Thursday, July 16, 2009

Helena Cobban on the Saudi political succession system

It has to be read to be believed.

The big question regarding the Saudi succession hangs over whether, and how, the kingship will ever be transferred from the numerous ageing brothers and half-brothers who stand in line after Crown Prince Sultan, to the "next generation" of princes - some of the more senior of whom are already nearing 70 years old.

Earlier this year, King Abdullah named his 76-year-old half-brother Naif ibn Abdul-Aziz as "second deputy prime minister", a position that places him a likely - but not certain - second in line to throne after Sultan.

When King Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud, the founder of the modern Saudi state, died in 1953, he left some 37 sons from his 22 wives. Various of these sons have ruled the kingdom in turn since then.

Many of Abdul-Aziz's sons had a dozen or more sons of their own. Saudi Arabia has no system of "primogeniture" (first-son succession.) Thus, there are hundreds of possible eventual claimants to the throne. Indeed, the youngest of Abdul-Aziz's sons, Prince Muqrin, is, at 64, some years younger than several of the next-generation princes who now hope to become king.

Like something out of a comedy sketch. This is an affront, not to Western values, but to modern political values everywhere in the world. North Koreans are disgusted by the backwardness of the Saudi political system. The Saudi political system is rightly a source of shame and embarrassment for Arabs and Muslims all over the world.

But the United States does not even verbally criticize the Saudi political system. In a display of hypocrisy almost as revolting as the Saudi political system itself, the United States supports, even to the point of committing US intelligence resources to ensuring its internal stability, this system. The reason is that the US trusts the Saudis to be relatively accommodating to Israel. US acceptance of the Saudis, like its invasion and occupation of Iraq, is related to oil, but only through the understanding the oil resources will not be used to threaten Israel.

Bush said extremists controlling Iraq "would use energy as economic blackmail" and try to pressure the United States to abandon its alliance with Israel. At a stop in Missouri on Friday, he suggested that such radicals would be "able to pull millions of barrels of oil off the market, driving the price up to $300 or $400 a barrel."

The Saudi system, as is sometimes pointed out, is in a position where it needs an unresolved conflict over Zionism for its survival. After one side or the other has convincingly won the conflict over Zionism, both internal pressure and pressure from all over the world, including the United States as a leader, will force the Arabians to accept a normal, competitive, preferably democratic political in a very short time.

The Saudi system could barely last a decade if it was to stop offering Israel's supporters the limited cooperation it offers. It also could not last a decade if the people of the region thought the issue was resolved in which case Saudi relative cooperation with Zionism would not be necessary.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Another look at "nuclear weapons capacity"

So I guess it is clear now, the post election turmoil in Iran has resulted in a hardening of the US position on Iranian enrichment of uranium. What's going on is that Iran is not in a position to test a weapon in the very short term even if it withdraws from the NPT. US strategists calculate that possibly in a decade Iran, if it continues building its capacity, will be able to pull out of the NPT and even if the US bombs known facilities, Iran will either be able to construct new facilities or will plausibly have running facilities pre-built to build a weapon despite US intervention.

That leaves the US with a question: how are we going to spend the time between now and when Iran reaches a state where no US action could prevent it from building a weapon if it chose. Iran is not there yet. We can spend that time before reaching there lowering the temperature, and possibly building connections that will give the US leverage to dissuade Iran - or we can spend that time in a state of hostilities, in hopes that at some point Iran will find US pressure unbearable and buckle.

The post election conflict has convinced the United States to give hostility a few more years, with the understanding that as an unstoppable weapons capacity becomes more imminent, the US will be free to change strategies later. Essentially the presumption that time is not on the US' side has been changed. The US expects Iran's position to be weaker two years from now than it is today, and is willing to wait on any rapprochement in hopes that it can get better terms, even including a disavowal of domestic uranium enrichment or even a resumption of the Shah's peace with Israel later rather than accepting Iran as it is today.

This is all as background to look at Hillary Clinton's speech today in which she claims Iran does not have a right to what she describes as a nuclear weapons capacity.

Direct talks provide the best vehicle for presenting and explaining that choice. That is why we offered Iran’s leaders an unmistakable opportunity: Iran does not have a right to nuclear military capacity, and we’re determined to prevent that. But it does have a right to civil nuclear power if it reestablishes the confidence of the international community that it will use its programs exclusively for peaceful purposes.

This is a substantial retreat from John Kerry's interview of June 10, before the election.

The key here is that, first of all the Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous, on its face, because Iran is a signatory to the [nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty and whether they are inside or outside their obligations, to ask them to give up something that was within their rights within the treaty assuming they were up to their obligations is a non-starter. It was bombastic diplomacy. It was wasted energy. It sort of hardened the lines, if you will (inaudible).

Because it seemed so unreasonable to people. They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose. But they don’t have a right, obviously, to be outside of the other restraints of the IAEA and of the non-proliferation agreement. And so the key here was to really open a different kind of dialogue with them about where you draw the line.

The "capacity" language Clinton uses, without the type of express admission that Iran has the right to enrich uranium that Kerry gives translates to a resumption of the previous US position (which has been Israel's consistent position) that uranium enrichment itself is makes up a weapons capacity and that therefore is outside of Iran's rights.

As one more demonstration that the NPT is silent about "capacity", let's look at a statement by Japan's Ichiro Ozawa

It would be so easy for us to produce nuclear warheads. We have plutonium at nuclear power plants in Japan, enough to make several thousand such warheads.

A true statement, and a statement that is not inconsistent with Japan's NPT obligation, as long as it remains in the treaty, "not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly, or indirectly; not to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices; and not to seek or receive any assistance in the manufacture of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices."

Japan clearly has a military nuclear capacity. Having this capacity is clearly consistent with upholding its NPT obligations. The US position that Iran has different NPT obligations from Japan is, as it always has been, and as Kerry admitted it was, contrary to Clinton's speech, "ridiculous".

So the United States has decided to give one more shot to getting Iran to give up its right to enrich uranium. Of course, Iran is not going to buckle the way US planners now seem to think it might. In the meantime, increased hostility with Iran and decreased cooperation are moving Iran into closer alignment with US rivals and weakening pro-US factions inside of Iran. The process is not completely irreversible, but the US strategic situation in that region will suffer to a greater or lesser extent for a long time because of this decision.

Israel, the embargo on Iran and the plane crash

So we'll just add 168 Iranian lives to the cost of the West's century-long effort to pressure the Middle East to accept a Jewish state contrary to the values and sensibilities of nearly every non-Jewish person in the region.

Iranians will immediately connect this crash to the US embargo on airplane parts. One short term effect will be an emotional anti-Western reaction. Parties in Iran calling for reconciliation with the US will be weakened and those opposing it will be strengthened by the short term reaction. Another short term reaction will be that the election dispute will be pushed out of people's attention.

There is also the possibility that the plane was downed by Iranian separatist forces supported by the US and or Israel. If that is the case, or if for any reason it appears that it may be the case, then those who hope for semi-open hostility between the US and Iran will get their wish.

We all mourn for the 168 people who died and their families and hope for as soon as possible an end to the hypocritical US policies that indirectly were responsible for the tragedy.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

War Nerd on Iran's Elections

Nothing new or especially profound in his article "Iran’s Cedar Show, A.K.A. Don’t Get Excited, the Protestors Are Just Letting Off Some Steam", but a cute analogy.

Imagine the other way around; imagine Iranian Islamic tv covering, say, a classic culture-war US election like Nixon in 1972. You’d see Persians in expensive turbans blanket-covering every demonstration, every love-in (well, maybe not those so much), every draft-card burning…and then the US government announces that Nixon just stomped McGovern in the biggest landslide ever. Who’d believe it? That is, unless you knew that for every loud camera-hog hippie you saw on tv there were about a hundred fat nobodies wishing Kent State was a daily event.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

A consensus is forming that Afghanistan is unwinnable

Debka File and Juan Cole, each with slightly different reasoning, do not see victory as possible for NATO in Afganistan.


The approximately 60,000 NATO forces fighting in Afghanistan are unable to achieve the goals of the war - even with the additional 21,000 US combat troops promised this year and "the big jump in the size of Afghan security forces" demanded by the new US commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

DEBKAfile's military analysts see no real corroboration for the UK Chief of Defense Staff Sir Jock Stirrup's assertion that the Taliban is "losing" in Afghanistan and "real governance" is emerging in Afghanistan.

Juan Cole:

US commanders are now thinking Afghanistan may need 270,000 soldiers to keep internal peace, not just the 134,000 that NATO is now committed to training. The goal might be 400,000 police and army altogether. Not only would the training and standing up of such a massive force cost rather more than the some $7.5 bn. a year the Obama administration had budgeted for Afghanistan, it is hard to see how the Afghan government could afford such a huge security force. It would likely cost several billion dollars a year to maintain, and Afghanistan's whole annual budget is only a little over a billion dollars a year (the gross domestic product is only $9 bn., and a third of that is probably from poppies made into heroin.) These plans doom Afghanistan to be a welfare queen in the world community for decades, and they also risk throwing the country into more violence, not less, since its fractious tribespeople have never dealt well with having a strong central government (Afghanistan is not like Iraq, folks).

It is becoming the conventional wisdom that Afghanistan is going to be a sink of resources for the US as it was for Russia. Unlike in the case of the USSR, it will not be enough to push the entire system over the edge into inviability, but it will impose a substantial cost on the US economy.

I have nothing to add except that the reason the US is wasting these resources in Afghanistan is that many Muslims have been outraged to the point of supporting violence against Americans by US policies intended to ensure the safety of Israel.

What did Mousavi want?

I don't have a good answer to this question. What did he think would happen?

Al Gore in 2000 could have made a case against the election that would have been very analogous the case Mousavi made in June. Al Gore's case would have been far stronger because he could have pointed to specific irregularities that by themselves amounted to more votes than his margin of defeat. The Supreme Court, voting along the lines of the party which appointed the Court Justice, stopped a recount of the vote with arguments that were just laughable according to most members of the US legal community at the time. The Secretary of State of Florida was an active supporter of his opponent and the Governor of Florida was the brother of his opponent.

Al Gore could easily have shut down many major US cities if instead of calming his supporters he inflamed them. He probably could have disrupted the normal operation of business in the United States for a prolonged period, and exacted a huge cost on the upcoming Bush administration.

What he could not have done was gotten a revote (even though he pretty clearly would have won if one had been held). There also was no plausible way for him to actually take office as President after the Supreme Court decision. Inflaming his supporters would have been far more likely to result in Gore's imprisonment and total political disgrace than to result in any form of success.

So why would Gore have acted the way Mousavi acted in June? What would have been in it for him?

This is a really difficult question for me to answer, and the unexplainability of this question leads me to expect that Mousavi and the political faction he represents have been severely damaged by the events in June 2009.

Alastair Crooke is about exactly right on Iran

The LA Times publishes an opinion piece "Misreading Iran's Unrest" which argues that we are seeing a power struggle between Hashemi Rafsanjani's political faction, which is associated with Iran's clerical establishment and a faction more associated with Iran's military/security establishment. In this power struggle it is possible that Rafsanjani's faction overreached critically by promoting the post-election demonstrations and attacks on the legitimacy of the Iranian system that are associated with those demonstrations.

Mousavi's casting of his mission as one of restoring the revolution to its original ideals was not only an internal message; it was also replayed widely in the Arab media. But the West seemed to be hearing and hoping for something else: that he was challenging the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and would seek to flout the institutions of the revolution. In other words, that he was seeking to ignite a "color revolution" -- such as Ukraine's Orange Revolution -- to change the system.

The extent to which Mousavi intended to send this signal and benefit by leveraging Western support is unclear. But that perception has opened Mousavi and his prominent backers to the risk of severe repercussions internally in the wake of the postelection turmoil.

There is a question that I have not seen well answered regarding which power faction is more corrupt. In other words, is the clerical establishment or the security establishment more responsible for directing public resources toward private purposes. I've read accusations against both. Ideally, the security establishment will work to expose and punish corruption in the clerical sphere while the clerical establishment will do the same in the opposite direction.

My take is that while Ahmadinejad and the Republican Guards are serious about addressing the notorious issue of corruption among Iran's clerical oligarchy, the clerical political faction may have been so discredited by the post-election conflict that it will take time before it regains enough credibility to effectively address corruption in the security establishment.

Crooke is also right that the election has strengthened hard-line factions in Iran and in the United States and Europe, while clearing the way for tighter integration between Iran, Russia and especially China. I have not seen enough yet to think this move towards confrontationalism on both sides of the Iran/West conflict will actually result in violence anywhere. The power balance that led both sides to favor a calm coexistence on June 11 still exists. But in this calm coexistence that I still expect to prevail, China and Russia will find Iran more cooperative than they would have before the election.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Debating about Israel before western audiences

I came across a guide by Frank Luntz describing effective and tested public relations arguments in support of Israel's policies and Western, especially US support for Israel's policies.

A first observation is that the better these arguments work, the longer the US will sink resources into an essentially unwinnable fight against almost all of the non-Jewish people of the Middle East.

A second observation is that the Arab world has more than enough resources to produce professionally researched documentation in the other direction, and as far as I've seen this does not exist on the other side. That strikes me as a bad reflection on both the Arab people and the religion of Islam.

In the meantime, the observations and strategies of this study are equally effective whether one is arguing in favor of or against the perpetuation of the status quo in the conflict over Zionism.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Iran's Election: The Dust Settles

As we approach a month after Iran's elections the post-election landscape comes into view.

Of course, no evidence has emerged of the type of fraud that would have been necessary to wrongly award the presidency to Ahmadinejad. The argument from Mousavi supporters, especially those in the West are still almost entirely of the form: "if the results are different from what I expected, the only explanation is fraud." In the United States, a Black Democrat won Virginia. That's impossible. Clear proof of fraud. Ever since a massive but undetectable fraud helped Harry Truman steal an election from Thomas Dewey, upsetting prior expectations has been established as reasonable evidence of fraud in elections. Either that or evidence of that form is not evidence at all.

Iran is not as thoroughly polled as the United States, there probably is no other country in the world anywhere close to as thoroughly polled as the United States has been in recent national elections. So Americans especially are accustomed to a degree of certainty of the results of an election before voting takes place that is clearly not warranted in a country like Iran. American and other Western critics of Iran's election refer to polls that were months old and did not take into account huge events such as Iran's first televised debates.

But more importantly, many Americans and other Westerners hate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This hatred severely biases their perceptions of the election. It does not take any proof to convince a pundit that a political figure executed a massive fraud that left no traces if the pundit already hates the political figure.

We can expect Western pundits to continue insisting, very emphatically but still wrongly, that there had to be fraud despite the lack of evidence until the end of Ahmadinejad's term. This sincere, though emotionally based and irrational belief that fraud is the best explanation of Ahmadinejad's victory has already caused fundamental misreadings by US pundits about Iran's situation. One example is that there is an idea that Ahmadinejad is in a weak position domestically and would be helped by the US accepting his victory and resuming engagement with Iran.

Ahmadinejad does not need any more help from the United States than it is already getting when Obama deplores Iran's electoral process. Ahmadinejad stating that millions of people believe there were improprieties in George W. Bush's victory in Ohio in 2004 would not have hurt Bush. Exactly the opposite. Granted Obama is not as externally reviled as Bush or Ahmadinejad, but there is no such thing as an Iranian so reasonable, so moderate that Americans would on net be inspired or moved in any positive way by an Iranian criticism of US elections.

Beyond the belief that Obama is in a position to deliberately give legitimacy to Ahmadinejad by engaging or take legitimacy away from him by deploring him, it is likely that the US now calculates that there may be divisions exposed by the elections that can be used to force Iran to accept the maximal US position that Iran cannot domestically enrich uranium. The US is indicating that it has reverted to the Bush position on this issue, despite fairly clear signals immediately prior to the election that the position had changed. Obama likely thinks the situation is more different from the pre-election situation than Ahmadinejad does.

Increasing pressure makes it more likely that Iran goes ahead and builds and tests a bomb years from now. Iran is domestically enriching now, but not building a weapon. If the US is able to impose substantial sanctions, then the room for making them worse if Iran builds a weapon decreases while the atmosphere of hostility that encourages weapon-building is heightened. There will come a point where Iran calculates that since the most sanctions they are able to impose are already in place, its best course is to exercise its right to leave the NPT, build a weapon and present the world with a fait-accompli as India and Pakistan did.

It still remains the case that the best long term way to prevent Iran from actually building a weapon is to concede domestic enrichment with an increased inspection regime and possibly international participation. The insistence that Iran not be "nuclear capable", which is a concept the Obama administration has become much more comfortable expressing since Iran's election (Iran's leadership will blame that on Mousavi), will make no progress in causing Iran to give up Nuclear capability, but increases the risk that Iran will eventually build an actual nuclear weapon.

Iranian authorities will blame the US change in position and any accompanying increase in sanctions on Mousavi, but Iran will hold in the face of any sanctions the US is actually able to impose. There is somewhat good reason to blame Mousavi. If there had been a decisive fraud, there were resources arrayed around Mousavi to uncover it and definitively expose it. Khamenei would be out of office now if there was a reasonable argument that he was involved in stealing the election.

From his initial call for a revote (Which was always a bizarre proposition. Has that happened anywhere on Earth ever? You deal with electoral fraud by imprisoning the criminals and if enough votes can be demonstrated to be fraudulent you declare the correct result of the original election.) Mousavi has consistently taken actions to maximize the damage to Iran itself but that would have no utility at actually uncovering or convincing Iranians of fraud. Mousavi is done as an Iranian politician.

Iran's reform movement took a huge loss in the election, but amplified that loss immeasurably by its actions after the election. Instead of being favored to win in 2013 the reformers have been discredited possibly for another decade.

There have been two outcomes of the election. In Iran, Ahmadinejad and his faction of power have moved into a commanding position of power, with nearly no effective opposition. There is also an environment of increased hostility between the West and Iran. Likely this hostility will not spiral out of control. The main factors leading both sides to make moves towards de-escalation of tensions in early June still remain. Western perceptions have changed, but they'll probably be changed back by reality before large numbers of people are harmed.