Thursday, December 31, 2009

Israel is very confident in US' commitment to prevent Iran from enriching uranium

Preventing uranium enrichment on Iranian soil is not an accomplishable goal, nor is it a goal the US needs on its own behalf. However, on Israel's behalf the Barack Obama administration is committed to that goal, according to Obama's spokesman, Israel's Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.
"I'm very confident in America's commitment to dissuading Iran from enriching uranium on its soil, which is our common goal," Oren told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"Our positions on Iran completely dovetail and we have very close cooperation and communication."
I just want to point out that if the political configuration of a country requires it to have unilateral and unanswerable threat of nuclear attack on all other countries in its region, and also requires dictatorships over the populations of its direct neighbors then that political configuration is too expensive in terms of total human costs to be allowed to continue.

Israel as a majority Jewish state is untenable in the same sense that South Africa as a majority White state was untenable. The United States is not willing to directly attack Iran, so there is a limit to the cost it will bear to support Israel's identity as a Jewish state, but short of that Israel still exacts a tremendous cost by distorting US priorities throughout the region.

A one state solution may not ensure that there is always a Jewish majority state in Palestine, but it would not require its neighbors to be coerced, sanctioned or attacked to prevent them from having enrichment technology that is acceptable everywhere else in the world. It also would not require starving the people of Gaza, propping up autocratic regimes Egypt's and Jordan's that cooperate with that starvation or occupying countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to prevent their resources from being used to avenge injustices reasonably attributed Israel and its supporters.

Israel has turned the entire greater Middle East region into an endless sink for US human, military, diplomatic and financial resources. Support for Israel as a Jewish state also causes the US to pursue policies that harm the lives of nearly every non-Jewish person in the region, with the predictable consequence that it builds the ranks of those who consider harming Americans an act of defense.

It is a great disappointment that Barack Obama has shown that he lacks the vision or strength to change US policy regarding securing Israel's Jewish majority status at tremendous cost to itself.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Color revolution attempt 2: Can the West pull it off?

These protests are becoming more and more interesting to me. They do not have known leadership, do not have a program and do not have demands. But they seem to have a strategy of going out, confronting the security forces, and in these confrontations generating outrages to fuel later demonstrations.

I think these protests are substantially assisted by US efforts behind the scenes, in terms of money and likely even operational skills, planning and direction. Iran's leadership says that this is their opinion as well. Likely there is a substantial proportion of Iran's population that agrees. If I'm right, it is reasonable to think of this movement as a continuation of a US-attempted color revolution. I do not think it has good prospects of success at actually installing an alternative government, if that is the West's aim in supporting it.

Assuming the aim of these demonstrations is actually to overthrow Iran's government, one hope would be that every previous demonstration's outrage will increase discontent with the regime and the effect will snowball. This hope is slim. The other hope is that with demonstration infrastructure in place, an outside outrage or shock that the regime otherwise would have survived, in the presence or pre-made demonstrations leads to the regime's overthrow.

Western strategists understand well enough that an outside military attack or sanctions will not provide the necessary shock, but instead would immediately stamp out the protest movement. Possibly the murder of a really popular Iranian could weaken the regime and accelerate the protests to a level that make an overthrow possible. Possibly a truly shocking scandal involving Iran's leadership could do it, but it would have to be something unexpected, not something that Iranians already widely suspect or believe occurs. Without a shock, it is very unlikely that these demonstrations can topple Iran's government, however they can be a nuisance. Unfortunately for the West, these demonstrations do not involve Iran's nuclear scientists and have limited impact on Iran's nuclear program.

I can't predict a shocking event in advance, but I can look at the snowballing scenario. For this, we are very lucky to have poll data from September 2009, after the first round of demonstrations attempting and failing to dismantle Iran's government. One very important question that was not asked is how many Iranians believe there was foreign involvement in the first round of protests. I estimate it is a high number just because Rafsanjani and Mousavi's behavior is difficult to explain without it and the regime which has a high degree of support was claiming it. But seeing an actual number would make the analysis clearer. Here are some results from the September World Public Opinion poll of Iran:

Iranians distrust American intentions when it comes to democracy promotion in the Islamic world. Only 16% believe the US unconditionally supports democracy in Muslim countries. A small majority (51%) believe “the US favors democracy in Muslim countries, but only if the government is cooperative with the US.” Roughly one-fifth (19%) believe the US uniformly opposes democracy in the Muslim world.

Polled two months after the disputed election, 81 percent of Iranians consider Ahmadinejad to be Iran’s legitimate president. Only 10% disagree. Eighty-three percent say the election was free and fair, though only 66% say it was completely free and fair, while 17% say it was somewhat free and fair. The same number (83%) say they are confident in the results, though only 62% say they have a lot of confidence, while 21% say they have some confidence.

A related controversy erupted when Iran,s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, endorsed Ahmadinejad’s victory before the results of the election were official. But only 13% say that the supreme leader should not have supported Ahmadinejad after the election while 76% approve. On the general “process by which the authorities are elected” in Iran a very large majority (81%) say they are satisfied with the general process, though only 40% say they are very satisfied. Sixteen percent say they are not satisfied.

The Islamic Republic’s complex system of government, which parcels out power among a variety of elective, appointive and often overlapping institutions, has been the subject of bewilderment and frequent criticism in the West, yet Iranians express support for it. Asked if they were generally satisfied with the system, an overwhelming 87 % express satisfaction, though only 41% say they are very satisfied. Just 10 percent are dissatisfied (3% not at all satisfied).

The Guardian Council, a 12-member panel of Islamic theologians and jurists that can veto legislation and bar candidates from running for office, also enjoys substantial support. Sixty-two percent of those polled said that a council of senior religious scholars should have the power to overturn laws when it believes they are contrary to the Quran, while 24% said that laws that are passed by elected representatives of the people should not be subject to a veto by senior religious scholars.

The most powerful position in Iran’s political hierarchy is that of supreme leader, a role created by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and held by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei since Khomeini’s death in 1989. Though the supreme leader is appointed by the 86 clerics who make up the Assembly of Experts, 55% of Iranians say the way he is selected is consistent with the principles of democracy. However, this may be due to the fact that Assembly of Experts is popularly elected—thus giving the people indirect influence over the choice of the supreme leader.

A larger majority (61%) say Iran’s constitution grants the supreme leader the necessary amount of power, and another 6% say he should have less power. Only 17% say he has more power than he should.

Different governmental institutions earn varying degrees of confidence. The president ranks highest, with 85% expressing at least some confidence (64% a lot of confidence). The police have the confidence of 83% of Iranians (52% a lot of confidence), the parliament 79% (40% a lot), the judiciary 73% (43% a lot), the Interior Ministry 72% (38% a lot), and the Guardian Council 71% (42% a lot).
Assuming these poll results are correct, and we don't have any better numbers, the ten percent of Iranians who believed Ahmadinejad was not the legitimate president in September is a sizable number. It represents over seven million Iranians, more than enough to explain the crowds we've seen pictures of. But this ten percent is not nearly enough to overthrow Iran's government, or enough that Iran's society can be said to consider Ahmadinejad illegitimate so that it would tolerate Mousavi's taking power.

Opponents of the regime assert the September 2009 WPO poll numbers are wrong, along with their assertion that the reported election results are wrong. The WPO polls seems to have been conducted according to standard practices for polling Iran. The reported election results are, contrary to rumors early in the reporting process, tabulated by a huge number of decentralized people all over the country - and the results of every ballot box were published in Iranian newspapers.

It would, I know opponents of the regime assert otherwise, be extraordinarily difficult for the regime to carry out the level of fraud necessary for Ahmadinejad to have failed to win, but report a ten million vote victory margin for him. Nobody has presented a plausible scenario in which this fraud could have happened. Six months later, as hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets and many people have died, nobody has come forward even to say "by the count at our polling station, the result in the newspaper reported the wrong winner".

What this means is that when a poll reports that 80% of Iranians do not believe the charges of fraud, that is a more than reasonable position for them to take, and about what should be expected if the situation is examined without the typical American animus towards the Iranian regime.

A strategy of protesting the measures used to put down previous protests has as its target audience those seven million Iranians who already believe the government is illegitimate. The 83% of Iranians who believed in September that the elections were fair will not be impressed by the opposition's ability to generate images of repression from protesters who go out with the clear intention of confronting Iran's security forces.

The 83% of Iranians who believed Iran's elections were fair therefore believed that Mousavi was wrong in claiming the elections were fraudulent. I'm fairly confident that more Iranians believe Mousavi had an ulterior motive in making the claim, including the possibility of a foreign influence, than the 10% who still in September believed Mousavi was right.

If that is correct, Mousavi is not in a position, and pretty much will never be in a position that he could assume power. My expectation is that somewhere before the protests reach the full seven million potential participants predicted by the September poll, the protests will plateau and begin visibly wearing at the patience of the rest of Iran's society. Only a shock that is not yet on the horizon could change this.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Gareth Porter: Neutron initiator document was forged, Israel is primary suspect

I didn't care about this document when it surfaced because it does not claim Iran conducted experiments that are prohibited by its safeguards agreement or by the NPT. Iran has every right to have completed every step of manufacturing and testing components for a nuclear weapon as long as it has not diverted fissile material to that purpose or built an actual weapon.

But, one former CIA official, Philip Girardi, apparently told Gareth Porter for IPS News that the document is known to the CIA to be a forgery.
U.S. intelligence has concluded that the document published recently by the Times of London, which purportedly describes an Iranian plan to do experiments on what the newspaper described as a "neutron initiator" for an atomic weapon, is a fabrication, according to a former Central Intelligence Agency official.

Philip Giraldi, who was a CIA counterterrorism official from 1976 to 1992, told IPS that intelligence sources say that the United States had nothing to do with forging the document, and that Israel is the primary suspect. The sources do not rule out a British role in the fabrication, however.

The Times of London story published Dec. 14 did not identify the source of the document. But it quoted "an Asian intelligence source" - a term some news media have used for Israeli intelligence officials - as confirming that his government believes Iran was working on a neutron initiator as recently as 2007.
Giraldi's report of some of the CIA's reasons for assessing the document to be false match the December 16 reasoning of Mark Gubrud, a commenter at the armscontrolwonk blog. He was suspicious that the document would tie together so many publicly known elements of Iran's program with detailed leading statements while being so specific in its incriminating elements and so vague on other elements.
The latter point is to me very suspicious, since it points to another publicly-known factoid, pre-2003 Iranian implosion experiments. As Mr. Barlow, the “former CIA analyst” said, this is a very good forgery, if it is one. I am tending to think that it is.
The simulations of sanctions and military attacks that are returning results that Iran's nuclear program cannot be stopped practically are much more important than details like these documents, even if they had been true. The US still faces a choice of accepting an Iranian nuclear capability now or later, with later being the more risky course that likely leaves Iran with a more robust program.

With or without this likely forged but maybe not-forged document, it has long been the case that Iran is a threat to Jewish-majority Israel, but not a threat to the United States. Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei believes that absent Israel, the US could have good relations with Iran. He's likely right about that. Instead US companies primarily and Western companies disproportionately bear the cost of US efforts to isolate Iran's economy in order to advance the interest of there existing a secure Jewish-majority Israel in Palestine.

With or without Israeli involvement in any forgery, it is also clear that Israel, in alignment with its interests - probably more than with direct US interests - has been pressing the US to take on the tremendous expense of engaging an actual war with Iran. The prospect of US full war with Iran, by all indications, has been securely vetoed by the US military establishment since 2007 at the latest. I do not expect to see sanctions exactly because sanctions carry an unnecessary risk of unpredictably but uncontrollably leading to war.

The United States is willing to devote a tremendous but not unlimited amount of resources throughout the region directly and indirectly to ensure the security of Jewish-majority Israel in Palestine. The mechanisms by which US policy is shaped to contain this willingness are interesting and I plan to think and write more about them in the future.

The neutron document and documents like it are really a very small part of the story. It could have been fake, it could have been real, it hardly would have mattered either way.

Monday, December 28, 2009

No leadership, no program, no demands: Where are the Iran protests heading?

I can really relate to the youthful impulse to go out and protest. The desire to sacrifice one's own safety to make a statement, to change the world. The Iranian protest movement faces challenges that I doubt it will be able to surmount. In the end, unless I'm missing something, it will have to burn itself out.

The first challenge is that the movement does not have identifiable leadership. This is a structural problem as any Iranian who becomes the face of the movement can and will be removed at this point. Additionally and more importantly, the natural leaders, Mousavi and Rafsanjani are burdened by the fact that Iran recently held an election that was essentially a referendum on them, and they are nowhere near as popular nationally as the people in office now.

Unless the opposition movement can produce credible witnesses to the tremendous fraud that would have been required to turn an Ahmadinejad defeat into a victory with a margin over 10 million votes, it is not believable that Mousavi is the legitimate leader of Iran. We read often that the first chants were "we want our votes" or "we want our president" but those chants changed. The chants changed primarily because the argument that the votes were not counted has dramatically lost salience as months have gone by with no evidence of fraud.

The second challenge the movement faces is that it does not have a program. This is another structural problem because while everyone everywhere in the world favors more freedom, less repression, less corruption in the abstract, there is no consensus in Iran that the current government is wrong on specific policies. The September 2009 poll of Iranians shows that there is no consensus that Iran should make the concessions the US wants for better relations with the US, there is no consensus that Iran should have religion play less of a role in government there is no wide consensus that Iran's current government is wrong on any specific issue that it manages.

The protesters cannot and do not say "remove the clerics from government" because there is no societal consensus favoring that. They do not say "reduce the influence of the military" because there is no national consensus favoring that. They say "be lenient on protesters". It is not even clear that there is a consensus favoring that, but a protest movement whose main object is that the protesters themselves should be treated more leniently as they protest just cannot inspire national support.

Relatedly, the protesters have not presented tangible demands, at least plausible ones. Chants of "death to the dictator", meaning Khamenei, are now reportedly being made by the protesters. "Death to Russia". Without leadership, there is nobody available to present as Khamenei's replacement. Interestingly, even if the military was to decide that Khamenei is a liability and want to mount a coup - the lack of demands or a program means that these protests could continue by just replacing the name of whoever was to be imposed in Khamenei's place.

It is fairly clear, just based on Hillary Clinton's admission, that the US is supporting the protesters, giving organizational and financial help. The agenda of the US is not to win freedom for the Iranian people, it is to get an Iranian government that, like Egypt's, "sustains peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region". Like in Egypt, this requires that the US goal for Iran be a dictatorship, someone to replace Iran's Shah as Mubarak replaced Egypt's King Farouk after Egypt had achieved independence.

Fortunately, I cannot see how the protests could lead to any change in Iran's government, even in the best case for the protesters. Over thirteen million people voted for Mousavi. He has a lot of support, and if one in ten of his voters comes to the streets, that would produce over a million protesters. The size of the protests would be impressive in a country that does not hold elections, but in Iran regardless of the protests, according to polls and more importantly voter tallies, Ahmadinejad has more supporters.

Ahmadinejad supporters aren't coming out to the streets for the same reason Barack Obama supporters are not holding rallies while Sarah Palin supporters are - why Kerry supporters would raise far larger protests than Bush supporters when Bush was in office. The side that won the election is not mad as hell.

What the protests may do is distract Iran's leadership and devote resources to managing them that Iran would otherwise devote to other things. Iran's is going to continue to present the protesters as naive dupes of foreign powers, with somewhat good reason. Possibly the US hopes to use the protests as another element of leverage to coerce Iran to give up its nuclear capability.

If in the future there is an event, usually an election, again with pre-invented rumors of fraud, but possibly a major scandal that becomes public against a regime figure or something like that, the protest infrastructure that is being worked out now may increase effective pressure on the regime. Other than that, these protests will be a nuisance that will not influence the Iranian governing system.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

How does Al-Qaeda keep recruiting intelligent Western-educated operatives?

How did an educated Muslim son of a millionaire such as Umar Farouk Abdul Muttallab become willing to take on an Al Qaeda mission?

A simple one word answer: Israel.

A more detailed, maybe more complicated answer is that by any objective measure, the United States really is at war with the Muslim world over the legitimacy of Israel.

Americans generally do not like believing this. Most Americans take as an unexamined premise that reasonable people must agree that the Holocaust established that there must be a Jewish-majority state in Palestine. From this premise, which is both unexamined and false, Americans are often lead to conclusions that fundamentally conflict with the conclusions arrived at by Muslims.

The premise is indefensible. A Jewish-majority state in Palestine is no more cosmically necessary than a White-political majority state in Southern Africa, and just as offensive to the rest of its region. It is a fact that most Jewish people, in Israel and outside - including in the United States - believe there should be a Jewish state in Palestine. But it is a false unexamined premise that this desire of most Jewish people that there be a Jewish state must be fulfilled at the cost it has now been shown to exact.

Many Americans, including, disappointingly, Barack Obama, believe that the slow starvation of Gaza, embodied in Israel's infamous statement that "the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet but not to make them die of hunger", is a reasonable response to Hamas' refusal to accept that there be a Jewish majority Israel. Starting from the premise that there must be a secure Jewish majority state, it is reasonable to punish Gaza for electing leadership that openly denies Israel's legitimacy. In truth, a free Gaza under hostile control does pose a threat to the security of Israel as a majority-Jewish state.

Nearly no Muslims start from the common US premise that there must be a Jewish majority state. Without that premise, the strangulation of Gaza is an outrageous imposition of hardship on innocent and vulnerable Muslim civilians. Without that premise, the United States is assisting Israel in waging an unjust war on the children of Gaza.

Interestingly, the premise that there must be a Jewish state itself, the root of the conflict between the US and Muslim perception of the starvation of Gaza (among many other things that I'll get to later) remains unexamined in the United States at least partly because of a form of intellectual intimidation committed by supporters of Israel in which the idea has been advanced that to question the legitimacy of Israel is a form of bigotry against Jews.

The idea that opposition to Zionism is not bigotry against Jews also does not withstand scrutiny, but the idea cannot be questioned in the West except by those willing to risk being called anti-Semitic. These accusations of anti-Semitism are passionate and often sincere as many Jewish people are uncomfortable with the idea that the legitimacy of Israel can be questioned. These accusations of anti-Semitism are unreasonable and wilt when examined calmly. Unfortunately, a large amount of Americans who are concerned with the Middle East are intimidated by the risk that in questioning these premises they may be wrongly considered anti-Semitic.

Smart Muslim students, as they become politically aware, find themselves more able to question the premise that there must be a Jewish state in Palestine than most Americans. And once the premise is questioned, it is impossible to affirm without on some level for some reason elevating the rights, desires and concerns of Jewish people above those of non-Jewish Palestinians.

Beyond Gaza, Egypt, as well as the last remaining collaborationist colonial monarchies on earth, those of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf are supported in denying rights to their people, torturing those they rule and exploiting their leadership for opportunities for personal gain by the US and the West on the basis that they "sustain peace with Israel, which is a very difficult thing to do in that region".

This seems like a reasonable policy if you accept the unexamined premise that there must be a secure Jewish-majority state in Palestine. If you do not accept that premise, then the over 100 million Arabs held in these US-supported dictatorships have rights that simply outweigh any need for 5 million Jewish people to have a political majority in some secure territory in Palestine.

Beyond the pro-Israel states, the US and West actively work to sabotage the economies of regional states that, in alignment with the preferences of their people, do not accept the legitimacy of Israel. The means unemployed people who otherwise would be employed. This means retired people losing more of their wealth to inflation than would be the case were it not for deliberate US actions to make that so.

People who accept the premise that there must be a Jewish state assign all of the blame for Western economic warfare against Muslims to governments that take actions that threaten Israel's security. People who do not accept that premise see the situation diametrically differently.

What look to Americans, and to those who accept without examination the premise that there must be a Jewish-majority state in Palestine, as largely benevolent Western policies look to a Muslim student as bigotry-motivated attacks on a huge range of Muslims, emanating from the invalid idea that 5 million Jewish people must have a safe majority state in Palestine at any human cost.

No American can understand the world of an Al-Qaeda recruit unless he can ask what if there was no Jewish state? What if all of the refugees were allowed to return to the territory with their political preferences respected, even if they would vote for a single non-Jewish state. While Americans remain unable to understand, while Obama describes it as a small number of people with outsized rage, the position is perfectly understandable to those who are able to question Obama's premise that there must be a Jewish state - even if Obama is not able to question that premise himself.

So a Muslim student who sees America perpetuating a war against hundreds of millions of innocent, often defenseless and vulnerable Muslims asks what should I do about this? In the naivete of youth, upon his first practical exposure to the virtue of self-sacrifice for a larger ideal many sign up to fight, willing to risk his life just as many young Americans are willing join the US military. It is interesting that the war against Muslims that many young Muslims perceive is completely invisible to Americans who cannot or have not questioned the fundamental premise that there must be a Jewish state. Most Americans honestly and naively have no idea what these young Muslims could be fighting for.

In a single sentence, Barack Obama is conducting a multi-trillion dollar war against Al-Qaeda because he is unwilling or unable to question his premise that there must be a Jewish state. As long as US politicians remain unable to question that premise, they, while believing they are acting reasonably, will continue to generate the outrages, indeed continue to prosecute the war, that drives intelligent and educated recruits to organizations such as Al Qaeda.

It is interesting that a non-violent alternative to Al Qaeda in the West has not yet developed. My contention is that as of now, such an organization could reach its goals more effectively and would offer prospective Al Qaeda recruits a better outlet for their impulse to contribute. One problem is that if organizations that do not actually advocate violence are disbanded by Western security apparatuses just as those that do advocate violence are, it leaves a situation in which only the more militant organizations are able to flourish.

The situation we have today, in which the US will not question the idea that there must be a Jewish-majority state in Palestine while most Muslims do doubt that idea, will continue to instill in many young Muslims the idea that they should defend their people from Western predations - as it instilled that idea in a young Osama Bin Laden once - violently if that is the only way possible.

Mark Lyall Grant: New sanctions deadline, end of February 2010, give or take three months

The United States does not want sanctions, or it would be pressing much more aggressively for them. The fact is that sanctions would neither slow Iran's nuclear program, or strengthen the US position with respect to Iran. They are more likely to do the opposite in each case, and the US knows this.

We have an interview with Mark Lyall Grant, the British Permanent Representative to the United Nations published by Ria Novosti
Q: How soon could they be on the table in the Council?

A: I think, as I say, there will be some discussion among the Six first, before we table something in New York. But I think probably by the end of February, certainly I expect there to be sanctions.

Q: Discussed in the Council or already voted?

A: It depends how long it takes. Last time I was involved in the last major sanctions resolution in March 2008 and that took three month to negotiate.
If the West, as I hoped, quietly began working on building fuel assemblies in November, by the end of February, it will be able to present assemblies for a simultaneous exchange for part of Iran's LEU stockpile.

The important element is neither the exchange or the reduction in Iran's stockpile. The important question remains is the United States yet willing to accept Iran having the ability, in theory to build a weapon if Iran perceives a national emergency requiring one. If it is, everything remaining can be worked out fairly easily. If it is not, we may get reluctant sanctions, if any, early in the summer of 2010. That would mean Obama's Middle East policy will be heading toward complete failure.

Selig Harrison describes US efforts to support Iranian separatist movements

At the very least, the New York Times would have informed the Obama administration that it was considering giving space to someone it would present as an expert to claim the US supports separatist groups, and it would have honored an administration request that it not do so. The op-ed by Selig S. Harrison published by the New York Times has to be seen as a statement from the Barack Obama administration.
The result was a compromise: limited covert action carried out by proxy, in the case of the Baluch, through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate or, I.S.I., and in the case of the Kurds by the C.I.A. in cooperation with Israel’s Mossad. My knowledge of the I.S.I.’s role is based on first-hand Pakistani sources, including Baluch leaders. Evidence of the C.I.A. role in providing weapons aid and training to Pejak, the principal Kurdish rebel group in Iran, has been spelled out by three U.S. journalists, Jon Lee Anderson and Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker and Borzou Daragahi of the Los Angeles Times, who have interviewed a variety of Pejak leaders.

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, speaking in the Kurdish city of Bijar, charged on May 12 that the Obama administration had not reversed the Bush policy. “Unfortunately, money, arms and organization are being used by the Americans directly across our western borders in order to fight the Islamic Republic’s system,” he declared. “The Americans are busy making a conspiracy.”
This actually was also true about Seymour Hersh's 2008 article describing Bush administration anti-Iranian covert activities. At this point, US efforts under Barack Obama to support the dismantlement of Iran has reached the status of open secret, as it had under the Bush administration.

Now that it is acknowledged, the US can offer to mediate it, perhaps in exchange for Iran mediating its stances on Hamas and Hezbollah or more pressingly on its nuclear program. The downside is that support for anti-Iranian groups in Iran can contribute to spiraling hostilities between the US and Iran, and the spiral ends with substantial losses in Iraq and Afghanistan - even defeat in both countries.

What is happening is that the US has an unreasonable and unreachable goal that Iran not become nuclear capable as Japan and Brazil are, and as is fully within Iran's right as a sovereign nation - a right that is explicitly in no way diminished by Iran's agreement with the terms of the NPT. The US feels constrained to try to reach this goal because of Israel's strategic needs, and because of pressure pro-Israel factions of US policy are able to apply to the administration, but the fact that the goal is not reachable means we see one ineffectual lurch in policy after another.

First we saw what may have been a really clumsy trick, that the US would try to get Iran to export its stockpile of LEU without committing to an outcome that would include domestic enrichment, so that after the stockpile has left, the US could announce additional conditions for the return of fuel which would have, according to the possible US vision, increased pressure on Iran to submit to US demands on its nuclear program. Now we see the US move its continued support for separatists into the open with the implied offer to restrain support for separatists as part of a deal that would include Iranian submission on the issue of nuclear capability.

I don't know how important a factor the major separatist operation in October which killed several Revolutionary Guards commanders was in the breakdown of the medical reactor deal. The three possibilities are that the operation hardened Iran's position, and pushed Iran's demands for the final arrangement outside of what the US was prepared to accept, that the operation did not impact Iran's position, but that Iran's position has always been that it retain more capability in the long-term outcome than the US is willing to accept, or that outcomes have not been discussed yet, and the attack was irrelevant because there really was never any more to the deal than the insult that was made public.

But Harrison's op-ed amounts to a quasi-official assumption of responsibility for the Balochistan attack by the US - and renders Obama's contention that "we do not interfere in Iran’s internal affairs" an acknowledged lie. Hillary Clinton's earlier statement that "behind the scenes, we were doing a lot, as you know" to help the opposition movement before this had rendered Obama's statement a deliberate falsehood. Obama would do well to have a person knowledgeable about the region look at all of his speeches that reference the Middle East and just cross out statements that are flat-out false. These statements really unnecessarily detract from his credibility.

Where does this leave us? I see a picture of a United States that has not mentally accepted that it cannot prevent Iran from getting a "Japan option" - or a United States that has not found the internal strength to admit to the Israelis that such an option cannot be prevented. Because of this inability to face reality, the United States is taking increasingly desperate measures to build leverage that could hopefully pressure Iran to give that option up. However, the US does seem to understand that a military attack would not help it, nor would sanctions. The US is today just orchestrating a confused policy as it watches time pass and its objective slip further into impossibility.

Raja Kamal and Karim Pakravan think Iran's leadership is afraid of normalization with the US

We see more and more of the thesis that Iran's Revolutionary Guards have increased in power and are militarizing the regime. These days we routinely are informed that Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei has been overshadowed by the Revolutionary Guards. It is a thesis that cannot be verified or falsified. It does not have explanatory power, it does not help in predicting Iranian actions. What it does is give people who are inclined to dislike Iran's regime for whatever reason, an excuse to visualize the regime in somehow an even more menacing way.

Khamenei had never been some Mubarak- or Abdullah-style "moderate" eager to stop funding Hamas and Hezbollah and agree with the US to suspend enrichment. Iran in 2006 funded groups opposed to Israel, asserted that a Jewish majority state in Palestine is incompatible with justice for the larger number of Palestinians in the territories and refugees and refused to suspend enrichment. In 2009, we see Iran pursuing exactly, exactly the same foreign policy but this is being explained by the idea that Khamenei has lost power between 2006 and now.

It is as if someone said Barack Obama isn't making US healthcare policy, Nancy Pelosi is. How would anyone know? Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi agree on US healthcare policy. Obama is still in office, policy is being made that agrees with his inclinations. What would be the point of saying he's been marginalized by people who would do what he's shown he's wanted to do since he got into politics?

The US foreign policy community displays an eagerness to wring any negative interpretation out of any situation in Iran that is baffling to watch. Now when Iran refuses to suspend enrichment, it isn't Khamenei's choice, a choice Khamenei has made consistently since European negotiators told Iran that they wanted the temporary suspension Iran agreed to as a confidence building measure to be permanent, or indefinite at Western discretion. When Iran refuses to suspend today, exactly as it has for years, now the same refusal comes from the military. So the same policy is now more "hard-line", more menacing. The same policy.

There has been no change in policy. Iran is no more hard-line in its relations with the West than it was last year. There is a visceral animosity against Iran felt by nearly the entire US foreign policy community. We are watching that community just jump at a chance to portray Iran every single bit as monstrous as their imaginations will allow. More hard line than Khamenei? What would that even look like? We don't have to see a single policy change for this story to become the consensus view of the foreign policy establishment.

Very quickly I'll look back to the medical reactor deal. The deal was terrible. Iran would never have gotten any fuel. Iran would have gotten more pressure to suspend enrichment - which Iran has said consistently is unacceptable for several years now. Why would the US give Iran fuel rather than invent some pretext to hold it back, or claim technical difficulties in production, once Iran's LEU has been removed? Because the US would never break its word to Iran? It was a terrible deal. Iran's agreement in principle was an agreement that if the details could be made acceptable, the principle of the deal - trading LEU for fuel was acceptable. The details were never made acceptable. Nobody in Iran has ever spoken in favor of the deal as presented by the West.

I just mention that deal because I often read the absolutely ridiculous argument that the Revolutionary Guards overruled Khamenei on the deal. File that under "you can't be serious." I read this again and again, by people who don't seem to be deliberately joking. My mind boggles every time. An analyst who cannot explain what leverage Iran would use to ensure it got fuel once its LEU was exported really should not be surprised that Iran realized this obvious fact and rejected the deal.

But all of this is to get to the other, even more ridiculous assertion that is often made about Iran. I read it, not nearly the first time, but most recently in an opinion piece in the Boston Globe by Raja Kamal and Karim Pakravan.
The militarization of the Islamic regime has also extended to the country’s foreign policy. The increasingly confrontational stance taken by Iran on its nuclear program reflects the security forces’ interests in keeping Iran isolated and defiant - a normalization of relations with the West, in particular the United States, is seen as a lethal threat to the survival of the regime and their powerful role.
We've already dealt with how the exact same stance cannot be increasingly confrontational. Is normalization with the West somehow a threat, even a lethal threat to the Iranian regime?

Is anyone else laughing? Is this serious? Iran has no sanctions against the US. Any Iranian can invest as much as he wants in essentially any US firm or project. Washington must not consider normalization a lethal threat because if it did, the US would drop the unilateral sanctions the US imposes on Iran today. And if the threat was lethal, Iran's regime would die.

Only one side is imposing sanctions on the other. Normalization with Iran is a threat to the US for a tangible reason. The US is determined that no hostile power in the region should become strong enough to threaten Israel. Iran supports groups that oppose Israel, as every state in the region would if their foreign policies were under democratic control, and the US needs to punish that behavior for Israel's sake and to dissuade other countries from doing the same. But in practical terms, non-normalization of relations between Iran and the US goes in one direction.

If Iran was really threatened by normalization, the US would threaten or execute a threat to unilaterally normalize relations. If Iran was threatened by talks, the US would offer to talk, even in public. True, Iran does not want to follow the foreign policy path of the Shah, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but not because the approval the US gives submissive nations is a threat, but because nearly everyone in Iran considers those foreign policies inferior to Iran's current foreign policy. Most people in Egypt and Saudi Arabia likely agree. The idea that Iran fears normalization could not be more senseless.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

South Korea's safeguards violations were ignored as Iran is held to a double standard

I had meant to link to Gareth Porter's comparison of how Iran's nuclear case has been handled to South Korea's case, when by any objective measure, South Korea had more severe violations of its NPT obligations.
The stark contrast between the treatment of the Iranian and South Korean cases by the IAEA Secretariat and its Board of Governors is the most dramatic evidence of a politically motivated nuclear double standard practiced by the agency and its Governing Board, dominated by the United States.
I find the charge of a double standard, even though it is true, less and less interesting as it becomes more clear that the West is unable to coerce Iran into complying with its demands.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Michael Slackman: New York Times and other journalists have been lying to you

My jaw dropped. I was stunned by the first paragraph of a recent New York Times piece by Michael Slackman.
Until Iran’s current political crisis, Iranian experts largely agreed that the Islamic republic wanted to develop the capacity to build nuclear weapons, without actually producing them.
Really, Iranian experts have agreed all along that the conflict was not over weapons, but over capability, from before the crisis that began in June? Slackman and other reporters presumably knew about this consensus. Why have New York Times readers not known about this?

When Juan Cole wrote in October that Iran was seeking a "latent nuclear capacity", this was nearly the first wide-audience explanation of the concept I had come across. The New York Times was doing in October what it did this week in Alan Kuperman's op-ed, claimed that the issue in discussion is preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

I'm not surprised. I've known they were lying - being deliberately misleading. I've said they were lying. They have been careful usually to put the word "weapons" into quotes by someone - so the Times could pass a statement it knew not to be true to its readers but in the voice of someone other than its reporters. To carefully parse one's words to create a false impression while not making an outright false statement in one's own voice is not only lying, but even worse, the party that does it loses the ability to claim it was innocently reporting what it believed.

Now, according to Slackman, the Revolutionary Guards are becoming more powerful and they are more hard line than the clerics they are replacing in power. The Revolutionary Guards may well be more hard line, but how does that demonstrate that Iran wants a weapon now instead of a virtual weapon, that the New York Times has known was the expert consensus all along? It doesn't. The rest of the article contains nearly no informational value.

The only information we get from Slackman's article is the stunning admission that for a long time, continuing to today, the New York Times and all US media organizations with access to Iran experts has been and continues to deliberately mislead its readers into believing Iran aims for a weapon instead of a "Japan option".

It should not be Juan Cole's job to undo hundreds of misleading articles in the press. Reporters who understand the difference between nuclear capability and a nuclear weapon have a responsibility to put the distinction between the two to government officials up to and including the U.S. President and Israeli Prime Minister, and to put their responses into their reports.

But as bad as it is, as horribly as the professional news media is colluding with government officials to mislead their consumers, the situation was far worse before the internet made information far more accessible to those willing to look deeper.

A military attack would be to the detriment of everyone but the Iranian regime

They keep doing these war games, they keep coming up with the result that sanctions fail, just as military attacks fail at preventing Iran from reaching a nuclear weapons capability.

But then they keep insisting that sanctions are imminent and a military attack is a real possibility. The logic is that only if Iran believes there is a real threat will it stop its nuclear program.

Friday Lunch Club points me to two more simulations. One conducted in Israel, another conducted in the US. They draw the same conclusion that's been obvious for years to close observers, but that Washington refuses to acknowledge. Laura Rozen at Politico reports on both of them.
It was a very interesting and useful exercise, another participant in the game said.


"For a variety of reasons, among them because it showed a military attack would be to the detriment of everyone but the Iranian regime," he said.
Listen. Iran does not believe there is a real military threat, and Iran will not stop its nuclear program. Iran is doing its own war games, has good information about US aerial capabilities since it saw the attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan up close for a long time, and is coming to the same conclusions US war gamers are coming to.

I've never done a war game, but since 2007, it has been obvious just from what is publicly known about the efficacy of aerial bombing as well as what is known about the US vulnerabilities in the region, that the US cannot attack, or credibly threaten to attack Iran. Here is a Washington Post article from Michael Gerson in July 2007.
Beyond Iraq's borders, the options become difficult: engaging in hot pursuit against weapon supply lines over the Iranian border or striking explosives factories and staging areas within Iran. This sort of escalation is opposed by the Iraqi government and American military leaders. The Defense Department fears what is called "escalation dominance" -- meaning that in a broadened conflict, the Iranians could complicate our lives in Iraq and the region more than we complicate theirs.
If x is necessary to prevent Iran's nuclear program, and x is not true, that does not mean x must really be true. It means Iran's nuclear program will not be prevented. It is not true that Iran believes there is a credible threat of attack by the US on Iranian installations.

If it was true (it actually isn't) that a credible military threat was necessary and/or sufficient to cause Iran to stop its program, then that is enough to give the idea of stopping the program up. We are not going to stop Iran's nuclear program. So now it is time to decide under what terms Iran's nuclear program will go forward. Will it be in an environment of increasing, possibly spiralling hostilities, or will it be in an environment of negotiation?

And in this light, Alan Kuperman from the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin claims that an attack on Iran is the only US option.
Negotiation to prevent nuclear proliferation is always preferable to military action. But in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement. We have reached the point where air strikes are the only plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Postponing military action merely provides Iran a window to expand, disperse and harden its nuclear facilities against attack. The sooner the United States takes action, the better.
Once again, I'll try to do this slowly. Air strikes are not a plausible option with any prospect of preventing Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Of course we're careful enough not to be mislead by Kuperman's conflating "nuclear weapons" with the capability to build a weapon in an emergency in theory these are legally and morally very different concepts. The conflict with the US is over the question of Iran having the option, if Iran perceives an emergency, of building a weapon if it leaves the NPT.

Kuperman says there is no other plausible option to prevent Iran from reaching the capability that Japan, among many other nations, has. He's right about that. Now we add the war games and see that attacks also are not a plausible option to prevent Iran from reaching that point. Then that's it. We're done. There is no plausible option to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear capability.

Now Obama has to decide does he want Iran to reach that point under expanding sanctions or under negotiations. This is a no-brainer decision, but there are parties that have the ear of his administration that 1) generally like seeing as many sanctions applied to Iran as possible and 2) are not able, or at least pretend to be unable to accept reality - as long as the US is the country expending the resources.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Conspiracies somehow involving Israel or Jewish people

In a previous post describing the controversy over the legitimacy of Israel as the central conflict of the Middle East, I was accused by a commenter, N. Friedman of believing in a conspiracy. What type of conspiracy was not specified, nor was what statement led him to that conclusion.

Non-Western readers may not understand what was meant by that comment, so I think it will serve as a good example of the accusation and one way to respond.

In especially European history, animus or hatred of Jewish people often was expressed in the idea that Jewish people have formed a secret conspiracy to control policies of majority non-Jewish political entities such as governments or intellectual, cultural or opinion-setting institutions.

Friedman, saying I believe in some conspiracy, is claiming that I am anti-Semitic. When the Leverett's go out of their way to describe the conflict between those who accept Israel and those that reject it as a conflict between pro and anti- Americans, they are attempting to pre-empt exactly Friedman's accusation.

I want to be clear about two things. 1) I am not an anti-Semite. I have no hatred or animus of any type against Jewish people. I do not believe Jewish people, because they are Jewish, have any kind of negative attribute. 2) There is no reasonable reading of my previous post under which I was in any way coming anywhere near making any anti-Semitic claim, nor was there any statement that could reasonably be read to imply any kind of conspiracy. Even if Friedman was honest in his response, he still was not reasonable.

People who argue against Israel's legitimacy will often be accused sometimes directly, sometimes obliquely as in Friedman's case, of being anti-Semitic. If dealing with a Western audience, it is very important to deal with the accusation head-on.

"I do not in any way hate Jewish people" "No statement I made can reasonably be interpreted as expressing hatred in any way of Jewish people". In dealing with a Western audience, once an accusation of anti-Semitism is made, it is better to make these statements too often and too vehemently than not often or vehemently enough.

We can't be sure that Friedman was being cynical. I know Friedman from earlier encounters and he has an emotional attachment to Israel that possibly colors his perception of statements questioning Israel's legitimacy. He may really have thought he saw a conspiracy somewhere. That really does not matter. I do not in any way hate Jewish people. No statement I made can reasonably be interpreted as expressing hatred in any way of Jewish people.

It is a very dangerous accusation because if I pre-empt the accusation by using "pro-
American" where I mean "pro-Zionist or pro-Israel" then my analysis suffers. It suffers in a way that Friedman would approve, because it would lead me to underestimate the price the US and West pay for their support for Israel.

There is not a mysterious anti-American force that has captured the hearts of millions of people in the Middle East. Contrary to what Friedman would want Westerners to believe, people in the Middle East do not accept the legitimacy of Jewish majority Israel just as reasonably as people in Africa did not accept the legitimacy of White majority South Africa.

This dispute, in which the Middle Easterners happen to be right, animates the most important conflict in the Middle East and exacts huge costs on Israel's supporters. But sorry, N. Friedman. I say that even as someone who is not anti-Semitic. Even as someone who has no reason anywhere in any way to imply that there is any conspiracy.

Discussing the Middle East without mentioning Israel

The main conflict in the Middle East is really between parties that accept Israel and parties that do not. Describing it as Sunni vs. Shiite or pro-American vs. anti-American misses an important point. Here are the abnormally perceptive for US analysts, Flynt and Hillary Leverett, going out of their way to evade the fact that Israel's legitimacy is the central conflict of the Middle East. Possibly they've been conditioned to worry about being called anti-Semitic when making that obvious observation. An unreasonable fear of being considered anti-Semitic has the capacity to cloud US analysis this way and in far more damaging ways.
On one side of this divide are those states willing to work in various forms of strategic partnership with the United States, with an implied acceptance of American hegemony over the region. This camp includes Israel, those Arab states that have made peace with Israel (Egypt and Jordan), and other so-called moderate Arab states (e.g., Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council).

On the other side of this divide are those Middle Eastern states and non-state actors that are unwilling to legitimize American (and, some in this camp would say, Israeli) hegemony over the region. The Islamic Republic of Iran has emerged in recent years as the de facto leader of this camp, which also includes Syria and prominent non-state actors such as HAMAS and Hizballah. Notwithstanding its close security ties to the United States, Qatar has also aligned itself with the “resistance” camp on some issues in recent years. And, notwithstanding Turkey’s longstanding membership in NATO and ongoing European “vocation”, the rise of the Justice Development Party and declining military involvement in Turkish politics have prompted an intensification of Ankara’s diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, in ways that give additional strategic options to various actors in the “resistance” camp.
About Israeli hegemony, this is not a controversial idea. Israel has written guarantees that the US will work to ensure that Israel has a qualitative military advantage over every other country in its region. Describing the first group as pro-American instead of pro-Israeli misses an important part of the dynamic.

The United States depends on dictatorships in the Middle East for exactly one reason: Israel. If Saudi Arabia was as democratic as Colombia or Egypt was as democratic as South Korea, they would not tolerate Israel and would pursue policies designed to force Israel to reaccept the refugees and end its Jewish majority. In other words, unlike other democratic US allies in other regions, there is a structural reason that democratic countries in the Middle East could not go along with a central US policy priority, in other words they could not be US allies if they were democracies. That structural reason and that US policy priority are Israel's existence as a Jewish-majority state.

The people of Jordan and Lebanon are just as opposed to the maintenance of a Jewish state imposed by force as the people of Kenya and Mali were to the maintenance of a White majority state in Africa imposed by force. No reasonably democratic government in any of those countries would fail to oppose the popularly illegitimate country in their region as effectively as possible.

US pressure played a role in democratizing South Korea which a generation ago was a military dictatorship. As long as the conflict over Zionism remains, pro-Israel dictators do not have to worry about that happening to their backwards rulerships. US support for an entire string of oppressive dictatorships resolves to US support for Israel. Other than Israel, there is no reason every other country in the region would not openly host US troops and support US projects, even as democracies.

We're left with a strange and dysfunctional equilibrium in which dictators in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt - two vestiges of the colonial era, the other reimposed after - depend on there being a conflict over Zionism for the US support they need to survive while the US, in dramatic contradiction to its claimed ideals, accepts and even praises these dictatorships. Obama's bizarrely hypocritical claims to support freedom in Iran only highlight his support for worse dictatorships that favor Israel.

This dysfunction is what I had hoped Barack Obama would at least acknowledge. But of all the things Barack Obama is, (for example he is a skilled, patient and practical US domestic politician) a man of honesty or courage is not one of them. For me, that is the biggest disappointment of the Obama administration.

Iran must believe an attack is possible

John Vinocur's New York Times article contains an idea that I see somewhat often in articles about Iran's nuclear program. The idea is that Iran must be convinced that an attack is a real possibility. The reason Iran must believe this is independent of whether or not it is true.
Last week, I asked Mark Fitzpatrick, senior fellow for nonproliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies here, and a former State Department expert on nuclear issues, about where he saw the difficulties converging next year.

He said sanctions by the United States and European Union affecting Iran’s imports of gasoline (the mullahs have oil, but small refining capacities) could be enacted, but he doubted their effectiveness in stopping the Iranian drive towards nukes.

If that is the case, Mr. Fitzpatrick has said “threatening military force” may be the way forward. He told me, “Iran has to know it’s a real possibility.”
Military force is a possibility, just supply lines for US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan being nearly closed off with Iranian assistance is a possibility. But we can be pretty confident we will not see either.

What is interesting is the idea that if it would take a credible military threat to prevent Iran from keeping its nuclear weapons capability, and Israel really really wants to prevent Iran from keeping that capability, then there must be a credible military threat. The credibility of the threat is not dependent upon how much any country wants it or feels it needs it. The tangible factors that led Bush to deny an attack continue to lead Obama to deny an attack.

The idea that seems strangely common, that Iran believing an attack is possible whether an attack is actually possible or not leads us to see more and more about a possible US or Israeli attack in the Western press.

Interviews with Mahmoud Abbas/Abu Mazen of Palestine

Mahmoud Abbas gave an interview with Charles Levinson of the Wall Street Journal on December 20, and one with Ali El-Saleh and Nazer Majli of the Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat on December 22. In both interviews he talks about his options, that he refuses to discuss further, if elections are not held.
[Wall Street Journal]And if there are no elections, will you remain in power or will you resign?

This is an important point. I said that I will not run in the elections. I will exert all possible efforts to make sure there are elections. In the Egyptian brokered accord there is total agreement with all the factions that there should be elections on June 28. If tomorrow, Hamas signs this agreement, then there will be elections on June 28. There is no problem with holding elections. If there is no hope for any sort of elections, then I have other options. What are those other options? I'm not talking about them yet.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] By announcing that you will not be a candidate, you are throwing the burden on the shoulders of your possible alternative?

I am not throwing the burden on anybody's shoulders. I say that this person - me - who has dedicated his life to peace considers that the road is blocked. I have sat in this chair as president of the Palestinian Authority in order to bring about the Palestinian State, and now I see that I cannot achieve this state; what can I do? Should I remain in the chair? Politics is my hobby, but this does not mean that I am immature in politics. It is my hobby because I work in politics because I want to do so. I do not want to be a political leader, and to scheme and maneuver; I say what is in my mind, and you know that many people have been upset because of what I say.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the other alternatives you talked about?

I will not tell you.

These are alternatives that I will not squander. It is up to me to decide when I want. I have said that I will not be a candidate; however, I have options or measures - not alternatives - which I will adopt when the time is right?
I guess his option means to declare a successor and step down. I'm not sure what power he thinks this option holds, but keeping it secret is a way to convince himself that he has some plan without the risk that the plan be laughed at and its holes pointed out if he says it out loud. Abbas, and also the Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis from time to time convince themselves that they have secret plans that will accomplish some goal when it is unveiled. In real life, putting one's thinking before neutral and hostile audiences exposes problems earlier rather than later.

I found Abbas' ability to blame Hamas first, before even Israel for Israel's attacks on Gaza to be offensive.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that the success of Hamas in releasing dozens of Palestinian prisoners, whose hands Israel claims to be "tarnished with Jewish blood," will be a victory for the resistance, because 16 years of peace negotiations, i.e. since the Oslo Accord in 1993, have failed in releasing any of them?

You should ask Israel about this. Moreover, we have paid the price of Shalit: 2,500 martyrs, houses destroyed, and more and more. We have not finished paying yet. I hold Hamas as the main responsible for this, and then Israel. For this reason, brother, let us put an end to this affair.
I wish his questioners had pinned him down further with followup questions about both a single state and protests against Israel. In both interviews he clumsily reaches for new subjects to discuss when those issues are raised.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] There are those who call for a single state?

We are not the ones calling for a single state. This is not our option. The Road Map includes three parts. The first part is commitments, and I have fulfilled all my commitments, but Israel has not fulfilled any of them. I am sure that they have not fulfilled anything at all. Therefore, the Israelis have abolished the first part of the Road Map. The third part talks about two states, and the end of occupation. They refuse. This means that the third part has disappeared. As for the second part, it talks about a state with interim borders as an option. I do not accept this. Therefore, what is the solution? Where do they want to take us? I will not take the road of violence. Drag us to where you want, but I will not return to violence.

[Wall Street Journal]You have encouraged recently Palestinians to boycott products made in the settlements, but many of your Palestinian critics would like to see you go further in leading a non-violent resistance movement against Israel. Do you support those who are calling for a broader boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel?

This is our right to boycott the settlements. The settlements are taking our land and selling the products to the world so we ask the world not to buy these products. These are our rights. The people of Bilin and Nilin go out and protest peacefully against the wall. I am with any peaceful protest that expresses the opinion of the people. I support this. But I am against the bullets and the rockets. We are asking every day the European countries and the world to stop buying these products and not to buy these products. But we never said boycott Israel. We never boycotted Israel. We have contacts with them every day. We buy from them electricity, water, and even the air. We buy air! They sell us air! Truly, the air. Cell phone frequencies. And they haggle with us over the air. 'We'll give 3.1 of air' they say, and we say 'no we want 3.8,' and they say 'no way you'll get .8 of air.' AIR!
I've heard Abbas' strategy, such as it is, described as "if we give them everything they ask, that will cause them to make concessions to us". The overarching sentiment in both interviews is Abbas' frustration that this strategy does not work. Abbas owes his career to support from Israel and the United States. Given that he serves at their discretion he is then forced to form a view of the world that is consistent with collaborating with them. By necessity, he severely misunderstands what Israel wants from the peace process.
(Erekat: The president is the owner of the negotiations with Israel, the owner of the Oslo Accord, and the owner of the peace camp in Romania and other issues. He is the one who educated us in the principle of the two states. Now there is Palestinian Authority, a government, and a Legislative Council. These have been established as institutions for the state. The president has reached the stage that says that Israel has imposed itself as a source of authority, and that he needs permission from it if he wanted to travel to Amman. This can continue for a hundred years. This is in addition to the continuation in Judaizing Jerusalem. All this has made him say that he does not want the presidency).
When Erekat says that the current situation could continue for 100 years, it is as if that is a bad thing. It is exactly what Israel wants and his ability and willingness to produce the exact outcome he decries is why he and Abbas are in power with Israel and the United States' support.

John Kerry may go to Tehran

The Wall Street Journal's Jay Solomon reports that John Kerry is considering various ways to meet Iran's leadership. Iran has a fairly simple position on the nuclear issue. It will not stop enriching, and it will develop the capability, or the technology necessary to build a weapon if it chooses to, as is its right. The United States can either choose to accept Iranian enrichment, or it can try to pressure the Iranian regime, which means that next year at this time, the US will face an Iran with substantially more enriched uranium and be faced with the same choice again.
"This sounds like the kind of travel a chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would -- and should -- undertake," said a White House official, adding it would be at Sen. Kerry's own behest.

It's unclear whether Iran would welcome the visit, and it would be controversial within both countries. The Iranian government has rebuffed other recent White House efforts to establish a direct dialogue.
So what can Kerry accomplish? It is the same question as what can talks accomplish at this point. One thing is that Kerry can tell the Iranians the conditions under which the US is willing to accept Iranian enrichment. What he cannot say is that the Dennis Ross faction of the US government would be unwilling or unable to scuttle any agreement reached that allows Iran to enrich uranium. I'm not sure Iran could take the word of John Kerry as a commitment from the US, and without a commitment, Iran will not make any irreversible gesture, such as exporting its stockpile of low enriched uranium.

Another thing John Kerry could do is coordinate sanctions. Meaning come to an understanding with Iran of what kind of sanctions would be met with what response. If there are sanctions, the US does not need them to cause the situation to spiral, which could happen if the Iranian response to new UNSC sanctions is similar to its response to the IAEA resolution.

Even symbolic sanctions that have no real impact at all on Iran could cause Iran to accelerate its enrichment program and refrain less from harming US interests and soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. A provocative Iranian response to sanctions could cause the situation to spiral towards war. While Iran would rather not come to war with the US, my guess is that Iran fears war less than the US does, and less than the US thinks Iran does.

What Kerry could do, is "wink" at the Iranians, tell them the scope of sanctions that could come and ask for assurances that the Iranian response to sanctions within that scope will be reasonable. This is a form of tacit acceptance of Iranian enrichment as the administration does more work to prepare the pro-Israel lobby to accept the reality that Iran's nuclear capability cannot be plausibly rolled back. The Iranians possibly could accept this. Sanctions without a prior agreement on Iran's response are very likely to provoke an exaggerated response like the announcement that Iran is building, but will not reveal the locations of, ten more enrichment facilities each much larger than the Fordo facility.

I can't see what benefit communication with Kerry could have other than those two scenarios, of which I consider the second more likely.

If Kerry comes back saying what seems like the current consensus of the US civilian arms control community, which is that aiming for zero enrichment is less important at this point than getting Iran to accept oversight of its program including implementation of the Additional Protocols then this will be a significant step forward, as the US will in that case be forcing the argument that Iran must not be nuclear capable into the open where it can be addressed.

As the Wall Street Journal says, maybe it will happen, maybe it will not. If so, it could be a good thing. We'll see in 2010.

Monday, December 21, 2009

So was Zawahiri right? Is Barack Obama a house negro?

A little more than a year ago, Al Qaeda's Ayman Zawahiri called Barack Obama a house negro, using Malcolm X's term and contrasting Obama with Malcolm X. At the time, Obama did not have a record and had spoken and written fairly little about US foreign policy or the Middle East. Many of the few expressions of thought on those issues had been clearly authored to advance specific political agendas. Today we have a record that we can evaluate. I'd like to take a look at how Barack Obama has done his first year.

First, I have to acknowledge that Barack Obama worked very hard for a long time to become President of the United States, for almost all of that time, there was no guarantee or even reasonable expectation that his efforts would yield the results they have. At this time in December 2007, it was far more likely that Barack Obama would end up as the butt of jokes than as President of the United States.

By winning alone, Barack Obama gave the world a symbol of overcoming racism. I don't want to over- or underemphasize the importance of that symbol. It is not a tangible benefit. It will not feed anyone who is hungry, but it is not nothing at all. It will inspire people to continue working in the belief that they can succeed when faced with opposition, which is a good thing. So in earning, and he did earn, the Presidency of the United States, Obama deserves some deference. Nobody can claim that Barack Obama is without strength or selflessness.

In early 2008, I actually was very confident that Barack Obama could not become President based on his statement that he would convene a conference and discuss terrorism with Middle Eastern leaders. A conference like that would insert anti-Zionist arguments into the international and US dialogues with an authority those arguments have not gotten until now. Such a conference would weaken the positions of US puppets such as Mubarak and the rulers of Jordan and Saudi Arabia. I would have loved to have seen a US president elected who would do such a thing.

I want to be clear that Obama, Mubarak or any supporter of Zionism, in front of a non-Jewish Middle Eastern audience, would be helpless in a debate or discussion where each side addresses the other's points before Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah or nearly any opponent of Zionism. Like giving Nelson Mandela an international podium before a non-white African audience to debate apartheid against Pieter Botha, the result would just be embarrassing. Barack Obama solved that problem by breaking his pledge to hold a conference and his later statements about the Middle East have always been effectively supportive of Zionism.

Now that Barack Obama is president, the first place that comes to mind to review his record is Gaza. There Obama's policy has been unconscionable. Just horrible. It is normal American policy - Bill Clinton's Ambassador to the UN and Secretary of State was famously asked about the 500,000 Iraqi children who died in sanctions, and she said it's worth it - but normal American policy on this issue is grotesque. The support, or quiet acquiescence Obama gives Israel for its policy of keeping Gaza on what Israel calculates to be the edge of starvation - "The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger" - is typically American and absolutely disgusting. Looking only at Gaza, one would conclude that Barack Obama is not a human being. The rationale, that Gazans voted for Hamas which does not accept conditions including accepting Israel as a Jewish state, only makes Obama's position worse.

Barack Obama's policy on Gaza, even though it is the same as Clinton's would have been, the same as Bush's was, is something nobody would expect from a man who identifies as African-American, a man who has Muslims that he considers his family. More can be said about Barack Obama and Gaza. Maybe I will come back to this subject later, but on the subject of Gaza it is very hard to argue that Zawahiri's assessment of Obama was not correct.

On Egypt, and Egypt is very similar to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the string of pro-US puppet dictatorships throughout the region, Obama's policy has been typically American, hypocritical and contrary to supposed US ideals, but not as directly monstrous as his Gaza policy. Responding to a question about Egypt's classification as an authoritarian dictatorship, Obama explicitly says that he supports Egypt's government because its dictator "has sustained peace with Israel which is a very difficult thing to do in that region". I was surprised that he stated that openly. Most US politicians do not, and force critics to rely on deductive arguments. What Obama's position on pro-Israel dictatorship implies about the worth of the five million Jewish people of Israel who have the luxury of a Jewish majority state in relation to the worth of the hundreds of millions of non-Jews in the region for whom he is willing to accept dictatorship as long as the dictators are pro-Israel can only be described as racist.

Acquiesence to, and support of racism against a group with which one identifies is the classical African-American definition of "Uncle Tom", and the illustrative concept introduced by Malcolm X of "house negro". Obama has Muslims in his family. It would be OK for them to live under dictatorships as long as those dictators sustain peace with Israel? And how has Obama not looked at why maintaining peace with Israel would be "very difficult to do in that region". Another US puppet dictator, Congo/Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko maintained peace with South Africa, which was very difficult to do in his region. At best Obama is naively being guided by people with more entrenched agendas than his. Being susceptible to manipulation that leads to policies detrimental to a group he identifies with to the benefit of another group, is a defining characteristic of what Zawahiri describes as "house negros".

In Lebanon, the United States is closer to accepting democracy under Obama than it was under Bush, but not vastly so. Hezbollah's supporters and aligned candidates won more votes than their relatively pro-US opponents in the March 14 movement. Because of a non-proportional allocation of seats, March 14 got more seats in parliament than Hezbollah's supporters. In this context, Hezbollah's reasonable demand that it have a veto over major policy was eventually met. Though the US opposed Hezbollah, US opposition was not as vigorous or unyielding than it may have been under a worse US president. I may be wrong, there is nothing direct that I can point to, but I have a feeling Obama's Lebanon policy is an improvement over Bush's and I do not find the US' Lebanon policy to be as anti-Muslim as some of his worse policies.

In Iraq, Obama's policies have not been particularly bad. Iraq's leadership used the fact that Obama would be the next US President to extract more concessions from the Bush administration on the completeness of the US exit from their country than they would have gotten had Obama not been in place to take over. Since coming to office, Obama has followed fairly faithfully the agreement reached by Bush and the Iraqis under the pressure that Obama would take control shortly. Obama says he would not have invaded Iraq in Bush's position in 2002 and 2003. I don't know if that means he would have left the sanctions in place or if he would find a way to resolve his differences with Hussein for the sake of the people of Iraq. Obama's behavior where he has faced choices in the Middle East do not inspire much confidence that is Iraq policy would be any better than Clinton/Albright's, but they were better than Bush.

Iran. I say again and again that I do not have a good read on what is going in with US policy in Iran. Bush had stopped the race between Iran and the US of increasing sanctions for increasing rate of enrichment. He had also brought about cooperation between the US and Iran in Iraq, and must have introduced talks on some level about Iran's nuclear program because the 2007 NIE reflected a conscious decision to redefine terms in a way that would allow a report that Iran had stopped its weapons program.

What Bush never did was accept what was becoming obvious by the end of his term, and admit publicly that the US, despite its wishes, will not be able to prevent Iran from developing the capability to create a nuclear weapon in what Iran considers an emergency. There is a lot of organized pressure on the US president to refrain, on Israel's behalf, from making this concession to reality. The US making this concession would make life a lot easier for a lot of Iranians and many Americans, especially soldiers and participants in the US war efforts in the region. Making this concession would require a degree of courage and honesty that Barack Obama has never shown in the face of entrenched institutional opposition.

Bush, late in his second term, prevented US/Iran relations from spiraling out of control by instituting a cold peace marked by cooperation in Iraq and a downward scaling of the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. Obama in 2010 will either renew or undo Bush's policy there, and from the signs available it is difficult to determine which decision he will take. In the battle between the generals and the pro-Israel lobby, the generals were markedly opposed to escalating hostility with Iran in Bush's late administration. We are not getting the same signals sent with the same urgency now, but Obama is a different president and these are different times. It could likely be that Obama does not inspire the near panic that Bush/Cheney inspired, so generals feel they can lobby Obama from behind closed doors.

A safe prediction is that Obama is going to do what the generals tell him to do. The 30,000 troops going to Afghanistan both signifies that Obama listens to the generals even against other voices in his administration and indicates that the US takes some project in Afghanistan seriously. Given Iran's position to thwart any US project in Afghanistan, that also leans toward the generals advising Obama not to escalate hostilities. While the generals would prefer Iran not be nuclear capable, I really doubt they calculate that the chance hostilities would deter that outcome are worth the toll hostilities would exact on US forces in the region.

I'll stop here on Iran. But Obama clearly would not, unless there was countering institutional pressure from the generals, stand up to the interests calling for the people of Iran to be subjected to sanctions even as harsh as the ones that killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in order to maintain Israel's regional nuclear monopoly. On the subject of Iran, the generals may save Obama from deserving the charge of one of the greatest house negros in history, or they may not. Obama is not constitutionally built to save himself.

So was Zawahiri right, is Obama a house negro? Basically yes. The United States would not have elected him president if he was not. But within the contraints of his own personality, and the constraints imposed on him by institutional forces in Washington DC and given his own limited thought on regional issues, we can understand why he would be an Uncle Tom, and appreciate that despite that, he has done some good where he's felt able.

Another look at the medical reactor deal

The Washington Post has run a long article, written by Thomas Erdbrink, William Branigin and Kay Armin Serjoie, looking more closely at the medical side of the deal in discussion in which Iran would export its uranium in exchange for nuclear fuel to arrive later.
"We could enrich the fuel ourselves," the British-educated scientist said in an interview. "But there would be technical problems. Also, we'd never make it on time to help our patients."

U.S. nuclear experts say Iran's main difficulty is that it cannot fabricate fuel assemblies for the research reactor. They regard Iran's fuel problems as largely self-inflicted.

Under a proposed deal brokered by the IAEA, Iran would hand over 1,200 kilos of the low-enriched uranium it has stockpiled, ostensibly for use as fuel for nuclear power plants. In return, Russia would enrich the uranium to 19.75 percent, and France would turn it into fuel assemblies for the Tehran reactor. The United States would help ensure the safe operation of the aging reactor. World powers fear that unless Iran hands over the stockpile, it could convert it someday into highly enriched uranium, which can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons.

After initially accepting the proposal in principle Oct. 1, Iran has demanded more guarantees that the reactor fuel would be delivered. Iran also complains that the process would take more than a year -- too long, in its view.

Last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki proposed swapping small amounts of the uranium in batches rather than all at once. Iran has suggested that the trade take place on Kish Island, an Iranian tourist destination in the Persian Gulf. The Obama administration considers that proposal inconsistent with the U.N. plan.

"If Iran wants to produce those medical isotopes itself, then the best way to do that is to accept the IAEA proposal" and receive the reactor fuel, a senior administration official said. As part of the deal, he noted, the parties pledged to deliver the initial assemblies in time to keep the reactor running.
I've written before that the deal as expressed in public is worse than a bad deal for Iran, it is an insult to the intelligence of the Iranians. Basically the reason is that Iran is being asked to export one year's production of uranium. If Iran takes the US up on its offer, and the US acts as promised, it will find itself in January 2011 with a little more than a ton of uranium and medical fuel. If Iran alters the deal so that it receives fuel before it exports, it will find itself in January 2011 with the same amount of uranium as the other way. Yet the US is willing to at least threaten sanctions rather than alter the deal.

The fact that the US is willing to threaten sanctions proves that the US sees a tangible difference between the two scenarios. But if the deal goes as promised, then by January 2011 the two scenarios are identical. Clearly the US intends to take advantage of the period during which Iran is below one ton of domestically stockpiled uranium to meet some goal before January 2011.

One possibility is that the US intends to apply as much pressure as possible to force Iran to suspend enrichment in 2011 before it has rebuilt its stockpile. One lever of pressure in this scenario is the undelivered medical fuel. If the US plans to pressure Iran as hard as possible to suspend enrichment, why would it deliver the fuel before Iran suspends? This speculation is unnecessary if we take France on its word that it does not want to enrich uranium on Iran's behalf unless Iran stops enriching.

Another possibility, the one I suspect is more likely, is that the US intends, and has already begun private back-channel discussions, to offer that Iran suspend enrichment for a short time before restarting its program in the form of an international consortium that keeps a small stockpile on Iranian territory and exports much of its production overseas.

One problem with the second scenario is that if the US does not commit to it, it can go back to the first scenario, and leave Iran without its LEU and without its fuel. Iran cannot be sure, until something is said in public, how authoritative the private back channels are. Another problem is that details such as how long a suspension would last and how much Iran would keep in its domestic stock may not have been agreed upon and would have to reach agreement before Iran commits by exporting.

Iran has paid a high cost for the uranium program it has now. The article indicates that the cost Iran pays is about to go up drastically. When Iranian patients die because the US refuses to send medical reactor fuel, that will change the tenor of the dispute, it will make the dispute much more tangible in Iran, and more important.

There are now two ways Iran's nuclear program can plausibly play out. A military attack is not plausible and an Iranian coerced suspension is not plausible. One way is that Iran and the West agree to parameters for Iran's program. This would, as my best guess, look like a modified version of this proposal presented by a Swiss nuclear organization. In the Swiss proposal, Iran keeps about 300kg of stock at any time and exports the production of a domestic international consortium in constant batches of 100kg. My guess is that Iran is now pressing for more than 300kg as its base stock.

The other plausible outcome is that the temperature around the program rises. Sanctions may be applied - I'm still not sure if Obama is bluffing on this point or not. Iran will reduce cooperation in Iraq and Afghanistan but will not go into open conflict. Most importantly Iran will accelerate its enrichment program, and build a stockpile of 20% uranium, which is much closer to 90% enriched weapons grade uranium than it sounds because very low levels of enrichment take much more effort to increase than higher levels.

After Iran has enough 20% LEU to, in theory, make one or two weapons and also maybe four or five tons of 3.5% LEU, which may be shortly after Ahmadinejad's term in office expires, Iran will as a gesture unilaterally suspend enrichment and see which countries are willing to trade with it without any further concessions. Iran expects that when it can say "we're not enriching, at least acknowledge our gesture", countries whose interests are consistent with trade with Iran will feel substantial pressure to do so, with Iran far more effectively nuclear weapons capable than it would be under the cooperative outcome. By that time Iran will have paid for its program with the health of some of its citizens, and will not consider going back.

The scenario US planners sound like they are hoping for is one in which sanctions are applied, Iranian patients die unable to get treatment, and Iran decides that it is better off submitting to US demands. One thing about this scenario: unless the US says so publicly, Iran has to assume the US demand is really a full suspension that gives the US a veto over resumption of enrichment. In practical terms, this means permanent cessation - which is Israel's preference, though not plausible.

I cannot believe in December 2009, there is anyone in the US government who thinks Iran is going to buckle and agree to a suspension until the US gives it permission to resume. If so, this is a drastic misread of the Iranian position that will push us into to the maximum enrichment scenario. If not, the US is really going to have to commit publicly to allowing Iran to keep a domestic enrichment capability.

I'm somewhat surprised John Kerry's statement that Bush's insistence on zero enrichment was counterproductive has not been followed up upon. My explanation is the Barack Obama is not constitutionally or temperamentally equipped to challenge the pro-Israel factions of US politics in the way this would require. That's a shame because the maximum enrichment scenario is worse for Israel than the agreed parameters scenario.
Financial Times: Can I ask you about Iran? In both your Brookings and your Aipac speeches, you talked about how the Bush administration had set a series of red lines to see them ignored, to see that the policy had failed. The last red line that the US, that the Bush administration set and saw ignored was the call for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment. You’ve called for an effort to decide a red line and to defend it. What should that red line be?

John Kerry: Well, I want to be very careful there, because I know the administration. I wrote a memo to the president regarding this, in which I outlined my thoughts about the nature of that line.

Suffice it to say it needs to be a line that realistically protects the region and Israel, I emphasise the region, from a perception of completed proliferation. And there are several different ways to define that, I think we should leave that to that definition….

Certainly [the line should be for Iran] not to be a quote nuclear weapon state. Now some people can argue about when you are a nuclear weapons state. Capability versus, different definitions of that, just leave that there for a minute.

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.

It’s also complicated slightly by Israel. Does Israel make a decision that it has to play its interests differently, i.e. that its security is only protected by guaranteeing its definition of a line and therefore do they decide to do something simply to delay Iran’s programme even though they know that’s all they get? And that has very real dangers.

And that’s why it is important for the President to work out ahead of time what the understandings are with Israel and what the modalities [are] here and how we proceed. I thought he went relatively far publicly in making the statement he made about by the end of the year and so forth. I thought that was a pretty big public gift, bigger than might have been necessary.
I think both the US and Iran's interests are best served by the cooperative scenario. For that to happen, the US cannot get around making a commitment that Iran will have domestic enrichment in a US approved outcome. Once that happens, the remaining question is only how large Iran's domestic stockpile will remain. I'm not sure what Iran would agree to today, but next year at this time, Iran's demands are certainly going to be for a bigger stockpile.