing its dependence on Russian natural gas. So at a time when we should be consolidating our alliances and trying to weaken those of Iran, our policies run the risk of doing just the opposite.

The problem with the Bush administration hawks who want to confront Iran militarily isn't whether they're right or wrong on the merits of their case against Tehran. (Iran's intentions are impossible to know for sure, and even less possible to predict into the future.) It's whether they've realistically assessed the potential for success.

Munich, 1936 has become the common refrain for those advocating an attack. But while Chamberlain need not have left those meetings with a worthless agreement, no more could he have realistically confronted Hitler's aggression militarily at that time. In other words, a military option with no realistic chance of success is not a real option.

On the other hand, the Iranian-Turkish natural gas pipeline could easily serve as a wedge to weaken Russia's support of the Iranian nuclear energy program. In response to the deal, Russia has already announced that it won't supply any gas to Turkey beyond the amount they've contracted for, as they did just last winter. With Iranian gas production lagging far behind their reserves, that could leave Turkey -- and Europe -- feeling this winter's bite. And that's an option that might prove more effective than any military strike.

Posted by Judah in:  European Union   Foreign Policy   Iran   Russia   

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Just What Would We Be Preventing?

Quick. Which one of these two sentences makes you more nervous?

1) The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's uranium enrichment program.
2) The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's nuclear program.

I'll bet you picked no. 2. But whichever one you picked, I'll bet this one gets you even more scared: The West might just have to learn to live with Iran's nuclear ambitions.

To explain, I first started thinking about the significance of how we describe the standoff over Iran's efforts to aquire uranium enrichment capacity yesterday while writing up the Le Figaro interview with Shimon Peres. At first I used "uranium enrichment program", but went back and changed it to "nuclear program". Primarily because that was the expression used in the original French, but also because it struck me as odd to discuss sanctions with regard to an uranium enrichment program, since there's absolutely nothing illegal or prohibited about Iran developing the capacity to enrich uranium.

I started thinking about it even more last night while reading Colin Gray's monograph on Preventive War for the Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute. It's a fascinating read for anyone who's found themselves wondering about just what kind of role unilateral preventive military force should play in our counter-proliferation doctrine.

The article is so chock full of quotes that I was tempted to just lift the entire thing and clip it into a post last night. But to stick to the most salient arguments, Gray begins by specifying the difference between pre-emptive war (a first strike in anticipation of an already ordered or launched attack) and preventive war (a first strike in anticipation of a potential future threat, whether of attack or a less advantageous balance of power).

Despite a confusion in terms in the policy debates of the last four years, the Bush Doctrine actually emphasizes preventive intervention in the face of proliferation threats. But the lengthened time component inherent in a preventive strike leads to a greater margin for error:

...preventive action has to entail striking on the basis of guesswork about more or less distant threats. And threats, of course, are a matter of guesses about capabilities times political intentions. Capabilities can be predicted with some, one must commit only to some, confidence, but political intentions can alter overnight. (p. 17)

Gray then adds a third category, with an even longer temporal component, which he calls "precautionary war":

...a precautionary war is a preventive war waged not on the basis of any noteworthy evidence of ill intent or dangerous capabilities, but rather because those unwelcome phenomena might appear in the future. A precautionary war is a war waged "just in case," on the basis of the principle, "better safe than sorry." (p. 15)

I think it's clear that a military strike against Iran would not qualify as a pre-emptive war. The question remains whether it would be a preventive or a precautionary one. The answer, of course, depends on what motives one ascribes not only to the Iranian nuclear program (ie. civilian or military use), but also to a nuclear-armed Iranian regime (ie. aggressive or deterrent intent).

Certainly, an Iranian state in possession of a nuclear deterrent becomes much more difficult to manage. But does it necessarily become a threat? Or would we be attacking it "just in case"? Again, Gray:

Most powerful strategic ideas are attended by potential pathologies. In the case of preventive war, a leading malady inseparable from it is a quest for absolute security. After all, a policy of preventive war amounts to an unwillingness to live with certain kinds of risk. (pp. 12-13)

In other words, Iran's "nuclear ambitions", whatever they are as of today and however they may evolve with time, present the risk of a threat. Are we willing to live with that risk? I think it's a valid position to declare that, No, we can't afford even the risk of such a threat. But that means we run other risks:

...the military option cannot offer a guarantee of complete success, and incomplete success might amount to failure. Preventive war, though practicable in some cases, cannot prudently be viewed as a “silver bullet,” as a panacea. It is not certain to be swift, decisively victorious, and definitive in positive consequences. (p. 40)

The fundamental calculation for any American or American-sponsored strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, then, has to weigh the likelihood for success against the likely consequences of a strike, whether successful or not. Frankly, I'm pessimistic about that calculation. Iran's got a pretty solid range of military and/or terrorist parries, and that's not even counting third parties like Russia deciding that now's as good a time as any to challenge American hegemony:

History shows that the anticipation of major shifts in the military dimension of the balance of power can be periods of acute peril. Other states may well reason “now or never.” Certainly they will consider the argument that since war in the future is judged highly probable, the sooner it is launched, the better. (p. 38)

America is clearly at a relative lowpoint in terms of both our international influence and our ability to militarily project our power. Yet our ambitions, at least as expressed by the Bush Doctrine, remain grandiose:

Obviously, the concept, perhaps the principle, of preventive military action, is open to abuse. An aggressive imperial or hegemonic power could wage a series of wars, all for the purpose of preventing the emergence of future challenges to its burgeoning imperium. (p. 28)

Russia and China both realize that, and it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that they, too, might be tempted to check American overreach now, while we're hamstrung, rather than later, once we've recovered.

Which means that the potential risks of even a successful attack (Iranian reprisal, both direct and by proxy, with possible support from Russia and China) seem to far outweigh the risks of an Iranian regime capable only (for the time being) of enriching uranium.

Here's Gray's checklist for assessing a potential preventive strike:

  • Force must be the last resort, not temporally, but with respect to the evidence-based conviction that the nonmilitary instruments of policy cannot succeed.
  • There must be persuasive arguments to the effect that the conditions to be forcibly prevented would be too dangerous to tolerate.
  • The benefits of preventive military action must be expected to be far greater than the costs.
  • There must be a high probability of military success. The U.S. preventor would be risking its invaluable reputation, after all.
  • There should be some multinational support for the preventive action; indeed the more, the better. However, the absence of blessing by the world community cannot be permitted to function politically as a veto. (p. 52)

I don't think a strike against Iran meets any of these pre-requisites, and it certainly doesn't make sense in the timeframe now available to the Bush administration. Unfortunately, my gut feeling is that the Cheney Gang is motivated by another agenda altogether: endorse a doctrine of preemption-meaning-prevention is to challenge the slow and erratic, but nevertheless genuine, growth of a global norm that regards the resort to war as an extraordinary and even desperate measure. A policy that favors military prevention proclaims that it is acceptable to decide coolly and in good time that war is preferable to the conditions predicted for “peace.” (p. 44)

Should they succeed in forcing an American strike on Iran, I'm convinced that it will result in America being placed on a permanent wartime footing for many years to come. And that strikes me as a greater threat to this country than a nuclear-armed Iran.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Robbing Peter To Pay Paul

What happens when Sarkozy the Hardliner faces off against Sarkozy the Protectionist? The answer might go a long way towards revealing just how reliable an ally to America's neocon agenda Sarkozy's France will prove to be.

In this corner, Sarkozy the Hardliner, who via the Foreign Ministry announced that France supports tough new UN sanctions against Iran. In this corner, TotalFinaElf, France's quasi-national oil company that just announced it intends to increase its investment in Iran's energy sector.

Granted, Sarkozy doesn't actually control Total. As this brief corporate history points out, the French government divested 4% of its holdings in 1996, leaving it with only a 1% share in the company. But as recently as 1992, it held a 32% interest, and Total qualifies as one of the crown jewels of French industry.

So will Sarkozy have something to say about Total's courtship of Iran's oil mullahs? Stay tuned...

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   Markets & Finance   

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Friday, July 20, 2007

Spy vs. Spy, Redux

If you like spy novels, click through and read this fascinating analysis of the state of play between American and Iranian intelligence operations, in light of Iran's recent string of arrests of Iranian-American academics and journalists. The author, Mahan Abedin, cautions against assuming the innocence of the arrested academics. But then he explains exactly how it's also possible that they'd been recruited by the CIA without even knowing it, through innocuous "consultancy" outfits set up in the West. Either way, it looks like I wasn't that far off the mark.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

That's Cold

Keep your eye on this one. Yesterday, President Bush issued an Executive Order authorizing the Treasury Dept. to freeze the assets of anyone "threatening the peace or stability of Iraq or the Government of Iraq". My hunch is that it's a way to target Iranian assets. But then again it also targets anyone...

...undermining efforts to promote economic reconstruction and political reform in Iraq or to provide humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people;

So I suppose they could be going after Halliburton, too.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Cultural Onslaught

In response to Kuma War's Assault On Iran video game, where players carry out an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, an Iranian student group has introduced a new video game called Rescue The Nuke Scientist. (I'm thinking there's a "lost in translation" thing going on with the title here.)

Players must rescue an Iranian husband-and-wife team of nuclear engineers who have been kidnapped while on a religious pilgrimage to Iraq and spirited off to Israel. According to the group (the same outfit responsible for the 2005 "World Without Zionism" conference where Ahmadinejad called for Israel to be "wiped off the map"), "This is our defence against the enemy's cultural onslaught."

At the risk of taking this sort of lunacy too seriously, what's interesting about the two games is the stark contrast in their psychological profiles. Here's the description of the American player's mission:

As a Special Forces soldier in this playable mission, you will infiltrate Iran's nuclear facility at Natanz, located 150 miles south of Iran's capital of Teheran. But breaching the security cordon around the hardened target won't be easy. Your team's mission: Infiltrate the base, secure evidence of illegal uranium enrichment, rescue your man on the inside, and destroy the centrifuges that promise to take Iran into the nuclear age. Never before has so much hung in the balance... millions of lives, and the very future of democracy could be at stake.

Here's the Iranian mission:

Game players take on the role of Iranian security forces carrying out a mission code-named "The Special Operation", which involves penetrating fortified locations to free the nuclear scientists, who are moved from Iraq to Israel.

To complete the game successfully, players have to enter Israel to rescue the nuclear scientists, kill US and Israeli troops and seize their laptops containing secret information.

It's hard to miss the sense of victimhood and narrow national pride that drives the Iranian mission, as opposed to the heroic grandiosity of the American one. And just as I was about to type out, Not exactly the profile of an aggressive expansionist state, it occured to me that a sense of victimhood and national pride are in fact exactly the profile of quite a few aggressive expansionist states. 

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Say What?   

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Monday, July 2, 2007

Corporal Cutten Paste

I've mentioned before how the US Army's official news page carries a sidebar with links to often-critical coverage of the US Army. I'm not sure if this is official policy, or if it's just the result of some malcontent HTML programmer buried deep in the bowels of the Pentagon. I prefer to think of it as the latter, even if it is unlikely that he or she would go unnoticed for this long.

At any rate, my favorite Army programmer just outdid himself, by linking to this story about the deteriorating mental health of American GI's over at Press TV. In case you're unfamiliar with Press TV, it's the brand-new, 24-hour news service launched today by... the Iranian government. (Among their other breaking stories is one about the US decision to dust off a plan to deploy NATO forces in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.)

In all seriousness, though, I wonder if the army could find a way to be less heavy-handed in terms of media management, without necessarily broadcasting the enemy's propaganda.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Reality Principle

He doesn't quite formulate it this way, but it's reasonable to conclude from Gawdat Bahgat's article in the latest issue of Parameters that the price of stability in the Persian Gulf and Middle East is an acceptance of Iran's recent strategic gains and enhanced influence in the region.

Now, this makes a lot of sense to me as a policy prescription, but also as an insight into why the Bush administration Iran hawks are so deadset against diplomatic engagement. Because the last thing they want is to concede the shift in strategic advantage that has taken place in the region over the last four years. What's odd about that, though, is that Iran's recent strategic gains and it's enhanced regional influence are both very real. Refusing to concede them is simply a state of denial.

What's also obvious to anyone who's been paying attention is that brandishing the military option, far from being a sign of American strength, is a testament to the weakness of our current position. After the invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranians came to us with offers on the table because they feared the combined threat of American military capability backed by the legitimacy of global support. If they are playing hardball now, it's because they've accurately assessed that their relative position has been greatly strengthened, and ours weakened, by the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and southern Lebanon.

The refusal to accept that the regional balance of power has shifted is not surprising, given the logic that underlies the neocon vision: America should defend its global hegemony by preventing its geopolitical rivals from developing into threats. It's an inherently comforting vision, suitable for a static world where we do in fact control all the outcomes. Accepting reality, though, works better for the world we actually live in.

Reality now demands that we choose between another five years of high-intensity warfare followed by twenty to forty years of massive garrisons in the region -- with no real guarantee that we'll achieve our goals and a certainty that even if we do, China will have taken full advantage of our folly to leapfrog us as global superpower -- or else reaching an accomodation with Iran.

That accomodation doesn't necessarily have to be a friendly one. It might even be based on the US serving as guarantor -- in the form of offshore, sub-launched nuclear warheads -- of a regional "mutually assured destruction" deterrant. But it's our best option for preserving our longterm strategic interests both in the region and the world.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

High Five

Apparently former Iranian President Mohammed Khatami would do well to get one of those temporary marriages before he goes on his next diplomatic visit. He was just criticized in the Iranian press for shaking hands with women and girls on his latest trip to Italy. The paper, one of Iran's most conservative, refused to name the internet site where the photos were seen " avoid propagating corruption in society."

That's a relief. But I wonder... Would wearing gloves make a difference? 

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Just The Three Of Us

According to this article in The New Anatolian, Turkey has begun coordinating its military response to PKK attacks, including shelling of PKK positions inside Iraqi territory, with Iran. That might explain the end of the "See no evil, hear no evil" approach on the part of the Iraqi government, which presented a diplomatic letter of protest to the Turkish ambassador in response to this weekend's artillary barrage, which some military analysts say could only have been carried out from Iranian, and not Turkish, positions. Counter-intuitively, the protest might actually be a good sign, a way for the US and Iraq to signal to Turkey that they're willing to play hardball against the PKK now, so long as the Iranians aren't involved.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Turkey   

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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Iran's Iraq Strategy, And Ours

It's already clear that the War in Iraq has been a boon to the shortterm strategic interests of our two most prominent adversaries in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, al-Qaeda and Iran. As for the former, its Iraqi operations aren't likely to outlast our presence over there by very long. All indications are that they have already begun to wear out their welcome. Even if they do manage to maintain some sort of staging area in the shadows of an eventual failed state, their goal of installing a fundamentalist Sunni theocracy in Shiite-dominated Iraq doesn't stand a snowball's chance in hell.

But what about Iran? Assuming that our rivalry with them will play a determinant role in regional geopolitics in the near future, and assuming that Iranian influence is essentially destabilizing and should be contained (both reasonable assumptions, in my opinion), their strategic goal in a post-occupation Iraq -- and Afghanistan -- is a question of vital importance. And yet, it's increasingly clear that it's a question that America's war planners don't have an answer for.

For good reason. The Iranian position in a post-occupation Iraq is far from certain. It's a mistake to assume that because Iraq is Shiite-dominated, Iran's influence is guaranteed. Of the two major Shiite blocks engaged in a power struggle verging on a civil war in the South, one of them, the Sadrists, are openly hostile to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. The other, SIIC (formerly SCIRI) while heavily supported by the Iranians, has increasingly begun to align itself with Ayatollah al-Sistani, the powerful Najaf cleric who also opposes Iranian interference.

Here's how Lt. Gen. Petraeus put it in an Army Times interview last week:

As to the Iranians’ strategic goal in Iraq, Petraeus said he isn’t sure whether the Iranians themselves know for certain.

“They have to be a tiny bit conflicted,” he said. “They can’t want a failed state. This is a Shi’a democracy [and] the first Arab Shi’a-run state. They can’t want it to fail, even though they are Persian. They certainly suffered greatly at the hands of Iraq. But with the kinship and the relationships they have with so many of the Iraqi leaders, they can’t want it to completely fail.”

On the other hand, as long as American troops remain in Iraq, ie. as long as Iraq remains exclusively our problem, Iran has a clear tactical interest in prolonging the violence. Again, Petraeus:

“They don’t want us to succeed, certainly,” he said. The Iranians would prefer that the U.S. be “seized” with the war in Iraq, perhaps to divert American attention from Iran’s nuclear ambitions or its activities in the northern Arabian Gulf, he added.

The same logic holds true true in Afghanistan. According to McClatchy, despite their quiet support of the invasion that rid them of their sworn enemies, the Taliban, as well as close ties with the Karzai government, the Iranians have recently begun funneling weapons to the Taliban insurgents in the southern province of Helmand:

Iran, they said, appears to be sending a warning that it can raise the cost to the United States and its allies in Afghanistan and elsewhere if the Bush administration continues pressing Iran to halt its suspected nuclear-weapons program and its support for Shiite militias in Iraq and radical groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and elsewhere.

"They do want to bleed the United States and its allies," said a U.S. intelligence official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "What you are seeing now is potentially only a small taste of what could be done."

Take away our presence, however, and Iran's tactical interests melt away, while its strategic dilemma becomes all too clear. Faced with the possibility of being surrounded by failed states on both sides, Iran would have little choice but to accept that for the time being, their regional interests actually converge with our own, ie. some sort of power-sharing arrangement in Iraq, and a strong central government in Afghanistan.

Just another example of how our presence in Iraq stands in the way of the goals we're trying to achieve there.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Spy vs. Spy?

On first glance, it would seem that there are really only two possible explanations for the recent rash of Iranian-Americans charged by Tehran with spying for the West. Either the charges are false, and the three amount to hostages used by Iran as leverage in a game of geo-political brinksmanship. Or else the charges are true, in which case the arrests amount to a way for Tehran to signal that they're a step ahead of the recently revealed covert CIA program to destabilize the Tehran regime.

But there's plenty of room for some gray areas in between, too. I imagine most Iranians who have taken on American citizenship are less than fervent supporters of the Iranian government. Certain political activities undertaken here to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian government might very well fall under the rubric of subversive activity over there.

Still, you'd think that the folks we're talking about, two academics and a journalist, would be savvy enough to know the kinds of things that would put them in jeopardy and either avoid doing them, or else avoid returning to Iran if they did do them.

Which brings us back to the true/false scenario.

If you're wondering what triggered this line of thought, it was the fact that the journalist detained by Iran, Parnaz Azima, is "...a reporter for US-funded Radio Farda." That's putting it kind of mildly. Here's how Radio Farda describes itself on its website:

Radio Farda and is a joint project of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and Voice of America (VOA). The 24-hour, seven-day-a-week service is produced in Washington, D.C. and Prague, Czech Republic, with audio transmissions to listeners online and via AM, shortwave and satellite.

We report. You decide.†

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

All Roads Lead To Tehran

In an exclusive interview with Army Times, Lt. Gen. David Petraeus categorically declares that Iran is deeply involved in training and funding Iraqi insurgents and militias, and that it's inconceivable that Supreme Ayatollah Khameini could be kept in the dark about the "massive operation".

According to Petraeus, over the past few years Iran's Quds Force has trained "secret cells" of "Sadr special ops" in Iran. One of these cells was responsible for the highly sophisticated January 20th raid in Karbala that left five American soldiers dead. In addition, Iran has funded Iraqi Shiite militias, and to a lesser extent Sunni insurgents, to the tune of "hundred of millions of dollars".

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the interview is that despite all of the intelligence we've managed to gather on Iran's covert operations, Petraeus confesses to having no clue about Iran's longterm strategic goal for Iraq. Given that by all accounts we're already engaged in a proxy war with Tehran, that would seem like an important detail to nail down.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Cheney's Follies

Dick Cheney might be something of a laughingstock to most reasonable people. But while his ability to determine policy might have waned along with his credibility, his ability to veto or sabotage it hasn't. Gareth Porter explains how Cheney's efforts to undermine the Bush administration's foreign policy "realists" (specifically Condi Rice and Bob Gates) might very well box us into a militarist corner with regards to Iran. It's a good article, well worth a look.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Politics   

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Misdirection?

Back in March, Seymour Hersh made some waves with an article in the New Yorker titled "The Redirection", which described an American/Saudi effort to arm radical Sunni militant groups throughout the Middle East in order to contain the growing regional influence of Iran and its proxies. Among the groups Hersh mentioned was Fatah al-Islam, a Palestinian splinter group that was supposedly receiving arms and funding from representatives of the Lebanese government who hoped to turn it against Hezbollah.

Hersh's piece targeted all the usual suspects -- Dick Cheney, Prince Bandar, covert policy cabals of dubious judgment -- to guarantee a good reception among jittery liberals concerned about the administrations rumored plans for attacking Iran. (Here's my contribution, which on re-reading seems respectably restrained.) The question is, was it accurate?

At the time the article appeared, Michael Young poked some holes in it with a piece in Reason Magazine titled "A Muckraker On The Wane?":

The Fatah al-Islam story is instructive, because it shows a recurring flaw in Hersh's reporting, namely his investigative paralysis when it comes to Syria... Most Lebanese analysts believe that Fatah al-Islam, far from being aided by the Lebanese government, is in fact a Syrian plant, deployed to Lebanon to be used by the Assad regime to destabilize the country...

This week's events in northern Lebanon, where the Lebanese Army has been engaged in fierce battles with Fatah al-Islam at a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli, would seem to bear out Young's criticism. Especially since Hezbollah has expressed support for the Army, despite it's fierce opposition to the Lebanese government of Fuad Siniora.

Hersh, for his part, stands by his story, maintaining that it's just another example of an American policy that "...bit us in the rear." 

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Dick's Got Company

Maybe it's just something inherent to the office, but it turns out Dick Cheney isn't the only Vice-President who's not so keen on the US and Iran discussing the situation in Iraq. Iraq's Sunni Vice-President, Tariq al-Hashemi, spoke out against the upcoming talks after participating in the Geneva-based World Economic Forum:

"It's not good to encourage anybody to talk on behalf of the Iraqi people on their internal and national affairs," al-Hashemi told reporters...

Al-Hashemi said he would have preferred that the subject of Iraq's stability was "tackled by Iraqis themselves."

"This is really damaging to Iraq's sovereignty," he said.

Unlike Cheney, however, al-Hashemi probably doesn't want to see the US and Iran at war over Iraq either.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Heads They Win, Tails We Lose

The Times is reporting that Iran has smoothed out the wrinkles in their centrifuge operation and is stepping up their uranium enrichment program. They're still a long way, and several major technical obstacles, away from nuclear weapons capacity. Specifically, they'll need to keep the centrifuges running long enough to enrich enough uranium for a bomb. Even then, they'd need to enrich it again before it would be weapons grade. And finally they'd need the capacity to assemble a small enough warhead for their missiles to carry.

Be that as it may, the logic of the American negotiating position, namely a freeze on enrichment in order to keep the Iranians from gaining the necessary technical capacity, is for all intents and purposes outdated. Mohammed ElBaradei, head of the IAEA, had this to say:

“Quite clearly, suspension is a requirement by the Security Council and I would hope the Iranians would listen to the world community,” he said. “But from a proliferation perspective, the fact of the matter is that one of the purposes of suspension — keeping them from getting the knowledge — has been overtaken by events. The focus now should be to stop them from going to industrial scale production, to allow us to do a full-court-press inspection and to be sure they remain inside the treaty.”

Unfortunately, the Bush administration has backed itself into a corner with its hardline posture of "not a single centrifuge spinning" as a pre-condition to further talks. Which means that, barring an "about face" of the N. Korean variety, any compromise now will be rejected as losing face.

On the other hand, the negotiating stalemate of the past few years is largely responsible for Iran's technical advances, and will continue to play into Tehran's hands as they amass more expertise, more capacity, and more enriched uranium.

Like Iraq, this will probably be a bullet the next President will have to bite in January 2009. By then, of course, the Iranian position will be even stronger.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, May 11, 2007

Discreet Libertines

What a fascinating bundle of contradictions Iran appears to be. In the last month or so, I've run across articles describing the yearly spring crackdown in Tehran on "immodestly dressed" women, and a directive ordering all Iranian television dramas to show their characters praying. But then, buried in an LA Times article about the elaborate precautions that go into organizing an illegal, underground fashion show in Tehran, I find this:

Iran's government seems to mind less and less about such transgressions, so long as they remain discreet. If anything, Tehran has become more libertine under the conservative presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Hundreds of thousands of illegal satellite dishes have sprouted from the tops of buildings. Police who once violently broke up late-night parties now politely ask hosts to keep the noise down.

So, which is it? Repressive theocracy, or "look the other way" tolerance? Or both? Something tells me that if we could ever put aside our differences, we'd probably end up getting along pretty well.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Iranian TV Doesn't Have A Prayer

I remember a discussion over at Ezra Klein's blog a few months back about whether or not Iran could be considered an autocratic or repressive regime, given the amount of political dissent that's permitted. The trigger for the post was a speech given by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that was interrupted by protesters who set off firecrackers, heckled him and burned his figure in effigy, without being arrested or even removed from the speech.

My understanding was that like most theocracies, Iran was politically permissive, but religiously restrictive, something that seems to be borne out by this article about Iranian television. Apparently, any homegrown drama program that doesn't portray its characters praying will not be aired. It's not yet certain whether the directive, announced by a director of state television known for being relatively permissive, applies to sitcoms and game shows.

That's what makes America great, of course. For all of this country's flaws, it doesn't let religion get in the way of great television programming.

Update: On a more serious note, but reinforcing my point, editors of a student paper at the very university where Ahmadinejad was heckled were just arrested last week for publishing "material deemed insulting to Islam." They claim the material was published without their knowledge in order to discredit them.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Miss Manners

Just last week, there was encouraging news following the meeting between Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator. Rumor had it that they'd found a possible way out of the logjam over pre-conditions for further negotiations. One that focused on finding a mutually acceptable definition of the word "freeze".

So it should come as no surprise that today President Bush suggested that should they run into each other at the Iraq summit later this week, the first official, direct communication between Secretary of State Rice and her Iranian counterpart might be to convey the confrontational message that Iran should freeze it's nuclear program or face further international isolation. The reason being, of course, that "She's not a rude person."

One of the reasons Iran has responded so hostilely to the sanctions already put into place by the UN Security Council is because they believe they are illegitimate under the terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. So threatening them with more isn't exactly the kind of thing you say if you really want negotiations to work.

Like I said, it should come as no surprise.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Tehran Spring

Wow. Le Figaro has a four-photo slide show of a woman getting arrested in Iran for violating the dress code. Among her transgressions? Bare... ankles. Apparently it's a yearly ritual in Tehran with the arrival of the warm weather.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Talk Loudly And Carry A Small Stick

The AP, via the IHT, is reporting a possible breakthrough on the Iran uranium enrichment talks that have all but broken down over pre-conditions to negotiations set by America and its western European allies. While still calling for a freeze of the existing program, diplomats from the US, EU, Russia and China have signalled a willingness to "redefine" just what they mean by the word "freeze" in anticipation of talks between Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Ali Larijani, Iran's national security advisor and chief nuclear negotiator. So instead of dismantling the centrifuge cascades and other components of the program already in place, Iran would simply be required to put them on standby.

Of course, there are still details to be worked out, such as whether "standby" means leaving the cascades in running position or idle. But if all it takes is a simple re-definition of terms to let everyone come to the table while still saving face, I don't see the harm, even if it does mean having to sit through yet another "Munich diatribe" from Charles Krauthammer. The negotiations themselves might still fail, but even that clarifies things more than preventing them from taking place.

On the other hand, I'm not so sure about the Bush administration's decision to adopt their N. Korean strategy as a default negotiating position: Talk tough and stall any negotiations until the adversary has accomplished exactly what you were trying to prevent, then buckle and propose the compromise that they'd suggested from the outset. Seems downright Clintonian.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Aid And Comfort

You could see this one coming: The abducted Iranian diplomat who was just released in what some claim was part of a deal for the 15 British sailors claims he was tortured by the CIA while held captive at a base near Baghdad airport. The US denies any involvement in his abduction or detainment, and has dismissed his claims as "...the latest theatrics of a government trying to deflect attention away from its own unacceptable actions."

The significance of this story, of course, isn't whether or not it's true, which we'll never know for sure. It's whether or not it could be true. And while six years ago I think most of us would have, rightly or wrongly, dismissed it out of hand, that is simply no longer the case. Mainly because, unlike the the CIA official who "dismissed any claims of torture, saying 'the CIA does not conduct or condone torture'", most of us have been following the news for the past several years. And if in reading this story we experience some doubts, imagine what people feel who are pre-disposed towards believing it -- like the large swaths of the Arab and Muslim world we're trying to win over in the battle for hearts and minds.

Another reason why this administration's pig-headed resistance to renouncing, once and for all, coercive and inhumane interrogation and detention practices, ie. torture, is so short-sighted and counter-productive. Because in a battle of ideas, talking points are bullets. And the Bush administration has supplied the enemy with them by the truckload.

Posted by Judah in:  Human Rights   Iran   

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Saturday, April 7, 2007

Draw-Draw Scenario

There's been alot of discussion on how to assess the outcome of the British 15 incident. Steve Clemons of Washington Note says Iran is the big loser:

Iran now looks unpredictable, dangerous (though some will correctly argue that Iran has always been dangerous), and irrational. To be trusted by the world with nuclear enrichment capacity of any kind, rationality, trust, and dependable and predictable behavior must be part of the equation.

Iran lost by convincing even its friends that it is a state that may not be in control of all it's own pieces, particularly a vital part of its military force...

Kevin Drum agrees:

Even countries friendly to Iran appear to believe that this whole episode was a pointless and foolhardy provocation; it's shown up the Iranian government as weak, disorganized, and unable to keep control of its own military...

...This was a plainly stupid miscalculation on their part, and one that they obviously lost control of once it began. Far from being scared off by their bluster, my guess is that this incident will make the world more united in its belief that Iran can't be trusted with a nuclear program, not less.

Meanwhile, commenters on the right are using the episode to trot out Churchillian quotes about Munich and clamoring for Tony Blair's head.

I think the truth is somewhere in between. And that becomes clearer when you separate out the two issues that have gotten tangled up here.

  1. The proxy war going on between the US and Iran:

    Whether or not the seizure of the British sailors was centrally planned or authorized, Iran comes out a winner for demonstrating it is willing and able to defend its territorial integrity, even in the most symbollic of ways. The method was amateurish, perhaps, but no more so than the American seizure of Iranian diplomats in Irbil and Baghdad. And it's already paid off, in that Britian has temporarily suspended their patrol operations in the Gulf.

  2. The uranium enrichment standoff:

    Both Clemons and Drum suggest that if this is evidence of divisions in leadership, or worse, lack of control over the IRG, it lends weight to the claim that Iran can't be trusted with nuclear enrichment capabilities. I tend to see the outcome as reassuring, since it shows that however opaque and convoluted the Iranian decision-making process may seem to us, it arrived at the right outcome. If it was a rogue operation, control mechanisms are in place. If it demonstrated division in central leadership, the cooler heads prevailed.

What really matters here, as Clemons points out, is whether the incident drives a permanent wedge between the Iranians and their support base (ie. the Russians, Chinese and Indians) in the uranium enrichment negotiations. If it does, the Iranians will find themselves essentially isolated on the issue and will be forced to either make concessions or escalate the standoff. If not, the incident demonstrates that the British approach of rallying support while engaging in conciliatory negotiations pays off.

In any case, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the Bush administration comes out as the big loser. Its major contribution to the incident's resolution, by Britain's request, was to stand on the sidelines and not make matters worse. And given that we've got 150-odd thousand soldiers on the ground just next door and two carrier groups in spitting distance offshore, that says alot.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Iran Attack: Pump & Dump?

That's the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw the headline to this RIA Novosti article: "No U.S. attack on Iran, oil price hits $70 in expectation". RIA Novosti, you might recall, was very active in pushing the April 6 attack rumor, with a steady stream of leaks from unnamed Russian military intelligence sources. Talk about moving the market.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Markets & Finance   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

Come Again?

This is the kind of candid military assessment that you just don't see that much of from Bush appointees. From Admiral William Fallon, Centcom commander, in Egypt meeting with Hosni Mubarak:

Asked whether the United States would attack Iran soon, especially as Washington beefed up military presence in the Gulf region recently, the top U.S. officer gave a negative answer.

"Washington already had its hands full in Iraq and Afghanistan," he explained.

He went on to say the Iranian issue should be reolved through diplomatic channels.

It's actually more than candid. It borders on ill-advised: An American commander on a foreign visit admits that the US military is stretched thin. I wouldn't be surprised to see Admiral Fallon offering up a clarification.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Iran   Iraq   

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Friday, April 6, 2007

What A Difference Six Years Makes

Krauthammer then:

China lost. But it is not yet a win for us. For that we must make China pay a price. There has to be a cost for buzzing a U.S. plane, causing a collision, taking the plane apart and holding the crew hostage.

You don't try to extract that cost while they're holding our guys. The administration played that coolly and correctly. But now that they are out, it is time to show some steel.

Krauthammer now:

Iran has pulled off a tidy little success with its seizure and release of those 15 British sailors and marines: a pointed humiliation of Britain, with a bonus demonstration of Iran's intention to push back against coalition challenges to its assets in Iraq. All with total impunity...

You would think maintaining international order means, at least, challenging acts of piracy. No challenge here. Instead, a quiet capitulation.

Like a fine wine, he gets better with age.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Media Coverage   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

Idle Gossip?

For whatever it's worth, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti has a breaking story on its French language page quoting a Russian Foreign Ministry official as saying, "Our conversations with American counterparts don't give any reason to expect..." an American attack on Iran tonight. Which is consistent with what official spokesmen in the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry have been saying since anonymous "Russian military intelligence" sources started floating the rumors of an April 6 attack last week.

On the other hand, it isn't quite a denial.

It's 3 am my time, and the attack is supposedly going to be launched at 4. So you all will know whether it goes down before I will, cuz I'm about to hit the sack.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Russia   

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Thursday, April 5, 2007

When Everyone Hedges Their Bets

According to this NY Times article, Israel is lobbying the US to strip satellite guided offensive weapons out of a proposed American arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. The impetus for the sale was to reassure the moderate Sunni states that regardless of what happens in Iraq (ie. even if we pull out and leave the place a mess), we'll still cover their backs against the Iranians.

Trouble is, Israel isn't so sure that the coalition of moderate Sunni states that's been talked about as a means of containing Iran is actually going to materialize. Plus they've got their doubts as to the Saudi kingdom's stability in the face of miltant Islamic extremists that have it in their sights. Which would put its "qualitative military edge" at risk.

Meanwhile, for their part, the Gulf states have been lukewarm about committing to the deal, for fear of antagonizing Iran with only an uncertain longterm American commitment to the region to go by.

So the question is, When the Iran containment train pulls out of the station, is anyone going to be on board?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Kurdish Connection

I ran across this interesting, if slightly dusty, piece on Iranian involvement in Iraq's civil war while doing some research for an unrelated article (Honest, I really was hoping for a couple Iran-free news cycles):

Then, on October 1, 2001, representatives of the Badr Corps and representatives of the KDP, which is led by Massoud Barzani, met in a Salahadeen resort located about 20 miles from Irbil, Kurdistan. The intent of the meeting was to renew and reinforce the Badr Corpsí ties with the KDP. During this meeting, Badr Corps leaders also asked the KDP representatives about the United Statesí current and future intentions toward Iraq.

On October 2, 2001, the Badr Corps leadership met again with Massoud Barzani, head of the KDP, to discuss different ways to reinforce relations between the Badr Corps and the KDP. The Badr Corpsí representatives inquired about U.S. intentions in Iraq and asked Barzaniís permission to allow the Badr Corps to open an office in Irbil.

The Badr Corps is the armed wing of SCIRI, which is now an Iranian-aligned Iraqi Shiite political party. But before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they were "organizationally indistinguishable" from Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

So in other words, the office that was raided this past January (think the Cockburn story from a couple days ago) was established as a result of Iranian-Kurdish contacts going back six years, to well before the American invasion. Which could explain why the Kurds were willing to get into a tense armed standoff with American forces to protect the Iranian intelligence officers we were after.

Not only is there a lot we don't know about the Irbil incident, I'm guessing it's pretty damning stuff. Something along the lines of our good friends the Kurds, the one success story of the entire invasion, are actually buddy-buddy with our worst enemy, Iran.

What's Christopher Hitchens going to say?†

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Our Man In Balochistan

I thought for a moment, when reading about the pending release of the 15 British sailors this morning, that we might have a few Iran-free news cycles to look forward to. Little did I realize that I'd missed a brand new one that had already started.

From an ABC News report broadcast yesterday:

A Pakistani tribal militant group responsible for a series of deadly guerrilla raids inside Iran has been secretly encouraged and advised by American officials since 2005, U.S. and Pakistani intelligence sources tell ABC News.

The group, called Jundullah, is made up of members of the Baluchi tribe and operates out of the Baluchistan province in Pakistan, just across the border from Iran.

It has taken responsibility for the deaths and kidnappings of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials.

U.S. officials say the U.S. relationship with Jundullah is arranged so that the U.S. provides no funding to the group, which would require an official presidential order or "finding" as well as congressional oversight.

This is the group, you might recall, that claimed responsibility for blowing up a bus in southeastern Iran last February, killing 11 members of the Revolutionary Guards. Iran claims that the group is affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, though it's never been proven, and has long complained of American support.

An American official, on the other hand, told ABC News that Jundullah has collaborated with the US in tracking al-Qaeda members, and the CIA denied that they provided the group with any funding, which is consistent with the report's claims.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, depending on who shows up at the trading post on any given day. Either way, it's becoming increasingly clear that the Iranians have got some legitimate grievances. While it would be naive to think they've been acting like saints in Iraq, they're probably getting as good as they dish out, and on both sides of the map. As soon as the British sailors get back to London and the leaks start to fill in the gaps on what we know, it could turn out that they've actually shown some restraint.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, April 3, 2007

No Quid Pro Quo?

Patrick Cockburn claims, in The Independent, that Iran targeted "highly vulnerable Navy search parties in the Gulf", eventually leading to the capture and detention of the 15 British sailors now held in Tehran, as a result of an incident that took place this past January in the Iraqi Kurdistan city of Irbil (Arbil).

At that time, American forces raided an Iranian liaison office and detained five Iranian nationals. Iran, the Kurds and the Iraqi government formally protested, claiming the detained men were diplomats and the building a soon-to-be consulate. The US claimed the men were intelligence agents involved in targeting Coalition forces in Iraq.

Oddly enough, Cockburn fails to mention that just after the raid, American forces were engaged in a tense standoff with Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they tried to detain more people at the Irbil airport. He does, however, identify the targets of the two raids:

The two senior Iranian officers the US sought to capture were Mohammed Jafari, the powerful deputy head of the Iranian National Security Council, and General Minojahar Frouzanda, the chief of intelligence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to Kurdish officials.

The two men were in Kurdistan on an official visit during which they met the Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, and later saw Massoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), at his mountain headquarters overlooking Arbil.

It's obviously impossible to know for sure if Cockburn's right. But in an interesting development, another Iranian diplomat who was "seized" two months ago by uniformed Iraqi soldiers considered to be under the direction of Coalition forces was just released.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Standoff Within A Standoff Within A Standoff

As Ray Tayekh pointed out in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Iran's leadership is far from monolithic. What's more, the familiar fault lines between factions of reformers and hardliners are increasingly overshadowed by growing tensions between "the elders of the revolution" and "their more assertive disciples."

Now The Times of London is reporting that not even the Revolutionary Guards, often protrayed as a radical, rogue element of the Iranian regime, is immune from the power struggles:

The fate of the 15 British marines and sailors held in Tehran may depend on the outcome of a power struggle between two of Iranís top generals, write Uzi Mahnaimi and Marie Colvin.

According to an Iranian military source, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards has called for them to be freed.

Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi is said to have told the countryís Supreme National Security Council on Friday that the situation was ďgetting out of controlĒ and urged its members to consider the immediate release of the prisoners to defuse tension in the Gulf.

However, Safaviís intervention was reportedly denounced by another senior general at a meeting of high-ranking commanders yesterday.

Yadollah Javani, the head of the Revolutionary Guardsí political bureau, was said to have accused him of weakness and ďliberal tendenciesĒ. Javani is said to have demanded that the prisoners be put on trial.

These kinds of divisions should come as no surprise, given the political polarization currently on display here in Washington. What's more, they're encouraging inasmuch as they suggest possible lines of approach for engaging Iran.

But they're not only reason for hope. A divided leadership, while offering potential interlocuters for dialogue, also increases the chances of precipitous escalation, as one faction tries to force the hand of its adversaries. The same internal divisions that could lead Iranian extremists to provoke hostilities with the US could lead the Bush administration to pre-empt Congress and public opinion by launching a unilateral strike on Iran's uranium enrichment program.

The significance of the international standoff between Britain and Iran lies in how it impacts the internal standoff within Iran's leadership. Which in turn could influence the broader standoff between Iran and the international community regarding its uranium enrichment program. How the crisis is resolved will tell us alot about what the future holds for the Persian Gulf.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Sunday, April 1, 2007

When Everyone's Backed Into A Corner

There were signs yesterday that the standoff over the 15 British sailors captured and detained by Iran was beginning to ratchet down a notch or two. Reports out of Tehran revealed the first signs of disagreement between the hardline Revolutionary Guards who carried out the operation and the ayatollahs who run the country, specifically over whether or not to release Faye Turney, the lone woman captive, as a gesture of good faith.

Meanwhile, the Sunday Telegraph reported that Britain was preparing to send an envoy to Tehran, and a defense official was quoted as saying:

We are quite prepared to give the Iranians a guarantee that we would never knowingly enter their waters without their permission, now or in the future.

We are not apologising, nor are we saying that we entered their waters in the first place. But it may offer a route out of the crisis.

But there were also signs that things could still get bumpy. After keeping a low profile for the past week, President Bush finally offered his first extensive comments on the matter, calling the capture of the sailors "inexcusable" and stating, "The Iranians must give back the hostages."

The same article also quoted remarks that Iran's President Ahmadinejad made in a speech, remarks that seemed to signal a hardening of the Iranian position:

"The British occupier forces did trespass our waters. Our border guards detained them with skill and bravery,'' Iran's official news agency quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "But arrogant powers, because of their arrogant and selfish spirit, are claiming otherwise.''

And in Tehran, police had to physically prevent protesters from entering the compound of the British embassy yesterday.

All in all, although it's in everyone's best interests to de-escalate and peaceably resolve the conflict, it's becoming the kind of situation that could spiral out of control, mainly because of the inherent weakness of everyone involved:

  1. Iran is using the show of national resolve to counter both their inability to keep British and American forces from entering their territory, and their increasing international isolation over their uranium enrichment program.
  2. Britain must balance the affront to its national honor with the fact that it has very few effective options for forcing Tehran's hand.
  3. And the United States can't risk disrupting the gathering consensus opposing Iran's uranium enrichment program by any heavyhanded involvement in a matter that ostensibly doesn't really involve them.

In other words, everyone's boxed into a corner, which is usually when people do desperate things. There's no shortage of third parties who have offered themselves up as mediators. Hopefully someone will have the sense to bring them in, otherwise things could get volatile.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, March 30, 2007

Highest Considerations

How to say, "Sit on this and twist" in Diplomatese.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Odds & Ends   

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Eyeball To Eyeball

Events in the Persian Gulf are either heading for a bang or a whimper. Either way, it's going to be mettle-testing time for the next week or so:

  1. In remarks today about the 15 Bristish sailors detained by Iran, Tony Blair stated, "They have to release them. If not, then this will move into a different phase."
  2. Meanwhile, the 5th Fleet began a training exercise involving two carrier groups, 100 aircraft, and 10,000 personnel just off the coast of Iran. The money quote? "Kevin Aandahl, a US navy commander, declined to say when plans for the exercises had been drawn up."
  3. In a (French language) article last week, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti cited Russian military experts to the effect that the US will unleash a massive aerial bombardment of Iran in the first week of April.

Of course, Iran could still release the sailors, everyone could calm down a notch, and the uranium enrichment negotiations could get jump-started. But we're getting to that point where if someone doesn't blink soon, it'll be too late to walk this one back from the brink.

Update: Meanwhile, in support of the whimper option, from an interview with Financial Times:

Nicholas Burns, the man at the heart of the US administration's policy on Iran for the past two years, insists that Iran's leadership is divided, its nuclear programme is less advanced than many think and that the world is stepping up the pressure on Tehran.

As a result, he concludes, there is still time to reach a negotiated solution on a dispute others fear could end in military conflict.

Update, Take Two: And in support of the bang option, another article from RIA Novosti:

Russian military intelligence services are reporting a flurry of activity by U.S. Armed Forces near Iran's borders, a high-ranking security source said Tuesday.

"The latest military intelligence data point to heightened U.S. military preparations for both an air and ground operation against Iran," the official said, adding that the Pentagon has probably not yet made a final decision as to when an attack will be launched.

Update, Take Three: The Economist weighs in on why Iran acted up now:

Iranís seizure of the British personnel thus may be a sign that Iran is feeling squeezed. But squeezed is not the same as weak. Iran hawks believe that the Islamic Republic has ďsleeper cellsĒ in Europe, America and elsewhere standing by ready to commit terrorist acts. The kidnapping is one way of reminding negotiating partners that Iran can be a great deal of trouble when it wants to be.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

There's A First Time For Everything

The most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter. From today's White House press briefing:

Q About the British sailors... Is there a deliberate effort to keep a backseat on this, for the White House to not mess up some sort of diplomatic efforts?

MS. PERINO: Well, you can be assured that we are in close contact with our British allies. We strongly support the message that Tony Blair sent yesterday, the strong message of the hostage taking being wrong and unjustified. But as far as further comment, I don't have anything for you.

Q Is the President not outraged by this?

MS. PERINO: We share the same concern and the outrage that Prime Minister Blair has.

Q Will we be hearing from the President on it?

MS. PERINO: I'll keep you updated.

Obviously, they want to avoid any unnecessary bellicosity to keep from aggravating the situation...

Wait a minute. Did I just say that? About the Bush administration? Like I said, the most curious aspect of the Iranian capture and detention of 15 British sailors has to be the President's deafening silence on the matter.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The Essence Of Empire

Brig. Gen. Stephen Mundt, director of Army aviation, from an article in the Hill:

ďWhile the military may be on a war footing, our nationís industry is not on a war footing,Ē Mundt told a group of reporters at the Pentagon. He urged industry to get to a point where it is producing equipment faster.

Mundt was referring specifically to the difficulties the Army has had replacing the 130 helicopters lost in Iraq and Afghanistan. It takes two years from the time Congress ok's the funds before the helicopters are delivered.

I mentioned this before with regards to an eventual attack on Iran, but it bears repeating. The sine qua non of the neocon agenda is an America placed on permanent wartime footing. That is the essence of Empire: continuous partial engagement. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are first steps towards that goal, but they are still reversible.† Should we attack Iran, on the other hand, there will be no turning back for the foreseeable future.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   Foreign Policy   Iran   Iraq   

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

There's Room On This Planet For The Two Of Us

Call it age, or maybe it's the consequences of fatherhood. But despite my fascination with and natural inclination towards apocalyptic and worst-case scenarios, I'm willing to acknowledge that this is a very good sign. The Russians have apparently decided to use the yet-to-be-delivered fuel for the nuclear reactor they've built for Tehran as a bargaining chip in the uranium enrichment dispute.

My guess is that this is the payoff for the Bush administration's recent decision to take Russia's concerns over the planned Eastern European missile defense system seriously. Which is to say, it's striking what a little bit of good old-fashioned diplomacy can accomplish.

Update: The Russian National Security Council has apparently denied the link between the fuel delivery and the uranium enrichment program, saying,

"The allegations made in The New York Times that Russia delivered an ultimatum during Russian-Iranian consultations March 12 in Moscow have no relation to reality."

I still think a deal went down, based on this article from a few weeks ago, and that a gag rule was part of the agreement.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Russia   

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Iran Hysteria Antidote

How's this for a refreshingly reasonable take on Iran? From an interview in Foreign Policy with Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee:†

FOREIGN POLICY: As a Holocaust survivor, how do you feel about the comments of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Do you think he believes what he says?

Tom Lantos: ...Obviously, I am as appalled as any civilized human being has to be at both his monstrous denial of the Holocaust and his sickening boast of wiping Israel off the map. I havenít got a clue as to whether he believes this, whether this is ignorance, or whether this is just a desire to whip up anti-Israel sentiment.

But I think itís very important for us to look beyond Ahmadinejad. The Iranians are an extraordinary, talented, and important group of people. Itís a great civilization, and there is growing disdain and rejection for Ahmadinejad in Iran. So I do not think we should tailor our policies vis-ŗ-vis Iran on the basis of his inflammatory statements, whether these are genuinely believed by him or not.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Iran And The Israel Lobby

Scott McConnell's got an interesting article in The American Conservative on how the Iran question is driving a wedge between mainstream American Jewish opinion and the American Jewish "Israel lobby" (AIPAC, ADL, AJC), with the latter significantly more hawkish, and outspokenly so, regarding a potential American military intervention in Iran than the former. He then describes the dangers involved in, a) criticizing the lobby groups, and b) disagreeing with them, both for journalists and politicians. But he concludes by suggesting that bloggers, and Jewish bloggers in particular, have recently managed to puncture the lobby groups aura of invincibility, citing Matthew Yglesias, Ezra Klein, and yours truly (I'm quoted as a "regrettably anonymous" commenter on Ezra Klein's blog) as examples.

I think there's no disputing the fact that American Jews wield a disproportionate influence over America's Israel policy, in the same way that American Cubans wield a disproportionate influence over America's Cuba policy. And both have a sort of veto power over who gets elected based on their respective single issue litmus tests.

The difference lies in how generalized the veto power is. Someone running for Congress in Miami doesn't stand much chance of getting elected on a pro-Castro platform. I'm not sure it poses a problem for someone running in South Dakota, on the other hand.

Not so with the Israel lobby. Apparently, no one makes it to Washington, or the NY Times editorial board, unless they toe the AIPAC line. So goes a certain line of thought, anyway. One that, while often condemned (by the Israel lobby) for echoing the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish "cabal", is not necessarily untrue.

Besides the paragraph quoted from my comment, though, I find this to be the most intriguing passage in McConnell's article:

It may be beyond the American peopleís power to stop George W. Bush from launching another preventive war. But even though the president and his top advisers can isolate themselves from currents of public opinion, that is less the case for top military officers. And it is far more likely that they will find ways to raise meaningful speedbumps and roadblocks on the route to an expanded war if there is a large enough public outcry against it. Right now there is not.

I've often seen civilian command of the Armed Forces cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the military. This is the first time I've seen the military cited as a check on the potential bellicosity of the civilian command.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   Media Coverage   Politics   

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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Tomorrow's Al-Qaeda Today

For a clearer look at how the new American regional strategy for the Middle East described in the Seymour Hersh piece will play out, check out this report from Iraq Slogger. The Mujahiden e-Khalq is an armed Iranian opposition group that operated out of Iraq with the full support of Saddam Hussein. Designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the US, they were disarmed and their bases dismantled after the 2003 invasion as a gesture of evenhandedness towards Iran, to say nothing of consistency with our own stated terrorism policies. But all that seems to have changed now:

The Sadrist Nahrain Net website reports increased contacts between Jordanian and Saudi authorities and the Iranian Mujahiden e-Khalq (MEK) opposition group in the Jordanian capital, according to sources in the Iraqi Accord Front. Immigration officials at the Queen Alia International Airport in Amman received instructions from the Jordanian Interior Minister last month to facilitate the entry and movement of MEK members carrying Iraqi and foreign passports, the website said, adding that the MEK has opened an official branch in Amman following a recommendation from the CIA to Jordanian authorities. The website also quotes unnamed Arab diplomats in Amman, who said that Saudi Arabia has also made a decision to embrace and fund Iranian opposition groups, such as the MEK, the Balochistani Jund Allah Movement and Ahwazi Arab groups, in an attempt to face the rising Iranian influence in the region. Encouraged by U.S. officials, former Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan had met with an MEK delegation and promised them full support, the diplomats said.

Remember, the US is currently isolating Syria for, among other things, harboring headquarters of Hamas and Hezbollah, which can both arguably claim to have political wings in addition to their armed terrorist sections. Now we're involved in the same tactics. Shortsighted at best. Shameful at worst.

Posted by Judah in:  Global War On Terror   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, March 2, 2007

The Swiss Navy

Here's one that's good for a laugh, until you transpose it onto another part of the world. Apparently, a company of Swiss infantry accidentally "invaded" Liechtenstein when they wandered across an unmarked border in a nighttime training excercise. They got about a mile into the small principality before realizing their mistake and heading back. Liechtenstein's response was basically, No harm, no foul. As well you might expect from a country that has no standing army.

Now imagine for a second an American infantry company on maneuvers in Iraq, that accidentally wanders a mile into Iran. Think they'd get that far without being noticed? Think Iran's response would be, No harm, no foul?

I don't subscribe to the idea that dialogue with Iran is some magic bullet that will instantly resolve all the differences between us. But it could help to keep hypothetical misunderstandings from turning into real conflagrations. And that's good for something.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   International Relations   Iran   Odds & Ends   

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

The Office That Wasn't

I was a little busy last week to really get to Seymour Hersh's New York Magazine article on the shift allegedly taking place in American Middle East policy. But it's worth taking a second look at, and for more than just the sensational excerpts that have made the rounds. In case you haven't read it, it makes the following claims:

  • That elements of the Bush administration have identified the containment of Iran, whose influence has grown significantly as a result of the Iraq War, as America's highest regional priority.
  • That according to these elements, the most effective way to do this is to enlist Sunni proxies throughout the broader region, and in particular in Lebanon and Syria, to combat Iranian proxies and their interests.
  • That many of these Sunni proxies are cut from the same radical, extremist mold as al-Qaeda.
  • That the Saudis are largely underwriting the initiative, both from a financial and diplomatic standpoint, with assurances that they'll be able to keep the radical Sunni groups under control.
  • That a great deal of the American side of the initiative is being run covertly, in the manner of the Iran-Contras scheme, with no Congressional oversight.

Here's the operative paragraph from Hersh's article for the last claim:

Iran-Contra was the subject of an informal “lessons learned” discussion two years ago among veterans of the scandal... One conclusion was that even though the program was eventually exposed, it had been possible to execute it without telling Congress. As to what the experience taught them, in terms of future covert operations, the participants found: “One, you can’t trust our friends. Two, the C.I.A. has got to be totally out of it. Three, you can’t trust the uniformed military, and four, it’s got to be run out of the Vice-President’s office”... (Emphasis added.)

Why the Office of the VP? Well, as Tom Engelhardt points out in the Nation, because it's become something of a bureaucratic black hole in Washington. David Kurtz made the same observation over at TPM. And later followed it up with this pseudo-explanation offered by the OVP to justify their refusal to even provide a list of the personnel assigned to its staff to a Federal registry:

The Vice Presidency is a unique office that is neither a part of the executive branch nor a part of the legislative branch, but is attached by the Constitution to the latter. The Vice Presidency performs functions in both the legislative branch (see article I, section 3 of the Constitution) and in the executive branch (see article II, and amendments XII and XXV, of the Constitution, and section 106 of title 3 of the United States Code).

Notice that it is neither a part of the executive nor the legislative branch, rather than a part of both. The implication being that as a result of this Constitutional ambiguity, the Vice President is free to operate as a free electron within the Federal government, subject to absolutely no oversight.

These guys have taken what's historically been considered the most impotent office in the Federal government and transformed it into the most powerful, beyond even the limits of the separation of powers. It's time to do something about that.

Posted by Judah in:  Politics   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Are You Scared Yet?

There's been a lot of chatter over the last few days about Israel seeking (and by some reports receiving) overflight clearance for a hypothetical airstrike against Iran, although the Israeli Deputy Defense Minister has denied the reports. At the same time, alleged contingency plans for an American aerial campaign against Iran have been leaked to the British press and now to the New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, although the Pentagon claims there's nothing unusual about them, since they maintain and revise contingency plans for dozens of potential conflicts at any given time.

Now these reports might very well be true, although that's far from certain. What's clear, though, is that the psy ops campaign designed to convince Tehran that time is running out for them to freeze and eventually abandon their uranium enrichment program has just cranked up a notch.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Media Coverage   

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Talking To Tehran

One of the problems with the Bush administration's stance towards Iran is that they've set it up so that the simple act of sitting down around a negotiating table becomes tantamount to defeat. Which is too bad because, if you read Ray Tayekh's article in the March issue of Foreign Affairs, it seems as if there are some very real, very attractive advantages to a détente policy towards Iran.

The Soviet Union posed more of an existential threat to America than Iran ever could, and yet we had diplomatic relations and ongoing negotiations with them throughout the Cold War. Nixon's diplomatic overture to China serves as another example of the stabilizing effects that dialogue can have even in the absence of any fundamental agreements.

Not every strategic rival is an enemy. And not every negotiated settlement is the Munich Agreement. The regional interests of the US and Iran converge in a number of areas. Reinforcing cooperation where they do can provide the leverage for inluencing behavior where they don't. But first you've got to agree to talk.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Blond, James Blond

If there weren't so many lives at stake, the whole US-Iran showdown would make for great comedy. Take this article in the Guardian describing how a lot of the intelligence the CIA has supplied to the IAEA to help it inspect Iran's nuclear facilities has turned out to be false. Like the list of sites that, when visited, showed no signs of banned nuclear-related activities. Or the laptop computer containing plans for a nuclear weapon, supposedly stolen by a CIA informant inside Iran. As an IAEA official put it:

"First of all, if you have a clandestine programme, you don't put it on laptops which can walk away," one official said. "The data is all in English which may be reasonable for some of the technical matters, but at some point you'd have thought there would be at least some notes in Farsi. So there is some doubt over the provenance of the computer."

But it's not just the Americans who come off looking like the Keystone Kops. The IAEA is still waiting for a satisfactory explanation for how and why Iran procured a 15-page document on how to manufacture hemispheres of enriched uranium, whose only known use is in nuclear warheads. A document that the Iranians apparently turned over to the IAEA by mistake along with a stack of other paperwork.

Pretty amateurish for the build up to a major regional conflagration, if you ask me.

Posted by Judah in:  Say What?   Iran   

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Knockout Punch

The BBC claims that American contingency plans for an aerial assault on Iran are not limited to the uranium enrichment facilities that are at the heart of recent tensions between Tehran and the West, but instead include most of the Iranian military's command and control infrastructure. They also report that the trigger for any attack would be confirmation that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon, but also any high-casualty attack in Iraq that could be directly traceable to Iran.

If true, it confirms my suspicion that the strategy of any intervention will be to absorb the immediate reprisals that Iran may have already prepared (ie. infiltrated networks in Iraq, a Hezbollah attack against Israel) in order to permanently incapacitate the Iranian military.

Of course, the US has denied any immediate intention of going to war. But if it does go down, chances are it'll be a massive bombardment campaign rather than surgical strikes.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Paradigm Shift?

Daniel Byman's got an intriguing op-ed in the WaPo about Iran's strategic interests in Iraq. He uses the example of Hezbollah in Lebanon to argue that Iran's arming of various Iraqi factions (a point which he takes for granted) should be understood more as a means of establishing a post-War influence in Iraqi affairs than as an act of aggression towards the US.† He also pointed out that it wouldn't be unheard of for the Iranians to enter into tactical alliances with Sunni groups if it served their longer-term strategic goals, as their sponsorship of both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza demonstrate. But what really caught my eye was this:

Ironically, Iran's long-term position could weaken when the United States draws down its forces. At first, the U.S. withdrawal will expand the power vacuum and Iran will try to fill it, but the limited chaos Iran foments can easily become uncontrolled. Iran's economic and military power is limited, and Iran's theocratic model of governance has little appeal for most Iraqis. Even many Shiite militants have at times been hostile to Iran, and respected moderates such as Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are careful to maintain their distance from Tehran. Sunnis already rage against perceived Iranian dominance.

In a postwar environment, Tehran will have lost a lever against U.S. pressure and may find itself both overextended and vulnerable in Iraq -- a weakness that the United States might exploit in years to come.

This is the second time in a few weeks that I've seen someone suggest that the worst-case scenarios of an American withdrawal from Iraq are far from inevitable, and may reflect a failure of imagination as much as anything else. Something tells me it won't be the last.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Fill In The Blanks

File this one under "What you don't know might kill you." According to this article in the IHT, American intelligence agencies actually know very little about the Iranian elite unit known as the Quds Force. That's the group that the Bush administration was blaming last week for supplying weapons to Iraqi insurgents.†

But the Quds Force is cloaked in secrecy inside Iran and the subject of considerable guesswork from scholars in the United States, who in interviews this week offered estimates of its size ranging from 3,000 to 50,000 men. The true number, along with details of the strength and budget of the entire Revolutionary Guard, is hidden even from Parliament, said Milani, according to legislators he has spoken with.

Some specialists even question whether the Quds Force exists as a formal unit clearly delineated from the rest of the Revolutionary Guard.

You'd think they'd get some of these questions answered before they start tossing accusations around. Let alone invading the place.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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Friday, February 16, 2007

The End Of The Bubble

I talked yesterday about how the tactics being applied in Iraq, ie. Clear and Move On, will become America's regional strategy in the event of a war with Iran. All it takes is a look at the ways in which the geo-political landscape has been altered over the past six years to understand why it won't work.

In January 2001, the United States was an often resented, but widely admired and respected superpower wielding a historically unprecedented global influence. Rightly or wrongly, we occupied a perceived position of moral leadership among the global community, which when coupled with our economic, diplomatic and military power made our involvement decisive in every continent.

Russia was too busy shaking down the oligarchs who had made off with all of the Soviet Union's industrial infrastructure and most of the Western world's capital infusion to spend much time on projecting its power abroad. China, while a looming economic giant, seemed fatally compromised by its abysmal human rights record to ever be more than a regional power. Chavez had his hands full holding onto power in Venezuela. And Iran was constrained to the role of regional troublemaker and spoiler in the Middle East.

If America faced a potential threat to its position of global hegemon, it was the prospect of an increasingly integrated and assertive European Union trying to contest it on the international stage.

Fast forward six years to January 2007...

Read the full post>>

Posted by Judah in:  China   Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   Russia   

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Tactics Are The Strategy

It's hard to get into the heads of the neocon clique that's itching for war with Iran. If the definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, they would certainly seem to qualify. But it would be a mistake to write them off as a bunch of lunatics. These guys are not crazy. They got the result they wanted in Iraq. And they're looking for more of the same in Iran.

The fact is, Iraq is a catastrophe, but it's a manageable catastrophe. The only thing that threatens our continued occupation there is American public opinion. And it's become clear that Americans want to call it a wash and pull up stakes. Which is why attacking Iran has now become essential: in order to create the conditions that make a continued American garrison in the Persian Gulf a necessity.

But what about all the dire warnings we've heard about Iran's capacity for reprisal, through missile strikes on our carriers, through proxies in Iraq, and with the threat Hezbollah poses to Israel? They're overblown. Yes, there will be an initial wave of casualties, perhaps even severe casualties. But it will eventually recede once a massive aerial bombardment campaign deteriorates the Iranian regime's command and control capabilities, as well as their military-industrial infrastructure.

But then what? Between the civil wars in Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and potentially Iran, most of the region will be a chaotic, deadly mess. And in that kind of geopolitical climate, the United States will be obligated to maintain a permanent garrison (probably in the order of what we already have stationed in Iraq, with a quick-strike capacity to respond to flashpoints of conflict as they spring up around the region) in order to guarantee the security of our Arab allies and Israel.

Mission accomplished.

The traditional counterinsurgency tactics of Clear, Hold, and Rebuild, as put into practice in Iraq, have become Clear and Move On. It's time to realize that this is no accident. The tactics have become the strategy, and the strategy is about to be widened to a regional level.

More later on why it won't work.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

My Enemy's Enemy?

Here's some breaking news that should give us pause. According to the Guardian, a terrorist attack in southeastern Iran that killed 11 Revolutionary Guard members is being blamed on a Sunni terrorist outfit linked to al-Qaeda.

Any way you parse this, you end up with the Bush administration being full of crap. Why? Well, for starters, they've spent the last few weeks claiming the Iranians are arming the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. The same Sunni insurgency that they've repeatedly claimed is a branch of al-Qaeda. The same al-Qaeda that they've repeatedly claimed is an operationally integrated organization.

Now obviously, all three of these claims can't logically co-exist with one another. At least not back here in the real world. I'm curious to see which one they're willing to cut loose.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   Iran   

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The President Who Cried Wolf

It could be, as some folks are saying, that this weekend's rollout of military intelligence linking Iranian weapons to the Iraqi insurgency is not so much a run-up to war as it is a means of pressuring the Iranians back to the negotiating table. Either way, for some reason or another, no one seems to be taking it very seriously.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Two-Track Mind

Both the Bush administration and the EU agree that only a two-track approach will get Iran to negotiate a settlement of the uranium enrichment question; sanctions alone aren't going to cut it. The problem is deciding what the second track should be.

The Europeans think we ought to offer the Iranians incentives, such as a security guarantee, to balance the dis-incentives represented by sanctions. Call it the carrot and the stick approach. The Bush administration thinks we ought to signal the clear threat of military action to let them know that things only get worse from here on out. Call it the stick and the aluminum baseball bat approach.

Of course, threatening a war with Iran is a tricky matter, since we don't really have the force levels for it, and we can't really afford the consequences it would have on our occupation of Iraq. Which might explain why an internal EU document accepts as a foregone conclusion that Iran will eventually have the capacity to produce weapons-grade uranium.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Encyclopedia Brown On The Case

It looks like we're going to have to add another three-letter acronym to our vocabulary in a hurry, because after WMD's and IED's, we're now going to be hearing quite a bit about EFP's (explosively formed penetrators).

A good part of the case laid out by American intelligence supposedly proving that Iran has been supplying Iraqi insurgents with mortar shells and RPG's is based on the weapons' serial numbers:

The shells had serial numbers in English in order to comply with international standards for arms, the officials said. One grenade, for instance, was marked with the serial number P.G.7-AT-1 followed by LOT:5-31-2006. The officials said that the serial numbers clearly identified the grenade as being of Iranian manufacture and the date showed that it had been made in 2006.

Now, here's a question that no one seems to have asked, but that I'm trying to get answered. Is it possible to manufacture these weapons without the serial numbers, or with falsified ones, or to in some other way get around the international weapons standards? And if so, is it likely that the Iranians would leave such an obvious fingerprint on their work? I'll post the answer as soon as I get one.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Building The Case For War

The Bush administration's rollout of the case against Iran is kicking into high gear. We're already familiar with two angles they'll be pursuing: the nuclear proliferation dossier that's been bouncing around for a while now, and the more recently introduced accusations of material support for Iraqi insurgents.

But today the Washington Post shed some light on a possible third angle being developed by the administration: Tehran's handling of known Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives captured while transiting Iran. There's still some inside sparring going on about how hard to push this one, but if it goes down, the argument is based on UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1373.

The first, passed in 1999, effectively froze the Taliban out of the international community. The second, passed in the aftermath of Sept. 11, basically called on all member states to combat terrorism through, among other measures, refraining from active or passive support of known terrorists, and through denying safe haven and transit.

The Post states that the resolutions authorize the use of force, although it's ambiguous whether they're citing the administration's claim or making it themselves. Of course, at the time everyone seemed to agree that we'd invaded Afghanistan without any explicit Security Council resolution authorizing it.

Now six years down the line, the resolutions that didn't authorize an invasion of Afghanistan somehow do authorize an invasion of Iran. Don't you love it when that happens?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iran   

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Constant Partial Engagement

Josh Marshall made the point at the end of a recent post that however disastrous our Iraq adventure turns out to be, we as a country will survive it. It's a point that bears repeating: Contrary to the fear-mongering of the past four years, America does not face an existential threat. Neither in al Qaeda or Iraq.

And as important as it is to contain the fallout of the Iraq War, the same holds true should the neocons get their wish for a military confrontation with Iran. The danger of such a confrontation is not so much Iran's capacity for response, which though greater than Iraq's will remain limited and asymmetric. America as a nation will survive them. But at what cost?

The neocons' grand vision for re-making the Middle East into a liberal democracy has been exposed for the collective hallucination that it was. But that pipedream was always a cover for a more realistic project: The conversion of American society to a permanent wartime footing.

A regional shooting war pitting America vs. Iran will result, not in a major conflagration, but in a series of explosive incidents, some more sustained than others, requiring the constant partial engagement of America's military. This at a time when our Armed Forces are already straining from the attrition of four years of war, and having difficulty replenishing both their ranks and hardware.

Of course, America has the excess productive capacity to repair its military, as demonstrated by the staggering $480 billion Pentagon budget for 2008. The figure grows to $715 billion when the supplemental budget requests for the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, as well as global anti-terrorism operations, are factored in.

That represents 6% of US estimated GDP, roughly double what Russia and China, our two principle stragetic rivals for global influence, devote to their military spending. A sustained conflict with Iran would obviously only widen the gap, while making the reinstitution of the draft inevitable.

The question isn't whether or not America, the economy, can sustain it. It can. The question is whether America, the nation, can. I, for one, have my doubts.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Friday, February 9, 2007

Stormy Weather

We've all heard alot about the Iraq War's ramifications on the regional balance of power in the Middle East. Not so much has been mentioned, though, about two other major consequences it's had on the broader geopolitical chessboard. Namely, the widening divergence between Europe's regional interests and our own, and the increasingly aggressive posture taken by the Russians vis à vis American militarism. Throw in an Iranian regime cagily seeking to leverage any advantage it can, an Indian economy glowing red-hot, and the international ambitions of the Chinese and you've got the makings of a multi-polar counterweight to American unilateralism.

The glue that could conceivably hold it all together? Natural gas. Specifically, Iran and Russia's abundance of it, and the European, Indian and Chinese markets for it. Between China and India's energy appetite, Europe's desire to diversify its gas supplies, Iran's need to peel off allies in its regional rivalry with the US, and Russia's interest in both securing energy markets and countering America's influence in Eurasia, there are all the makings of a perfect storm.

Oh, and... guess who plays the boat?

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Tit For Tat?

Here's a story that will undoubtedly pick up steam, and I've got a hunch sooner rather than later. An Iranian diplomat, Jalal Sharafi, was abducted on Sunday in Baghdad by up to 30 armed men in Iraqi Army uniforms. Sound familiar? Maybe that's because of the incident in Karbala in late January, when four US soldiers were abducted and killed by a group masquerading as American GI's. American officials were quick to suggest Iranian involvement after that attack. So it should come as no surprise that in calling for Sharafi's release, Iran has put the blame for his abduction directly at America's feet.

Four Iraqi military officers are already in custody for the abduction, but questions remain about whose orders they were carrying out. Iraq and the US both deny any involvement, with the Iraqi Foreign Minister adding an expression of embarassment at the country's failure to uphold its obligation to protect the foreign diplomatic corps.

Now, I'm not sure which would be more alarming, this being an American operation, or the work of a rogue element within the Iraqi Army. The consequences of American involvement seem pretty clear: Escalation of the simmering proxy war between us and Iran.

But if this turns out to be an Iraqi job, it could mean that an internal conflict is brewing between Iraqi Shiites who embrace Iran and those who don't. At which point, there will be very little left of an Iraqi state to support. Whichever way this one heads, it's going to open up a can of worms.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   International Relations   Iran   

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Saturday, February 3, 2007

Must Read McClatchy

It just occured to me as I was clicking the "Must Read" checkbox on yet another McClatchy News Service article that these guys have been doing some of the best reporting on Iraq & Iran out there. Plus, they've got a bunch of "inside Iraq" blogs, from both Iraqi journalists and Iraqi-based American reporters. If you're not already checking in with them, you should be.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Media Coverage   

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Friday, February 2, 2007

Chirac Goes Nuclear

There are no do-overs in life and politics, according to Hillary Clinton. Apparently, nobody passed the word to Jacques Chirac. In an interview given to the Times, the IHT and the Nouvel Obs on Monday, Chirac raised some eyebrows with his comments about a nuclear Iran. On Tuesday, he hurriedly called the reporters back to the Elysée to retract and amend the offending comments. He claimed he had believed he was speaking off the record, and that the remarks were not reflective of either French policy or his own opinion.

Too bad, because they're kind of refreshing in their candor, and they don't strike me as being so far off the mark:

"I would say that what is dangerous about this situation is not the fact of having a nuclear bomb... But what is very dangerous is proliferation..."

Chirac explained that it would be an act of self-destruction for Iran to use a nuclear weapon against another country. "Where will it drop it, this bomb? On Israel?" Chirac asked. "It would not have gone off 200 meters into the atmosphere before Tehran would be razed to the ground..."

During the Monday interview, Chirac made clear that a more profound problem than Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon was that a nuclear-armed Iran might encourage other regional players to follow suit.

"...Why wouldn't Saudi Arabia do it? Why wouldn't it help Egypt to do so as well? That is the real danger."

You don't expect a guy who's been in politics as long as Jacques Chirac has (40 years) to make that kind of blunder. Which leads me to wonder whether it really was a blunder. Despite the hurried retraction and universal disavowal, Chirac's point strikes me as valid, namely that in a region like the Middle East, a nuclear bomb is more of an insurance policy than a threat. But the resulting instability due to proliferation drastically reduces even the security function.

Intelligence estimates vary wildly on how far away the Iranians are from having a bomb, but there doesn't seem to be much doubt that that's the direction they're heading in. And with the current political climate vis à vis pre-emptive military interventions, there may not be anything we can do to stop it.

So why not a little slip of the tongue to let the Iranians (and the Saudis and Egyptians) know that, sure, they might get a bomb eventually. But when they do, the rules of nuclear engagement, ie. mutually assured destruction, will apply.

Posted by Judah in:  International Relations   Iran   

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Thursday, February 1, 2007

Taking Down The Veep

Here's a thought: It's clear that impeaching Bush is a non-starter. But remember that Senate investigation on pre-War intelligence? The one where in exchange for greenlighting a preliminary report scapegoating the various spook agencies for bad intelligence, Senate Dems wrangled a follow-up investigation (yet to happen) on how the administration manipulated the intelligence to make their case for war?

Well, it's always been pretty clear to people who followed it closely that the Iraq misinformation campaign was run out of the Office of the Vice President. So what if instead of going after the follow-up investigation in committee, Congressional Dems use an impeachment proceeding against Dick Cheney to shine some light on the matter? Given his polling numbers, Congressional Republicans don't have much to gain by sticking their necks out for him, and he can't be wrapped in the commander-in-chief blanket like Bush can. So I imagine he'd make a vulnerable target. It would be an extremely aggressive way for the legislative branch to make it clear that there are consequences for executive overreach. And it would have the added advantage of depriving Bush of his hit man, which usually reveals bullies for the cowards they are.

Finally, the timing couldn't be better, since it might keep the administration from pulling pages out of that particular playbook to start a war with Iran. What do you say? Can it fly?

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   Iraq   Politics   

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Iran Threat, Real And Imagined

To follow up on a point I made here, for at least a generation or so, it's been something of a truism when talking about the Middle East that a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the sine qua non of regional stability. Without denying the poisonous impact it's had on the neighborhood, I think that particular conflict has also served as something of a smokescreen to help Arab states mask their own internal faultlines. Faultlines that for the most part (the Iran-Iraq War and the Lebanese Civil War are obvious exceptions) remained manageable for as long as the status quo among the Arab powers held.

One of the original propositions of the Iraq War advocates was that in the aftermath of Sept. 11th, the status quo in the Middle East was no longer acceptable. Invading Iraq was a way to shake things up and see how they re-settled. Of course, what's primarily emerged from our reckless experiment is the threat of Iran as an unchecked regional power. Which has scared the daylights out of all the interested parties, most of whom were doing just fine with business as usual. And one of the big winners of this collective shift of focus has been Israel, who suddenly finds itself spared its traditional role of scapegoat for all the region's problems.

So I don't think it's a big surprise that one of the loudest voices pumping the Iranian threat right now happens to belong to the Israelis. According to this article in the Observer about the pitiful state of the Iranian nuclear effort, the Israelis have mounted a vigorous campaign to convince the major players that 2007 is a red letter year for intervening, despite the fact that Mohammed El-Baradei recently pointed out at the Davos Forum that the Iranians are at least half a decade from being able to produce a nuclear device.

Now Iran's ability to cause trouble is hardly limited to their acquisition of a nuclear weapon. There wouldn't be so many people scrambling to find ways to contain them if that were the case. But there are a variety of ways to accomplish that end without setting off a certain regional conflagration. (Steve Clemons has a post about how the Saudis plan to use the price of oil to take a bite out of Iran's cash flow here.) Here's hoping we explore some of them before it's too late.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   International Relations   Iran   Iraq   

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Try Stopping This

That seems to be Iran's response to America deploying Patriot anti-missile batteries in strategic locations around the Gulf. How else can you explain their decision to conduct three days of War Games, complete with test-firing of their latest missiles, in the desert north of Tehran? One thing you can say for them: they don't seem to be planning on going out like Khaddafi. Of course, there's only one way to know for sure if they've got more bite behind their bark than Saddam Hussein did. Something tells me W. is going to try his best to find out.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   

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