Sunday, September 30, 2007

Presentation by Gary Samore on Iranian Nuclear Issue

I found this link through Arms Control Wonk. A blog that strikes me as generally connected with and reflective of the US foreign policy community on the issue of proliferation of non-conventional weapons. The presentation is by Gary Samore, who has held various high positions in the foreign policy establishment and is as connected as it is possible to be while still able to speak publicly.

Watching the presentation on youtube, several things strike me.

1 - This guy uses "nuclear weapon" and "nuclear weapon option" also "nuclear armed" and having a "nuclear weapon capability" interchangeably. Outside of the US foreign policy establishment, they really are very different concepts. Different in the same way "sexually active" is different from "pregnant". I've seen this described as groupthink. Being in a community that has trained itself to conflate the terms until I have doubts that he is aware of when he goes from one term to the other.

2 - He says that a consensus is forming that Iran will end up with domestic enrichment. Umm. If Condoleeza Rice was to say that Iran would accept whatever safeguards Samore says would be necessary and this "crisis" such as it is would be over. But sanctions actually are the point. The US has found an issue that Iran won't back down on that it can use to get other countries to join the sanctions the US had been imposing unilaterally since the revolution, and that really is the point of this exercise.

3 - He says Russia's view is that once Iran answers the questions, it is entitled to nuclear technology like everyone else, but he says Russia agrees with the US that Iran should not have a nuclear weapon. Russia is not part of the US establishment that has turned "nuclear armed" and "nuclear capable" into the same term and Samore's failure to see the contradiction comes from the blurring of terms that Samore has accepted.

4 - He also says the US is betting that Iran will not answer the questions. I expect there to be a difference of opinion, meaning I expect the US to say whatever Iran said is not enough, but since the issue at hand is capability, not an actual weapon, Iran really has nothing to hide. Now, Iran will balk before giving coordinates to any p2 research facilities so they won't be bombed. Other than that, Iran has no reason to be anything but open. Again this comes from not making a distinction between weapons option and weapon. Iran doesn't have to hide a program just because it could give it a weapons option.

5 - I've never seen this point made but Israel cannot attack Iran without flying over US controlled airspace. It is just not possible so the US has a veto over an Israeli attack, and everyone in the region knows it. So regardless of how dire Israel perceives the situation, the most it can do is ask the US for permission to attack, and if that permission is denied, Israel has to wait. Samore, like most US commentators on this issue seems to view Israel as more distinct from the US than it is in practical terms when it comes to bombing or threatening to bomb Iran.

6 - Samore says that for the Europeans, the aim of the sanctions was to separate Rafsanjani from Ahmadinejad. How silly is that? To split the two, the West would have to make a demand that Rafsanjani might accept that Ahmadinejad might not accept. The demand for a suspension of enrichment is rejected equally by both. How could sanctions for failing to suspend create a split? Samore is speaking of it as if it makes sense. He must realize that makes no sense.

7 - Answering a question about carrots, Samore says that Iran knows what incentives are on offer but does not want what is on offer. I've posted earlier to explain my belief that the Iranian perception is that literally nothing is on offer. If that belief is wrong, and sanctions are not the whole point of the exercise, then putting a specific deal on the table, as opposed to an offer for talks, would be productive.

8 - The case Samore makes for suspension as a basis for negotations is "negotiations without a suspension wouldn't work, from North Korea we see that unless the program is suspended the West would have very little leverage." That's not a strong case unless you are already convinced. In North Korea's case would a requirement for a verified suspension before negotiations have gotten a verified suspension or would it have just prevented negotiations? North Korea would be poorer, with more people starving but with more nuclear devices today if an Iranian strategy had been followed. In other words, a lot more dangerous and threatening to US interests in that region.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Escalation Dominance and Strategic Dominance

In July a report by Michael Gerson was published in the Washington Post and reprinted in other locations. It was the first place I had seen the idea advanced that, in the eyes of US military planners, Iran has achieved escalation dominance over the US.

Beyond Iraq's borders, the options become difficult: engaging in hot pursuit against weapon supply lines over the Iranian border, or striking explosive factories and staging areas within Iran. This sort of escalation is opposed both by the Iraqi government and by American military leaders. The Department of Defense fears what is called “escalation dominance” – meaning that in a broadened conflict, the Iranians could complicate our lives in Iraq and the region more than we complicate theirs.

"Escalation dominance" was a new term to me, but the argument that the US ability to strike Iran was limited by the fact that Iran would win the following war was old. I took mental note of the article though, because it quietly said that the US military establishment does have enough sense to understand that attacking Iran would hurt the US strategically - and over the medium to long term it would hurt the US more than it would hurt Iran.

If the US understands this, it becomes really difficult to imagine the US knowingly taking counterproductive step of bombing Iran either over arms to the militias or over the nuclear program. The use of that term means the US understands the concept. I took it as that, but nothing more.

Gareth Porter though, has brought the term into public view for the second time with an interesting connection that I've seen hinted about but never made explicitly.

The Bush administration now believes that Iran's "larger strategic aim" in allegedly providing modern weapons such as 240mm rockets to Shi'ite militias targeting US and coalition forces in Iraq is "to attempt to establish escalation dominance in Iraq and strategic dominance outside", according to the official.

The official said, "Escalation dominance means you can control the pace of escalation." That term has always been used to refer to the ability of the US to threaten another state with overwhelming retaliation to deter it from responding to US force. The official defined "strategic dominance" as meaning that "you are perceived as the dominant center in the region".

Here "escalation dominance", a term I read in public in July, can be converted to Iran being "perceived as the dominant center in the region". And this perception is one that the US is scrambling to find a way to counter.

Today the team of the US and Israel are perceived as the dominant power in the region. I always laugh when US commentators, advocates or diplomats speak of the fear the Arab countries have of the Iran achieving this perception of dominance. Firstly because there has never been a direct quote to support the idea, and second it does not make sense. The Arabs like the US and Israel more?

Condoleeza Rice (among many others) consistently says this from one venue to another with a straight face. As far as I've seen, she's never been challenged on it. I'm always puzzled about the boundary between the US' naive lack of understanding of the region and cynical US attempts to deceive others. The US naivety though, is the result of years of compounded self-deception. There is now a reflexive tendency of US commentators, advocates and diplomats to divert attention away from the basic unpopularity in the Middle East, even among the elite who tolerate it for various corrupt reasons, of the Zionist project.

Escalation dominance in Iraq which can lead to strategic dominance in the region. The story of the Middle East right now is the story of the US scramble to avert or deal with these realities.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ahmadinejad never denied the Holocaust either

I've written about this before, but its been a while and we are seeing this claim made so often recently that I am revisiting it.

It is now well known that Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never said Israel should be wiped off the map. His real statement was that the Zionist regime should be removed from history as were his examples the USSR, the Shah's regime in Iran and Hussein's regime. His real statement is just as offensive to supporters of Israel, but not as demonizing.

But I often see formulations such as "I can't support Ahmadinejad because he is a Holocaust denier but he never called for the physical destruction of Israel". The second part is true. The first part, not so much.

The origin is a statement Ahmadinejad made, if my memory serves, in December 2006 about Western Holocaust-denial laws: They have taken this myth and elevated it even over the word of God. A person can be imprisoned for questioning it. [Edit: My memory didn't serve, it was December 2005, thanks Ziad.]

The word here being translated as myth is likely more neutrally translated as "story". But even the word myth in this context would not be used as an assertion of untruth. He is talking about the status given to the story itself. His point does not require an assertion that the story is not true and he didn't make an assertion that the story, or even myth, is not true.

The assertion of the sentence is not that the Holocaust story is false, but that it has been put into a sacred category of stories whose questioning can lead to physical punishment at the hands of the state. His point is that the West is more crass than the Muslim world, because while the Muslim world will punish people for blaspheming God or what they consider the word of God, the West ignores blasphemy against God but punishes public doubters of the Holocaust story.

Ahmadinejad has been asked about this essentially in every interview of any length since. He has consistently made the following points in response:

  • He does not support Hitler, whom he considers a criminal.
  • He is against Hitler's or any killing of innocents, including Jews and also including Muslims killed by Israel and the United States more recently.
  • He opposes giving Jews a special place in what, according to him, is the nearly 60 million civilian victims of World War II.
  • He opposes using the story of the Holocaust to support the dispossession and continuing oppresion of the Palestinians.
  • He believes the protected status of the Holocaust story is illogical and connected to the story's use as justification for crimes against the Palestinians
  • He considers Zionism an evil, non-religious, political movement that he opposes though he does not oppose Judaism, which is separate, as a religion.

In these interviews and other speeches that have mentioned the Holocaust, he has never expressed sympathy for Hitler, the Nazis or their beliefs. He has never presented any number of victims of the Holocaust as true or untrue. He has never expressed any doubt in the story. His only points have been that it should be possible to study and to revise the story without government censure, as every other story in the West can be studied and revised, and the story should not be used to punish the Palestinians.

Ahmadinejad has only brought up the story of the Holocaust to protest its use to harm Palestinians and to criticize what he sees as Western hypocrisy in disputing the status Iran gives the story of God, while extending a similar status to the story of the Holocaust.

An actual denial of the Holocaust made by Ahmadinejad does not exist. There has been no statement of the form: "the Holocaust did not happen", "only x million Jews were killed by Hitler" or "the amount of Jews commonly claimed to have been killed is false."

Ahmadinejad does oppose Zionism though, and that puts him onto unstable emotional terrain in the West. Supporters of Israel feel a strong emotional need to demonize him as much as they can. As hard as it has been to relent on the claim that he called for the physical destruction of Israel it will be just as hard and take just as long for supporters of Israel to admit Ahmadinejad has not actually denied the Holocaust.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Lebanon bombing

The big Middle East story today is all the talk, with France joining in, about bombing Iran. Except that bombing won't happen for the next couple of years, I don't have much to say.

The conflict though is usually misleadingly (deliberately misleadingly) characterized as the US attempting to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. What is at issue here is Iran having the technological capability, in theory, to build a weapon. I've read it described as a "weapons option".

Many NPT non-weapons states have a "weapons option", including some that have been caught with advanced weapons programs. Weapons-option states include Taiwan, South Korea, Romania, Brazil, the Netherlands and Japan. Having a weapons option is in no way inconsistent with the non-proliferation treaty Iran ratified, or with the additional protocols to that treaty that Iran has offered to ratify after having its right to enrich uranium is reaffirmed.

The US position that Iran does not have a right to have the technology that would make it a weapons-option state is so unreasonable that I've never seen it defended by any of its supporters. It violently contradicts the technology with discrimination clause of the NPT.

Anyway, Iran is likely to pass 3000 centrifuges over the next year and the US is not likely to bomb Iran in response. Just because bombing Iran would bring Iran closer to a weapon, would strengthen Iran's leadership's standing with its population and accelerate the forced withdrawal of the US from Iraq at least and maybe Afganistan also.

But Lebanon is at least equally interesting right now.

Lebanon's population lurched in the anti-Western direction after last year's war and I expected Lebanon's government to reflect that by now.

Slightly unfortunately for my record as a predictor, but very unfortunately for the people of Lebanon, the US, with Saudi help, has managed to keep political power in Lebanon in the hands of pro-Western forces that are dramatically unrepresentative of the population of the country.

People, democracy is a good thing. And not just when the side you want is winning. This goes for Lebanon and also for US efforts to isolate Sadr and Iraqi nationalists in Iraq and for Hamas.

Keeping the side that wins or that would win out of power is always a bad idea because the same resources that side could use to win the elections, it can use to win a non-electoral struggle that is much more destructive.

Is this a matter of naivety or is it that in all cases, Israel and the US would rather see destructive conflicts than a peaceful process that puts anti-Israel/US/West forces in power? I'm not sure there's a practical difference, meaning I'm not sure the answer matters in real life, but I tend to take cynicism over stupidity as an explanation for US actions in the Middle East maybe too often.

Stupidity and naivety are random. They would cause the US to randomly allow elections in Palestine, not realizing their side would lose. Or giving in to Sistani on elections in 2003, before the Shiites began systematically consolidating their power, and watching their leverage decrease steadily ever since.

But not only does it make sense that Israel would rather its rivals be divided and debilitated by internal conflict than stable, Israeli strategists have explicitly stated this preference. So in this situation it is very difficult to imagine a string of coincidences that have lead in Israel's preferred direction consistently whenever there has been US involvement in the Middle East.

But another pro-Western politician was killed recently in Lebanon. How much better it would have been for one-person one-vote elections to have sent him or other people in his side to retirement.

At this point I'm curious, is the plan really to kill three or four more politicians and call a vote? The pro-Western Lebanese really wouldn't rather just call a vote now? Or does the West have some leverage over them that their own preferences don't matter?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Threat of Iran's Nuclear Program

I read today again that Iran having a nuclear weapons capability - which spelled out means the technology to build a weapon inside its borders - would lead to an arms race. Like a lot of analysis of the Middle East, that statement is more deliberately misleading than true, yet not an outright lie.

The type of rivalry that would lead, say Saudi Arabia to arm itself for a nuclear attack against Iran or to contemplate a nuclear retaliation against any kind of attack by Iran does not exist. And any rivalry with Egypt or Turkey is even less consequential.

The phrase "arms race" as used in this context by western commentators, deliberately draws this false picture. Iran would in no plausible context race against any of the other Muslim nations to create MAD, or second strike capabilities or any of the concepts that characterized the famous arms race between the US and USSR.

Actually though, Iran having a nuclear capability would spur the other Muslim nations to do the same. An arms race between Iran and Turkey? No. An arms race between the Muslim world and Israel.

Planners in US allies - and the most shameful aspect of US global policy is these pro-Israel corrupt dictatorships the US counts as allies in the Middle East - today are able to say to themselves primarily and also to their colleagues and lastly to their populations whose opinions they value lightly that the US will not tolerate any Muslim nation in the region having a nuclear capability. They don't like it, but it is the way of the world, they say to themselves.

Iran having a domestic enrichment plan smashes that. Not only has Iran offered to teach enrichment to any Muslim nation that asks, but when these planners look in the mirror they have to see their eyes and they couldn't look into their own eyes knowing they go along with the US desire for Israel to have a nuclear monopoly after Iran has shown it does not have to be tolerated.

It is very interesting to see the efforts western commentators are willing to expend to distract their audience away from Israel. A reader of these reports will get the false impression that the US is protecting, say Kuwait's interests from a nuclear-capable Iran. Iran being nuclear capable, without building a bomb is no threat to Kuwait or any of the Muslim states. Saudi Arabia, from memory, has actually announced that Iran having nuclear technology without a weapon is not a threat.

Israel is threatened by an Iranian program even if no weapon is produced - which is why the US position is that Iran must not have a program that could produce a weapon. Israel does not hope to actually use its weapons, but to keep the threat of their use to prevent conflicts from escalating to the point where Israel itself is threatened. That threat is blunted if Iran can announce that six months after Cairo is destroyed, Tel Aviv will be destroyed. Just the counter-threat reduces the power of the threat. In Iran's case no actual weapon has to be made.

Iran wants to be able to make that counter-threat, but Cairo, Baghdad, Riyadh and Demascus all being able to make the same counter-threat is seen in Tehran as a good thing.

So it is possible to say Iran being nuclear capable would spur an arms race, especially if I ignore the attempt by the commenter making the claim to distract attention away from Israel. But it is important to be clear, the race is not an actual arms race, and it is certainly not a race between Muslim states. The race is a race of threats and counter-threats and the participants are all of the Muslim states as one side and Israel as the other side.

Friday, September 14, 2007

US Democrats More Afraid for Israel than of Obstructionism Charge

Juan Cole suggests that Democrats do not cut funding for the war, which they could do with their bare majority today because they are afraid of being painted as obstructionists by the Republicans which might lead Republicans to win seats in a future election.

That doesn't make much sense to me, and this is a good segue into just how damaging for Israel a US withdrawal from Iraq would be.

The Democratic party just doesn't seem willing to differentiate itself from the Republicans in any practical way on this issue.

The problem is that mainstream Democrats do not want to withdraw from Iraq. To figure out why, we have to look at what will happen if the US withdraws.

Iran would reach out to the Saudis to stabilize the country, as is consistent with their interests and as they are repeatedly saying.

Iran and the Saudis together would certainly do a better job stabilizing the country and resolving the differences between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds than the US can do.

If Iraq is to be held together, it will be held together by a Shiite Iraqi nationalist who is in the mainstream of Iraqi political thought, which is to say anti-Western/anti-Zionist (like Sadr). Iran and Saudi Arabia together can make that happen. The US cannot.

But the down side would be that Saudi Arabia would increase its cooperation with Iran and a unified democratic Iraq would vote by a landslide to join the Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria anti-Western/anti-Zionist configuration. That configuration would end up taking power in Lebanon (it does have the most votes now in any one-person one-vote arrangement) and start pressuring Jordan.

Saudi Arabia in these circumstances would strongly consider joining that configuration itself.

A US pullout would be an absolute nightmare for Israel. Yeah, it would save maybe hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, hundreds of billions of US military dollars and several hundred US troops per year but Israel's medium and longer-term viability as a Jewish state would be maybe fatally jeopardized.

To the degree that the US has interests that are separate from Israel's, there would not be much direct harm to US interests from a withdrawal. The Saudis and Iraqis would still sell oil, eventually at a lower price when Iraqi production comes on line and the country has stabilized.

This is a clear example of a divergence of interests between the US and Israel. Elements of the US political system sympathetic to Israel will have the US pursue a policy that is harmful to the US but essential for Israel.

So the Democrats are not taking effective action to force a withdrawal because they don't want a withdrawal.

The Democrats would ignore the charge of obstructionists the same way they ignore the charge of baby-killers over abortion - they have similar majorities of the public on their supposed side of both issues.

The United States at some point will have to begin a discussion about how much it is worth to US interests to ensure that Israel has a Jewish majority forever.

Israel accepting Palestinian refugees could be a peaceful, permanent solution to the Arab-Zionism dispute but would leave the Middle East without a Jewish state. How many US soldiers and resources is the US willing to sacrifice to prevent that is a question that is being answered by events as we speak.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Saudis and Palestine

A Hamas spokesman told AFP on Monday that ousted Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya was prepared to meet with Abbas in Saudi Arabia to try to resolve the crisis on the basis of the Mecca accord.

The official Saudi account of the talks suggested Abbas had been assured of Riyadh's support.

The Saudi and Palestinian leaders discussed "the need to remove internal differences amongst the Palestinians... and return the situation to what it was," the state SPA news agency reported.

It said they also reviewed international efforts to activate the stalled Middle East peace process.

Saudi Arabia.

Reports about Saudi Arabia in regional relations almost always paraphrase Saudi statements. That makes me suspicious because I get the feeling there sometimes is an element of hopeful or wishful thinking on the part of Western Middle East analysts.

My feeling is the Saudis are less enthusiastic supporters of the West than Western analysts want to believe and their statements may have double edges that readers of the Western press are protected from. The Saudis right now are certainly less hostile to Iran than is commonly presented.

But it cannot be denied that Saudi Arabia often ends up on the side of Israel conflicting with other Arabs or Muslims. You never saw Nasser ally with Israel to confront Saudi Arabia, but you saw the other way around. You never saw Iran ally with Israel, or Syria ally with Israel. Somehow Saudi Arabia often ends up in these tacit allegiances with the United States and Israel against other Muslims but somehow the Saudis still claim to be leaders of the Muslim world. Weird.

And here we have the Saudis, claiming some principle or another, supporting Abbas along with Israel and George Bush.

How unfortunate it is for the people of the Middle East that Saudi Arabia is not a democracy. But the Saudi version of the Shah remains the most ardent defender of Israel in the Middle East. It is difficult to understand why this is so. One day I hope to ask a Saudi official what the story is.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Is Germany off the Team?

Four months since I've posted. Sorry.,2933,296450,00.html

Germany — a pivotal player among three European nations to rein in Iran's nuclear program over the last two-and-a-half years through a mixture of diplomacy and sanctions supported by the United States — notified its allies last week that the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel refuses to support the imposition of any further sanctions against Iran that could be imposed by the U.N. Security Council.

The announcement was made at a meeting in Berlin that brought German officials together with Iran desk officers from the five member states of the Security Council. It stunned the room, according to one of several Bush administration and foreign government sources who spoke to FOX News, and left most Bush administration principals concluding that sanctions are dead.

The Germans voiced concern about the damaging effects any further sanctions on Iran would have on the German economy — and also, according to diplomats from other countries, gave the distinct impression that they would privately welcome, while publicly protesting, an American bombing campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Germany's withdrawal from the allied diplomatic offensive is the latest consensus across relevant U.S. agencies and offices, including the State Department, the National Security Council and the offices of the president and vice president. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns, the most ardent proponent of a diplomatic resolution to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions, has had his chance on the Iranian account and come up empty.

The Fox News article continues with supposed US plans to bomb Iran. A week of bombing to destroy Iran's air defenses and then the attack on Iran's nuclear installations.

How will Iran respond? According to this article, Iran won't respond in any significant way. Iran is already doing all it can to hurt the US in Iraq and can't do any real harm anywhere else.

Maybe you laughed out loud at the previous paragraph, maybe that seems plausible to you. In either case, there is nothing further I need to say on that matter.

The interesting issue is not the bomb plans that gave the article its headline. It is the defection from the sanctions regime by Germany.

If this is true, this is a huge story. No, there will not be a bombing of Iran unless Tehran has Cheney on its payroll - which has been alleged with various levels of facetiousness in the past.

My best guess since the IAEA agreement was signed to clear Iran's remaining questions has been that Iran has to a large degree won this conflict. Iran will continue its enrichment program while the most effective charge against it is being removed.

Iran's victory will be solidified when Russia, China or Germany publicly announce that they will not support sanctions if Iran cooperates with clearing the questions or has cleared the questions. Until then, we may be in garbage time, but the game isn't quite over.