Saturday, December 29, 2007

Why the War Over the Legitimacy of Israel is Lost

In the long term, the US is not going to be able to get pro-US dictatorships over the entire Muslim world. Without pro-US dictatorships, the US cannot get governments that will adopt cooperative policies in the supposed "war on terror". Therefore the US will lose the Global War over the Legitimacy of Israel.

I doubt the US will ever successfully get even one more pro-US dictatorship than there is already.

  • No pro-US dictatorship for Pakistan, (Musharraf having to become less pro-US for domestic reasons). The death of Bhutto emphatically marks the end of that dream.
  • None for Palestine (pressure is already building for Abbas to accept Hamas in a unity gov't). The Arabs that the US needs to isolate Hamas are just not willing to do that.
  • None for Lebanon.
  • None for Iraq (Iranian-supported parties will at least be a stakeholder in the country, preventing the US from imposing a dictator who can go against Iraqi wishes on foreign policy)
  • None for Iran (of course regime change is way way way off the table by now)

So since a loss is nearly certain in the long run, it is only a matter of time before US political class understands the impossibility of its global war and withdraws. The US will say in different words: "OK, we cannot convince you to accept leaderships friendly or even tolerant with Israel. What policies would the US have to pursue for you to accept leaderships friendly or at least tolerant of the US?"

This will be seen in Israel, accurately, as a spectacular betrayal or at least abandonment.

Unfortunately, the realization and withdrawal will not be this election cycle, even though some candidates, even a one-time front-runner, seem to see the writing on the wall.

Does Musharraf Benefit From Bhutto's Death?

I'm sure if Sharif had died while Bhutto lived, she would be holding power-sharing negotiations with Musharraf and publicly calling for elections while totally ignoring the Supreme Court and Pakistan's electoral law. I'm sure if only one was to die, Musharraf would have chosen Sharif. Given the choice.

If Musharraf can weather the coming attacks from Sharif on his own, then he might be better off because he does not in that case have to share power. It will be harder and more stressful though. I think Musharraf willingly made the trade and told the world he'd rather Bhutto be there when he allowed her return. Maybe, probably, Musharraf can maintain his grip on power despite opposition, but he'd rather not take the risk.

Even getting both would leave him worse off than if both were still in London. I can't see Musharraf benefiting, or thinking he would benefit from these assassination attempts.

I don't think the attacker expected to kill Bhutto. It is impossible to get close enough to a VIP car in a crowd of supporters to kill the VIP with a suicide bomb on a two-wheel vehicle. The planners of the attack could not have known that Bhutto would be standing out of the sun roof and that the attacker would get a clear shot. I think he carried the gun just in case, or maybe as part of a camoflauge police uniform.

I think the aim of the attacks was to scare people away from her rallies and Bhutto's actual death was unexpected.

Musharraf might have benefitted from an attack, but not a successful one. I'm sure there are many parties that cooperated to bring about the attack. Some pleasantly, maybe some unpleasantly surprised by the result.

A Whole Lot of Kurds Killed By Turkey

Turkeys claims to have killed 150 Kurdish fighters in its attacks on the mountains of Iraq.

Turkish airstrikes on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq have killed more than 150 rebels and hit more than 200 targets in recent days, the Turkish military said Tuesday, countering Kurdish claims that only a handful of people were killed in the attacks.

My only question is how is Turkey sure it didn't kill 1,500 Kurdish rebels, or 1.5 million Kurdish rebels. If they're going to just make up numbers. Maybe the attacks did kill that many.

Of course Turkey knows it cannot accomplish any military objective by attacking dug-in mountain-based guerrilas from the air. This is pure theater aimed at accomplishing political objectives.

The first political objective is to rehabilitate the image of the United States and even Israel in the minds of Turkey's voters. I'm sure it has had some effect. I'm sure that will be countered the next time the Kurds mount an offensive. Kurdish offensives are set to become more deadly and more continuous over time.

A Turkish envoy said here Wednesday it was American intelligence that made Turkey's latest raids in northern Iraq on Kurdish rebels possible.


Personnel from Israel's Aerospace Industries are assisting the Turkish army in activating Israeli-made unmanned aircrafts for use in military operations in Kurdish northern Iraq, Turkish sources were quoted as saying in a report to be published Thursday in the Turkish Daily News.

The second objective is to pressure the US to pressure Kurdish authorities to order the guerrillas to curb their attacks. This is a short term effect that has happened, but guerrillas have ways to use the time productively.

The third objective is to pressure the US to pressure Kurdish authorities to give up Kirkuk. That may work, but Kirkuk is a luxury, not a necessity for Kurdistan. The Kurds have pushed the referendum back 6 months. This will become indefinite, but in the mean time the Kurdish non-oil economy and the oil they actually control will continue to fund the guerrillas who will resume attacks when they feel conditions are favorable.

DebkaFile Thinks US/Iran Deal is Being Reached

I come from a different ideological angle than either Debka or Stratfor, but there really is just not another coherent way to explain the December 2007 NIE. The difference is only in what various explainers think Iran got in exchange for working to calm down Iraq.

The Bush administration appears to be in the midst of developing a new foreign strategy based on five key elements:

  1. The halt of Iranian weapons and road bomb shipments into Iraq for use against US forces;
  2. An Iranian instruction to Hizballah to open the way for the election of a Lebanese president, in return for which Washington will not interfere with the formation of a new government with a place of honor for the Iranian surrogate militia.
    In other words, the Bush administration is not only engaged in a sellout of the Israeli government but also of the pro-Western Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora.
  3. The cessation of Iranian arms and roadside bombs to Afghanistan.
  4. The naming of Saudi Arabia as a channel for arbitrating American and Iranian differences.
  5. A US pledge to backtrack on its charges that the Iran is engaged in developing nuclear weapons. This pledge was embodied in the dramatically revised US National Intelligence Estimate compared with its estimate of 2005, and effectively lifted not only the American military axe from over Iran’s strategic and economic infrastructure – and possibly regime - but also tied Israel’s hands.

That sounds about right. Iran did not and could not promise a long-term US presence in Iraq and in fact Bush can't guarantee that his successor will want a long term presence. The NIE bought a quieter Iraq until the next inauguration, or until the US pulls out which it will.

One quibble is that outside of Israel, the US does not really care about Siniora. Selling out Siniora is not separate from selling out Israel, which really seems to be what Iran demanded and got. Another quibble is that Israel's hands were already tied. And really the US' hands were tied as well, which is why the US has capitulated.

Barak Obama: Far Too Sensible to Be Electable

Would Barak Obama have won the US presidency if he did not hold this position? Maybe, maybe not. Is it possible that he could win with this position? Absolutely not.

And I've already said as president, immediately upon inauguration, I will begin to organize a summit with all the Muslim leaders around the world and have a direct conversation with them, our friends and our enemies, about how we can align the Muslim world against these barbaric actions, against terrorism. I believe that part of that will be to begin phasing out our occupation in Iraq, part of it will involve talking to actors like Iran and Syria, to get them to act more responsibly, part of it will be for us to shut down Guantanamo and restore habeas corpus and send a signal to the world that we're doing things differently. That's the kind of non-conventional thinking and approach that we're going to have to take to reverse the decline in our moral standing around the world that inhibits our ability to actually take on terrorism. That's what it's going to take to make us safer and that's what I intend to do as President of the United States.

The remaining question is will the United States continue to watch its global power decrease while losing its inherently unwinnable Global War Over the Legitimacy of Israel for four, eight or more years after 2008 is over?

Putin in Russia and Hu in China are hoping for at least eight. Olmert hopes the same for different reasons. The people of Iraq, Pakistan, the entire Muslim world and the United States would be much better off if it was shorter.

Sharif Exceeds Expectations

I wondered if Sharif was putting on a show when he asked Bhutto to boycott the elections weeks ago upon his arrival. If they are both on the scene, only one is necessary to give elections enough legitimacy to sustain Musharraf's rule and for one to participate without the other would give the participant a big relative advantage.

Sharif's return to Pakistan, obviously with the consent of Musharraf, indicated to me that a deal had been reached, and that deal would have had Sharif limit his steps to reduce Musharraf's legitimacy in exchange for being allowed back. I still believe Sharif could not have returned without an understanding. Musharraf otherwise could have refused to allow Sharif's plane to land, as Sharif once tried against Musharraf.

But on the day of Bhutto's death, Sharif calls for a boycott of elections and for Musharraf to step down. It was not a dance. Sharif really hoped both sides would boycott and now is free to boycott the elections himself.

Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif announced here Thursday that his party will boycott the scheduled Jan. 8 parliamentary elections after opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was killed in Thursday's suicide attack.

Of course the US opposes both a boycott and the removal of Musharraf from power.

The United States, in the wake of Benazir Bhutto's assassination, is urging all moderate Pakistani political forces including the party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take part in the country's planned elections.

In terms of democracy, rule of law and effective governance advancing Pakistan's view of Pakistani interests, Sharif's recent behavior the best news to come from Pakistan since Musharraf took power.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Fuel Delivered to Bushehr

There seems to be a new dynamic in Iran's foreign relations beginning around the time of the NIE earlier in December 2007. One element of this is that Russia has begun delivering uranium to the Iranian nuclear plant in Bushehr.

The Russian company building the Bushehr plant, Atomstroiexport, said the delivery of the enriched uranium fuel began on Sunday.

The head of Iran's atomic energy agency, Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, later confirmed that the first delivery had arrived, according to Iran's state-run Irna news agency.

It seems to me that an agreement has been reached between the US and Iran. If the US had enough leverage to prevent Russia from delivering fuel in March when the Iranians expected it, then the US has enough leverage now.

It seems that a decision has been made not to apply that leverage. It is possible that the next IAEA report will show that Iran has slowed its enrichment efforts and it is possible that Iran has done nothing except try to calm Iraq.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Do You Want the US to Win or Lose In Iraq?

US supporters of the occupation of Iraq from time to time accuse opponents of hoping for defeat for the United States. I have not seen a good answer to this accusation so far. I gather Juan Cole's response is to challenge the questioner to produce a definition of victory. Once a definition is spelled out, every definition of victory that has been presented so far can then convincingly be shown to be implausible. But that is a complex, multi-step process that Juan Cole can follow because he's bright. It is more likely to confuse than convince Americans who have vastly less background knowledge and interest in foreign policy than he has.

My answer is to give my own definition of victory. To the question "Do you want the United States to win the war in Iraq?" my answer is "Yes. I want the United States to win by establishing a secure democracy in Iraq."

But part of victory is that if Iraq's voters not want foreign troops they have the right and the power to instruct the foreign troops to leave. The United States has said it would remain in Iraq as a bulwark against Iran. If Iraq is a democracy, and Iraq's voters do not want to be a bulwark against Iran, Iraq will not be a bulwark against Iran.

In meetings late Wednesday with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, Mr. Gates said the United States viewed Iraq, despite the close ties between some in its Shiite-dominated government and Shiite Iran, as a bulwark against Tehran, said a senior Defense Department official.

"Our Arab friends tend to see Iraq in the context of the new challenge from Iran," the official said. "That’s clearly the Saudi perspective. So the secretary was able to reassure them that we want an Iraq that is a barrier against Iranian expansionism."

Part of victory - part of creating a democratic Iraq - is giving up the idea of Iraq will or should, against the will of its voters, support the US vision of the Middle East.

Part of victory - part of creating a democratic Iraq - is accepting the idea that Iraq's voters may support Hamas and Hezbollah. Part of victory is accepting that Iraq may not accept a two state solution in Israel. Accepting that Iraq may not agree that Israel remaining a Jewish state is more important than returning the refugees. Accepting that Iraq may see the thousands of people killed by Bin Laden on 9/11 as a smaller crime than the thousands of people killed by Bush as a result of the US invasion of Iraq or by Olmert through the Israeli attacks on Lebanon.

Part of victory is the creation of a state that has the right to choose to be more helpful to Iran than it is to Israel, the United States or Saudi Arabia. And the fact is that Iraq's voters are likely to exercise that right if they are given it.

If supporters of the occupation want more than that, and they do, what they want is not the creation of a stable and democratic Iraq. What they want can only be given by an authoritarian dictatorship like those of Egypt and Jordan. What they want is to replace Hussein with a pro-US Hussein. Not only is the goal of supporters of the occupation immoral, but it is structurally impossible to accomplish - as Juan Cole can point out.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Is Bushehr Going Ahead? Also Russia and China's New Trade Announcements

I have to say I'll believe this when I see it.

Iran and Russia have resolved all disputes holding up construction of the Islamic republic's first nuclear power station at Bushehr, the head of the Russian contractor said on Thursday.

"The difficulties with the Iranian client are resolved and we have an agreement on the timetable for construction," said the head of the Atomstroiexport company, Sergei Shmatko, at a briefing with journalists.

... ... ...

"As we've already said the fuel will be delivered about half a year before the technological start up of Bushehr.

"As this theme is too politicised we have decided not to announce the date of delivery of fuel. You'll hear of the fact of delivery when it's delivered," Shmatko said.

Maybe. I'm not sure Bushehr will become operational before the US joins negotiations. And I don't expect that to be until after the Bush presidency is over. On the other hand, maybe this time the Russians have made a different decision.

My feeling though, is that China and Russia making announcements of increased trade with Iran is a direct result of the NIE.

China's Sinopec Corp has agreed to buy from National Iranion Oil Company about 160,000 barrels per day of crude under a one-year pact for 2008, nearly tripling the current level, a trading source said on Thursday.

"The deal has been finalised," the Beijing-based trading source close to the deal told Reuters.


Trade between Russia and Iran more than doubled in January-September 2007 to $2.2 billion, the Russian co-chairman of the bilateral inter-governmental commission said on Thursday.

Sergei Kiriyenko, who was yesterday appointed by the Russian president to head state-controlled nuclear power corporation Rosatom, and Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki chaired on Thursday a session of the inter-governmental commission.

The nuclear issue, from Europe's point of view is a short-term tactical consideration, but it is now risking a long-term strategic commercial and industrial alignment by Iran away from Europe towards Russia and China.

If Hamas Won, When and How Would We Know?

In South Africa, the ANC had won after the elections where Black people waited behind six hour lines and voted. Then those votes were counted and the ANC - which had been banned from politics the election before as a terrorist organization - took its position as the Parliamentary majority entitled to name the Prime Minister. At that point it was unarguable that at least the political element of the ANC's struggle had been won.

Everyone who could read knew by that point that the ANC had won. But astute observers who had been closely following events there may have seen earlier signs before election day that the dynamic had shifted structurally into the ANC's favor.

When the Apartheid authorities expressed an interest in releasing Mandela on the condition that he negotiate limited sovereignty homelands that could have been a sign for the astute observer. The most important attribute of the separate state homelands would have been that they would have isolated the White electoral majority from the Black demographical majority effectively under Apartheid control.

Mandela and the Black leadership rightly rejected the multi-state solution. But before the offer was made, changes had occured in the international environment that gave the ANC a long term position that was stronger than Apartheid's position. These changes were why the offer was made, and as soon as those changes were apparent, an observer would have had reason to expect an ANC victory. The struggle continued until election day, as did the need to remain vigilant, but there was a reasonable expectation of an eventual ANC victory earlier than that.

In the case of South Africa, domestic changes in the West and especially in the US made foreign support for Apartheid continually more scarce and less effective. Foreign support for the ANC was trending the opposite direction. When the direction of the trends became clear it also became clear that proponents of Apartheid would either have to negotiate a step-down or eventually lose a conflict of some sort that would force a step-down. This became clear before the ANC actually had more resources or effective support than Apartheid.

In the case of Palestine, we may have already crossed the point where support for the Palestinians, including Hamas, is trending up and effective support for Zionism is trending down. There has not been the domestic reframe of the conflict that occurred in the case of Apartheid in the US and Europe. It seems that opposition to Zionism may have become slightly more articulate but there is no wide perception, at least yet, that support for Zionism is morally despicable as support for Apartheid was before Mandela's election day.

But strategically, Iran is in a stronger and less vulnerable position today than any of the previous foreign supporters of the Palestinians.

On the nuclear issue, whether it was a mistake or deliberate, (I don't believe the United States is capable of making a mistake with consequences as clear, immediate and predictable as the release of the NIE when it did. For example, the US may have gotten a third sanctions resolution stronger than anything it will ever get from now on if it had released this NIE 90 days later.) the US has capped the pressure on Iran at a level Iran is clearly comfortable bearing indefinitely.

There is no longer a plausible scenario where Iran is not nuclear capable ten years from now. Before there was an idea that maybe the US will get really stringent sanctions, or maybe someone will bomb something. I've always considered both of these implausible scenarios but post NIE it seems every Western commentator and the Western foreign policy communities are willing to accept the conclusion that neither stringent sanctions or a military attack are available options.

More importantly but probably relatedly, the US position in Iraq and Afghanistan are effectively consuming all of US and Western available land forces. Iran if it wants, can maintain this situation forever. Iran can maintain this situation forever with nearly no effort, a tiny, deniable, undetectable amount of effort if it requires any effort at all. I'm sure China and Russia are privately counselling Iran to just keep them there.

From Western commentators today we are seeing increasingly frequent calls for negotiations with Iran. These calls for negotiation recommend the US make an offer of the form "we'll end unilateral sanctions if you stop supporting terrorists". This offer could be recast "adopt the Shah's foreign policy and we'll have the economic relations with you we had with the Shah". This is not a new offer. This offer was available at the lowest point of the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has and will always reject this offer.

Iran does not consider Hezbollah or Hamas terrorists. Even Saudi Arabia does not consider Hamas terrorists. If the US wants Iranian help removing the troops tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, the price will be restoring normal economic relations without any reduction of support for Hamas. Which effectively means more support for Hamas as Iran becomes richer. But any negotiations will in any event wait until after George W. Bush, by far the most pro-Israel (to the point of irrationally pro-Israel) US president ever, is out of office.

So has Hamas won? US support for Israel has passed its high point. The US invaded Iraq when a strict consideration of only US material interests would have called for reaching an accomodation with Hussein. The US seriously worked to break Iraq apart (which though beneficial to Israel would be unbelievably detrimental to US material interests) and we'll learn in the next presidential term if it is still possible to salvage a united Iraq. The cost the US has paid ensuring Israel's long term security, with the very small long term benefits to Israel in return for the vast resources the US has expended, argues strongly against the US ever being willing to expend this level of resources again.

Meanwhile support for the Palestinians is increasing. Iran can expect at least the status quo. There will be no new costs for Iranian support for opponents of Zionism. Iran, in fact has leverage that will reduce the cost of its support for Hamas, Hezbollah and other opponents of Zionism. Saudi Arabia is signalling that it is at least considering welcoming Iran into its foreign policy graces which would mean more open support from the Saudis to opponents of Zionism. I think 2008 marks for Saudi Arabia a last-ditch effort to get an Israeli agreement the Palestinians will accept to prevent Saudi Arabia from taking a stance more like Iran's. Since there is no agreement that both the Palestinian and Israeli voters will accept, of course this last ditch effort has to fail.

Like the South African dispute when a large majority of the US Congress expressed opposition to Apartheid, today when nothing stands in the way of permanently increasing support for opponents of Zionism while foreign support for Zionism has reached a cap, an astute observer may see the signs of an eventual victory substantially earlier than the negotiations and election day that put an Arab majority and Prime Minister into Israel's parliament.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Difference of View on Iran and Israel

I found part of the Robert Gates question and answer session in Bahrain striking. (As reported by Reuters and other news services)

Asked at the Manama Dialogue conference whether he thought Israel's nuclear program posed a threat to the region, Gates replied: "No, I do not."

The statement was greeted by laughter from a room filled with government officials from Middle Eastern countries.

... ... ...

He dismissed the allegation that the United States applied a double standard on the nuclear issue by supporting Israel while calling for Iran to abandon its enrichment activities, which Tehran says are for peaceful purposes.

"Israel is not training terrorists to subvert its neighbors. It has not shipped weapons into a place like Iraq to kill thousands of innocent civilians covertly," Gates said.

"It has not threatened to destroy any of its neighbors. It is not trying to destabilize the government of Lebanon.

"So I think there are significant differences in terms of both the history and the behavior of the Iranian and Israeli governments. I understand there is a difference of view on that," he said.

"I understand there is a difference of view on that" means "though I've just stated my position, I do not expect you, my audience, to agree and the purpose of my reciting my position was not to convince you."

The purpose of that part of the discussion was not to convince the audience that Iran is more dangerous than Israel. The purpose was to get past an uncomfortable question without making it worse. "I understand there is a difference of view" is a concessionary request to the audience to help him avoid making it worse by vocally expressing a different view and/or asking any of the obvious follow-up questions.

The degree to which Israel is a burden on US efforts to get cooperation elsewhere in the Middle East may slowly be coming into view of the US policy community represented here by Gates.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

France Is Not a Reliable Source on Russia or China

The French diplomatic corps, up to and including the President, is not doing a very good job these days. It really could be that the change to a pro-US orientation brought from the top has been too sudden. There is no question though that the French diplomatic corps is performing poorly these days.

Let's go back to October 9:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, seeking to crank up pressure on Iran, said he had bridged differences Tuesday with Russia's Vladimir Putin over how the world should respond to Tehran's nuclear activities.

Sarkozy, on his first presidential visit to Russia, gave no details about the leaders' "convergences" on Iran or any signal that a quick solution to the international standoff is in sight. Russian officials made no public mention of progress.

But Sarkozy — who has toed a tough line on Russia recently — struck a decidely upbeat note after more than three hours of talks with Putin on a battery of touchy subjects.

"Our positions moved much closer together" on Iran, Sarkozy told reporters. He mentioned "many convergences" over Iran.

Much closer together. The next day we found out exactly how much closer.

"We do not have data that says Iran is trying to produce nuclear weapons. We do not have such objective data," Putin said. "Therefore we proceed from a position that Iran has no such plans but we share the concern of our partners that all programs should be as transparent as possible."

Oh. That much closer. One problem is that they've been that close for years now.

Enough, let's move to December:

According to a French diplomatic source in Paris, Friday's meeting between the two had been a "disaster," with Jalili signalling that Tehran wanted to start again from scratch on the issue.

... ... ...

A French diplomatic source said the new resolution would be a compromise between Western nations and China and Russia, and added that it could perhaps be agreed upon in the coming weeks.


In previous meetings Russia and China, which have strong trade ties with Iran, have agreed only to the mildest measures proposed by Britain, the United States and France.

The French diplomat said China's envoy had adopted a more constructive tone on Saturday.

It is coming to seem that the French have a habit of portraying the world as more favorable than it is. The gambit is that going public with the position you hope another party has may nudge the other party over if it is undecided. It backfires if the other party doesn't really hold the position you want.

China didn't immediately respond, and for a time, France may have hoped it was nudging China towards a new resolution. Those believing France's reports felt a Chinese agreement was imminent. The French probably didn't know what the US was going to do a few days later by releasing the NIE. But after the bomb had been dropped, before the dust had settled, we actually hear from the Chinese.

Pressed by reporters on whether the assessment might make new sanctions against Iran less likely in the near term, the Chinese diplomat said: "I think Council members will have to consider that, because ... now things have changed."

Larijani now says Jalili did not disasterously tell the Europeans that negotiations would have to re-begin from scratch.

"I spoke to Mr. Jalili and saw the transcript of the meeting, too," Mr. Larijani said, referring to Saeed Jalili’s talks with the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, in London on Nov. 30. Mr. Jalili replaced Mr. Larijani last month. "There was no such thing, and the Western media made it up," Mr. Larijani said.

'The transcript' means that the anonymous French source has been directly accused of lying and challenged to support that claim based on the transcript Larijani tells us exists. We'll see if the French respond.

Sharif to Participate In Pakistan Election

Terrible news for Pakistan. But this is the result Musharraf flew to Saudi Arabia to bring about. The biggest villain in the story here is Musharraf. Sharif and Bhutto are each in a position that while both together could weaken Musharraf, maybe fatally, neither can alone. Sharif says he tried to convince Bhutto do join a boycott. Bhutto has not denied it to my knowledge. Here is a report.

The party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced Sunday that it would participate in Pakistan's parliamentary elections next month after failing to convince rival Benazir Bhutto to join a boycott.

Greater participation will make the balloting look more open, bolstering President Pervez Musharraf's democratic credentials, which took a hit over his Nov. 3 declaration of a state of emergency and his dismissal of independent-minded judges.

Without assurances that a boycott would not happen, Musharraf would not have brought Sharif back. So he had to be confident that at least one would participate. Maybe that confidence came from Bhutto, maybe it came from a commitment from Sharif that he would end up participating at the last minute.

There will be later fights though. In the meantime it is important for everyone involved who understands to say publicly that there is nothing worse a country's leadership can do to the country than fail to follow pre-determined rules for the succession of power.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Jonathan Schell's Long View on Nuclear Disarmament

A very interesting interview at Tom Dispatch with Jonathan Schell, an expert on the issue of nuclear proliferation and disarmament.

TD: Let's move back, for a moment, to the immediate crisis. Let's talk about the Iranian nuclear situation. What do you make of it?

Schell: ... Iran is de facto heading down a path that leads towards the bomb. Whether they actually want to turn themselves into a nuclear power or, like India for many decades or Japan today, simply be ready to do so in a couple of months, I don't know. But they're enriching uranium. ...

... It appears that Iran is determined to have that technology and keep it, not roll it back. So you are left with the only other option within this framework -- the use of military force. I would say, though, that the surefire way of ensuring that Iran will go for the bomb is to attack them. ...

... The option which is never explored, although I'm convinced it's the key to breaking an impasse like this one, is for the nuclear powers to bring their own weapons to the negotiating table and say: We will reduce ours -- eventually down to zero -- on condition that you proliferators stop proliferating.

... ... ...

Now, imagine a situation in which these powers [Russia, China and the Nuclear Powers of the UN Security Council] have decided they are ready to surrender their own nuclear arsenals and rely on an abolition agreement in the same way they now rely on those arsenals for their security. There would be no disunity among them in approaching Iran. ... You would have a united global will which, in my opinion, would simply be irresistible to any country -- whether Iran, North Korea, or Israel -- that proposed to hold on to its own little arsenal in defiance of the united resolve of the Earth.

... ... ...

TD: Even if you were going to build down your nuclear arsenals over a long period…?

Schell: Even then. You could simply start off with a freeze everywhere. ... Russia and the United States would initially agree to go down to 500 weapons from their present combined 25,000 or so weapons. In exchange for that, Iran would stop its enrichment activities, or begin to dismantle its enrichment facilities. ...

Schell takes a fundamental long view, that the human race, once it began science was eventually going to find nuclear power and develop the ability to destroy the human race itself. And a similar long view of the future, the human race will have to come up with mechanisms to prevent its own destruction.

I agree with the fundamental view. The steps Schell proposes to reach that, that the US freeze its arsenal and in exchange everyone else freezes without nuclear weapons for the duration of some form of negotiations, would not work.

Few people understand that the non-weapons signatories of the NPT have never agreed to be permanently bereft of nuclear weapons. Much less did they agree to never become nuclear capable. They agreed that as long as they didn't have weapons, everyone should know they don't have weapons based on inspections by a neutral party.

Eventually, possibly and hopefully in my lifetime, the nuclear powers led by the United States will make an objective commitment - one that will be difficult or impossible to get out of - to fully disarm. That is the point where a general consensus toward disarmament can form that would be impossible for small states such as Iran, India, Israel, Pakistan, etc. to resist.

Until that point is reached, proposals to freeze the nuclear status quo in place pending further steps to be taken in the indefinite future will continue to be flatly denied by the non-weapons states. With good reason.

Two difficulties - why the problem has not been solved yet - are one that the United States is so far not unhappy with the status quo and does not have motivation to commit to disarmament and two that if the United States was willing to make a commitment, it would be difficult to enforce such a commitment if the US changes its mind later.

One observation is that there is some amount of serious thought and other resources that will have to be applied to these problems before solutions are reached. Even though the solutions are not in sight, they are very likely to exist. Kind of like the solutions to the problem of how to get more transistors than we can get today onto a given area of circuitry.

Until that time though, Schell is right that nuclear weapons capability is spreading, as if by destiny, to every corner of the human race. It is a very interesting interview to read.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Israel Doesn't Want To, and Cannot Bomb Iran Alone

A recent poll says the Israeli population opposes a unilateral attack on Iran.

When asked "should Israel alone attack the Iranian nuclear installations," 67.2 percent said no, while 20.9 percent said yes and 11.9 percent had no opinion, said the survey aired on public radio.

Even if Israel's people favored an attack without American assistance, it would not be feasible.

Several of Israel's Iran experts say the American rethink on the threat posed by Iran had ruled out a US military strike and probably an Israeli strike too, at least for now. However, Israel's political hawks continue to keep the threat of action alive.

... ... ...

However, it is widely assumed Israel would need at least American approval if not cooperation for any bombing mission. In particular, Israel's air force would need the US flight codes that would allow its planes to cross safely into Iran. When Israel requested those codes in 1991, to attack Saddam Hussein's Iraq during the first Gulf War, the United States refused and there was no Israeli strike.

... ... ...

"I think it is quite unrealistic to think Israel will go it alone against Iran in a military way," said Ephraim Asculai, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. He said it appeared Iran would respond to a tougher sanctions regime that demonstrated to Tehran that the cost of its nuclear ambitions outweighed their benefits.

The Israeli climbdown will be complete when the Israelis accept not only that will there not be military strikes, but there also will not be tougher sanctions. It looks like 2008 will be the year Israel and the US accept Iran as a nuclear-capable power in the same sense as Brazil.

Moscow's Never Seen Evidence of an Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program

"Iranian Nuclear Weapons Program" that is a vague enough phrase that by defining and redefining the phrase itself, with no change in underlying evidence, it is possible to assert either its existence or non-existence.

The US has finessed the issue to the point now that it asserts there was a nuclear weapons program in 2003, but not now. Now the US asserts that there was not a program in 2005, but in 2005 by which time essentially all of the activities and and all of the facilities that are now known were known already, it asserted, using the 2005 definition, that there was a nuclear weapons program.

Russia now, by directly contradicting the US claim that there was a nuclear weapons program in 2003 challenges the US to put forward one definition that it will stand by of what constitutes a nuclear weapons program. The US will not take up that challenge, and future efforts to isolate Iran will suffer because of that.

Anyway, from AP:

"It fully confirms the information that we have: that there is no military element in their nuclear program. We hope very much that these negotiations with Iran will continue," he told reporters after meeting with Rice on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels

... ... ...

But Lavrov on Wednesday said Moscow had not seen any evidence that Iran had, in fact, ever had a nuclear weapons program, not even one that it had given up on four years ago. He also criticized the United States for its missile defense plans.

In exchange for doing what it can to calm Iraq long enough for the Iraqis to ask the US to leave, Iran has not only stalled the sanctions drive over the same time period, but it is unlikely that the sanctions drive will ever again reach the intensity it had on December 2, 2007. The only remaining question is how long will it take, and what will be the fallout from the US accepting Iran as a nuclear capable state.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Long Term Troops in Iraq

My guess at this point is that the US has gotten Maliki to agree to extend the UN mandate for US troops until the end of 2008, after the next US Presidential Election. If the Iraqis and US come to an agreement about long term relationships, which I do not expect, then that agreement still will not pass Parliament in Iraq.

After November, everyone including the Iraqis will have a new US executive branch to negotiate with, that will have more flexibility than the present one - for domestic political reasons, Bush refuses do anything that could be interpreted as an admission of defeat.

My guess is that the next administration will commit the US to a full phase out of US troops from Iraq. That is what the Iraqis will demand.

Another guess (which I make in agreement with commenter Ziad) is that putting an objective brake on US sanctions efforts was traded with Iran for doing everything it can to keep Iraq calm until 2008/2009. If that was the deal Iran probably got slightly better terms. Iran doesn't necessarily want to kill American troops if the US is leaving anyway, and the US has to leave anyway. The US does want as many sanctions as it can get and will probably get fewer sanctions than it could have gotten otherwise, if the US had been willing to sacrifice US soldiers for those sanctions.

I strongly doubt (in disagreement with Stratfor, same link) that Iran has agreed to a long term US presence in Iraq. Stratfor consistently says Iran is on the verge of agreeing to a long term US presence in Iraq. It seems more like wishful thinking on the part of the US foreign policy community that Stratfor is plugged into than a reflection of the views Iran consistently expresses in every possible venue.

Kommersant on the 2007 Iran NIE

The dust has not settled yet on the newest report. Kommersant, a Russian news source reports that the report was the result of allies of George H.W. Bush outmaneuvering US hard-liners on the Iran case.

Kommersant has learnt from its sources in Washington that the US intelligence report which repudiated the White House's position on the Iranian problem was the result of a struggle between factions in the Bush administration. According to our sources, the report was essentially inspired by former President George Bush Sr, who was keen to outplay Vice-President Richard Cheney's faction and protect his son from fresh failures. However, there has been no softening in the US position on the Iranian problem. Yesterday the White House confirmed that a draft document on fresh sanctions against Iran would be tabled at the UN Security Council in the very near future... It's worth noting that the UN Security Council's working schedule for the rest of the year, which was released on Tuesday, includes the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, focusing on the "Iranian nuclear file". However, at the same time there is no specific date in the Security Council's work plan for consideration of the Iranian issue. That means that any member of the UN Security Council could initiate a discussion at any moment, presenting its partners in the Security Council with the necessity of making a final choice.

Tabling a draft means nothing. Getting new sanctions passed will be much more difficult, and the Bush administration when it released this report knew it would make getting new sanctions or tightening sanctions in place more difficult. It is most likely that the Iran issue will go into a holding pattern until the end of the Bush administration.

The US has not officially accepted Iranian enrichment, but giving Iran at least another year to improve its enrichment techniques and leaving negotiations to Bush's successor in practical terms means the US will not be able to prevent Iran from having an enrichment program.

Settling in the Post 2007 Iran NIE World

I'll make this point again, because the only place I've seen it made is here. The new assessment that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program is not the result of new evidence. It is the result of a redefinition of the term "nuclear weapons program." That is a political decision, that cannot have been made in the United States against the will of the President of the United States.

By the 2005 definition, Iran has a nuclear weapons program today. By the 2007 definition, there was no evidence, certainly not evidence that would have given intelligence agencies high confidence that there was a nuclear weapons program in 2005.

The conversion and enrichment facilities that the IAEA knows about, and have known about since 2003, were explicitly defined in the first footnote in the 2007 report as not part of a weapons program. In the 2005 report those same facilities, at that time dormant, constituted nearly the entirety of the evidence that Iran had a nuclear weapons program. The same facilities - a different definition.

A political decision has been made to back away from the idea that the capacity to build a weapon by itself is a weapons program. It was always an unreasonable idea and now that the US has backed from it, that idea will never have currency again.

To the degree there is intelligence available in 2007 that was not available in 2005, the most important piece of information is neither some phone call or exile from Iran. The important piece of information was that Iran was not going to suspend enrichment under any amount of pressure the US could apply before the end of this term.

Colin Powell recognized the probability that Iran would not be motivated by the type of sanctions the US could get when he was still in term. The rest of the White House probably knew it also, but thought, why not take a shot? Especially since in the process the US could get sanctions that the US wanted anyway.

But now as Bush's term is ending, US rhetoric that the alternative to in Iranian back-down was an attack was scaring US allies and parties whose cooperation the US wants more than it was scaring Iran. Now that it is clear that Iran will not back down, the rhetoric had to change. And change it has.

So in that context the Christian Science monitor proposes that the US accept a deal Iran offered in 2005.

This leaves Tehran's nuclear tethering proposal. Fleshed out, the "international joint ownership" and "international partnerships" Tehran advocated would include co-decisionmaking and facility access that assures Iran's nuclear fuel cycle remains on the straight and narrow to avoid a weapons breakout.

A new door would open to resolve the enrichment impasse if two things happened. First, tethering must be linked to Iran's promised ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol, allowing inspectors unimpeded visits to all suspicious nuclear enterprises. Second, it must be tied further to Security Council adoption of automatic onerous punitive measures to combat cheating – a military blockade of the country, for example.

Now Iran will agree to joint ownership of enrichment facilities in Iran. Iran will not agree to automatic military blockades. It is hard to justify an automatic military blockade if Iran exercises its perfectly legal right to leave the NPT if the US is not willing to blockade Israel for refusing to join the NPT.

Iran would not leave the NPT except under circumstances where it would have at least some international support for leaving. Iran might leave if the US began massing troops for an invasion, or if Israel uses nuclear weapons on Syria or Egypt. Under those circumstances, the US would not be able to get a Security Council resolution.

If there is no circumstance that would give Iran a chance of preventing security council action against its leaving the treaty, Iran would have no reason to leave anyway. Iran gets all it wants just by being nuclear capable. Until a provocative step is taken either by the US or by Israel.

The automatic part, or language that could imaginably justify the US unilaterally applying military force to Iran would not get past the security council anyway. If it did, the US would claim it has been triggered when it really hasn't, if and when the US is in a position to attack Iran. After Iraq, the Security Council will never come that close again to pre-authorizing a US military adventure.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Annotated Snips from the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate

Here are some segments from the National Intelligence Estimate, November 2007 - Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities

This Estimate does assume that the strategic goals and basic structure of Iran’s senior leadership and government will remain similar to those that have endured since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989. We acknowledge the potential for these to change during the time frame of the Estimate, but are unable to confidently predict such changes or their implications. This Estimate does not assess how Iran may conduct future negotiations with the West on the nuclear issue.

Regime change is not discussed in the report except indirectly here, where for the purposes of this report, it is assumed that the current regime or one like it will remain in power for the ten year term being projected. The consensus from what I'm reading is that the US foreign policy community is not confident in the chances of a pro-US regime change. I'd say there is good reason for that.

1 For the purposes of this Estimate, by “nuclear weapons program” we mean Iran’s nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work; we do not mean Iran’s declared civil work related to uranium conversion and enrichment.

The fireworks start with the first footnote. This is the departure not only from previous NIEs concerning Iran, but from the entirety of previous US policy. The idea that Iran's civil work related to conversion and enrichment is not part of a "nuclear weapons program" is contrary to every public statement the US has made on this issue until this point.

D. 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, Iran’s 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 applications—some of which would also be of limited use for nuclear weapons.

Again, this seems like an intelligence report from some country other than the United States. The same information in 2005, or earlier this year if spoken about by any member of the Administration instead of "limited use", would be described as useful only for weapons.

Our assessment that Iran halted the program in 2003 primarily in response to international pressure indicates Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs. This, in turn, suggests that some combination of threats of intensified international scrutiny and pressures, along with opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways, might—if perceived by Iran’s leaders as credible—prompt Tehran to extend the current halt to its nuclear weapons program. It is difficult to specify what such a combination might be.

Pressure on Iran to continue what it is doing now - which according to new US policy, is a "current halt to its weapons program" - should be the object of diplomatic policies of pressure. There is no call for pressure on Iran to reverse its current policy and stop enrichment. The producers of this report seem comfortable with Iranian civil enrichment.

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 Iran’s key national security and foreign policy objectives, and given Iran’s 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 weapons—and such a decision is inherently reversible.

This is the part that says an attack would not work to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. That an attack would not work is clearly the conventional Washington wisdom at this point. The overarching point of the NIE, it seems, is that threats to attack also do not work. Another point seems to be that the policy of attempting to force Iran to abandon fuel cycle technologies also will not work.

H. We assess with high confidence that Iran has the scientific, technical and industrial capacity eventually to produce nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.

Iran is, in the long term, nuclear capable. This is a substantial step-down from the US position this summer. Obviously something has been churning in the background. It is not clear what it means. We'll learn more from future statements.


I note that this report is a repudiation of Israel's policy that no other Middle East country can be nuclear capable. US and Israel's policy on that matter are no longer aligned because while preventing Iran from being nuclear capable is important for Israel, the US is accepting that it just does not have the resources to prevent nuclear capability from spreading.

It is possible that this report does not reflect solidly held views in the White House, that this report is a feeler but not a commitment to accept Iran's nuclear program basically as it is now. But the willingness to publish views so far at odds with previous policy is in itself a departure from previous policy.

I think it is possible, but much less likely, that this is the result of a mutiny in the White House, with George Bush somehow unwillingly maneuvered into a position where he had to allow a report to be published that implies policy positions contrary to those he holds.

If neither of the two above situations is in place, then this report marks at least the potential for a major transformation of US policy towards Iran.

US Separates Enrichment From Weapons

The most important specific change made in the 2007 NIE is that civilian enrichment, which can lead to the development of a nuclear weapons capability, is separate from a nuclear weapons program. Of course capability and weapons are different in real life, but the US foreign policy community, along with US allies and press advocates who follow the US line, has been blurring the distinction consistently until this dramatic reversal.

The new recognition of the difference between capability and weapons is not the result of new information. The 2005 report does not directly contradict the 2007 report. The projected time period where Iran will be able to produce weapons grade uranium has not changed at all. The difference is that the 2005 report describes Iranian efforts to develop uranium conversion and enrichment technologies as part of a weapons program - despite Iranian offers to conduct those activities under IAEA supervision. The 2007 report describes the same activities as separate from a weapons program.

The difference between the 2005 and 2007 reports is purely a political decision the describe the same activities using different language. This political decision has been approved by the White House and any objections by supposed hawks have been overcome.

This clears the way now for US policy to take the distinction into account and accept an arrangement in which Iran retains civilian fuel cycle technologies. It seems now that George W. Bush's "World War III" language if Iran gets the knowledge necessary to build nuclear weapons was a last gasp of a policy that was on the way out at the time the statement was made. That policy has now been publicly overturned.

I lean towards the idea that this change in public position is made with the expectation of, at some point, a concession from Iran. I'm not sure what concession the US expects and what parties in Iran are willing to deliver the concession.

Stratfor Thinks a Deal Has Been Reached Between US and Iran

Interesting theory: (Free link through Google News)

As to the U.S. motive, it also wanted to play up the nuclear threat. Part of Washington's negotiation strategy has been to isolate Iran from the rest of the international community. Charges that Iran desired nukes were an excellent way to marshal international action. Both sides had a vested interest in making Iran look the part of the wolf.

That no longer is the case. There are only two reasons the U.S. government would choose to issue a report that publicly undermines the past four years of its foreign policy: a deal has been struck, or one is close enough that an international diplomatic coalition is no longer perceived as critical. This level of coordination across all branches of U.S. intelligence could not happen without the knowledge and approval of the CIA director, the secretaries of defense and state, the national security adviser and the president himself. This is not a power play; this is the real deal.

The US government, the executive branch of the government, did choose to release this report. Kevin Drum's theory that congress forced it seems a lot less likely.

All I've got is speculation on the second question, but here it is: it was congressional pressure. Democratic members of the various intelligence committees saw the NIE (or a summary or a verbal report or something) and went ballistic. Footnotes and dissents are one thing, but withholding a report whose primary conclusion is 180 degrees contrary to years of administration innuendo produced a rebellion. Somebody who got briefed must have threatened something pretty serious if the NIE didn't see the light of day.

I am of the opinion that the report marks a change in policy. It is very difficult to see what the outlines of a deal could be. The United States can't end the unilateral sanctions because of domestic pressures. A stable US base in Iraq is worse for Iran than what is there now. The US can slow its efforts to deny the international banking system. I don't know that Iran would trade that for a US presence in Iraq.

Monday, December 03, 2007

National Intelligence Estimate: Cooling Down Threat of War

It is not surprising to me, because since the Iraqi insurgency began, I've always thought the US was bluffing about attacking Iran, and I've always been sure Iran's leaders have thought the US was bluffing.

The release of this National Intelligence Estimate (pdf here), including the claim that Iran halted its weapons program in 2003 not only reduces the chance that the US will attack, it reduces the credibility of threats from the US that it will do so.

US intelligence agencies undercut the White House yesterday by disclosing for the first time that Iran has not been pursuing a nuclear weapons development programme for the past four years. The secret report, which was declassified yesterday and published, marked a significant shift from previous estimates. "Tehran's decision to halt its nuclear weapons programme suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005," it said.

Here is one conclusion drawn in the press:

If there was ever a possibility that President George W. Bush would drop bombs on Iran, the chances have now shrunk to nearly zero.

In one of the most dramatic National Intelligence Estimates ever, the 16 agencies of the U.S. intelligence community concluded today "with high confidence" that Iran "halted its nuclear weapons" four years ago, in the fall of 2003.

The release of this document in this form reflects a decision, correctly though lately reached, that threats are not productive. They scare everyone else, to make them more anxious for a peaceful resolution even if that means giving ground to Iran, but they do not scare Iran.

It is not the case that the executive branch of the US government was forced by the facts to release this report. It is not the case that the executive branch was forced to make public the conclusions that it drew. This is a decision to give the US room to stand down and to reassure the Europeans and Arabs that they can escape this administration without an attack even if they do not try to buy the Iranians out while still allowing some enrichment.

The conclusion that in 2003 Iran decided to halt its nuclear weapons program because of the US policy of sanctions and pressure is odd. Of course, whatever basis exists for the claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program until 2003 is classified. Which means it is protected from public scrutiny. But that seems like a nitpick in a report that in other respects is such a reversal of the foundation of US Iran policy.

Whatever Happened to The Point Of No Return?

I haven't read about "the point of no return" in the press for several months. I was just reminded of it by the greatest US diplomat of all time, John Bolton.

In Bolton’s view, fostering regime change cannot now be relied on to prevent Iran getting the bomb: “I think the Iranians know all they need to know to create a nuclear device. The only thing that stands in their way is resources and, given that oil is at $90 a barrel or more, resources are not a constraint.”

Israel was supposed to bomb Iran before it got to this point of no return, or point where the Iranians know all they need to know to create a nuclear device. Maybe it was just a bluff.

The only person I'd rather see as permanent president of the United States than George W. Bush is John Bolton. It would take Bolton 15 years to turn the United States into Uruguay.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

March 14 Feels Betrayed By the US

Time magazine is increasing its stature as one of the more reliable US press sources in discussions about the Middle East. McClatchy is also good. But here Time magazine is discussing the feeling of betrayal that led the March 14 movement to accept Suleiman.

"The Syrians are very happy," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "I think this is what the Syrians always wanted — Suleiman." Parliament is scheduled to reconvene on December 7 when Suleiman is expected to be elected president.

With the announcement of Suleiman's candidacy immediately following Annapolis, it was widely assumed that Syria and the U.S. had brokered a deal to fill the Lebanese presidency as a way to help ease months of tension between their respective allies in Lebanon. However, senior March 14 politicians tell TIME that the proposal to nominate Suleiman had arisen more than a week before Annapolis, several days before Syria even announced it would attend the peace conference. The anti-Syrian block had determined it was better to choose a president acceptable to the opposition than risk a prolonged constitutional vacuum and the threat of violence erupting in Lebanon between rival factions. "We're sure that Suleiman is better than the void," says an adviser to Saad Hariri, whose Future Movement is the largest component of March 14.

Just possibly, I haven't seen an announcement yet, but maybe the other issues such as disarmament of Hezbollah, electoral reform and Parliamentry elections will be resolved, essentially in Hezbollah's favor, as part of this deal.

It is unfortunate that this dispute got as far as it did. United States never was going to invade Lebanon. Short of that, even including that, there is nothing the US could have done to change the facts on the ground, which are that Hezbollah, since the 2006 war, is the most powerful political organization in Lebanon. There never was a purpose to this dispute. It was a victory of corruption over patriotism that this dispute ever occurred.

Hopefully the realization by the pro-Western camp that the United States is not a power in Lebanese politics will lead to a faster resolution of any remaining issues.

The Saudis on Hamas and Iran's GCC Invitation

I was actually surprised by the degree to which Saudi Arabia's Prince Faisal blames the West for the breakdown of Palestine's unity government rather than Hamas.

Q: What are your thoughts on the legitimacy of Hamas as a political force in Palestine?

A: In Makkah, Hamas agreed to a cease-fire that would continue as long as peace talks continued. They formed a government of national unity. Unfortunately, the international community did not respect this government, only certain segments of it.

Recognition is not a process of reward. If you are working for peace, you must deal with the elements of peace. Undoubtedly, the government of national unity created by Hamas was an essential element in the process, yet it has been left out in the hinterlands and isolated. These events have created a feeling within Hamas that there was a conspiracy against them.

It was said that the Annapolis conference was designed to give the Arabs political cover to work against Iran. That never made sense because dictatorships don't really need political cover. If they did, they'd sound a lot more like Ahmadinejad or Rafsanjani - which is what their populations would prefer. But if there is political cover to be given out, maybe some went the other direction, allowing the GCC to invite Iran, for the first time, to its annual summit.

DUBAI: Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will attend the annual summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for the first time, which opens in Doha on Monday. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini told Iranian news agency that Ahmadinejad's presence in the meeting would be an important event and added that presence of Ahmadinejad "can help boost cooperation between Iran and the Gulf Arab states" and help promote mutual understanding.

Oh, and the deadlines the Saudis believed the US would impose on Israel. Israel thinks otherwise. Israel probably has a more accurate read on US intentions than the Saudis. Any bright child would probably have a more accurate read on the US than the Saudis.

"An effort will be made to hold accelerated negotiations in the hope that it will be possible to conclude them in 2008," Olmert said, according to a statement. "

However, there is no commitment to a specific timetable regarding these negotiations."

Again, Shiite vs Sunni is Not Important

There are various reasons Western commentators insist on the story that there is a serious rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis that motivates the actions of Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis and other relatively pro-US countries in the region.

One reason is that there is an iota of truth. There is just enough truth that a person who wants to believe it for another reason could not easily be convinced otherwise. In Iraq, today, there is and has been ethnic cleansing on sectarian lines. This is not a permanent feature of Muslim history. It was not the case before the US invasion in 2003.

Doubters of the story of eternal emnity between Shiites and Sunnis point to the intermarriages in Iraq and give anecdotes of how unimportant it was in that country in mixed areas before the invasion. Iran and Saudi Arabia both define themselves as "Islamic" nations, not Sunni or Shiite nations. But the recent flare-ups in Iraq, which are real, are the backbone of the story.

The importance of the rivalry is exaggerated when this historically unusual phenomenon of personal emnity between the sects in Iraq is extended to explain policies of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. But because of the situation in Iraq, clearly made worse by the US invasion, it is not possible to say there is no rivalry anywhere.

The two more important reasons the story is widely believed are wishful thinking and a desire to minimize the impact of Israel on US' strategic situation in the Middle East. Wishful thinking in that commentators have gone so far as to claim that Saudi Arabia has given Israel a status as honorary Sunnis in their fight against Iran. The Saudis believing that Israel is their ally would be great for Israel, great for the US in its role as protector of Israel but there is no question that Saudi Arabia has far warmer ties with Iran than with Israel. One country does not have relations and will not shake hands, the other made a state visit recently.

I'm sometimes puzzled by the strength of the drive western commentators have to downplay the importance of Israel as a motivating factor in the actions of Arabs and Muslims in the region. Essentially the entire political spectrum everywhere in the Middle East believes that the right of the Palestinian refugees to return is more legitmate than Israel's identity as a Jewish state.

The division in the Middle East has been, essentially since Israel's inception, between states and organizations that openly express their societies' mainstream view on the conflict and those states and organizations that agree with the mainstream view, but out of deference to the West are more silent in their opposition to Israel's legitimacy. Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran are in the first camp, Egypt Jordan and Saudi Arabia are in the second.

Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia are presented as Sunni countries allied against the Shiites. But if religious parties take over the first two countries or political power leaves a single family in the third, all of these countries would change sides. Not to the Shiite side, but to the side that openly expresses and acts on their belief that Israel's Jewish identity is not legitimate if it comes at the expense of the right of Palestinian refugees to return.

On issues involving Israel, public opinion polls in Sunni countries always show majorities of the populations of these Sunni countries agreeing with Iran's position on and against the side the governments of the Sunnis countries take.

But instead of relatively pro-Israel countries against relatively anti-Israel countries - which is the more accurate description of the division, western commentators paint the division as between Sunnis and Shiites, which is far more an accident of history. The Shah was an ally of the Saudis, but Iran was just as Shiite as it is today. If the Muslim Brotherhood takes power in Egypt, it will ally with Iran, while remaining just as Sunni as now.